Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Fukushima Nightmare Gets Worse

By Harvey Wasserman

Just when it seemed things might be under control at Fukushima, we find they are worse than ever.

Immeasurably worse.

Massive quantities of radioactive liquids are now flowing through the shattered reactor site into the Pacific Ocean. And their make-up is far more lethal than the “mere” tritium that has dominated the headlines to date.

Tepco, the owner/operator--and one of the world's biggest and most technologically advanced electric utilities--has all but admitted it cannot control the situation. Its shoddy performance has prompted former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Dale Klein to charge: “You don't what you are doing.”

The Japanese government is stepping in. But there is no guarantee--or even likelihood--it will do any better.

In fact, there is no certainty as to what’s causing this out-of-control flow of death and destruction.

Some 28 months after three of the six reactors exploded at the Fukushima Daichi site, nobody can offer a definitive explanation of what is happening there or how to deal with it.

The most cogent speculation now centers on the reality that, simply enough, water flows downhill.

Aside from its location in an earthquake-prone tsunami zone, Fukushima Daichi was sited above a major aquifer. That critical reality has been missing from nearly all discussion of the accident since it occurred.

There can be little doubt at this point that the water in that underground lake has been thoroughly contaminated.

In the wake of the March 11, 2011, disaster, Tepco led the public to believe that it had largely contained the flow of contaminated water into the Pacific. But now it admits that not only was that a lie, but that the quantities of water involved--apparently some 400,000 gallons per day--are very large.

Some of that water may be flowing from the aquifer. Much of it also, simply enough, flows down Japan’s steep hillsides, through the site and into the sea.

Until now, the utility and regulatory authorities have assured an anxious planet that the contaminants in the water have been primarily tritium. Tritium is a relatively simple isotope with an 8-day half-life. Its health effects can be substantial, but its short half-life has been used to proliferate the illusion that it's not much to worry about.

Reports now indicate the outflow at Fukushima also includes substantial quantities of radioactive iodine, cesium, and strontium. That, in turn, indicates there is probably more we haven’t yet heard about.

This is very bad news.

Iodine-131, for example, can be ingested into the thyroid, where it emits beta particles (electrons) that damage tissue. A plague of damaged thyroids has already been reported among as many as 40 percent of the children in the Fukushima area. That percentage can only go higher. In developing youngsters, it can stunt both physical and mental growth. Among adults it causes a very wide range of ancillary ailments, including cancer.

Cesium-137 from Fukushima has been found in fish caught as far away as California. It spreads throughout the body, but tends to accumulate in the muscles.

Strontium-90’s half-life is around 29 years. It mimics calcium and goes to our bones.

That these are among the isotopes being dumped into the Pacific is the worst news to come from Japan since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose bombings occurred 68 years ago this week, and whose fallout has been vastly exceeded at Fukushima.

Indeed, Japanese experts have already estimated Fukushima's fallout at 20-30 times as high as the 1945 bombings.

This latest revelation will send that number soaring.

The dominant reality is this: There is absolutely no indication how or when this lethal outflow will stop.

Thus far, Tepco has built scores of tanks on the site to contain whatever contaminated water it can capture. But the company is by no means getting all of it, and it is running out of space.

Some of the tanks, of course, have already sprung leaks.

There is no clear idea whether this outflow is accelerating. Tepco has injected chemicals into the ground meant to harden and form a wall between the reactors and the sea.

There’s also a surreal discussion of super-cooling a part of the site to conjure up a wall of ice.

But water has a way of flowing around such feeble devices.

We may yet hear that this massive outflow is a temporary phenomenon, but that's not likely.

The site is still unpredictably radioactive. It remains unclear what has happened to the melted cores of the three exploded reactors.

The recent appearance of a steam plume has raised the specter that fission may still be occurring somewhere in the area.

It is also unclear what will happen to the hundreds of tons of spent fuel perched precariously in a pool 100 feet in the air above Unit Four.

Sustaining that cooling system until the rods can be removed--and it's unclear when that will happen--is a major challenge.

Should an earthquake come before that's done, and should those rods go crashing to the ground where they and their zirconium cladding could ignite in the open air, the consequences could only be described as apocalyptic.

Read the rest here.

11 comments:

  1. Yep, Fukushima is a clusterfuck.

    Now, regarding the radioactive plume in the ocean (the main body of which by now reached 1/3rd way to CA). The actual figure (as measured in 2012, rather than conjectured from models) for the intensity of contamination is 10 Bq per cubic meter of water (220 gal)[*]. The natural radioactivity of one banana ("banana-equivalent dose, around 1uSv) is 15 Bq.

    The natural radioactivity of a 70kg human is about 5400 Bq (mostly due to beta-decay of potassium-40).

    The additional contamination in the water plume is actually less radioactive than you are. By 3.5 orders of magnitude.

    So... swimming is safe. The trouble is that food chain tends to concentrate some elements, so the apex predatory marine species (tuna and such) may get a lot more of the stuff than in the water outside.

    [*] source: http://www.biogeosciences-discuss.net/10/265/2013/bgd-10-265-2013.html

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  2. So at what point does one stop eating fish from the Pacific?

    When gov't actors lie out there orifices constantly, I have difficulty on personal consumption of imported fish products.

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  3. ..the careful look at the source data in the article reveals that by "more than 10Bq" authors mean "in the band of 10-100Bq on average". Which does not change the conclusion; the contamination in the open ocean water (at 100 Bq/m3, or 0.1 Bq/Kg) still being much cleaner radioactively than your own body (77 Bq/Kg).

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  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayak et.al.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford_Site

    Thank you, RW, for Posting this material.
    This is more obscene than can be imagined and in a certain part of the World, the State, in its We're-Blessed-by-God form is Busy, Busy, Busy again working to destroy even more of the Planet.

    Simply Appalling.

    CW

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  5. Robert,

    I'd be interested in getting the true libertarian perspective on what should be done about Fukushima now that it's happened. Certainly Tepco has shown that it can not control the situation. This is hard for me to say, but who other than a government has the resources, or the economic incentive, to clean up this mess?

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    1. The market has the resources. If it didn't, where would the gov get them?

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  6. The question to ask is " who insures these reactor sites?"

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  7. In true libertarian perspective TEPCO wouldn't be able to build the power station without adequate insurance (sufficient to cover the costs of cleanup in the worst case scenario, and compensation to the parties damaged in this scenario).

    The reason for that is that in a libertarian legal system there are no limited-liability corporations or any other instruments protecting anybody from having to compensate parties not party to any agreement for damages. Thus, the shareholders and executives of TEPCO would be held personally liable for all the costs (and if there were fatalities, then criminally liable, too) resulting from the accident - if they had no insurance.

    Finally, doing something visibly dangerous to bystanders without having adequate means to cover damages can be construed grounds for pre-emptive self-defensive action by the bystanders - such as seeking court injunction prohibiting the activity.

    All of this does not make nuclear power impossible - but creates huge incentives to make darn sure it *is* safe. Most likely the idiocy of building nuclear power station in a seismically active zone on a shore of a sea - and on the top of a natual aquifier - would never happened in a libertarian society, for purely economic reasons. The insurance premiums for that would be astronomical.

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  8. For any one interested in a very safe technology, one the market would have chosen, Google search "thorium reactors".
    The downside for warmongers is you can't weaponize it.

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