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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Fukushima: It's much worse than you think

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/06/201161664828302638.html

Fukushima: It's much worse than you think

Scientific experts believe Japan's nuclear disaster to be far worse
than governments are revealing to the public.
Dahr Jamail Last Modified: 16 Jun 2011 12:50

"Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of
mankind," Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice
president, told Al Jazeera.

Japan's 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that
crippled the cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's
(TEPCO) nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen
explosions and reactor meltdowns that forced evacuations of those
living within a 20km radius of the plant.

Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power
engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70
nuclear power plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant
likely has more exposed reactor cores than commonly believed.

"Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores
exposed," he said, "You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear
reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate
need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively."

TEPCO has been spraying water on several of the reactors and fuel
cores, but this has led to even greater problems, such as radiation
being emitted into the air in steam and evaporated sea water - as well
as generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive sea
water that has to be disposed of.

"The problem is how to keep it cool," says Gundersen. "They are
pouring in water and the question is what are they going to do with
the waste that comes out of that system, because it is going to
contain plutonium and uranium. Where do you put the water?"

Even though the plant is now shut down, fission products such as
uranium continue to generate heat, and therefore require cooling.

"The fuels are now a molten blob at the bottom of the reactor,"
Gundersen added. "TEPCO announced they had a melt through. A melt down
is when the fuel collapses to the bottom of the reactor, and a melt
through means it has melted through some layers. That blob is
incredibly radioactive, and now you have water on top of it. The water
picks up enormous amounts of radiation, so you add more water and you
are generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive
water."

Independent scientists have been monitoring the locations of
radioactive "hot spots" around Japan, and their findings are
disconcerting.

"We have 20 nuclear cores exposed, the fuel pools have several cores
each, that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl,"
said Gundersen. "The data I'm seeing shows that we are finding hot
spots further away than we had from Chernobyl, and the amount of
radiation in many of them was the amount that caused areas to be
declared no-man's-land for Chernobyl. We are seeing square kilometres
being found 60 to 70 kilometres away from the reactor. You can't clean
all this up. We still have radioactive wild boar in Germany, 30 years
after Chernobyl."

Radiation monitors for children

Japan's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters finally admitted
earlier this month that reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima plant
experienced full meltdowns.

TEPCO announced that the accident probably released more radioactive
material into the environment than Chernobyl, making it the worst
nuclear accident on record.

Meanwhile, a nuclear waste advisor to the Japanese government reported
that about 966 square kilometres near the power station - an area
roughly 17 times the size of Manhattan - is now likely uninhabitable.

In the US, physician Janette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph
Mangano published an essay shedding light on a 35 per cent spike in
infant mortality in northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima
meltdown, and may well be the result of fallout from the stricken
nuclear plant.

The eight cities included in the report are San Jose, Berkeley, San
Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Boise, and
the time frame of the report included the ten weeks immediately
following the disaster.

"There is and should be concern about younger people being exposed,
and the Japanese government will be giving out radiation monitors to
children," Dr MV Ramana, a physicist with the Programme on Science and
Global Security at Princeton University who specialises in issues of
nuclear safety, told Al Jazeera.

Dr Ramana explained that he believes the primary radiation threat
continues to be mostly for residents living within 50km of the plant,
but added: "There are going to be areas outside of the Japanese
government's 20km mandatory evacuation zone where radiation is higher.
So that could mean evacuation zones in those areas as well."

Gundersen points out that far more radiation has been released than
has been reported.

"They recalculated the amount of radiation released, but the news is
really not talking about this," he said. "The new calculations show
that within the first week of the accident, they released 2.3 times as
much radiation as they thought they released in the first 80 days."

According to Gundersen, the exposed reactors and fuel cores are
continuing to release microns of caesium, strontium, and plutonium
isotopes. These are referred to as "hot particles".

"We are discovering hot particles everywhere in Japan, even in Tokyo,"
he said. "Scientists are finding these everywhere. Over the last 90
days these hot particles have continued to fall and are being
deposited in high concentrations. A lot of people are picking these up
in car engine air filters."

Radioactive air filters from cars in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo
are now common, and Gundersen says his sources are finding radioactive
air filters in the greater Seattle area of the US as well.

The hot particles on them can eventually lead to cancer.

"These get stuck in your lungs or GI tract, and they are a constant
irritant," he explained, "One cigarette doesn't get you, but over time
they do. These [hot particles] can cause cancer, but you can't measure
them with a Geiger counter. Clearly people in Fukushima prefecture
have breathed in a large amount of these particles. Clearly the upper
West Coast of the US has people being affected. That area got hit
pretty heavy in April."

Blame the US?

In reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe, Germany is phasing out all
of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. In a referendum vote
this Monday, 95 per cent of Italians voted in favour of blocking a
nuclear power revival in their country. A recent newspaper poll in
Japan shows nearly three-quarters of respondents favour a phase-out of
nuclear power in Japan.

Why have alarms not been sounded about radiation exposure in the US?

Nuclear operator Exelon Corporation has been among Barack Obama's
biggest campaign donors, and is one of the largest employers in
Illinois where Obama was senator. Exelon has donated more than
$269,000 to his political campaigns, thus far. Obama also appointed
Exelon CEO John Rowe to his Blue Ribbon Commission on America's
Nuclear Future.

Dr Shoji Sawada is a theoretical particle physicist and Professor
Emeritus at Nagoya University in Japan.
He is concerned about the types of nuclear plants in his country, and
the fact that most of them are of US design.

"Most of the reactors in Japan were designed by US companies who did
not care for the effects of earthquakes," Dr Sawada told Al Jazeera.
"I think this problem applies to all nuclear power stations across
Japan."

Using nuclear power to produce electricity in Japan is a product of
the nuclear policy of the US, something Dr Sawada feels is also a
large component of the problem.

"Most of the Japanese scientists at that time, the mid-1950s,
considered that the technology of nuclear energy was under development
or not established enough, and that it was too early to be put to
practical use," he explained. "The Japan Scientists Council
recommended the Japanese government not use this technology yet, but
the government accepted to use enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power
stations, and was thus subjected to US government policy."

As a 13-year-old, Dr Sawada experienced the US nuclear attack against
Japan from his home, situated just 1400 metres from the hypocentre of
the Hiroshima bomb.

"I think the Fukushima accident has caused the Japanese people to
abandon the myth that nuclear power stations are safe," he said. "Now
the opinions of the Japanese people have rapidly changed. Well beyond
half the population believes Japan should move towards natural
electricity."

A problem of infinite proportions

Dr Ramana expects the plant reactors and fuel cores to be cooled
enough for a shutdown within two years.
"But it is going to take a very long time before the fuel can be
removed from the reactor," he added. "Dealing with the cracking and
compromised structure and dealing with radiation in the area will take
several years, there's no question about that."

Dr Sawada is not as clear about how long a cold shutdown could take,
and said the problem will be "the effects from caesium-137 that
remains in the soil and the polluted water around the power station
and underground. It will take a year, or more time, to deal with
this".

Gundersen pointed out that the units are still leaking radiation.

"They are still emitting radioactive gases and an enormous amount of
radioactive liquid," he said. "It will be at least a year before it
stops boiling, and until it stops boiling, it's going to be cranking
out radioactive steam and liquids."

Gundersen worries about more earthquake aftershocks, as well as how to
cool two of the units.

"Unit four is the most dangerous, it could topple," he said. "After
the earthquake in Sumatra there was an 8.6 [aftershock] about 90 days
later, so we are not out of the woods yet. And you're at a point
where, if that happens, there is no science for this, no one has ever
imagined having hot nuclear fuel lying outside the fuel pool. They've
not figured out how to cool units three and four."

Gundersen's assessment of solving this crisis is grim.

"Units one through three have nuclear waste on the floor, the melted
core, that has plutonium in it, and that has to be removed from the
environment for hundreds of thousands of years," he said. "Somehow,
robotically, they will have to go in there and manage to put it in a
container and store it for infinity, and that technology doesn't
exist. Nobody knows how to pick up the molten core from the floor,
there is no solution available now for picking that up from the
floor."

Dr Sawada says that the creation of nuclear fission generates
radioactive materials for which there is simply no knowledge informing
us how to dispose of the radioactive waste safely.

"Until we know how to safely dispose of the radioactive materials
generated by nuclear plants, we should postpone these activities so as
not to cause further harm to future generations," he explained. "To do
otherwise is simply an immoral act, and that is my belief, both as a
scientist and as a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing."

Gundersen believes it will take experts at least ten years to design
and implement the plan.

"So ten to 15 years from now maybe we can say the reactors have been
dismantled, and in the meantime you wind up contaminating the water,"
Gundersen said. "We are already seeing Strontium [at] 250 times the
allowable limits in the water table at Fukushima. Contaminated water
tables are incredibly difficult to clean. So I think we will have a
contaminated aquifer in the area of the Fukushima site for a long,
long time to come."

Unfortunately, the history of nuclear disasters appears to back
Gundersen's assessment.

"With Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now with Fukushima, you can
pinpoint the exact day and time they started," he said, "But they
never end."