— words, photos and music compositions, selections by Christopher Johnson in Tokyo —
In 1997, scientists in the United States released a controversial hypothetical study about a potential nuclear catastrophe in North America.
The study described a worst-case scenario in the event of explosions at a storage pool in a nuclear reactor similar to Unit 4 at Japan’s troubled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. As reported in TIME and the New York Times, the scientists estimated that 100 would die quickly within a range of 800 kilometers, and 138,000 would die eventually in a contaminated wasteland stretching about 3000 kilometers across the US and Canada. That wasteland, if imposed upon Japan, would roughly stretch from Hokkaido to Okinawa, encompassing all of Japan. Since Japan’s population density is much greater than the United States, the death toll would likely be much higher, especially if winds blew radiation over the Kanto plain, home to around 40 million in the greater Tokyo area.
I haven’t been able to find this report online to examine it in detail, and I can’t say whether it’s fear-mongering or not. The study’s authors weren’t from a doomsday cult or a rag-tag band of anarchists. They were working for the US Department of Energy at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, on a former US army base on Long Island, New York. Brookhaven has 3000 employees, and they’ve won seven Nobel prizes.
Still, this doesn’t make them infallible fortune-tellers. Their scenario was hypothetical. Nobody — not even the world’s brightest scientists — knows for sure how many would die from a catastrophe at a pool storing spent nuclear fuel rods. As far as we know, it’s never happened before.
Yet, if Japan has learned anything from the March 11, 2011 quake, tsunami and triple meltdown, it’s to think beyond the box, and imagine worst-case scenarios.
In Fukushima, the news is getting worse almost every day. TEPCO has recently admitted that contaminated water has been leaking into the ocean for the past 2.5 years. They are running out of storage space for water at about 1000 tanks on thin foundations, none of which were built to last forever. They are so desperate, that even the Japanese government promised to commit some $500 million to erecting an “Ice Wall” of pipes to hopefully stem the flood of radioactive water into the sea.
Yet water isn’t even the biggest problem, experts say. Removing molten blobs of fuel and spent nuclear fuel rods is a much more critical and dangerous task.
Starting in November, TEPCO is planning to begin removing about 1500 spent nuclear fuel assemblies — loaded with plutonium, uranium, cesium and other deadly particles — from a pool at the top of the damaged Unit 4 building at Fukushima Dai-Ichi.
It’s going to be one of the most important — and potentially catastrophic — engineering challenges in the history of mankind. It’s likely going to be Japan’s version of America’s mission to land a man on the moon. The whole world will be watching to see if Japan can succeed.
((If extraterrestrial aliens exist, they’ll be watching too and thinking: “This is where mankind destroys itself. They built a machine they can’t turn off, loaded it with materials they can’t handle, and controlled it with a computer that no longer works. They’re really screwed, and now’s our chance to save or annihilate them.”))
Back on Earth, there’s a long death list of things that can go wrong. TEPCO, and Japan’s government, has to get every single one of them right. There is no margin for error. One little mistake, or unforeseen accident, can lead to a Megadeth song.
TEPCO hopes to complete this surgery in a year. It might take longer. We have to pray there’ll be no earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, tornadoes, landslides, floods, blizzards, lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions. We have to hope that a crane, robot or human doesn’t drop a fuel rod — or a cigarette — and set the whole pyre ablaze.
(Here’s a crane collapsing at Fukushima Dai-Ichi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEH4Lv-hXFU)
Unfortunately, say critics, TEPCO has repeatedly proven at Fukushima Dai-Ichi that they can’t do anything with perfection. They ignored warnings about tsunami history in Japan, where large quakes strike almost every 20 years. They built six reactors near the tsunami-prone ocean and over an aquifer, an ancient underground river rushing down from the mountains. They should have closed down the 40-year old plant years ago. They put the back-up generators in a dangerous place near the sea, and just 10 meters above sea-level. They didn’t respond in time to 311. They lied, repeatedly, about what was really happening: meltdowns at units 1, 2 and 3, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. Their president went awol for days. They flooded the site with seawater, which ferried radioactive particles into valuable fishing grounds. They kept reporters out for months. They cut corners on designs of water reservoirs. On flimsy foundations, they put up cheap tanks without proper gauges. They use cheap “nuclear gypsy” labor, and make them sweat in Dickensian conditions. Their measuring sticks are too short. They test for some subatomic particles, not others. They deny reality on an hourly basis. They still aren’t telling the full truth about the true scale of the disaster, and the effects of radiation on living organisms.
But this time, in regard to removing fuel rods at Reactor 4, they have to get every little detail right, without fail, every time, for an operation that could take much longer than a year. They have to score 100 percent on every test they take every day for 365 days or longer during this operation. How likely is that? One in ten? One in a hundred? A snowball’s chance in hell?
Regardless of what happens, we have to cheer for TEPCO. Ganbare!
Not everybody shares my devotion to TEPCO. A March survey of Japanese citizens showed that 94 percent believed that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was not under control, and a majority favored eventual elimination of nuclear power, according to a research team led by Hirotada Hirose, a professor emeritus of Tokyo Woman’s Christian University.
Love’em or hate’em, TEPCO are actually trying to save the world right now, even if it’s from themselves. We should all stop shaming them and hurting their feelings. TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company of Ostriches, supply electricity to our homes. Without them, we couldn’t get online to find out why they are potentially on the verge of the greatest man-made catastrophe in human history.
In my role as TEPCO cheerleader, it’s my duty to separate fact from spin. For TEPCO’s sake, we must filter out illogical propaganda as if it were flecks of strontium and cesium in contaminated groundwater. God bless you TEPCO. God save us all.
Given TEPCO’s pattern of denials and delaying reports by months or even years, we can’t help wondering what they are covering up right now. Maybe, for example, they know that the melted fuel cores are creeping into the ocean; but they won’t tell us until, say, September 2015. Or, they suspect that somebody stole uranium from the plant, but they won’t release this information until August 2017. These are hypothetical examples, of course. But keep in mind that TEPCO for months denied that fuel cores were melting down, which in fact made it one of the worst industrial disasters in history. That’s a pretty big lie.
They also found high radiation levels in water wells in May, and did not release the information until July. That’s another big fib, especially if any of those isotopes made it into your drinking water.
As my song says: repeating a lie a hundred thousand times doesn’t make it true, even one time.
Still, TEPCO and the government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, continue to tell the world that everything is “under control.” Many around the world, including Olympic delegates, believe it.
Japan’s nuclear establishment, trumpeted or ignored by Japanese media, want you to believe the following points:
–TEPCO will remove spent nuclear fuel rods within a year
–the reactors are stable, in cold shutdown
–Tokyo is normal, and absolutely safe
–nobody has died from radiation
–the clean up will take 40 years, at a cost of $11 billion
–Japan’s government is stepping in to solve the crisis
Using common sense and available evidence, let’s examine each one.
TEPCO WILL REMOVE SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL RODS WITHIN A YEAR:
It’s never been done before at a wrecked site, and it’s fraught with risk. The fuel, the pool, and the Unit 4 building might be damaged by the explosion and fires of 2011, or corroded by salty seawater which can ruin vital machinery, as any car owner knows. If the pool develops a crack and a leak, TEPCO might find it impossible to immediately control water and heat, and there are no containment vessels to prevent radiation releases.
In these underwater videos, which TEPCO released in May 2011, the pool looks like a shipwreck. (http://ex-skf.blogspot.jp/2011/05/fukushima-i-nuke-plant-videos-of-spent.html)
TEPCO says it has removed debris and erected a giant steel frame to bolster Unit 4. The structure will house cranes that will reach into Unit 4 and extract fuel assemblies — one by one — from a 12 x 10-meter pool located 18 meters above the ground.
The challenge is to move 1,331 spent fuel assemblies and another 202 unused assemblies, all of which are covered by 7 meters of water in the pool, according to a Reuters report, citing TEPCO officials. If all goes according to plan, TEPCO will remove about 5 fuel assemblies per day on average. They cannot make a single mistake.
Think of each fuel assembly as a giant package of cigarettes, containing hundreds of fuel rods, each roughly the size of a baseball bat. Each fuel assembly package weighs about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and is 4.5 meters (15 feet) long — about the size of a saltwater crocodile. So, imagine trying to remove 1500 saltwater crocodiles — stuffed with uranium, plutonium 239, cesium 137 and Strontium 90 — from a dilapidated building that was essentially gutted by fire and explosions and exposed to the elements — tremors, blizzards, typhoons — for about 900 days now.
Just 10 of those crocodile-size fuel assemblies would equal the weight of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima or “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki. TEPCO, in other words, will try to remove 150 “atomic bombs” from a broken building without setting them off, amid high levels of radiation.
If all of those “bombs” did explode, the radiation release might be much more than 150 times the amount unleashed upon Hiroshima or Nagasaki, experts say. “If you calculate the amount of cesium 137 in the pool, the amount is equivalent to 14,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs,” Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, told Reuters.
“They are going to have difficulty in removing a significant number of the rods,” said Arnie Gundersen, an experienced nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education, who used to build fuel assemblies in the US.
In a test operation at the pool last year, TEPCO removed two unused fuel assemblies, which are less dangerous than the spent bundles, Reuters reported. “To jump to the conclusion that it is going to work just fine for the rest of them is quite a leap of logic,” said Gundersen, who worries that fuel assemblies could break, get stuck, or react with other bundles. “There is a risk of an inadvertent criticality if the bundles are distorted and get too close to each other,” he told Reuters. “The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it. The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction.”
The operation will begin under water. They have to pull fuel assemblies from their casings, then insert them into a heavy steel chamber, meant to contain radiation. Then they will lower the chamber to the ground and transport it to another pool in an undamaged building for longterm storage.
All this time, TEPCO will have to keep the rods submerged in water, Gundersen said. If exposed to air, the rods could catch fire. An explosion in 2011 blew the roof off Unit 4, destroying cranes and fuel extraction equipment. There’s no reason to think this couldn’t happen again.
Toshio Kimura, a former TEPCO technician who worked at Fukushima Dai-ichi for 11 years, told Reuters about the challenges of removing the rods. “Previously it was a computer-controlled process that memorized the exact locations of the rods down to the millimeter and now they don’t have that. It has to be done manually so there is a high risk that they will drop and break one of the fuel rods.”
If something does catch fire, the heat could rise into windblown clouds that could spread radiation over 40 million people in the Kanto plain around greater Tokyo. Or the winds could blow it out to sea, sending plumes toward North America, as many believe happened in March 2011.
Even in 2011, TEPCO was warning there was a small chance that exposed fuel rods could reach criticality, setting off a nuclear chain reaction.
Others worry about releases of isotopes such as cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, and which caused authorities to demarcate an exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists say on their website that radioactive gases from Reactor 4 have already spread into the atmosphere. In March 2011, they warned that exposed fuel rods could heat up enough to burn the rod’s zirconium cladding, thereby releasing radioactive elements in the rod, including fuel pellets inside. “Eventually, the temperature can get high enough that the fuel pellets will begin to melt.”
The BBC’s Environment Reporter Richard Black wrote in 2011 that Reactor 4’s pool went completely dry, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Whatever the reason, the rods became hot enough that steam reacted with the zirconium cladding around the fuel rods, generating hydrogen and causing an explosion,” Black wrote. “In the company’s view, it is possible that enough fissile uranium is present in the cooling pond in enough density to form a critical mass – meaning that a nuclear fission chain reaction could start. So if it happened, it would lead to the enhanced and sustained release of radioactive materials – though not to a nuclear explosion – with nothing to stop the radioactive particles escaping.”
Black added that radioactivity and heat generation in the rods can die away quickly after a reactor is turned off; down to 7% of the original power within a second of switch-off; 5% within a minute; 0.5% within a day.
Even if that’s true, could a 0.5 percent amount of heat generation and radioactivity still cause massive damage, as the 1997 Brookhaven report suggested? Even if it’s only 0.5 percent, would that mean the fuel would still have the power of 7 fuel assemblies, or more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs? What if the spent rods have the ability to reheat and re-generate themselves, meaning their power goes back up to 100 percent?
It’s not clear, and I’ve yet to find anything online to answer this crucial question.
Gordon Edwards, a consultant to Canada’s nuclear regulators and founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility in 1975, has also warned of “zirconium fires” and “accidental criticality” at Fukushima’s reactor 4.
“An alteration in the geometry of the spent fuel in the pool, by which the separation between the spent fuel rods is slightly but significantly reduced, can lead to re-initiation of the chain reaction in the pool. This ‘accidental criticality’ will not only drive the temperature up rapidly, but will also replenish the supply of short-lived heat-producing fission products, accelerating the damage to the fuel, magnifying the heat loading, increasing the probability of a fuel pool meltdown, and vastly increasing the atmospheric releases of radioactivity.”
He says that lethal levels of gamma rays might make it impossible for workers to get close enough to replenish water in the fuel pool. In other words, it’s possible that an accident, once started, can’t be stopped.
It’s not an unrealistic scenario; we saw this happen in March 2011, when helicopters couldn’t get close enough to accurately spray water into smoldering reactors.
Many Japan-based academics are not trained in nuclear physics. Based on their observations of Fukushima throughout the crisis, and their mistrust of authorities, they are worried about the potential for a fresh round of explosions.
“If something does go wrong, the consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere, putting much of Japan, including the metropolises of Tokyo and Yokohama, and even neighbouring countries at serious risk,” write Japan-based professors Andrew DeWit and Christopher Hobson in Japan Focus. “When the stakes are this high, who do you want to bet on? TEPCO’s track record is abysmal. They have done nothing to indicate they can be trusted with handling this difficult task. Even now there are few signs that TEPCO has fully understood the magnitude of the situation they – and we – collectively face, and many signs that their priority has been and remains the company’s bottom line not the public interest. This is literally a matter of national security – another mistake by TEPCO could have incredibly costly, even fatal, consequences for Japan.”
Their concerns are understandable, given TEPCO’s track record. On the other hand, it’s possible that TEPCO can achieve their goals without a scratch. For 900 days now, they have managed to work around the stricken reactors without a catastrophic blast.
Critics say that this erstwhile “safety record” is because TEPCO has procrastinated, putting off unwelcome tasks such as moving 1500 fuel assemblies. Now, they wonder if TEPCO is rushing it, reducing their planned time-frame from two years to one.
At undamaged plants, workers can normally remove fuel in about 100 days, experts say. “I think it’ll probably be longer than they think and they’re probably going to run into some issues,” Murray Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University who worked at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California and has expertise in nuclear containment, told Reuters.
If things go as planned, we’ll soon find out if TEPCO can do it, or not.
THE REACTORS ARE STABLE, IN COLD SHUTDOWN:
It sounds reassuring. In late 2011, TEPCO declared they had succeeded in cooling fuel cores at reactors 1, 2 and 3. The worst was over. They had defeated the beast. Japan could relax and go back to normal.
But what did that really mean? If something is “stable”, do you have to pour 400 tons of water on it daily for 2.5 years, and possibly decades to come? Or is “stable” just another TEPCO spin word? And, if it’s so “stable”, why don’t we know more about the fuel?
It’s the single most important part of the Fukushima story. Yet few in the Japan-based mainstream media write about this, or even ask this question, which was a big mystery in 2011.
People who dare to question TEPCO want to know: Where are the blobs of fuel? Are they hiding in the basement? Are they poking through a hole they dug in the concrete floor? Are they burrowing down into the Earth, heating up groundwater and tainting it with their sweat? Or did they melt away like overdone cheese? Are they crawling like some primordial troll under the ground or toward the center of the Earth?
Where are the blobs of fuel?
Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy consultant and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, wrote in CNN.com that he believes the reactor cores of units 1, 2 and 3 melted through the reactor vessels into the concrete. “Nobody knows how far the molten fuel went through the containment – radiation levels in the reactor buildings are lethal, while robots got stuck in the rubble and some never came back out.”
The website Fukuleaks.org, which monitors the plant in detail, says TEPCO “either does not know or will not tell” where the melted fuel is. “This leaves a huge unknown factor. How much of the melted fuel has ended up in this groundwater mass.” They say that TEPCO found highly radioactive water in Unit 1’s torus room and Unit 3’s turbine building, while Unit 2’s turbine building was too dangerous to test. Does this mean that it’s too dangerous for TEPCO to find out where the blobs are?
Even in late 2011, the Wall Street Journal was quoting the Argonne National Laboratory, a US-government funded research lab outside of Chicago, as saying that if the corium eroded enough concrete, ground-water contamination could become an issue.
TEPCO has confirmed that groundwater contamination has become an issue. WSJ reported that TEPCO found high radiation levels in a well on Sept. 4. Does this mean that the corium blobs have “melted through” into the ground?
Without hard verifiable evidence, we can only imagine what they actually look like. NYT Tokyo bureau chief Martin Fackler has aptly described them as being like candle wax melted around the base. Others such as Economist writer David McNeill simply call them “blobs”. What do these blobs look like? The Michelin Man? O-mochi rice cakes? A fetus in the womb? Maybe they look like your heart: a red glowing pulsating organism, radiating blood through arteries of water, electrifying the earthen body around it.
Fact is, we don’t have i-phone cameras down there taking happy snaps for TEPCO’s Facebook page. We don’t have cutesy NHK graphics portraying these blobs as Tepco-chan.
I imagine each 100-ton reactor core as a giant silvery fuel truck parked upside down in my neighborhood schoolyard. An earthquake and tsunami set each truck on fire, just like in Kesennuma and Otsuchi on 311. Though these trucks have several layers of defenses protecting the fuel inside, they’ve been smoldering for 2.5 years now. We’ve been hosing them down with water all this time, yet these trucks could still regain heat and explode if we let them. In fact, they’re so dangerous, we can’t go anywhere near the school to check on them. If one truck explodes, it could set off a chain reaction of explosions. That would be very Metallica.
Moreover, there’s an old fuel truck sitting on the roof of a dilapidated school building (Unit 4). This truck doesn’t have these layers of defenses. The fuel is just sitting there, in a pool, open to the air, without a shield within a shield within a shield.
More precisely, these trucks are carrying massive atomic bombs. They’re built to create heat and explode, and that’s what they want to do.
Think of it. Imagine if the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945 was just sitting there, hissing, craving detonation, on the roof of your school building. Would you be worried? What are you going to do? You’re not going to panic, because you know that won’t solve anything. You could run away, as many have, but that will only pass the problem to your neighbors and children. You could sit there in denial, teaching classes as if nothing’s happened — which is what most people in Japan are doing.
But, as TEPCO knows, you really have to do something. You can’t just let the atomic bombs sit there. They could reignite by lightning, tornado, earthquake, typhoon or terrorist strike. You have to move these bombs somehow. But how? You’ve never done it before. You really don’t know what you’re doing. Neither do your friends, and you don’t really trust them anyway. And, this is the main problem: where do you put them?
When America dropped bombs on Japanese schools during the Pacific War, the bombs exploded. As horrific as they were, we didn’t have to pick up their pieces, reassemble them, and find a garbage dump for them. Imagine, however, if thousands of these bombs didn’t explode, and they were still hanging around in parks, schools, pools, beaches, and yards. This is what we have in Fukushima, 2013.
As for those who say that reactor cores and fuel rods aren’t bombs, then why are we so afraid to touch them? If they aren’t really dangerous, as nuclear shills like to say, then why don’t they go down there, put them in their backpacks, and use them like surf boards?
Because, they are atomic bombs, made of uranium and other destructive elements. They have already caused explosions in March 2011, large enough to rip the roof off buildings and melt through some of the strongest man-made materials. Imagine that going off during the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
Never mind. Don’t worry. As Prime Minister Abe likes to say …
TOKYO IS NORMAL, AND ABSOLUTELY SAFE:
The leaders of Japan’s 2020 Olympic bid repeated this mantra heard since March 2011: Tokyo is normal, with radiation levels no more alarming than those of New York, London, Paris or other cities. “There is no issue here,” Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japan Olympic Committee and head of the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee, told reporters in Buenos Aires. “Not one person in Tokyo has been affected by this issue,” he said. “Tokyo and Fukushima are almost 250 kilometers [155 miles] apart. We are quite remote from Fukushima. The water is safe and the level of radioactivity is absolutely safe. The radiation level is absolutely safe. The 35 million people living in Tokyo are living in normal conditions. There is no problem.”
Yes, if you only test the air, you might find Tokyo radiation levels similar to other major world cities. But that narrow-minded and short-sighted attitude toward measurement ignores radiation levels in fish, vegetables, cars, leafs, or anything else — which is part of our existence in Tokyo — potentially exposed to Fukushima radiation. In other words, Japan’s official logic is: even if your fish, milk and mushrooms are toxic, your air is as safe as Manhattan; therefore, Tokyo is totally normal and safe.
This logic assumes that humans only breathe air, and we don’t consume food. All of Tokyo is living in a vacuum, that logic assumes, when in fact, we are part of the greater Fukushima ecosystem.
To assess real levels of radiation, you have to take into account all forms of radiation, in everything. It’s common sense.
What are the levels of radiation? It’s hard to get a clear answer. Nuclear radiation is an extremely hot and divisive topic online in Japan and elsewhere. This Wikipedia page attempts to set out facts, and not everyone will agree:
Taking everything into account, are you really as safe from radiation in Tokyo as in Los Angeles, Toronto, London, Melbourne, Auckland or other cities? If so, why aren’t expatriate mothers reticent about living in those cities, as many were in Tokyo?
Critics will say that expat mothers and thousands of so-called “fly-jin” and wealthy Japanese left Tokyo because they were brainwashed by hyperbolic media. It’s true that some journalists exaggerated or jumped to hasty conclusions, based on what they knew or suspected to be true at that time. In response, many Tokyo residents have worked hard to rebuild Tokyo’s international image, and many still label “fly-jin” as traitors. But, who are they to say why people left? If you are a “fly-jin”, you probably had personal reasons, and, in response to your anxieties, your instinct told you “get out”. You, alone, know what’s right for you, and you probably feel justified, in light of recent TEPCO disclosures about water leakage and contamination since 311. And you are probably enjoying life in the sun, far from the slow-motion nuclear nightmare.
Others have tried to hammer home the fact that you get more radiation on a flight from New York to Tokyo than you would get in Tokyo. OK, assuming that’s true, would you therefore be concerned about radiation if your children were flying on a radiated plane 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 70 years?
TEPCO and an array of nuclear shills have also tried to convince journalists, and the public, that their data “proves” radiation emissions are below safe levels. One way of doing this is to measure radiation in mSv/hour, or millisieverts per hour.
Other than nuclear scientists and a few journalists, does anybody understand what this means? The US Environmental Protection Agency tries to explain it here: (http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/perspective.html)
The problem with data is: it can be skewed and interpreted to support agendas on both sides of the nuclear debate.
Here’s an example of how TEPCO frames measurements in a way which many feel distorts reality and diverts attention:
Measuring radiation dosage “per hour”, while perhaps sensible for TEPCO workers, doesn’t tell the general public in Fukushima or Tokyo if they are really safe or not. We don’t live “per hour”. People are concerned about 900 days of spillage, and more to come. They are concerned about the bigger picture, not just the measurements at one particular spot for a few minutes or hours. We want to know how much dosage we’ll receive in a year, or 10 years, or 70 years. TEPCO says it’s going to take 40 years to clean up the mess. How much radiation will they give us during that 40-year span? Nobody says, nobody knows.
And even if they did know it, and did say it, would anybody trust them? Having scene explosions on TV, and having heard reports about bans on farming and fishing in parts of Fukushima, the public doesn’t trust TEPCO or the attempts by WSJ’s Japan Real Time to present cold, calm scientific data that indicates safe levels of radiation. We are also informed by instinct and common sense, not just scientific data from a disreputable source such as TEPCO. If we fear that Fukushima threatens our health and longevity, then we won’t trust TEPCO’s data, no matter how hard they try. (And remember, I’m cheering for TEPCO to succeed at cleaning up the mess.)
Unlike Olympic delegates who chose Tokyo as a “safe pair of hands” over Madrid and Istanbul, millions of people have lost faith in Japanese authority. They feel that the government betrayed their trust on 311 and hasn’t earned it back. Officials repeatedly moved goalposts to “prove” that tests show “safe” levels of radiation. They altered so-called “safe limits” to suit their agenda. They simply want to say that Japan is safe, and they’ll concoct a regime of tools and figures to “confirm” this, no matter what the reality is.
Naturally, many critics are thinking: who can say what is a “safe” level of radiation? Nobody can. We’ve never had a disaster like Fukushima. We are Alice in Chains in a Jar of Flies.
Ask scientists and they’ll tell you: science is not an exact science. Our knowledge and understanding of phenomena is imperfect, incomplete and developing. We can’t say for sure if subatomic particles will kill you or not. We can observe tendencies and draw conclusions, but it’s not black and white. Maybe other factors caused illness and death in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Our instruments aren’t perfect; they’re still developing. Perhaps 20 years from now in 2033, we’ll have new instruments that will show radiation was much worse than reported in 2013. But NHK, NYT, Washington Post and others won’t report this because it’s “conjecture”, not “fact”.
Much of our scientific data comes from the government. How scientific is that, really? The government is not an objective, independent, neutral source. Officials, scientists or academics on the government pay-roll do not have vested interests in promoting an anti-nuclear agenda and overthrowing the existing order. They won’t get promoted for telling the truth and spreading fear that might be in the public interest. Every time a citizen’s group has found results debunking the myth of Tokyo safety, they’ve been ignored, marginalized or attacked by right-wing fanatics or so-called “nuclear shills” defending the nuclear state. The protester’s voices have been drowned out by the repeated lie of what former Prime Minister Naoto Kan calls Japan’s “safety myth.” Only a few diehards are left from the thousands who used to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday nights. And so, we are led to believe that Tokyo is “normal”.
Yet common sense tells us that Tokyo is not “just as normal” as New York, London or other cities. Those other cities don’t have molten fuel cores and massive toxic leaks 200 kilometers from their downtown cores. In Tokyo, unless you’re a drone or robot, you think about what’s happening in Fukushima. Even the nuclear shills who continue to support nuclear power worry about TEPCO’s handling of the crisis.
No, Tokyo is not normal. In Toronto or Sydney, you don’t go to bed wondering if an earthquake will cause catastrophic explosions at massive atomic bombs sitting at a damaged site two hours drive from home. You don’t look at the ocean, or the seafood section of your supermarket, and wonder if it’s tainted. You don’t hear, every day, about an ongoing nuclear disaster in your backyard. You don’t have friends with babies moving away from Manchester or Wellington because of an ongoing catastrophe. You aren’t in the international news all the time. No, Tokyo is not normal. You, in Tokyo, are in the midst of a nuclear crisis, whether you want to believe it or not.
Look at it this way. People in Rome, Bangkok or Calcutta aren’t gathering reams of data about radiation levels in their cities. People living in Tokyo, or concerned about Japan, are.
For that reason alone, Tokyo is not normal. If you are honest with yourself, you can feel it in Them Bones.
NOBODY HAS DIED FROM RADIATION:
The plant’s manager, Masao Yoshida, lionized as a hero in Japan, died on July 9, 2013 at age 58, when some people in Japan are still playing in punk bands like Sheena and the Rockets.
The official TEPCO line: Yoshida died of cancer of the esophagus, not related to radiation. He’s hailed as a national hero for risking his life, staying on site, disobeying orders from leaders offsite, and possibly averting worse explosions.
TEPCO, of course, would not say that he died because he had been working at nuclear plants most of his adult life, along with hundreds of other workers. Yoshida had been managing Fukushima Dai-Ichi for only 9 months when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake or tsunami knocked out power on March 11, 2011. Yoshida took command from a bunker. If radiation levels weren’t threatening workers at the plant, then why did they have to move to a fortified bunker?
Yoshida also offered to lead other older workers in what he called a “suicide mission” to pump water into a reactor. This indicates that Yoshida was expecting to receive dangerous levels of radiation. “I fear we are in acute danger,” he said, according to a video of his operations during the disaster. He later spoke in detail about “terrible” levels of radiation around the plant, where he worked tirelessly for more than six months.
The question is obvious to millions of people: did radiation kill him?
Is that what made him a sick man, leading to other ailments?
Many commenters suspect that it did.
TEPCO says no. Announcing his death, TEPCO said their employee’s cancer was unrelated to the disaster at their plant.
Of course they had to say that. They weren’t going to say: “Yes, radiation killed our plant manager, and therefore, all the workers are vulnerable.” Keep in mind, TEPCO, throughout Yoshida-san illness, was dealing with a catastrophe on their hands. They had to assure exhausted, low-paid workers that they wouldn’t die from working at the site.
So, should we believe TEPCO? Think about it. If Chernobyl’s plant manager fell ill six months after the explosion, and then died, would we believe Soviet propaganda that it had nothing to do with the exploding reactor? Yet in Japan, we are constantly told that nobody has died. New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi, BBC, The Guardian, AFP, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN, and everybody else basically wrote the same story about Yoshida’s death.
Tabuchi, like other reporters, did not question TEPCO’s version of events in her story. Or if she did, editors removed it:
“Mr. Yoshida took a leave from Tokyo Electric in late 2011 after receiving a diagnosis of esophageal cancer,” wrote Tabuchi. “Experts have said his illness was not a result of radiation exposure from the accident, given how quickly it came on.”
Tabuchi did not quote “experts” by name.
Only 8 months after the disaster, Yoshida went on sick leave, according to Tabuchi’s report. She didn’t ask this question: is it possible that radiation weakened his body’s defenses, leading to complications?
She quoted author Kadota Ryusho as saying that Yoshida told his underlings, in Douglas MacArthur fashion: “You still have a difficult road ahead, but I know you will overcome. I promise to do my best to return.”
It’s not known if Tabuchi tried to find alternative opinions from doctors or health experts. Tabuchi, a young local hire who studied economics not journalism, has a history of mistakes, exaggerations and making false accusations and blocking people on Twitter, including this reporter. She hasn’t replied to several requests for comments on past stories, and wasn’t contacted for this one. (see: http://goyamagazine.com/2013/08/09/nyts-tabuchi-googles-inoue-panasonics-nicolson-slam-japan-times-over-report-on-trolls/)
She got a key component of her story wrong. Below the story, NYT editors added this correction:
Correction: July 9, 2013
An earlier version of this article stated that Mr. Yoshida ignored direct orders from Prime Minister Naoto Kan to stop injecting seawater into one of the reactors. (Mr. Kan later denied that he had given such an order, and suggested that Tokyo Electric officials had probably misunderstood.)
This wasn’t a minor mistake by Tabuchi. The question of whether Japan’s Prime Minister, or TEPCO officials, ordered Yoshida to stop injecting seawater, is an important debate in Japan, influencing the outcome of elections and billions of yen in potential compensation pay-outs. Tabuchi didn’t get this part of the story right. Did she also fail to properly investigate Yoshida’s cause of death?
The potential impact of radiation on Yoshida’s death is one of the most important questions that a journalist should ask about Fukushima. Tabuchi didn’t even quote anyone by name. She simply dashed off a line saying unnamed experts figured he didn’t die from radiation.
Since Tabuchi is perhaps the most popular correspondent among the expat community in Japan, many believe her report toeing the TEPCO party line that Yoshida didn’t die from radiation sickness.
As Alice in Chains sang in “Rooster”: “no he ain’t gonna die.”
Tabuchi, a developing writer, should not be singled out for criticism. More senior reporters treated the story in the same way as her. TEPCO said he didn’t die from radiation. End of story. Case closed.
On Dec. 11, 2011, AFP quoted a TEPCO spokesman as saying “Yoshida himself disclosed he had esophagus cancer” as he spoke to workers at the plant. “He had been worried about media speculation over his illness … He wanted to concentrate on his treatment quietly but decided to disclose what it is,” she said. TEPCO believes that “it is extremely unlikely that his disease was caused by radiation exposure,” she said, citing the advice of a doctor at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences. She quoted the doctor as saying that if radiation exposure were to cause cancer of the esophagus, it would take at least five years and normally 10 years to develop.
But how would the doctor know how long radiation exposure takes to develop into cancer? Have we had a disaster like Fukushima before in Japan? How can one doctor — one doctor — at an institute on the government payroll, have almighty power to say why God or The Reaper took away our national hero? Did anyone demand a second or third medical opinion?
AFP cited TEPCO as saying that Yoshida’s cumulative radiation exposure was 70 millisieverts since March 11, a level lower than limits which the government set for emergency workers.
AFP couldn’t cite Yoshida, or the doctor, directly. Their only available source was a TEPCO spokesman.
In other words, the government, which is allegedly in collusion with TEPCO, set limits for exposure. TEPCO, which oversees testing of its workers, says Yoshida’s exposure was below those limits, and he wasn’t ill with radiation sickness.
There was no testing by independent doctors or international researchers. TEPCO, citing Yoshida’s ill health, didn’t allow prosecutors to question Yoshida about TEPCO’s handling of the disaster.
Yoshida-san, the man at the front-line, probably the most important source in the Fukushima story, never addressed a press conference. Neither did the doctor, quoted by TEPCO. The whole story was reported third-hand by TEPCO, through a spokesman.
Yoshida did, however, record a video diary in July 2012. He didn’t choose a reporter for this. Instead, he spoke with Hideaki Yabuhara, a counsellor who had been working with several plant workers, according to reports in Russia Today, the Australian, WSJ and others.
Yoshida wasn’t on hand when the video was presented to journalists.
In the video, Yoshida didn’t question the cause of his illness. He said the level of radiation around him was “terrible.”
“When that first [hydrogen] explosion occurred, I really felt we might die,” Yoshida said. He added that he believed, at that time, that the explosion had killed workers at the site. He later realized it had injured workers and soldiers. “I felt awful for those injured, but I felt like Buddha was watching over us.”
He said none of the 250 workers deserted their posts, even though their relatives were dead or missing from the tsunami. “My colleagues went out there again and again,” he said. “It was clear from the beginning that we couldn’t run. Nobody on the ground said anything about pulling out of the site.”
Amid the disaster, he joked about passing out cigarettes to workers in the smoking room. “We don’t have the US army fire trucks we need but at least we have got smokes.”
He said he had been silent until now because it wasn’t proper to speak publicly while four investigations were underway. He also wanted to show people in Fukushima that they shouldn’t feel afraid of receiving counseling for their traumas.
Freelance journalist Kadota Ryusho, author of “The Pacific War: Final Testimony“, wrote a book called “The Man Who Stared into the Abyss: Yoshida Masao and His 500 Days at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station)”.
Nippon.com offered a brief, translated excerpt of his book, starting with Kadota’s own point of view:
On February 7, 2012, less than a year after the disaster, Yoshida underwent surgery for cancer of the esophagus. Initially his chances for recovery looked good. Then on July 26, he was hospitalized with a cerebral hemorrhage. He survived that emergency with the help of two craniotomies and insertion of a catheter. But the cancer metastasized to his liver, and when I learned that it had spread to the lungs and other parts of the body, I knew the end was near.
Whatever the direct cause of his death, I consider Yoshida Masao a fallen hero.
Before he was hospitalized in July 2012, Yoshida agreed to speak with me on the record. Our two sessions eventually totaled four and a half hours. It had taken me a year and three months, and all the resources I could think of, to convince him to meet me.
When I met Yoshida face to face for the first time, his six-foot frame was thinner than I remembered from news photos and videos. Illness had taken its toll, but he had lost none of his innate good humor.
Early in the morning on March 15, Yoshida sat exhausted in the emergency command center on the second floor of a seismically isolated building. The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi was at its most critical phase, with pressure rising inside the Reactor No. 2 containment vessel. Yoshida rose unsteadily from his chair, then collapsed back down again. For some time he sat there, head bowed, lost in thought.
“At that point,” he told me, “there was only one way to keep the meltdown under control, and that was to continue pumping in seawater. I had to decide who would stay at the plant and keep the seawater flowing. It was like deciding who would die with me. The faces of my team appeared before me one after another. . . . The first who came to mind was the supervisor of the plant’s safety and recovery team. We’re the same age, although he joined TEPCO straight out of high school. We’ve been through a lot together over the years. I knew right away that he would be prepared to risk his life to do what was necessary.”
“I couldn’t bear the idea that these people I had known for years might die on my orders. But I knew that our only hope was to keep injecting water. I had no choice. I had to ask them to prepare for the worst. I couldn’t get the thoughts out of my head as I sat there.”
In the end, 69 men stayed behind to fight the climactic battle, although the Western media later dubbed them the “Fukushima 50.” All of them were determined to do whatever it took to contain the disaster. By refusing to accept defeat and persevering in the face of great personal risk, Yoshida and his team prevented a catastrophe that might have destroyed Fukushima and rendered a third of Japan uninhabitable.
In April 2007, Yoshida was appointed head of the Nuclear Asset Management Department at TEPCO. From that time on, he continued to study the risk of a major tsunami.
Far from dragging his feet on tsunami safety, Yoshida did more than anyone else in the industry to gather the data necessary to convince local communities of the need for stronger protective measures at Fukushima Daiichi.
Kadota, like others, considers Yoshida-san a hero. Given his status in Japan, it’s hard to separate facts from emotions.
Let’s look at some facts. After the accident, the government ordered about 160,000 people to evacuate from a 20-kilometer radius around the plant. Yoshida reportedly stayed at the plant for nearly 6 months, non-stop.
In other words, the area was too dangerous for human habitation. The plant’s manager stayed there. He fell ill six months later, and died at a young age. He never spoke directly with reporters at a press conference about his illness.
And even if he had the chance to do so, what would he say, what would he know? Loyal to the company that hired him out of college, it’s highly unlikely that a Japanese manager in his position would have gone against the company’s version of events: that his cancer wasn’t related to radiation exposure. He knew that he was going to be remembered in history as the man who helped save Japan from disaster. He would gain nothing by suddenly betraying his company and questioning their interpretation of his illness. Japanese heroes don’t do that.
Imagine standing in his shoes. His company had already been deemed a national disgrace. His workers couldn’t wear their uniforms in public. Some were suicidal. They had lost out on promotions, bonuses, even marriages. He wasn’t going to scare his beloved underlings by raising doubts about radiation sickness, which would only worsen their anxiety. Heroic Japanese bosses don’t do that.
Whatever secrets he knew, he apparently took with him into the afterlife.
TEPCO, alone, had the power to give Yoshida’s cause of death. We either believe TEPCO’s version of events, or not.
My personal view is that Yoshida-san is a national hero, and he — like Naoto Kan — may have saved my city and adopted country from worse destruction. Whatever Yoshida’s believes about nuclear power, whatever decisions he made, his courage and dedication is beyond question. I’ll bow to that.
We’ll never know why you died, sir.
Rest in peace, Yoshida-san.
THE PACIFIC OCEAN IS BIG ENOUGH TO DILUTE ANY RADIATION FROM THE PLANT:
Yes, the Pacific is big, and currents can dilute some subatomic particles over time. But we aren’t eating fish from just anywhere in the Pacific Ocean. In Japan and other countries, we get seafood from people working in very specific areas where seaweed, plankton, and fish could be ingesting radioactive particles. While scientists so far are saying the radiation, beyond the prohibited fishing zones of the Fukushima area, is within safe limits established by governments, many seafood consumers don’t want any atomic matter in their food, and they don’t trust the Japanese authorities who measure radiation and set safety limits.
South Korea has banned imports of ocean products from not only Fukushima, but all the Pacific provinces from Aomori down to Chiba in suburban Tokyo. These are fishing grounds feeding millions of people in Japan, and others worldwide who consume imports from Japan. Japan has only banned fishing close to the Fukushima reactors. This begs the question: if the seafood of eastern Japan isn’t safe for South Koreans, why is it safe for everybody else?
“The decision was made as public concerns are growing after radiation-contaminated water has leaked from the Fukushima nuclear plant,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye said in an e-mailed statement, Bloomberg reported. “It’s uncertain how this situation has developed in Japan and it’s difficult to predict the future only with the information provided by Japan so far.”
South Korea’s import ban includes all items from Japan’s northeast coast, whether they show contamination or not, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, said Bloomberg. “The measure comes as our people’s concerns are growing over the fact that hundreds of tons of radiation-contaminated water are leaked daily from the site of Japan’s nuclear accident in Fukushima,” said the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, according to Yonhap.
This is a new kettle of fish for Japan, literally. If South Korea is banning Japanese products, what’s to stop other countries? China’s Foreign Ministry earlier said that it’s “shocking” that radioactive water is still leaking into the Pacific Ocean two years after the Fukushima incident. It’s hard to imagine Chinese wanting to eat Japanese food that’s banned in South Korea.
Consumers in Japan aren’t likely to play dead either. We’ll be checking packages more clearly, to see if products were harvested from eastern Japan.
Even Toyoshi Fuketa, commissioner of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, has said previously that TEPCO has been “careless” about inspecting hundreds of water tanks, and the NRA aren’t even sure what’s in the water.
So, if the regulators aren’t sure what’s in the water, why should we be confident about eating ocean products from Japan?
This growing suspicion about the true state of the ocean makes it increasingly more difficult, politically, for TEPCO to flush their tank-water into the Pacific, which they have hoped to do from the beginning.
TEPCO, like other nuclear power companies in Japan, built nuclear reactors by the ocean for a reason. In case of an accident, they could dump toxic materials into the ocean more “safely” than spilling them on land. The ocean will disperse the toxins and take them away from Japan. It’s just like flushing a toilet, and washing the hands.
In a crude form, that is TEPCO’s thinking, and that’s what they want to do. It’s just a matter of “seeking public understanding and cooperation,” as Japan Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told NHK News.
Let’s suppose that this is inevitable, no matter the outrage of fishermen, consumers and anybody who loves the ocean. To do this, TEPCO would promise to treat the water first by removing strontium and cesium. The Atomic Energy Society of Japan’s accident investigation board called for this in August, according to Japan Focus. “It would be realistic to dilute the contaminated water to levels found in the natural world and release it into the ocean after removing radioactive materials other than tritium,” the board said. But, as Japan Focus pointed out, TEPCO would have to get its “ALPS” filters working.
That’s a big if. On August 8, TEPCO turned off the ALPS filtering system, made by Toshiba. It was supposed to filter out strontium and other elements, after another system had removed cesium. But the operations only lasted a few months, due to corrosion. The government now plans to open bidding for a new facility to filter out radiation.
In other words, TEPCO currently has no way to treat hazardous nuclear waste in water going into storage tanks or the ocean.
That’s more than a minor detail. It’s like having hundreds of Olympic pools in your backyard, on the brink of overflowing, without anything to filter out all the gunk. Your pool water is turning green, and it’s getting worse every day. You’d like to just pull the plug and let the water out. But your neighbors won’t let you.
In this case, the neighbors are Fukushima fishermen, whose fishing grounds are being destroyed for generations. “We think that contaminated water management by your company has completely fallen apart,” Hiroshi Kishi, chairman of the Japan Fisheries Co-operative, told Tepco’s president Naomi Hirose during a meeting in Tokyo in late August.
A week later, as news emerged of further leaks, the union of Japan fisheries cooperatives said they are against the release of any irradiated water from the plant area, even if contamination levels are below supposedly legal limits for ocean dumping. They said this in a statement given to Japan’s Trade Minister.
They also told Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka what they think about his statement that discharging treated water could be a “necessary” part of managing growing volumes of water. Tanaka’s remark “is not something we fishermen can swallow by any measure,” the association said in the statement.
Environmentalists are understandably concerned that TEPCO’s dumping would also set a dangerous precedent for future nuclear or industrial disasters. If TEPCO can do it, what’s to stop China or anybody else from doing it. Look, TEPCO did it, and they got away with it. So can we.
It’s also not a comforting argument to say that “the Pacific is already contaminated from nuclear testing in the 1960s.” If that is indeed the case, then we should be moving swiftly to reduce radioactivity in the water, not add to it.
Nobody knows for sure how bad the contamination really is, and how bad it could get. Schneider, author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, says that while the Fukushima meltdowns released only 10 to 50 percent of Chernobyl’s radiation, the 400,000 tons of contaminated water stored on the Fukushima site contain more than 2.5 times the amount of radioactive cesium dispersed during the 1986 catastrophe in Ukraine. Imagine that in the pool in your backyard.
Schneider wrote that TEPCO reportedly admitted that only 60 of 350 storage tanks are equipped with volume gauges. “‘Inspection’ is done visually by a worker with a radiation detector. Meanwhile, the soil around the leaking tank delivered a dose per hour equivalent to the legal limit for nuclear workers for five years. No remote radiation measuring devices, no remote handling.”
So, with everybody seemingly against TEPCO, it’s not easy for them to use the Pacific as a toilet.
But is TEPCO’s thinking justified? Is ocean flushing the best of bad options?
It’s true, the Pacific Ocean is big. There’s a lot of water in it. Yes, TEPCO is storing enough radiated water to fill about 100 Olympic swimming pools or a single oil tanker. Relative to the Pacific Ocean, that’s a drop in the bucket, the argument goes. In other words, TEPCO’s supply of water isn’t much bigger in volume than the waters you could enjoy at the pools and beach areas of resorts in Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Rarotonga or wherever. So, though it would be terrible to contaminate those resorts, the rest of the Pacific would be safe for Japanese tourists.
That is the thinking, but that is not the point. It’s not the size of the water, it’s the contents. Strontium, cesium, plutonium — whatever is in that water, somehow isn’t going to just disappear because TEPCO says abracadabra. Even if TEPCO fixes the filters, it’s highly unlikely they’ll filter out everything 100 percent, every day, for 40 years. Radiation is going to leak out, and it’s going to go somewhere, possibly into your food.
Prime Minister Abe told Olympic delegates, and the world, that radiation is only impacting a 0.3 kilometer ring around the plant. That simply defies logic and common sense about the behavior of water.
Just for fun, let’s give a subatomic particle of strontium a nickname, say, Nemo. Nemo-chan is not going to just hang around in the harbor around Fukushima Dai-Ichi, waiting to show up in a laboratory, because Japan’s human leader says so. No, Nemo-chan’s going to ride the current, maybe south to fishing grounds off Tokyo Bay, maybe north to fishing grounds off Hokkaido. Maybe he’ll find a hidey-hole in the spectacular coral of Guam, Yap or Palau. Maybe he’ll catch the surf in Oahu, California or South America. Or, maybe he’ll meet up with other subatomic particles leftover from nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and other Pacific nations. Nemo-chan is going to go somewhere. He’s not going to disappear.
He’s going to find his way into nori seaweed, or plankton, or reef fish, or tuna sashimi or dolphin meat from the killing cove of Taiji. Even though he’s just a little guy, Nemo-chan is going to end up on your plate and in your stomach.
You want that? You ready to take that risk? Sure, it’s a probability, not a certainty. You might eat thousands of fishies for years, and never swallow Nemo. But somebody will. They’ll be sitting at a restaurant in Taiwan, or New Zealand or Alaska or Tahiti, and suddenly, unbeknownst to them, Nemo-chan will start splashing around in their tummy.
You want to eat seafood now? You really think it’s safe to dump all those little atomic bomb ingredients into the food supply?
Like it or not, the Pacific is not actually our toilet, it’s our refrigerator, as Marshall Islanders call it. All that blue water is keeping our food cool and fresh. “When we’re hungry, we take a fish from the fridge,” Joe de Brum, a wise elder on Likiep Atoll, once told me in the Marshall Islands. “We save the rest for tomorrow.”
Now, people in the Marshalls, and across the Pacific, are wondering if their fish are carrying sicknesses from Japan. This is the new reality. Every time you eat seafood, you are taking the risk of ingesting subatomic particles. Nobody can tell you how much you are consuming, and whether your food is safe or not. You are on your own.
And it doesn’t matter where you live in the Pacific. There’s no boundary, actually. The water carrying Nemo-chan doesn’t stop at the ugly tetrapods of industrial Japan, nor at the US border around Pearl Harbor. The water flows freely into the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Arctic, the Antarctic. There’s really no such thing as different oceans. Those names are a human construct. There’s actually only one body of water on earth. The Pacific flows into the Indian which goes into the Atlantic which mingles with the Amazon and the Great Lakes and evaporates into clouds which rain down on Detroit and Chicago and New York, adding to ponds and rivers which flow back into the oceans and on and on.
Japan is not just polluting its own waters, or even the Pacific. It’s contaminating the entire global ecosystem. To deny that fact is akin to believing the world is flat, not round.
And if you still don’t believe that Nemo-chan can travel long-distances to a fish market near you, think about all those stories about tsunami debris — a boat, a motorcycle — washing up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, or making a 5000-mile roundtrip floating on their back to Okinawa. Contaminated tsunami wreckage from Fukushima is out there, right now, floating around, looking for a new home. Tainted fish are out there swimming toward some baited hook or giant fishing net near you.
It doesn’t matter what tests say, or how TEPCO and the government or scientists and Greenpeace measure it or try to interpret the results to support their own agendas. We can assume that radioactive particles are entering our food chain right now, and every day since March 11, 2011. You eat at your own risk. Only you, and your instinct, can tell you whether to eat that food or not.
That is the thinking of those opposed to toxic dumping. But how to prove it?
Even many marine biologists, who are naturally inclined to rebel against polluting the ocean, say they lack evidence so far that Fukushima is harming ocean products beyond the Fukushima area.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) calls itself the world’s largest private, non-profit oceanographic research institution and a global leader in the study and exploration of the ocean. My college roommate used to work with them at their HQ in Cape Cod, Mass. Marine biologists are good folks, passionate about the ocean. They know that science is an imperfect science. Thus they are cautious about their findings and conclusions. They know that if they say that fish are too dangerous to eat, their words could influence millions of consumers and fishermen.
Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole, had spent years testing for radiation from Chernobyl and nuclear testing in the Pacific. Within months of the Fukushima accident, he put together a research party of 17 people from eight institutions to sample the waters around the nuclear plant. They spent 15 days at sea, and went right up to the edge of the exclusion zone around the reactors. “I stood on a ship two miles from the Fukushima reactors in June 2011 and as recently as May 2013, and it was safe to be there,” said Buesseler, who had radiation detectors with him.
For his first trip, the group left Yokohama on June 6, 2011 aboard the University of Hawaii research vessel Ka’imikai-o-Kanaloa. They went 600 kilometers offshore then sailed in a “saw-tooth pattern” as close as 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the damaged power plant, according to the Woods Hole website. “Along the way, the group conducted extensive water sampling from the surface to as deep as 1000 meters (3200 feet) and made more than 100 net tows to collect samples of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small fish. They also released two dozen drifters, instruments that move with ocean currents and report their position via satellite back to shore.”
“Our goal was to provide an independent assessment of what the Japanese were reporting and also to get further offshore to sample in places where we thought the currents would be carrying most of the radionuclides,” said Buesseler.
Their findings weren’t as alarming as some environmentalists might have expected. Buesseler’s team found cesium on the seafloor near the plant, in areas where the government bans fishing. Elsewhere, they found amounts of radiation well below US Environmental Protection Agency safety levels for drinking water. “We knew that the radionuclides had to be moving offshore very rapidly once they entered the water,” said Buesseler. “Once they did, they quickly dispersed across a wide area and began mixing into the deeper layers of the ocean.”
Layers of water? Does water have layers? It sounds interesting.
“Levels of any Fukushima contaminants in the ocean will be many thousands of times lower after they mix across the Pacific and arrive on the West Coast of North America some time in late 2013 or 2014,” he wrote on the Woods Hole website. “This is not to say that we should not be concerned about additional sources of radioactivity in the ocean above the natural sources, but at the levels expected even short distances from Japan, the Pacific will be safe for boating, swimming, etc.”
To describe how cesium gets diluted over time and distance in the ocean, he used an analogy of mixing cream into coffee. “At first, they are separate and distinguishable, but just as we start to stir, the cream forms long, narrow filaments or streaks in the water. The streaks became longer and narrower as they moved off shore, where diffusive processes began to homogenize and dilute the radionuclides. In the ocean, diffusion is helped along by ocean eddies, squirts, and jets that broaden, mix, and continue to dilute the cesium as it travels across the ocean. With distance and time, radionuclide concentrations become much lower in the ocean, something that our measurements confirm.”
It’s a clever analogy, even if it’s hard to prove without a doubt. But it also begs the question. If the coffee is mixing up the cream, it also means that, over time, it’s increasingly arduous to actually find the original powders of cream, which in the case of strontium or plutonium, have very long lives. These particles are still dangerous, whether we can find them or not in our tests. All of which means that tests can’t really prove anything conclusive one way or the other. Sure, they can indicate a trend, or suggest something might be happening in the ocean. But, if Nemo-chan has gone too deep or far for you to find, you can’t conclude, based on what you can’t find, that the “amount of radiation” isn’t harmful to humans.
So, based on the same results, we could also conclude that: since we suspect that subatomic particles are cruising beyond the reach of our nets and testing apparatus, we cannot draw accurate conclusions at this time, and should therefore advise authorities to stop dumping until further testing can be conducted to determine harmful effects on the ocean.
Why didn’t Buesseler’s team say this in their official reports? It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems, by common sense, that their first priority is to gain access to Fukushima’s waters. Their discoveries are more important than any spin that might be put on the data. It’s not like anybody can water-ski into Japan’s protected waters and publish their findings.
In addition, Buesseler’s team found that concentrations of cesium isotopes varied widely from station to station. This is because of the two main currents off the Fukushima coast. The large, fast Kuroshio current rushes along the coast of Japan from Okinawa northward before veering east near the Chiba Peninsula. At the same time, a smaller, nutrient-rich current known as the Oyashio flows from the north to the south and mixes with the Kuroshio offshore from Fukushima. “Having two strong currents in the region make this a very complex part of the ocean to study,” said Steven Jayne, who had studied the region in the past. “It also makes this a very productive part of the ocean and a very active fishery. With all that water moving around in complex ways, areas that are low one day could be high the next.”
Exactly. That’s the whole point. We can’t know for sure where the currents are taking the toxins. Subatomic particles aren’t moving in a straight predictable line, raising their hands and hollering “Here I am! Come get me!” Like in the Beatles song, Nemo-chan is singing and dancing around, and looking for a place to be under the sea in an Octopus’s Garden in the Shade.
What’s most telling is that the researchers found the highest levels of radiation not in samples taken within sight of the reactors — where PM Abe says everything is — but in samples taken further south along the coast of Ibaraki, a popular hangout for surfers from Tokyo. The “drifter tracks” later revealed that higher concentrations of toxins were being sucked into the Ibaraki coast by an eddy, a swirling mass of water that sometimes breaks off from strong currents like the Kuroshio. As a result, radiation levels in the eddy were as much as 1000 times higher than those before the start of the accident. How would you like to swim in that whirlpool?
Still, the scientists maintained that these levels were “well below levels of concern for humans and marine organisms.” Levels were approximately one-sixth the amounts of radiation that marine organisms receive from naturally occurring radionuclides such as potassium-40.
Even if that’s true, it misses a significant point. God, Mother Earth, Poseidon, the Shinto god Susanoo, or whoever you believe created the oceans, made potassium-40 as organic health food for sea creatures. Industrial-era humans are not supposed to be feeding them strontium and cesium. It’s common sense.
The scientists seem to understand this as well. “The radioactivity of the fish we caught and analyzed would not pose problems for human consumption,” said Fisher. “It does not mean all marine organisms caught in the region are perfectly safe to eat. That’s still an open question. There are still likely to be hot spots in sediments close to shore and closer to the power plant that may have resulted in very contaminated species in those areas. Further study and appropriate monitoring will help clarify this issue.”
Buesseler also seemed to realize back in 2011, before others, that radiation levels, which weren’t decreasing, seemed to indicate that tainted groundwater was seeping into the ocean, and that radionuclides on the sea floor were also remobilizing. “What this means for the marine environment of the Northwest Pacific over the long term is something that we need to keep our eyes on,” said Buesseler.
It turns out Buesseler was right. Two years later, TEPCO admitted that they’d been staining the ocean all along.
With the new evidence in mind, Buesseler has recently become increasingly concerned about higher levels of strontium-90 contained in groundwater and storage tanks that are leaking into the ocean. He told National Public Radio in the US that leaks aren’t as bad now as immediately after the March 2011 disasters, but he’s worried about Strontium releases and “localized health concerns”. Strontium gets into fish bones, and then into human systems, he said. While the ocean can dilute some isotopes, they can also concentrate in hotspots on the ocean floor, and get eaten by bottom-feeding critters and fish.
“Because strontium-90 mimics calcium, it is taken up by and concentrated in bones, where it remains for long periods of time (it has a half-life of 30 years and calcium/strontium is not replaced as quickly in the body as cesium),” he wrote on the Woods Hole site. “If leaks of strontium-90 continue, this radionuclide could become a larger concern in small fish such as sardines, which are often eaten whole. So far, however, evidence suggests that levels in fish of strontium-90 remains much lower than that of cesium-137.”
Buesseler and others have been most concerned about radiation in waters near Japan, since their research has been concentrated there. We’re also likely to see more reports of tainted fish elsewhere, as scientists increasingly gather data.
The Woods Hole “Tale of the Tuna” is already showing the long distance reach of Japan’s radioactivity.
As many in Japan know, Pacific blue-fin tuna are amazing migratory creatures. They spawn off Japan and the Philippines, and swim 10,000 kilometers across the Pacific to fatten up off California. The trip only takes them about four months — amazing. Years later, mature adults swim all the way back to spawn. They are like salmon, only they are swimming incredibly long distances. For this and other reasons, they are much-loved in Japan, and increasingly overfished. One 200-kilogram tuna recently fetched $1.7 million at a Tokyo auction. Imagine how much the very last blue-fin tuna might cost.
Tunas are also going to tell us much about the impact of radiation on sea-life.
In 2011, Nicholas Fisher of Stony Brook University and Daniel Madigan of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station set out to study tuna as “biological vectors” transporting radioactive isotopes across the Pacific. To find tuna originally from the Fukushima area, they acquired tissue samples from tuna caught by sport fishermen off San Diego in August 2011. They were amazed by what they saw in Fisher’s lab. “Every single bluefin we tested—15 out of 15—had both cesium-134 and cesium-137,” said Fisher. It was telltale evidence of contamination from Fukushima Dai-Ichi. “We were quite surprised to see that.”
Fisher said the radiation levels of 10 becquerels were “very, very low” — only three percent above radiation levels from naturally occurring potassium-40. They figured that the tuna would have lost two percent of their Fukushima area cesium per day during their swim, but they would have also picked up traces of cesium-137 leftover from atomic testing in the 1960s. They calculated that the tuna probably had 150 becquerels of cesium per kilogram when they left the Fukushima area — 15 times more than they had when captured off California.
They also sampled non-migratory yellowfin tuna who live full-time off California, to test if the currents, and not only the tuna, were carrying cesium. They found no cesium-134 in the yellowfin, and only background levels of cesium-137.
After Fisher and Madigan published their results in late May 2012, about 700 newspapers in the States, and 400 elsewhere, carried their story, the aptly-named Fisher said. “People were genuinely terrified of radioactivity,” he said, “and yet few people could even define it.” During TV appearances, he often told people they should worry more about mercury in fish, since the cesium levels in bluefin were less radioactive than eating a banana or getting a dental X-ray.
A year later, they caught more Pacific bluefin, finding about 50% less cesium than the previous year. They also hoped to learn more about how isotopes could help them trace the migratory routes of sharks, seabirds, loggerhead turtles and other creatures.
Buesseler, meanwhile, told ABC Australia radio that bluefin tuna caught off the coast of Chile had also been found with low levels of cesium from Fukushima.
All of this doesn’t bode well for the Pacific, even if levels so far are “below safe limits.”
Millions of people eat Pacific seafood, but only a handful are actually testing it for radiation.
Think of how ridiculous this sounds. A group of 17 researchers, spending 15 days in an ocean covering one-third of a planet of 7 billion people, can accurately determine how Japan’s radiation is affecting us? These research efforts, albeit noble and worthwhile, are a drop in the bucket. Their samples are a teeny-weeny portion of the ocean. It’s like asking my frog Kaeri-chan who’s going to win the Olympic long jump in 2020.
The Pacific is 4280 meters deep on average. (Mt. Fuji is 3776 meters high). Mariana’s Trench, near Japanese gangster hangouts in Guam and Saipan, reaches 10,911 meters down. (Mt. Everest is 8848 meters high.)
You mean to tell me that 17 sunburnt dudes scooping up water and sea life can accurately tell me what’s happening in a swimming pool that is 15,500 kilometers high, 19,800 kilometers wide, up to 10,911 meters deep, and containing an estimated 714 million cubic kilometers of salty water? Get real. What if those 17 scientists missed a spot? What if subatomic particles have figured out on their own where to hide down there? I mean what, what if TEPCO has secretly constructed a pipeline to the bottom of Mariana’s Trench, where Greenpeace can’t find it?
Seriously, journalists like me are just using “according to scientists” to fill a hole in a story to please editors and keep the freight moving. It has nothing to do with the reality of what is actually happening — right now — in the Pacific Ocean.
Let’s put it in layman’s terms: we don’t know shit — that’s a scientific fact.
Scientists and the rest of us really don’t know for sure what Fukushima is doing to the ocean. Yes, they should keep testing and publishing results, and we should pay attention to them. But come on. You going to let TEPCO use the Pacific as a toilet just because a few dozen scientists can’t yet determine “proof of human harm”?
Aren’t these same scientists telling us that fish are picking up subatomic particles from the 1960s? Wasn’t that a long time ago?
So, the notion that the ocean “is too big to harm” can be used both ways. If it’s “too big” to be damaged by tiny subatomic particles like Nemo-chan, it’s therefore “too big” for any group of humans to accurately assess TEPCO’s damage to it.
I’m not a marine biologist, but I’ll go out on a limb here to say this: dumping unknown quantities of strontium, plutonium, cesium and other deadly toxins for years and years is probably not a good thing for a species dependent on oceans. We perhaps should find a better solution.
And, as a cheerleader for TEPCO, I’m hoping they will.
THE CLEAN UP WILL TAKE 40 YEARS, AT A COST OF $11 BILLION:
That’s if things go according to plan. What at Fukushima Dai-Ichi has ever gone according to plan?
What if, heaven help us, the March 2011 explosions were just harbingers of much worse things to come?
Among others, Yoichi Funabashi, chair of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Accident, thinks that TEPCO got lucky on March 11:
– the tsunami hit on a weekday, which meant there was 10 times more workers on-site than on a weekend
– the wind blew out to sea until March 15, which helped the venting process and limited the amount of people exposed to radiation. (US sailors weren’t so fortunate.)
– rain did not fall, which limited the amount of radiation spread
– the explosion at Unit 3 actually sent water into the storage pool at Unit 4
– Naoto Kan was Prime Minister at the time, and he “understood what the government had to do at the most vital time of the crisis and what decision had to be made at that time.”
What if TEPCO doesn’t get lucky next time, and the reverse happens? Let’s say, for example, that a fire and explosion occurs at Reactor 4 on a weekend, with fewer workers standing by, and the wind blows radiation south toward 40 million people in the Kanto plain around Tokyo, and it comes down in rain or snow. This time Abe, who doesn’t have Kan’s background in technology, is Prime Minister. Oh, and just for extra impact, suppose this happens on, say, July 24, 2020, date of the Olympic opening ceremony?
These scenarios keep many Japanese up at night.
“Japan is clearly living in denial,” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who led Parliament’s independent investigation last year into the causes of the nuclear accident, told the New York Times: “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”
“This is just a tactic to avoid taking responsibility,” said Harutoshi Funabashi, a Hosei University sociologist who led a study of the Fukushima crisis by the Science Council of Japan, a group of about 2000 academics. “Admitting that no one can live near the plant for a generation would open the way for all sorts of probing questions and doubts.”
Among others, Funabashi says Japan should consider other options, including the Chernobyl tactic of entombing the reactors in concrete and declaring contaminated towns off limits for a generation.
But Japanese officials say that would fail to contain radiation, due to the groundwater under the plant, and they don’t want to give up on the hope of making eastern Fukushima live-able again.
As Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, an advisory body in the Cabinet Office, told the New York Times: “If we just buried the reactors, no one would want to see the face of another nuclear power plant for years.”
That would be the dawn of a new era for Japan, which has long relied on nuclear energy. But even proponents of wind, solar and other alternative forms of energy say that Japan’s paradigm shift will take time –years, even decades perhaps. Others want to cling to nuclear power, saying it’s more clean and cheap than imports of fossil fuels.
While this debate goes on, the clock is ticking. Per Peterson, who heads the nuclear engineering department at UC Berkeley, says that TEPCO and Japan’s regulators are wasting valuable time. By directing efforts toward the water problem, it’s becoming harder for TEPCO to remove fuel, as key instruments get corroded, Peterson told NPR. He says TEPCO should discharge into the ocean treated water that has been “cleaned to international standards”. But Japan isn’t doing that for “political, not technical reasons”, and this is delaying more important operations, such as removing damaged and dangerous fuel. He says Japan should be more pragmatic, and act more quickly to remove the fuel while they still can before saltwater corrosion takes over. If they don’t do it soon, it might take “millenia” to remove it, he says.
Yes, thousands of years.
As Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons once wrote in 100,000 years: “Sorry to have taken so long.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL25G5YCFEs)
And as the clock keeps ticking, Japanese citizens aren’t going to sit back and do nothing. Fukushima residents have already filed criminal complaints against 32 current and former executives at TEPCO, including current President Naomi Hirose, because they allegedly delayed taking measures to prevent toxic water leaks, according to national broadcaster NHK and Kyodo News.
So, the longer TEPCO puts off important decisions, the more dangerous the crisis becomes, for them and everybody else.
That’s why I’m cheering for TEPCO and the government to get rocking on this.
JAPAN’S GOVERNMENT IS STEPPING IN TO SOLVE THE CRISIS:
What an interesting new way of spinning an old story. This implies that Japan’s government and TEPCO are somehow separate independent entities. In fact, TEPCO and Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been dance partners from the start in Japan’s so-called “nuclear village”, where government officials, regulators, and company executives work together to rig the industry in their favor. Some call it “cooperation”, others call it “collusion”. Whatever it is, prosecutors, responding to a complaint by 14,000 people, ruled in September that 40 TEPCO executives, and former PM Kan, won’t be charged for their alleged mishandling of the March 11 disasters, since “nobody” could foresee such a disaster, and therefore, “nobody is responsible.”
As Aerosmith says, it’s the same old story, same old song and dance: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMw2_niIUN4)
Lately, as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s charm offensive, government leaders and regulators have been playing a more antagonistic role, blaming TEPCO alone for causing the Fukushima mess.
It seems like they’re all ganging up to bully TEPCO. Never mind that we, the LDP, encouraged TEPCO and other companies to build more than 50 nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone country with a long history of tsunamis. Never mind that we bureaucrats and regulators let TEPCO get away with shoddy behavior for years. Now, let’s all get together and kick TEPCO when they’re down.
On August 28, LDP deputy secretary-general Taro Kohno lambasted his government’s approach to dealing with TEPCO. “The METI way of thinking is crazy,” he said of the Ministry of Energy, Trade and Industry. “TEPCO doesn’t want to spend money, and TEPCO doesn’t want to use their personnel. The government has to step up and take responsibility for all of this, otherwise we won’t get on top of the situation.”
Fukushima Governor Sato Yuhei called for government intervention as “there is no risk management at TEPCO and they are no longer capable of dealing with this on its own.” Niigata Prefectural Governor Izumida Hirohiko, a former energy official, called for the liquidation of TEPCO “because right now short-term funding concerns are taking priority over resolving the problems.”
Fuketa Toyoshi, a Nuclear Regulatory Agency commissioner, complained that TEPCO “never observed” his agency’s written or verbal instructions.
NRA Chairman Tanaka described the plant as being like a “haunted house” where mishaps keep happening one after the other.
Abe, who took office last December, said he would set up a ministerial level commission to develop a solution to the water-management problem. Critics say this should have been done right from the start. Abe also promised to spend 47 billion yen on building an underground “Ice Wall” around the reactors to keep out groundwater. “Instead of the ad hoc approaches that have been taken in the past, we put together a basic policy today that will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water,” Abe said at a meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters in Tokyo, according to Bloomberg. “The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved.”
The government also plans to increase the capacity of Fukushima Dai-Ichi’s water-purification plant, which can currently handle about 750 tons a day, energy ministry official Tatsuya Shinkawa said. He said they hadn’t finalized plans for a new 15 billion yen facility to begin operations sometime next year. Not that they have time to waste.
Many people have praised the government’s initiatives. ‘‘The government stepping in is a fairly strong statement that they’re trying to restore confidence in the Japanese nuclear industry,’’ Gregory Jaczko, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulator Commission, told Bloomberg. ‘‘It’s a response I think to what is a failing confidence in TEPCO’s ability to manage this project successfully.”
What exactly does this mean: the government is going to take over crisis management from TEPCO? Does this mean that Shinzo Abe, a politician, not an expert in nuclear physics or waste disposal, is going to borrow Naoto Kan’s blue overalls, put on a Hazmat suit, reach into Reactor 4, lift up those spent nuclear fuel rods and carry them over his shoulder like a shrine at an O-mikoshi festival? No, of course not.
So, does it mean that his cabinet ministers are also going to help carry the O-mikoshi shrine on their shoulders? No, it doesn’t mean that either.
Businessweek reported that Japan’s government formed a team, headed by Trade Minister Motegi, to “oversee decommissioning and water contamination measures” at the plant. Members include Tanaka, the outspoken chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and vice ministers of related ministries.
If you were wearing a Hazmat suit, working yards away from smoldering reactors, would you want Abe, Motegi and Tanaka and others at Kasumigaseki in Tokyo telling you what to do? Are elected Members of Parliament, or, say, mid-level bureaucrats in the Energy Ministry, trained experts at bomb disposal and toxic water management? No, they are not.
While it seems the government is going to give TEPCO more cash to play with, it’s unclear how this will actually solve the crisis, if the same players, who have failed so far, are going to remain on the roster.
Temple University Professor and author Jeff Kingston wrote a scathing article in the Japan Times, mocking the idea that anything is going to change:
“Earlier this year, Abe’s environment ministry dealt with nuclear risks by deleting mention of them from its 2013 White Paper. While the 2012 White Paper termed radioactive contamination the nation’s ‘biggest environmental issue,’ a year later the risk just vanished.”
“Haruki Madarame, former chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), testified in February 2012 at a Diet inquiry that the ace scientists who were supposed to be regulating the nuclear industry sat around making up excuses why Japan didn’t need to adopt more stringent international safety standards.”
“Madarame also revealed that when power companies didn’t want to obey regulators’ demands, they just ignored them with impunity. Had Tepco installed the multiple-backup power systems his colleagues recommended back in the early 1990s, there might not have been an outage and blackout at the Fukushima plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 — and so, no meltdowns. Oops.”
“Tepco had its own team of crack scientists, but little good that did; they produced the June 2012 report that exonerated Tepco of all wrongdoing in the Fukushima debacle.”
Kingston took shots at Japan’s utilities who “admitted to falsifying maintenance and repair data for their reactors over an extended period of time. A lot of scientists had to sign off on those deliberate fabrications. The scientific establishment, whose assessments we are asked to now trust, mimicked the three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
He noted that the government are just shifting deck chairs on the Titanic (my analogy, not his) by assigning 460 people from the old watchdog agencies to the “new” regulator.
“A significant regulatory revamp in 2013 targets lax safety standards, poor industry oversight and widespread concerns about operating nuclear plants in quake-prone Japan. In September 2012, the discredited Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the NSC were disbanded and replaced by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) with a staff of 480 under the environment ministry. But the NRA is more a reorganization than a significant reform, as 460 of its staff were transferred from the NISA and NSC. Thus the same regulators who were working in favor of the nuclear village are still in charge.”
As Page and Plant put it, the Song Remains the Same. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlSHDRDNVM0)
Even if Abe’s government wanted to fire everybody on site at Fukushima Dai-Ichi, who would replace them?
Think about it. If you had a PhD in nuclear science and relevant job experience, you would already be working at TEPCO, other energy companies, or the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Or maybe you already quit your job to become a photographer, like a friend of mine. You wouldn’t be a backbencher in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or a swivel servant dozing at your desk in Kasumigaseki. You would have been concerned about Fukushima since Day One, and you would have been doing something about it.
Thus, critics such as Kingston are suspicious that the news about the government “stepping in” is disinformation. It creates the crackhead illusion, and a false sense of security, that the government has a supply of latent experts ready to come out of the closet in Ultra-man clothes and rescue Japan.
As Chris Cornell of Soundgarden sings in Spoonman: “come together with your hands. Save me. I’m together with your plan.”
Even if Abe and the LDP had a supply of pinch-hitters sitting on the bench, where have they been the past 900 days? What the hell have you been doing? I might be wrong, but I’ve seen no evidence in any report that Japan has an untapped pool of nuclear experts who aren’t already involved in fighting the Fukushima disaster.
And even if these pinch-hitters are actually Ichiro and Matsui, can they succeed where other major leaguers have failed? If it’s so easy to solve this crisis, then why haven’t Ichiro and Matsui been telling us — and the other players on TEPCO — how to hit these nasty curves and sliders? Perhaps due to media cartel control of information in Japan, I haven’t heard any expert in Japan or outside Japan offer a credible plan on how to successfully decommission a massive damaged nuclear plant, which has never been done before. Did they succeed at Chernobyl? Ask the families of the dead and injured. Go live near there.
The fact is, Fukushima is a journey to the Center of the Universe: nobody has ever been there. We have no idea where the Spaceship TEPCO is going, and I suspect that their pilots also don’t know. When it comes to conquering nuclear disasters, Abe, Aso and the other LDP boys have no more experience or expertise than you or I. (In fact, since you are not a professional liar connected to the LDP, you are probably more logical and clear-minded than anybody in the government.) But be honest with yourself: could you solve this crisis?
I certainly can’t, and this is why I’m cheering for TEPCO to go into Soundgarden’s SuperUnknown to solve it:
Yet hundreds of journalists (including myself) have been propagating the illusion that the government is “stepping in” to solve the crisis.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Abe’s initiative is going to change the power dynamic at Fukushima. What’s likely to happen? Given past experiences, it’s possible that TEPCO will pass the buck to the government, and the government will pass it back to TEPCO. Nothing will get done, which is sort of where we are now.
As the Asahi Shimbun said in an August 17 editorial: “It would be shameful if TEPCO, the industry ministry, which has been a champion of nuclear power generation, and the NRA, the nuclear regulator, try to shuffle off responsibility onto one another or make their responsibility vague, thereby causing delays in the implementation of necessary measures.”
Rikkyo University Professor DeWit has also pointed this out. “The multiplicity of actors (the Abe Cabinet, Tepco, METI, the NRA and others) leads to buck passing rather than responsible and decisive decision-making.” He says that Fukushima’s “overseers” know full well that the water management failure is a “potential catastrophe unfolding in plain sight,” and he casts serious doubt on whether anybody can solve it.
Perhaps the person who knows best says it best. Tatsuya Shinkawa, director of the Energy Ministry’s nuclear accident response office, says that though the government will “step up scrutiny”, TEPCO will remain in control. “This is TEPCO’s plant. It has all the technology, all the maps, all the technical data on Fukushima Daiichi. I think TEPCO can control the situation, under oversight from the government.”
Which leads to the next falsehood ….
FOREIGN EXPERTS CAN SOLVE THE CRISIS, IF JAPAN WOULD ONLY LET THEM:
After news broke out this summer about Fukushima’s water problems, Zengo Aizawa, TEPCO’s executive vice president of public relations, announced to reporters on August 21: “There is much experience in decommissioning reactors outside of Japan. We need that knowledge and support.”
Schneider, among others, has been long calling for more international involvement. “The fact is that the Fukushima Daiichi site represents challenges of unprecedented complexity. Maintaining the cooling of three molten reactor cores and five spent fuel pools in a disaster zone is a job of titanic proportions. That is why two weeks after the crisis first erupted I suggested the creation of an International Task Force Fukushima (ITFF) that would pull together the world’s experts in key areas of concern: nuclear physics and engineering, core cooling, water management, spent fuel and radioactive waste storage, building integrity and radiation protection,” he wrote at CNN.com. “Two and a half years on, the need for such a task force has only grown. Will the call for such a taskforce gain any traction? I have presented the basic concept to safety authorities of several countries, acting and former ambassadors, ministers and the European Commission. But while some officials have pointed to some ongoing limited bilateral assistance, so far, the main stumbling block appears to be the “pattern of denial” in Japan, a problem that has affected not only TEPCO, but apparently the Japanese government and the safety authorities as well.”
Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy advisor at the US Department of Energy and one of the world’s top spent fuel pools experts, has repeatedly said that sites such as Fukushima Dai-Ichi should be handled by the best-equipped, most competent people on the planet. (http://www.japanfocus.org/-Christopher-Hobson/3991#sthash.5SeLZOpL.dpuf)
Nature.com wrote this on their site:
“Few independent measurements of radiation exposure are available, and it is worryingly unclear how these leaks might affect human health, the environment and food safety. But the problems do not stop there. There are now almost 1,000 storage tanks holding the used cooling water, which, despite treatment at a purification system, contains tritium and other harmful radionuclides. The leaks make clear that this system is a laxly guarded time bomb.”
“It is no secret that pipes and storage tanks sealed with rubber seams have a habit of leaking. TEPCO’s reliance on routine patrols to detect any leaks has been careless, if not irresponsible. That the company, in response to the latest incidents, intends to refit the tanks with sensors and extra safety controls just underlines the makeshift way in which the storage facilities were set up in the first place.”
“Given the government’s past actions and information policies, one might doubt whether it would be any more competent than TEPCO at managing the situation and communicating it to the public.”
“Japan should start consulting international experts for help. The United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom — to name but a few — all have know-how in nuclear engineering, clean-up and radiation health that would serve Japan well. An international alliance on research and clean-up would help to restore shattered public trust in the usefulness and effectiveness of monitoring and crisis-mitigation.”
“Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government have promised to boost science; they should encourage and support researchers from around the world in collecting and sharing information. Chernobyl was a missed opportunity for post-accident research — in that sense at least, Fukushima could do much better.”
Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, and author of Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, is co-chair of the US-Japan Nuclear Working Group. (http://thebulletin.org/thinking-outside-fukushima) He writes for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by Manhattan Project Scientists, who’ve been with nuclear energy from the start.
He said that the Japanese government appointed a panel of 20 experts earlier this year to make recommendations on solving the Fukushima crisis. He says the panel suggested constructing a giant “Wall of Ice” around the plant to freeze the ground and stem the flow of contaminated water. “Not only is this idea highly risky (if the ice melts), it is very expensive (estimated to cost at least $400 million) and energy intensive (in an area where there are not reliable electricity supplies). This example illustrates why outside help is needed.”
It seems that Prime Minister Abe accepted this idea.
Ferguson said that the Japanese government, in early August, formed the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, which will involve more than 500 experts from 17 research organizations, utilities and nuclear companies, to be chaired by Hajimu Yamana, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University. “The concept is encouraging and is designed to inspire new thinking. Yet again, however, this might not be the fix that the public needs: Although the institute will reportedly be open to international participation, it is likely to be viewed by the Japanese public as too enmeshed in the Japanese domestic political environment to be valued as credible.”
Ferguson said international experts should also be called in. “A smaller group of international experts who could give informed, reasonably quick advice could help assure the Japanese public that the complications facing Fukushima Dai-ichi are not just Japan’s problems, but the world’s problems. An international group could seek a comprehensive, expedited solution. But perhaps most crucial is that the Japanese public should be involved in this process. Without public input, without buy-in, the future for nuclear power will be bleak.”
Schneider, Alvarez, Nature.com and Ferguson are making reasonable suggestions, and many expatriates in Japan would agree with them.
Many Japanese in powerful positions, however, have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to listen to reasonable foreign advice on a number of issues such as parental abduction and judicial reform, to name a few. Japan was slow to allow foreign assistance after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and 2011 disasters as well, though American troops based in Japan did make important contributions with rescue and recovery efforts, and large numbers of compassionate foreign volunteers did valuable work on the ground in the disaster zones. In the case of Fukushima, foreigners with good intentions should not overlook the role that Japanese pride and shame play in the crisis. Japanese feel great shame in allowing this to happen, and they want to take great pride in overcoming it.
Many Japanese also feel it’s hypocritical for Americans to criticize Japan over Fukushima, since they believe that Americans pressured Japan into accepting nuclear energy in the first place. They also blame General Electric for selling Japan reactors which, by design, have left thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods in a pool on a roof without a containment vessel to protect them. They believe that Americans who sincerely want to help Japan could begin by offering apologies and compensation for the harm allegedly caused by the General Electric design.
Even if Americans and other foreigners do all the right things, will Japanese working on site at Fukushima actually listen to them and heed their advice? Many workers at Fukushima have spoken about how they would risk their life for Yoshida, the plant manager who died recently. These workers, in the event of another accident, might have to risk their lives again, or even conduct suicide missions to put out a fire amid severe gamma rays. It’s simply a fact of life in Japan that Japanese underlings will make extraordinary sacrifices for their Japanese superiors, after years of loyalty and reciprocity on both sides. It’s unlikely that workers would feel this much personal devotion to foreign experts parachuting into Japan, no matter their knowledge and personal charm.
(listen to fan devotion to my friend Kenichi Asai and Japanese rock band Blankey Jet City at Fuji Rock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSvtI-6LEHg&list=RD02wuRvxgPkYCU)
The other problem is finding foreign experts who really can solve Japanese problems on a Japanese level in a Japanese way. I have no reason to believe that Japan, or any other country, has an abundance of people who know how to safely dispose of radiated water teeming with strontium and hundreds of briny atomic bombs soaking in saltwater. I haven’t seen anybody carrying around molten blobs of fuel like medicine balls in the local gym. I haven’t seen anybody practicing their damaged spent nuclear fuel rod lifting techniques. I haven’t seen any resume on LinkedIn, stating: demonstrable experience in overcoming Level-7 nuclear disaster in xenophobic, myopic, illogical Orwellian island nation.
But this doesn’t mean that foreigners should back off and let the Japanese take care of it. The Fukushima disaster threatens the entire global ecosystem. Radiation — in air, water, food, products — doesn’t respect Japan’s sovereign boundaries. Japan is de facto exporting radiation around the world. Many people in Taiwan, Korea, China, Canada and the US, among others, feel that Japan’s radiation threatens them. They aren’t going to wait for scientists to prove them right or wrong. They are losing trust and faith in Japan. This doesn’t help Japan’s export economy, based on its international reputation for magically creating quality products.
As DeWit wrote in Japan Focus, results from a South Korean poll over the three days ending August 29 indicated that 78 percent of Koreans believe that Fukushima radiation is already impacting their country, and 90 percent deem Japanese food products as unsafe. Chinese are also outraged at Japan over Fukushima, in addition to disputes over territory, war-time atrocities and other issues.
The Fukushima crisis also has a more direct impact on more than two million non-Japanese living in Japan, who tend to be suspicious of Japan’s state and media. Denied voting rights and equal treatment on many levels, they want more say in the Fukushima solution as well, and they aren’t afraid to voice their opinions on http://www.debito.org, run by scholar, author and Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou.
To understand the level of expat disdain for TEPCO, read some of the comments at JapanToday.com:
“They haven’t done what they’ve — TEPCO and the government(s) — needed to do which is be honest, diligent and to think “outside of the manual”. They haven’t approached the catastrophes with a true sense of urgency, dedication or care. They’ve focused more on getting the nuclear industry greased and up and running for their cronies than securing a safer present and future.”
“The reactors are NOT in cold shutdown, as per international definition – Japan simply moved the goal posts. The constant stream of cooling water over a hot mass of corium, somewhere under the damaged reactor pressure vessel is not stable. TEPCO have done some things to improve the situation, but stabilizing the melted-down reactors is not one of them; they have no access to them, no control mechanisms in place and most of the monitoring systems are damaged or destroyed and unable to be replaced.”
“We have to give them strict instructions”…. how about also a strict punishment if those instructions are not followed 100%. If there is no stick they will cut corners somewhere again. It’s disgusting how Shimizu and the other execs that ignored advice and cut corners over the years were given millions in payouts and amakudari jobs in “related companies” and rode off into the sunset without any responsibility assigned. In a culture like this what incentives does TEPCO management have to follow “strict instructions.”
In Japan Focus, Christopher Hobson and Andrew DeWit called TEPCO’s handling a “very grim comedy of errors, with the company lurching from one problem to the next. The accidents, pratfalls and post-obfuscation revelations just keep coming: a rat causing the whole plant to lose power; steam mysteriously appearing above the reactors; reports of questionable hiring and workplace practices, including contract workers not receiving sufficient safety gear; and, of course, the ongoing issues with large quantities of contaminated water leaking into the ground and ocean.”
Given the foreign attention to TEPCO’s every mistake, it’s counterproductive for Japan to ignore foreign involvement in battling the Fukushima disaster. The world has never faced an industrial crisis of this magnitude, and the world’s best shouldn’t be turned away simply because Japanese aren’t comfortable around gaijin. If NHK World can employ hundreds of foreigners to make TV shows nobody watches, and Japan’s national soccer team can follow a foreign coach, and NISSAN can rise with a foreign CEO, then Japan’s nuclear industry can hire the very best foreign talent available to save the world’s ecosystem for future generations.
But the process of assembling and deploying foreign expertise shouldn’t be used as an excuse for further foot-dragging in Japan. Ultimately, TEPCO has to solve this, with foreign assistance or not. They made their bed, and they better lie in it.
That’s why I’m cheering for TEPCO. They have to get their shit together, fast, before the sun sets on all of us.