On March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Oki Earthquake rocked Japan and wiped out power sources for the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. After a first, second, and then third failure of backup coolant systems caused by the earthquake’s subsequent tsunami that easily overwhelmed the plant’s sea walls, fuel rods melted in their reactors, the buildings that housed those reactors were crippled by massive explosions, and by March 15, 2011, unknown amounts of radioactive matter began irrepressibly flooding into the surrounding environment. For two months after the earthquake, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operators of Fukushima I, denied that any meltdowns had occurred at the plant.
Turns out, Fukushima Daiichi is the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl incident of 1986. Possibly larger.
Fast-forward two years and change to July 22, 2013 to when TEPCO finally announced its estimation that 400 tons of radioactive wastewater have been draining into the Pacific Ocean each day since the incident. The Japanese government took hold of the situation upon this announcement, and later revealed that an additional 300 metric tons of highly contaminated radioactive wastewater initially spilled from a storage tank into the groundwater, and in turn, into the Pacific.
A team at the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, lead by Dr. Tatsuhiko Kodama, recently conducted a study to measure the amount of radioactive contamination caused by the meltdown at Fukushima I. They concluded, “The total amount of leakage to be about 29.6 times the amount of radiation caused by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Assuming the source material to be Uranium, we think the total amount of leakage is about 20 times the contamination caused by the Hiroshima bomb.”
On November 18, 2013, TEPCO began the high-stakes, decades-long process of removing the remaining 1,500+ spent fuel rods from the only reactor that hasn’t completely melted down already, damaged Reactor Unit 4. TEPCO released an animated video to explain the process of removal, which became extremely controversial due to public claims that the simplistic, cartoon video downplays the criticality of the operation.
The reactor’s spent rods contain Uranium and Plutonium, among other radioactive materials. During the removal process, if a rod were to snap and these materials were to fall from the rods to the bottom of the reactor pools, they could interact to ignite and cause the remaining fuel rods to melt down, releasing toxic byproducts like hydrogen gas into the temporary enclosure that houses the facility. If this happens, the gas will be trapped and eventually pressurized in the enclosure, turning it into the equivalent of an atomic bomb surrounded by nuclear reactors.
Arnie Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator, former nuclear industry senior vice president and chief engineer at Fairwinds Energy Education, put the removal process like this: “It’s like a pack of cigarettes. And if it’s a fresh pack, you can pull the cigarettes out. But if it’s a crushed pack, the cigarettes get stuck. So the first problem is that these things have been beat up by the earthquake…Then on top of that, here at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4, the roof collapsed on top and damaged the racks with the girders falling on it. I built these racks when I was a senior vice president in the industry, and the tolerances are very, very high tolerance. So they have to pull these things out now. And with the roof rubble in it, the friction to try to pull these out is going to be hard. And I’m afraid they might snap one.”
Media reports from the first day announced the successful removal of the first few rods. TEPCO calls the early removal’s success “a milestone,” albeit the first successful milestone of a tedious, decades-long process. The United Nations assigned the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to oversee the removal operation, but doubts of the IAEA’s motives and transparency are raising skepticism.
Said Gundersen: “The International Atomic Energy Agency is chartered by the United Nations to promote nuclear power. It’s Article II of the IAEA’s charter, and it’s crystal clear that their job is to promote…What we think of as the guard dog going to show up and make sure the Japanese do it right, in fact it’s the lapdog going to show up. And they have never, you know, for the 40 years Tokyo Electric was mismanaging this project, they never slapped Tokyo Electric on the wrist and told them they were doing it wrong.”
Dale Klein is at the head of the IAEA task force and chairman of the Fukushima monitoring committee. Klein said in an interview with Australia’s ABC, “The best word to use with Fukushima is ‘challenging.’”
While the IAEA and TEPCO work to disengage the currently dormant fuel rods from Reactor Unit 4, their real challenge is turning off Reactors 1, 2 and 3, which are relentlessly melting into the ground and excreting radioactive matter into the groundwater of an enormous aquifer that sits below the plant.
Storing the tons of contaminated coolant that’s been used in attempt to cool the reactors is also a serious issue. TEPCO is collecting 400 tons of the wastewater each day in newly built tanks for storage. Of the millions of gallons currently stored onsite at Fukushima I, the IAEA reported, “At the end of the day, when the water is discharged, it will be released in a way that it’s diluted,” referring to its deposit into the Pacific Ocean.
Currently, popular media refrains from in-depth coverage of the removal and neglects to focus on the possibility of contamination in the Pacific. The FDA continues to refuse to test fish for radiation in the Pacific off the West Coast. The world’s governments appear to be turning a blind eye to the situation. Meanwhile, the world has yet to discover the true effects of Fukushima Daiichi.