Radioactive Waste Still Leaking Five Years After Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Yves here. While the Fukushima nuclear disaster seems like it took place a long time ago, but the site is still leaking radioactive water and the cleanup and remediation will take decades, as this Real News Network story explains.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

March 11 marks the five-year anniversary of the most powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami in recent memory. It hit Japan, causing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which evolved into a crisis.

The nuclear disaster forced tens of thousands of people to flee a 20-kilometer radius around the reactor. Plant-operated [Tokyo] Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO, managed to avert the worst scenario by pumping water, much of it from the sea, into the Daiichi damaged reactors and spent fuel pools. After several scares, including one where radioactive water spilled into the sea, reactors were stabilized by December of the same year. Five years on, however, the nuclear power plant is still leaking radioactive water.

To help understand why this is still happening is Arjun Makhijani. He is a nuclear and electric engineer, and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Arjun, thank you so much for joining us today.

ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Thank you, Sharmini, for having me.

PERIES: So, Arjun, why is it taking so long to fix the leak?

MAKHIJANI: Well, nuclear power is forever. So, basically, what happens in the course of a nuclear reaction: you split the atom and you get two fragments from that, and those fragments of uranium are much more radioactive than the original uranium, and some of them last for a very long time, and some of them are quite mobile.

Now, in the normal course of operation of a nuclear reactor, the fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets and it all sits inside the reactor. There are some radioactivity emissions, but they are not huge in terms of the kinds of concerns we’re talking about. When there is a meltdown, like the accident we had at Fukushima Daiichi, or Chernobyl, there are, the fuel pellets actually melt and they form, like, a molten concrete that moves toward the bottom of the reactor.

Now, in the case of Three Mile Island, where that happened, that molten core was contained within the reactor, and as that happens, also, the chemical reactions generate hydrogen. In Three Mile Island, the hydrogen fire, or explosion, was contained within that concrete dome associated with that reactor. At Fukushima the three buildings actually blew up from hydrogen explosions, and there was this meltdown, so all this radioactivity, a lot of that radioactivity then escaped.

A part of it is volatile, like cesium, so it evaporates, literally, and then of course it goes into the air, iodine-131. Some of it is soluble. Now, normally the soluble part would remain inside the reactor, but at Fukushima it seems that there has been, at least in one reactor and possibly in more than one, the molten core has just melted its way not only through the reactor but also through all the containments, and I suspect that some of it is in the soil. We don’t know because they haven’t been able to figure out exactly where all this molten material is, but I think the evidence is that the groundwater is contacting the radioactive material, and so the groundwater is getting contaminated, and a large part of the problem of contamination of water comes from that fact, also the fact that it’s raining and the rain, of course, makes the radioactivity mobile.

Last point on this is that two difficult materials in this regard are cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, which means you have to worry about it for a couple of hundred years, and strontium-90, which also has a similar half-life, 29 years, and so you also have to worry about it for a couple of hundred years. And so this stuff just stays around, and so long as you don’t remove it it’s an environmental and health threat, and Fukushima Daiichi is right on the ocean, so whenever the radioactivity washes off the site it winds up in the ocean.

PERIES: And all the technical aspects are rather important, but what’s happening to the people who were affected by the crises and the people that were evacuated from the 20-mile radius? What are the conditions there? Have they moved back? Are they still at risk?

MAKHIJANI: Well, about 160 thousand people left their homes after the disaster. there was an evacuation zone, but it turned out the contamination was more widespread and more directional. It was directional toward the northwest. It wasn’t in a circle, so while they initially evacuated a circle, turned out that some of the parts of the circle were not contaminated, and then there were parts that were beyond that circle that were contaminated.

Currently, I think, there almost 100 thousand people who have not gone back. The government thinks that many more people can go back, but, you know, the places are contaminated. You are being asked to trust a system that essentially betrayed you multiple times, that didn’t level with the public, that has manifestly, by its own actions, put the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan, which were all shut down about a year later, above the questions of resettlement and cleanup and other aspects of the Fukushima disaster, and they basically have tried to minimize the dangers of radiation, so a lot of people have not returned.

Families have split up, so sometimes the men will say, you know, my job is there, my farm is there, my work is there. I want to go back. And the women might say, well, we don’t want to go back, how can we take our children back to these radioactive, contaminated areas? So it’s not only the health risk and the cancer risk, but there are all of these other social-economic–There’s this social-economic fallout that I think is at least as important as the radioactive fallout.

PERIES: And are there health risks from this manifesting itself now?

MAKHIJANI: Yes. There’s some evidence of thyroid problems and thyroid cancer risks. Most of the cancers are solid cancers, and the latency period of radiation-induced cancers, except for leukemia, are quite long, so you should expect to see the cancers in the coming decade. This is an accident that won’t stop, because they don’t know how to get all that material out.

The people most at risk, actually, are the workers who are cleaning up the plant and who are also cleaning up the environment around the plant, where there was a lot of this radioactive fallout. Cleaning up is actually a euphemism, because you can’t really clean the stuff up. They’re scraping up the dirt, and, let me see, there are 10, more than 10 million one-ton plastic bags containing radioactive debris and waste from this cleanup outside the plant, and they’re just sitting there, these plastic bags. The pictures of them are very stunning, and nobody knows what will happen if there’s another tsunami and there are these 10 million radioactive waste-containing plastic bags, and one thousand tanks containing radioactive water besides the radioactive water that’s going into the ocean.

So the workers are significantly at risk. There are more than 30 thousand of them, and–

PERIES: –And have there been any medical attempts to test them, to deal with what they might be getting exposed to?

MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, they are being monitored for radioactivity, most of them, I suspect. My, so I haven’t followed this blow-by-blow, to confess, but when I did follow it quite closely initially, for about a year, my impression was that the monitoring was deficient and that the internal monitoring, which is what you eat and breathe and what gets inside your body, which is very, very important, was not as frequent and as thorough as it should be. And I think the same, possibly, applies to a lot of the affected people.

So there are a lot of cancers that are not associated with radioactivity, so in order to know, you know, what was the added risk from the radiation exposure, you have to have very thorough studies, and I am not confident that these thorough studies are being done. It’s very hard for us to know, because not long after Fukushima the Japanese government passed a kind of anti-freedom of information law where it became illegal to diffuse and acquire and talk about certain kinds of information, so you know they have something to hide when they’re doing that.

PERIES: Okay. And besides the government, who is obviously mandated to deal with this, the former leader of the head of the Tokyo Electric Power Company team dealing with the radioactive water says that they will need another four years or so, until 2020, to fix it. Many critics, including yourself, said that TEPCO, who ran the plant, who were not equipped to deal with it, and of course that is all coming to. Is the government and TEPCO in any better position to deal with this now, having, you know, five years have passed, and are you any more confident about the way they are dealing with it?

MAKHIJANI: So let me give one very important credit where it is due, which is that in one of the reactors, which was not operational at the time of the accident, reactor number four, there was a lot of very hot, radioactive waste in the spent fuel pool, where it is stored, and a lot of people, including me, feared that, you know, a loss of cooling could result in a very major disaster, and it was very important to empty that pool and store that waste more safely because that building had also been affected severely by the accident.

They have been able to empty that pool. They have also made progress in some other areas. However, I think TEPCO was not a very responsible company, and had many, many problems in terms of its disclosures and dishonesty before this accident. The chairman of TEPCO actually escaped, and did not show up for a month after the accident, so not very responsible. If it had not been for the prime minister of Japan, who has now become an opponent of nuclear power, Prime Minister Kan, we may be looking at a very different disaster, because TEPCO was thinking of abandoning the site which would have, of course, resulted in the kind of much worse accident that people feared. We’re very lucky that Tokyo did not have more fallout on it.

So Nuclear power is a very strange beast. We’re making plutonium just to boil water, and then all these radioactive materials. And so if you have an accident you can’t pick up the pieces and move on. This is an accident that has been going on for 40 years. They’re not going–five years–They’re not going to clean it up in the next four years, let me assure you. Getting that molten fuel from the reactors, even approaching it and handling it, you know, robotically, is going to take a long time, decades probably.

PERIES: And TEPCO is, apparently, right now seeking permission to build an underground ice wall to contain it all. Is this a reasonable proposal, and is it going to work?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I’m skeptical about this ice wall. I think they have built it, or are well along the way. The idea is to prevent water. So it’s in a mountainous area, and the mountains are kind of upstream from the reactor site, so the water flows through the site and, as I was explaining, picks up the radioactivity and contaminates the groundwater and so on, and that’s part of the reason they have, you know, these millions of gallons of radioactive water stored onsite.

I thought that they should have put this radioactive water in a supertanker and taken it to another site for treatment, and proposed it at the time of the accident. I know the Japanese authorities saw my proposal, but they ignored it, and so I don’t think that this accident has been well handled from the beginning in most of the respects. Fortunately the prime minister ordered that the sea water be put into the reactors so there wasn’t, you know, bigger hydrogen explosions and a worse radioactive catastrophe than already happened.

PERIES: Arjun Makhijani. He’s the author of “Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy.” Thank you so much for joining us today.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Sharmini. It was a pleasure.

PERIES: And you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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20 comments

  1. Paul Tioxon

    Amazingly enough, the contribution to the US electricity power grid for 2016 will include NO new coal fired plants and the first in a long while and hopefully last Nuke power plant, The TVA’s Watts Bar 2. It will contribute about 4% of the national installed electricity production with solar, natural gas, then wind compromising virtually all of the balance of the utility scale installations. This does NOT include roof top solar panel installs or other non-utility installs, which by itself will be an equally large source of electricity approximating the utility scale solar offering.

    But onto Watts Bar 2. Proclaimed by the TVA as some sort of 21st Century Post-Fukushima safety first nuke power plant, carbon free and a wonder of safe technology, did I mention safety? The licensing has been granted and the fuel rods are loaded and the plant is about to become fully operational this year, when all tests for safety, did I mention safety? are completed. But what is not apparent from this brand new facility is just how old it really is, having started construction in the 1970s and is based on the exact same design as Fukushima, did I mention safety yet?

    Although the following article is from last year, it is a long, in depth piece from the same experts who briefed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2014 about the Watts Bar 2 nuke. Watts Bar 1 cost $6.8bil and Watts Bar 2 another $4-4.5bil, for total investment of over $13bil. This will produce enough electricity for a little more than 1.1mil homes. The same amount of money could build 20 1 Gigwatt annual production factories of solar panels which would annual outfit about 3 million homes. In 10 years, 1/3 of American homes could be installed from the same amount of money invested in these 2 nuke plants alone.

    This year, on a utility scale, solar power is the #1 largest portion of new electricity generation. Also, for the first time in years, a nuclear power plant will go on line, one that is not just technologically obsolete and dangerous but financially a complete waste of money. A complete moratorium on all as yet operational nuke plants must be declared, by denying them NRC licensing.But read on for yourself, did I mention how post Fukushima safe it is?
    ——————————————————————————————-

    http://thebulletin.org/watts-bar-unit-2-last-old-reactor-20th-century-cautionary-tale8783

    “…The Westinghouse Ice Condenser Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) was designed in the 1960s. Ice condensers deploy about 2 million pounds of chipped ice hanging in long, skinny baskets around the reactor core in an ice room. The theory—never tested in the real world for obvious reasons—is that in a loss of coolant accident the ice would lessen the excess temperature and pressure created by a meltdown. This flawed logic convinced the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to initially license the design with a less costly, smaller, weaker containment structure, often referred to as “eggshell-like” containment. The driving design goal was lower cost. It was not realized until later that safety had been seriously compromised; a report by Sandia National Laboratories in April 2000 concluded that “… ice condenser plants are at least two orders of magnitude [100 times] more vulnerable to early containment failure than other types of PWRs.”

    The ice condenser design is the analog to the water-filled torus design employed at Fukushima and the boiling water reactors with Mark I and II containments (29 of which operate in the United States), writes Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    The ice condenser and water-filled torus containments are called “pressure suppression containments.” Rather than using a large volume to absorb the energy released during an accident, pressure suppression containment uses water (in the form of ice in this case) to act as energy sponges. The water absorbs heat, reducing the energy remaining to pressurize the containment volume. As a result, the containment need not be as large (or as costly, the prime factor).

    Fukushima revealed the glaring vulnerability of such pressure suppression designs—What happens when the sponge gets saturated? At Fukushima, the water in the torus heated to boiling. It could absorb no more energy. The containment over-pressurized and forced hydrogen out. That hydrogen detonated, three times.”

    1. Crazy Horse

      The light water nuclear reactor is one of the stupidest designs in the history of human engineering. Something like a Roman arch with the chockstone consisting of horse manure that must be constantly kept below freezing. Using water as a heat transfer medium means it must be kept at extremely high pressure in order to prevent it flashing to steam and exploding the entire plant. Thousands of pipes, valves, and welds must never fail under extreme loadings. In order to provide redundancy in such a super-critical system elaborate active and passive back-up systems have to be included in the design at an additional cost of billions of dollars per plant. These systems work (Three Mile Island) until they don’t because a rare but completely predictable natural event occurs. Or the plant simply ages but is kept running because it’s capital expense has been amortized. It is much cheaper to bribe a regulatory agency than to completely upgrade or de-commision a plant that has reached the end of it’s designed life. And with the liability underwritten by the Government, why should the operator care about increased risk?

      Among common nuclear reactor designs the GE model is one of the worst. Who but an idiot could plan to store spent fuel rods that still contain 95% of their radioactivity in swimming pools located directly on top of the reactor, in full knowledge that a hydrogen explosion is one of the predictable outcomes during a melt-down scenario? But GE doesn’t care. Their long term profit stream comes from holding a monopoly on the custom manufacture of the zirconium clad fuel rods that re-fuel the reactor. The easier it is to re-load the more money they make.

      Civilian nuclear power exists in its present form for only one reason. Civilian nuclear power was developed as a cost-plus boondoggle and a smoke screen for the production of bomb-grade materials. And unfortunately most of the reactors built all over the world follow the same flawed design developed first by the Americans. In a world where decisions were made on the basis of rational engineering about safety and benefit to society we would have an energy system with liquid fluoride thorium reactors as its centerpiece. But human societies don’t make decisions that way. Power, greed, dominance and ignorance rule.

      ps
      I live near the NRL in Idaho, the leading nuclear research facility in the country. A couple of years ago I was at a cocktail party where two senior research scientists from the facility were present. In the course of conversation, I asked them what they thought about the feasibility of the LFTR reactor design. They had never even heard of it!

      Hopefully the 400-scientist team working to commercialize a LFTR in China won’t fall victim to the economic tsunami and all end up pulling rickshaws to survive.

      1. Paul Tioxon

        Yeah, if these reactors were the peaceful atom, why is the right wing, dems and reps and Israel and Brits all screaming about Iran getting the bomb just because they have a nuke power plant? Their lies have been exposed in precise detail in every report against the Iranians, the centrifuges, the Stuxnet cyber attacks, the enrichment of uranium, all of it about weapons grade H-Bomb material, that’s all they hammered away at, not the great, efficient production of electricity.

  2. Epeen

    If we were not so interested in creating nuclear weapons from power plants then we may well have gone down the Thorium route for power plants. Thorium is highly abundant and rather than trying to control the reaction as with a “normal” nuclear plant, with thorium you are trying to keep the reaction going. If anything untoward happens the reaction stops on its own. There was a working Thorium plant for many years but the need for nuclear weapons was far greater than the need for clean energy. Look it up. It is almost too good to be true.

    1. Parker Dooley

      Please read the wikipedia articles on thorium reactors. Note that the actual fuel is U233 bred from thorium and requiring a complex reprocessing to produce a continuously operating system. The process also produces a number of other radionuclides, including neptunium, protactinium, technetium, etc. Both U233 and Neptunium are apparently usable (at least theoretically) to produce weapons. In addition, the alloys used in the currently proposed systems are apparently subject to neutron-induced damage and chemical corrosion. Doesn’t sound “too good to be true” to me.

  3. Older & Wiser

    If TEPCO and top japanese authorities have lied to us all along through their teeth on this subject matter of utmost importance (Tokyo evacuation was considered and may still be reconsidered) with no sign of any remorse or possible future mitigation… just imagine what the Deep State and other GPTB are willing to do (and effectively do, every single day) in relation to, for example, money matters.

    This is not Zambia or Dominica, this is JAPAN okay ?

    We would all agree that there is plenty of evidence that the world is currently undergoing its financial Fukushima.
    So how much should we trust, say, the Fed or the ECB for that matter ?

    By the way, not only Fukushima motorvehicles have arrived at our West Coast (check it out at RT news)
    As from now, abundant radiation in all shapes, colors and forms will keep coming hereinafter… thus bringing the matter home, literally. Marine life is currently at stake, then us.

    1. fds

      I thought the whole point of being in a racially homogenous society in solidarity was cherising the land, spiritually and circling the wagons. Gorbachev responded to this problem much better than the LDP. I mean, TECO is still the one charged with clean-up for heaven’s sake.

  4. YY

    Although one can not be sure as to how far the fuel has melted down, it does not need to have gone through the floor of the reactor facility to contaminate the ground water. The facilities have always had a problem familiar to many people with basements. Before the disaster the incoming ground water seepage was simply pumped out. After the disaster the incoming groundwater seepage is irradiated. So they are pumping and storing ever increasing amounts of tainted water. I wonder if hindsight is the only way to work out how stupid a construction the plant facility turned out to be.

    1. Blink 180

      The head of the design team for that reactor model considered it fundamentally unsafe, and refused to sign off on it. The GE executives pushed ahead with it anyway. (And the Japanese, having recently lost a war to the USA, were in a rather poor position to refuse GE’s “help” in building out their power grid.)

  5. DorothyT

    Fukushima news from around the world (and other nuclear developments) is aggregated on ENENews.com. One can subscribe to their newsletter on their webpage. Yesterday’s newsletter described the fire at Watts Bar. Many of the comments are worthy of headlines in the MSM, which barely covers these issues.

    ENENews.com is the only email that I open before NC each morning. The NYT dropped down my list of morning first reads.

    .

  6. TomFinn

    So, Happy 5th Anniversary to Fukishima with its volley of news stories after a 4+ year hiatus (mostly continuing in the MSM, and if they ignore it, must not be anything of concern).
    Increases in hypothyroidism on west coast…Fukishima radiation in west coast fish stocks…
    Best case scenario would seem to be 10’s to 100’s of thousands of associated cancers in our (the World’s) future. Worst case??
    Maybe if the TPP goes into effect we can sue Japan and get them to give this the very serious consideration and action called for.
    Of course, they we have the health hazards that the TPP will engender to deal with.
    Stay tuned for the 10th Anniversary for more updates.

    1. Blink 180

      Maybe if the TPP goes into effect we can sue Japan and get them to give this the very serious consideration and action called for.

      Sorry, ISDS doesn’t work that way. Don’t bother trying to look on the “bright side” of an F5 tornado.

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    “You are being asked to trust a system that essentially betrayed you multiple times, that didn’t level with the public,” … “and I am not confident that these thorough studies are being done. It’s very hard for us to know, because not long after Fukushima the Japanese government passed a kind of anti-freedom of information law where it became illegal to diffuse and acquire and talk about certain kinds of information, so you know they have something to hide when they’re doing that.” —Arjun Makhijani

    Not to minimize the scope and duration of this catastrophic event, the aftermath of which like Chernobyl will be felt over a span of time counted in centuries, but this behavior is consistent with the actions of other governments elsewhere across a broad range of activities, from military actions to the monetary-financial system to so called “trade” agreements to long-term environmental issues, etc. In the U.S. this fundamental dishonesty through obfuscation and secrecy is playing a role in the rising popularity of those political candidates who are perceived by the public as representing a change from this status quo.

  8. Tinky

    I don’t recall where I originally found this quote, but I think of it frequently when the topic of Fukushima comes up:

    Anton Goryunov writes from Kiev: “You know what the biggest lesson of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that had happened exactly 25 years today is? You shouldn’t trust a single word governments tell you when things go horribly wrong at some nuclear power station. If they say the radiations levels are 100 times higher than the legal limit, you can safely multiply that by ten or even a hundred times easily. And if the say that they’ve got things under control and know what they’re doing, run for your life, run like the wind.”

  9. akaPaul LaFargue

    from TUC Radio:

    Fukushima, Five Years Later
    Arnie Gundersen
    30 second Preview/Promo
    As of February 2016 Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates is on a one month speaking tour of Japan to assess the status of the cleanup. He arrives at a crucial moment. Even though polls show that at least 70% of Japanese do not want the nuclear power plants reopened that were shut down 5 years ago, the Abe government is determined to put many of them back on line and has begun the process. And to make things worse the Japanese government is planning to burn plutonium mixed with uranium in their aging reactors, a practice that has been abandoned in the US due to the high risk.

    This program includes a phone report from the ghost towns around Fukushima and an in depth analysis of the collusion between the electric power industry, banks and government in Japan

    In 2008 Gundersen’s wife Maggie formed the non-profit Fairewinds Energy Education. Their website features videos and pod-casts as well as blog posts on current events, expert witness reports on nuclear safety issues, a book list, media coverage and much more.

    As a young man Arnie Gundersen believed in the promise of nuclear power. He was a licensed reactor operator and managed and coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants in the US. However he became increasingly more aware of the high risks while at the same time observing serious safety breaches. He spoke out and became a whistle blower. After 20 years as nuclear engineer and executive, Gundersen was fired from his job in 1990.

    To hear the program scroll down at this site

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