Fukushima: the greatest danger comes now...

While the world media are paying little note, and most of the stateside public thinks of the Fukushima disaster in the past tense, in fact the ongoing effort to stabilize the stricken nuclear complex is now about to enter its most dangerous phase. Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) will this month begin removing fuel rod "assemblies" from reactor building No. 4—where they are vulnerable because the containment dome was shattered by a hydrogen explosion four days into the disaster, on March 15, 2011. They are to be transferred to an "undamaged facility" within the complex. There are 1,533 of these zirconium-plated "assemblies," and they are said to be in a chaotic "jumble." The transfer is to take about a year—if all goes well. (Japan Times, FukuLeaks, Nov. 14; EneNews, Nov. 6; Fukushima Update, Sept. 14)

Canadian scientist David Suzuki warns that if another major earthquake hits Japan before the transfer of the assemblies is complete, it could mean a nuclear disaster that would dwarf anything the world has yet seen. "[I]f in fact the fourth plant goes under in an earthquake and those rods are exposed, it's 'bye-bye Japan,' and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate," he said at a "Letting in the Light" symposium at the University of Alberta. The meeting was officially on water policy, but Suzuki emphasized potential consequences for the entire planet from a mishap in the assembly transfer process. "Fukushima is the most terrifying situation I can imagine," he said. "Three out of the four plants were destroyed in the earthquake and in the tsunami. The fourth one has been so badly damaged that the fear is, if there's another earthquake of a seven or above that, that building will go and then all hell breaks loose… And the probability of a seven or above earthquake in the next three years is over 95%." (Global Research Report, Nov. 7)

Some in Japan have been trying to raise the alarm—including at least one courageous politician (generally an oxymoron). Independent Diet member Taro Yamamoto was officially censured after he breached protocol by handing a letter to Emperor Akihito about the new Fukushima risks during a reception at the Imperial Palace, urging him to speak on the matter. He is to be barred from future events at the Palace for trying to "involve the emperor in politics." (BBC News, Nov. 8)

Following last year's alarming news about a jump in thyroid abnormalities in Japan since the Fukushima disaster began, come more such unsettling findings—which are practically failing to make English-language media at all. Asahi Shinbun reported Sept. 28 (only in Japanese, with a citation in English on Akihabara News, a tech blog) on a study indicating that up to 70% of youth from newborns to 18 years in the Kanto region (where Tokyo is located) have radioactive cesium in their urine. This is based on a sampling of 150, apparently picked at random. 

And worse news (or, alas, non-news) could be yet to come, even barring a mishap in the assembly transfer. Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who has analyzed thousands of samples of fish from the Fukushima area, says the initial leak from the complex had a high concentration of cesium isotopes—but the water flowing from the plant into the ocean now is likely to be much higher in strontium-90, posing a greater threat. "Cesium is like salt—it goes in and out of your body quickly," he told National Geographic. "Strontium gets into your bones." While he's still not too concerned that fish caught off the US coast will be affected, "strontium changes the equation for Japanese fisheries, as to when their fish will be safe to eat." (Via EneNews, Aug. 7)

And local fleets have resumed fishing off Fukushima. Twenty-one trawlers brought in five tons of seafood, including octopus and squid, from a trial operation; if they're confirmed safe in tests, they will be shipped to markets across Japan, Common Dreams reported Sept. 27, citing Japanese media. We haven't heard any reports on the results of those tests, if they are separate from those being conducted by Woods Hole. Another example of the terrifying paucity and vagueness of reportage on this ongoing disaster.

And yet another. Daily Beast on Sept 26 said that it had obtained unpublished data on birth defects in Japan, which showed a jump in prevalence rates for 2011. The "2011 Report on Congenital Malformations" found the prevalence of malformed infants to be at 2.43%, the highest figure since 1999 (1.48%). It is true that the figure for 2010, the year before the Fukushima disaster began, was 2.31%, indicating only a small increase between that year and 2011. Adding to the ambiguity is the fact that Yokohama City University, which conducted the study, won't release regional figures—to the protest of many experts, who are calling on authorities to measure the health impact of Japan's nuclear problems, including birth defects, "with not just annual data but monthly data and broken down by prefecture."

An online petition is calling for transparent public oversight of the clean-up at Fukushima, and also demanding that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally retract his statements to the International Olympic Committee: "The [Fukushima] situation is under control... The effects of the [radioactive] discharges are completely blocked within the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's harbor." This was part of his successful bid to win the 2020 Olympics for Japan—but the statement was contradicted by a TEPCO senior manager just days later. At a public meeting in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Kazuhiko Yamashita, TEPCO's top technology executive, reportedly told local lawmakers that he "does not believe [TEPCO] is able to control" the situation. TEPCO diligently issued a press release within hours attempting to downplay Yamashita's statement, saying he was only talking about unexpected leaks at some of the hundreds of water tanks in the complex, not the general situation. (Japan Subculture Research Center, Sept. 27; Daily Beast, Sept. 26; Japan Times, Sept. 13)

Another petition, No Olympics, is calling for Japan to abandon the 2020 Olympics altogether, and notes more such dissembling statements. Japan Olympic Committee chair Tsunekazu Takeda, responding to press questions on the issue, said: "Not one person in Tokyo has been affected by this issue. Tokyo and Fukushima are almost 250 kilometers apart. We are quite remote from Fukushima." Rather embarrassing in light of the cesium urine findings.

US anti-nuclear spokesman Harvey Wasserman on EcoWatch is calling not only for public intervention but a UN-directed international take-over the Fukushima clean-up—a demand that has won nearly 40,000 signatures at NukeFree.org.

Meanwhile, pro-nuclear propagandists continue their hubristic crowing about how the Fukushima disaster actually proves nuclear power is safe! John Watson in Australia's The Age offers this typically denialist headline: "Japan's radiation disaster toll: none dead, none sick." He cites a World Health Organization study predicting there would be "no noticeable increases in cancer rates for the overall population" of Japan due to Fukushima. A third of emergency workers were found to be at some increased risk, he admits. 

We've noted before this perverse eagerness to gamble with the health of future generations on the basis of technocratic conjecture. A little corrective perspective is provided by Norway's environmentalist Bellona foundation, which says the WHO report has been "greeted with broad skepticism." Bellona portrays connivance between WHO and Japanese authorities to cook the books:

The WHO report says that it has found no data on any cancers among the population in the area, but humanitarian organizations have offered contradictory evidence to those claims, saying at least three cases of thyroid cancer have been linked to the disaster.

Additionally, it was earlier reported that in 2011, Japan's former Nuclear Safety Commission—which has been supplanted by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority—denied public access to the results of thyroid check-ups for more than 1,000 Fukushima children that were exposed to radiation.

And Watson's touting of the "overall population" projections obscures the fact that "[i]n the most contaminated area, the WHO estimated that there was a 70 percent higher risk of females exposed as infants developing thyroid cancer over their lifetime." Apparently they don't count in the pro-nuclear calculus. 

The comfortably cooked WHO projections are also touted in a sneering piece on the British tech website The Register with the utterly obnoxious headline "Fukushima SCARE-mongers: It's YOUR FAULT Japan DUMPED CO2 targets." This is a reference to the fact that at the Warsaw climate summit now underway, Japan announced it is dropping its former goal, based on the Kyoto Protocol, to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25% over 1990 levels by 2020. The new goal is an increase of 3%—with Japan's leaders blaming public backlash against nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima! (The Verge, PRI, Nov. 15) This despite the fact that Japan has repudiated calls from its own special commission convened after the disaster to phase out nuclear power. And despite the fact that much greenhouse emissions come from automotive transport, and cars don't run on nuclear power. Simple illogic that The Register's Lewis Page happily lets Japan's leaders get away with. Displaying his own illogic, he gloats:

If the Fukushima crisis has proved one thing, it's that nuclear power is safe. Everything that could possibly go wrong did, the accident was agreed to be at the top of the international scale for seriousness, and yet in decades to come scientists will not be able to attribute any deaths to radiation released from the Daiichi plant.

As we've stated before in response to such nonsense: If tsunamis, earthquakes and human error are inevitable, this is an argument against nuclear power, not for it. And the juxtaposing of nuclear power and fossil fuels as an either/or is a false dilemma. Ultimately, the way out of the crisis is abandoning an economic system predicated on the inexorably unsustainable foundation of endless growth.

This point is made in an Indigenous Elders Statement on Fukushima issued by Sioux, Dakota and Miccosukee elders last month, which states: "This self destructive path has led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Gulf oil spill, tar sands devastation, pipeline failures, impacts of carbon dioxide emissions and the destruction of ground water through hydraulic fracking, just to name a few... [T]hese activities...continue to cause the deterioration and destruction of sacred places and sacred waters that are vital for Life."

Not that world leaders are in the habit of listening to indigenous elders. Just as the Elders' statement was being issued, Shinzo Abe was on a trip to Turkey, where Kyodo news agency reported he met with Prime Minister Erdogan to "discuss closer bilateral economic cooperation, including on exports of Japanese nuclear reactors."

Do not let the captains of this death-dealing industry get away with perversely turning the disaster they have foisted upon the world into a propaganda coup. The illusions and general lack of awareness about nuclear power even in the wake of Fukushima must be vigorously combated.




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Fukushima alarmism aids pro-nuke lobby —again

Fukushima alarmism (in the negative sense of the word: scare-mongering rather than raising an alarm responsibly) unfortunately does exist. We've pointed out before how Internet rumors about the disaster merely play into the hands of pro-nuclear propagandists who would portray all anti-nuclear forces as "alarmists." The latest bogus claims are being peddled under the hed: "28 Signs That The West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima." They are defly called out by the Southern Fried Science blog.

Indeed, concerns about Fukushima radiation in tuna caught off California and in milk from West Coast dairies appear to be legitimate. But the more bogus claims are raised, the more likely that the legitimate ones will be dismissed. A word to the wise.

Correction on greenhouse emission sources

One of my pro-nuclear Facebook critics has already pointed out (accurately) that "most"* greenhouse emissions do not come from automotive transport. According to EPA figures, 28% comes from transportation, compared to 33% from electricity generation (based on 2011 figures for the US). Automotive transport accounts for most oil use. Natural Resources Defense Council, citing Energy Department statistics, informs us: "Of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed each day, 40 percent is used by passenger vehicles, 24 percent by industry, 12 percent by commercial and freight trucks, 7 percent by aircraft, and 6 percent in residential and commercial buildings." But of course greenhouse emissions come from coal and natural gas as well, which are more widely used in the power sector. In any event, the power and transport sectors each account for about a third of emissions—so nuclear power isn't bailing us out of the climate crisis, and Shinzo Abe's scapegoating of anti-nuclear sentiment for dropping the Kyoto Protocol commitments is hardly less disingenuous.

* Changed to "much" in original text.

Nuclear power and greenhouse emissions: another view

Belgium Friends of the Earth has a page on the question, which, citing a University of Illinois study, puts the share of greenhouse emissions from electricity production at only 9%. I conjecture that the considerably lower figure than that offered by the EPA is due to including carbon released through deforestation in the total. The factsheet shoots down what it calls "Myth 1: the generation of electricity by nuclear fission does not lead to greenhouse gas emissions." In fact:

It is true that the actual fission process whereby electricity is generated does not release greenhouse gases. However, in various stages of the nuclear process (e.g. mining, uranium enrichment, building and decommissioning of power plants, processing and storing radioactive waste) huge amounts of energy are needed, much more than for less complex forms of electricity production. Most of this energy comes in the form of fossil fuels, and therefore nuclear power indirectly generates a relatively high amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

It places the total emissions per kilowatt-hour generated for nuclear at 35 grams—compared to 20 grams for wind power and 1,000 for coal. A page on the question from NuclearInfo.net, maintained by some seemingly pro-industry scientists at the University of Melbourne, in contrast, puts the nuclear figure at 3.3 grams—which it calls lower than the figure for wind, or hydro or even solar.

Of course the game is to keep us arguing over numbers while the systemic roots of the crisis are overlooked as a matter of unspoken consensus.

NY Times pro-nuclear propaganda deconstructed

Charles Komanoff writing on the Carbon Tax Center website calls to task Eduardo Porter of the New York Times, who in a Nov. 20 column called nuclear power the "Unavoidable Answer for the Problem of Climate Change." Komanoff doesn't even address the health and environmental impacts of nuclear power, but goes right for the economic jugular: "The column fails the single most critical precept in nuclear economics: don’t confuse promise with performance." He notes a June 11 story from the Times' own Matt Wald on the Vogtle nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia—one of two new reactor projects underway in the US. Wald summarized the spiralling cost escalations at the predecessor projects 30 years ago, Vogtie 1 and 2, and noted that the new project, Vogtle 3 and 4, has instituted supposed cost-control measures. But they haven't been working out too well. Wrote Wald:

[T]he company that was supposed to be making prefabricated parts like clockwork, from a factory in Lake Charles, La., was shipping them with some parts missing or without required paperwork. Southern [Company, the reactor owner] built a cavernous "module assembly building," 120 feet high and 300 feet long, where the parts were supposed to be welded together, largely by robots, into segments weighing thousands of tons. But shipments stopped last August and are still arriving too slowly.

"[I]t remained to be seen," the Georgia state construction monitor told Wald, "whether modular construction would actually save time." Not very promising. Komanoff then notes Times reportage on the ambitious Olkiluoto nuclear complex underway in Finland:
"The massive power plant under construction on muddy terrain on this Finnish island was supposed to be the showpiece of a nuclear renaissance," the Times reported back in 2009. "The most powerful reactor ever built, its modular design was supposed to make it faster and cheaper to build. And it was supposed to be safer, too."
Instead, the Times reported then, "after four years of construction and thousands of recorded defects and deficiencies, the price tag...has climbed at least 50 percent.” That was just the beginning. By December 2012, three-and-a-half years after the Times article appeared, the cost of the Olkiluoto reactor had doubled again, according to Wikipedia, to 8.5 billion euro — nearly triple the original €3 billion delivery price. So calamitous is the cost spiral that the Finnish electric utility owner and the French reactor supplier are suing each other.
 
Why bring up Vogtle and Olkiluoto? Because they exemplify the real-world experience that Porter ignored. (They also constitute a majority of reactor construction now underway in the Western economies.) Instead, Porter hung his column on — you guessed it — paper cost estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the U.K. government.
Talk about not being serious about getting better. The nuclear boosters seem determined to repeat the disastrous experience of the last thurst of the industry's expansion, in the 1970s, when chronic cost and time overruns did more than the now nearly forgotten wave of citizen protests to humble ultra-ambitious plans for hundreds of new reactors.

By the way, the other US nuclear project currently underway is the addition of two reactors at the Virgil Summer plant in South Carolina. But in the past year, utilities have permanently shut down four others and plan to take a fifth out of service next year, Vermont Yankee. (CNN, Nov. 6) There's also the new reactor planned for the Watts Barr plant in Tennessee, which the TVA is struggling to finish after work halted in 1988, according to Wikipedia. The Dallas Morning News reported Nov. 8 that plans to build new reactors at the Comanche Peak plant in Texas are on hold because the contractor on the project, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has decided to focus on getting its nuclear reactors in Japan back in operation.


Nuclear renewal? Don't bet the rent. 

Fire shuts Arkansas nuclear plant

A transformer caught fire at Entergy Corp's Arkansas Nuclear One plant on Dec. 9, forcing utility officials to take one of two units at the facility offline. The London Volunteer Fire Department said the blaze was under control by midmorning, but it is not known when the idled unit will be restarted. (AP, Dec. 9)

Fukushima alarmism misses the point —again

Over the new year, unexplained plumes of steam began rising from Fukushima's unit No. 3, leading to a wave of speculation (e.g. in The Ecologist) that a new meltdown was underway. The rumors were dismissed by the Fukushima Diary blog, which has been intimately following the still-unfolding disaster. Fukushima Diary said the steam was probably "evaporated coolant water leaking out of primary containment vessel." Hardly comforting, but not a meltdown.

The professional paranoids at Global Research are now pedalling the rumor that the US Department of Health and Human Services is "stockpiling iodine in preparation for Fukushima meltdown"—based on a highly speculative account on InfoWars (!), which has as its sole source a solicitation posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the DHHS asks contractors to supply “potassium iodide tablet, 65mg, unit dose package of 20s; 700,000 packages (of 20s)” by Feb. 1. Wouldn't it be nice if a real journalist would call DHHS and ask them what it is all about?

On the other side of the coin, the don't-worry-be-happy crowd hasn't skipped a beat. EX-SKF, another rational Japanese blog closely monitoring the disaster, reports that right-wing militarist Toshio Tamogami, now running for governor of Tokyo, has gone on record saying (with egregious ignorance as to how radiation actually works):

It is said it's dangerous, but in reality, radiation in Fukushima is not that dangerous. Has a crow flying over the [Fukushima] nuclear plant dropped from the sky? Have you seen fish floating [and dead] in the ocean near the plant? It is gradually being proven that radiation is not dangerous.

In an unfortunately rare case of real, aggressive and critical yet responsible reportage of the disaster, Public Radio International ran a piece Jan. 1 on how a private contractor has been recuiting homeless men from commuter stations to work in the Fukushima clean-up effort. The men are not working under any formal contract, and are vulnerable to having their wages skimmed and being charged exorbitant sums by their overseers for food, housing, cigarettes and so on. Although the PRI report didn't emphasize it, we have noted the obvious threat that these workers will be improperly exposed to radiation in the atmopshere of lax oversight...

There is plenty to be outraged about here. Please let us reserve our outrage for the appropriate targets, and avoid discrediting the anti-nuclear effort as wacky "alarmism"...

Fukushima thyroid cancers jump —again

From Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 8:

The number of young people in Fukushima Prefecture who have been diagnosed with definitive or suspected thyroid gland cancer, which is often associated with radiation exposure, has risen to 75, prefectural officials said Feb. 7.

That is 16 more than in November, when figures were last released. The number of definitive cases rose by seven, from 26.

The 75 are among 254,000 individuals for whom results of thyroid gland tests have been made available to date.

Only residents of Fukushima Prefecture who were aged 18 or under at the time of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster are eligible to receive the thyroid gland tests administered by the prefectural government.

The latest figures include the results from 28,000 more individuals compared to the numbers released in November.

Medical and government officials in Fukushima say they do not believe the cases of thyroid gland cancer diagnosed or suspected in the 75 young people in the prefecture are linked to the 2011 nuclear accident.

Hokuto Hoshi, who chairs a panel that discusses matters related to the prefectural survey on the health impact from radiation on Fukushima’s residents, referred to the fact that cases of thyroid gland cancer in children who lived near Chernobyl only began to increase four to five years after the 1986 nuclear accident.

So once again... We are not told how stastically divergent this is from the norm, nor offered an alternative explanation... merely assured that it is unrelated to the nuclear disaster. And again, all we can do is echo Helen Caldicott's call for an international investigation into these findings. Until then, we are not going to join the rush to exculpate the Fukushima disaster.

Fukushima cesium groundwater level breaks new record

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Feb. 13 that 130,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per liter were detected in groundwater sampled that day from an observation well at its the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The level was the highest for radioactive cesium found in well water at the plant. (Jiji Press)

Fukushima workers rally against Tepco

Workers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant rallied March 14 outside the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co., complaining they are being forced to work for meager pay in dangerous conditions. Several thousand employees at the plant are employed in a daily scramble to keep the site as safe as possible, making myriad repairs and building tanks for the vast amounts of water contaminated after being used to cool reactors. Demonstrators also rallied outside the office of Maeda Corp., one of the contractors hired to run cleanup operations at the plant and in surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, authorities moved closer to restarting a pair of reactors at the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, with the Nuclear Regulation Authority saying it would conduct safety checks. Local officials are still wary of the plan. (Japan Times)
 

UN claims on Fukushima questioned

Criticisms of the UN's study of Fukushima's impacts were dismissed by nuclear boosters. Now we have more details. From the GreenWorld blog, June 10:

Today, physicians from 19 affiliates of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) published a critical analysis of the Fukushima report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). The efforts made by UNSCEAR committee members to evaluate the extensive and complex data concerning the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe are appreciated. The report shows that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was not a singular event, but is an ongoing catastrophe; that it is not confined to Fukushima Prefecture, but affects people all over Japan and beyond; and that it constitutes the largest single radioactive contamination of the ocean ever recorded.

Based on the collective lifetime doses of the Japanese population, which are presented in the report, it must be expected that about 1,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer and between 4,300 and 16,800 other excess cancer cases will occur in Japan due to Fukushima radioactive fallout. It must be said, however, that predictions can only be as good as the presumptions and data they are based on. UNSCEAR attempts to downplay the true extent of the catastrophe. Its conclusions must be viewed as systematic underestimations...

Through December 31st, 2013, 33 children had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and 41 more have tumor-suspect biopsies, indicating possible malignancies. Although it is not possible to determine whether a single case is caused by radiation, as cancers do not carry a “label of origin,” the number of cases found so far is unexpectedly high. Japanese cancer statistics suggest an incidence of less than 1 case of thyroid cancer in this population per year. Moreover, the number of cases is likely to increase, as results are only available for about 70% of the affected pediatric population so far and hundreds of children with suspicious examination results have yet to be reassessed..

[I]t should be emphasized that the events in Fukushima were not the worst-case scenario. If the wind had blown in a different direction, millions of people living in metropolitan areas of Eastern Japan could have been affected by nuclear fallout, which luckily rained down on the Pacific Ocean instead.

NRC chief: "no technology exists" to stop Fukushima leaks

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief William Magwood is arriving in Japan to review efforts to stop the spreading of radioactive water at the Fukushima plant—and the more longterm problem of how to handle the melted fuel. He admitted to a reporter from Japan's NHK World: "The reality is, no technology exists anywhere to solve this problem." (ENENews, July 3)

Despite what is implied by the misleading term "cold shutdown," it seems that the water they have to keep pumping into the reactors to maintain the "cold shutdown" is exactly that which is leaking interminably. (Japan Times, June 28) Nothing is actually under control.

Fukushima farmer sues TEPCO over wife's suicide

From Reuters via Japan Times, July 10:

The Fukushima District Court is due to rule next month on a claim that Tokyo Electric Power Co. is responsible for a woman's suicide, in a landmark case that could force the utility to publicly admit culpability for deaths related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In July 2011, nearly four months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a series of catastrophic failures at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Hamako Watanabe returned to her still-radioactive hilltop home, doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire.

She left no suicide note but her husband, Mikio, says plant operator Tepco is directly responsible.

"If that accident hadn’t happened, we would have lived a normal, peaceful life" on their family farm some 50 km from the plant, said Watanabe, now 64, who discovered her charred body.