Massive radioactive leaks continue from the badly damaged structures as the dangerous operation of moving spent fuel rods begins, and still greater challenges of decommissioning the meltdown reactors yet to come. International help is urgently needed to stem the ongoing release of deadly radioactive isotopes and remediate the badly contaminated environment.
by Dr Mae Wan Ho
TEPCO’s risky operation goes ahead amid calls for international oversight
In a desperate attempt to cope with the continuing crisis since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) began the risky and complex operation of moving more than 1 300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged storage pool towards the end of November 2013  amid stern warnings that it should not tackle the task unaided. The Unit 4 pool is precariously perched on top of a tilting, sinking building that could come crashing down in the next earthquake or all by itself . Harvey Wasserman, American journalist, author, democracy activist, and advocate for renewable energy, delivered a petition with more than 150000 signatures to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calling for the world to take charge of the operation , in vain. Independent researchers have pointed to a litany of possible mishaps. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself has sought foreign assistance , and a draft proposal by a panel of Japan’s ruling party said that TEPCO should not be in charge of the Fukushima shutdown . In the end, the Japanese government passed a State Secrets Act to impose a news embargo on reports of the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant .
Behind the news embargo, we are told that a team of 36 is working 6 shifts around the clock, and will take until the end of 2014 to complete the removal of the spent fuel from the damaged pool, provided no glitches happen . That is just the start. Further fuel rod assemblies are held in similar pools in buildings for reactors 1, 2 and 3. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 were running when the tsunami and earthquake struck and all suffered meltdown. The radiation in the buildings housing the reactors is so intense that access remains limited. More challenging yet is to dig out the molten cores in the reactors, some of which have already burnt through the primary containment and fused with the cladding steel and concrete. That will not start until 2020. It may take 40 years to fully decommission the Fukushima plant.
Akira Tokuhiro, a University of Idaho professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, is among those calling for a larger international role at Fukushima. Even for the US nuclear industry, such a cleanup and decommissioning would be a great challenge; all the more so for TEPCO . The lack of experts is worse at the regulatory level: there are none. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has no one devoted to decommissioning, said spokesman Juntao Yamada, though it has experts dealing with the ongoing removal of fuel rods from the Unit 4 pool.
Another voice for international oversight is Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head of a Diet panel that investigated the Fukushima disaster . He said the global nuclear power industry needs to share cross-border information to prevent accidents, as in international air traffic control. The transparency from international oversight is necessary to prevent the collusion that contributed to the Fukushima disaster. Kurokawa’s report, released in July 2012, was scathing. It called the disaster man-made and cited “collusion” between TEPCO and its previous regulator, The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, to avoid implementing new safety rules.
Meanwhile, a thousand tons of heavily contaminated water pours through the Fukushima site daily (see Box 1), further undermining the unstable structures, including the damaged building supporting the Unit 4 fuel pool. Also on site are thousands of storage tanks, many of them makeshift, containing hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive water, and they are leaking.
Groundwater carries contamination to ocean and throughout the site
Documents obtained by the Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s international daily news) reveal that US nuclear experts had urged TEPCO to install frozen soil barriers as early as April 2011 to try and prevent groundwater contamination . But TEPCO officials sent a memo to government officials to delay the announcement so as to protect the company’s finances and investors’ confidence. Banri Kaieda, then head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees the promotion of nuclear power, agreed to hold off the announcement, with TEPCO Executive Vice President Sakae Muto reportedly promising to quietly proceed with the ice wall project, which he has not done. TEPCO denies that Muto made such an agreement.
Two and a half years later, an estimated 800 to 1000 tons of groundwater flow down through the plant each day, with 300 tons of contaminated water entering the ocean. In addition, 400 tonnes of contaminated water a day seep into the damaged reactor buildings. Workers are unable to identify where the water is entering the buildings or how to stop the seepages. The radiation levels remain so high that they cannot get close enough to do anything.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has promised $470 million of taxpayers’ money to begin building the ice wall, as international pressure mounts in advance of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games recently awarded to Tokyo. But the ice wall could lead to release of heavy radioactive nuclides now bound in the soil and worsen the contamination of ground water and the Pacific Ocean .
Prof Jota Kanda at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology argues that government statistics don’t add up. His research showed that 3 billion Bq (Becquerel, one disintegration per second) of caesium (Cs-137 and Cs-134) were flowing into the port at Fukushima Daiichi every day, much higher than can be accounted for by just contaminated ground water . He was proven right, as highly radioactive water was leaking from the storage tanks (see main text).
Spent fuel assemblies a major hazard in exposed and damaged pools
Apart from those being moved from the Unit 4 pool, more than 6000 spent fuel assemblies are still sitting in a common pool just 50 metres from Unit 4, some containing plutonium. The pool is not contained, leaving it vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, earthquake, or other mishap .
In fact, more than 11000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site, amounting to 85 times as much lethal caesium as was released at Chernobyl, according to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez.
Spent fuel must be kept under water, as it is clad in zirconium alloy that will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill a person nearby in a matter of minutes. A fire could force all personnel to flee and make electronic machinery stop working. A new fuel fire at Unit 4 would spew out a continuous stream of lethal radiation poisons for centuries.
Arnie Gundersen, nuclear engineer for forty years, who once manufactured fuel rods, points out that the fuel rods in Unit 4 core are bent, damaged and brittle to the point of crumbling. Cameras have revealed worrying quantities of debris in the already wrecked fuel pool. The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the unit 4 pool are “unique and daunting,” says Gundersen, and must be done to “100% perfection”.
Radioactive water leaking from storage tanks and emergency dumping
As of mid-September, TEPCO was storing 435000 tons of radioactive water in aboveground tanks as well as in basements of the reactor buildings, 137000 more tons than were stored the previous year , and rising. But these storage tanks are leaking.
On 30 August 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced an “emergency” at the unstable Fukushima Nuclear Plant, and thousands of tons of highly radioactive material were dumped into the Pacific Ocean. This followed an announcement ten days earlier that a “recent incident” had resulted in 300 tonnes of “heavily contaminated water” being leaked from a storage tank into the ocean every day. On 26 August, the government took charge of running the emergency measures; but this resulted in the fresh emergency of thousands of tonnes of heavily radioactive material being dumped into the Pacific. A public statement called for the immediate evacuation of residents within a 50 mile radius of the facility, claiming that the leaked material has caused the ocean to “boil” for several hundred yards offshore from the crippled plant.
In early September, radiation readings shot up by more than 20% to their highest levels . Radiation hotspots have spread to three holding areas for hundreds of the tanks storing water contaminated by being flushed over three reactors that melted down in March 2011. Readings just above the ground near a set of tanks showed radiation as high as 2200 mSv (millisievert) on 3 September 2013 (a day before a 6.9 magnitude earthquake off southern Japan); the previous high in areas holding the tanks was 1800 mSv recorded 3 days earlier. Both levels would kill an unprotected person within hours. (See Box 2 for the different units of radioactivity.)
Measures of radioactivity
Radioactivity is measured directly as becquerel (Bq), 1Bq = 1 disintegration per second. It is also measured as absorbed dose, Gray (Gy), 1 Gy = 1 J(joule) of energy per kg (kilogram); the sievert (Sv) is the equivalent radiation dose, effective dose or committed dose, representing the biological effects of ionizing radiation, and involves further calculations on the absorbed dose based on different weighting factors for different radiation. For x-rays, gamma rays, beta rays and muons, the weighting factor is 1, hence 1Gy=1 Sv. 1 sievert carried a 5.5 % chance of eventually developing cancer. Doses greater than 1 sievert received over a short period of time are likely to cause radiation poisoning, possibly leading to death within weeks. Consequently, the usual measure is in millisievert (mSv), a thousandth of a sievert.
TEPCO said one of the tanks was leaking the previous month. Another small leak was found later and the rising number of areas with concentrated radiation is raising concerns of further leaks. The government has ordered TEPCO to transfer all the water held in about 310 weaker bolted tanks to more reliable wielded tanks that take longer to build, although an NRA official has said some of the wielded tanks too might not be safe, as they are lined up on the ground rather than on a concrete foundation.
On 24 October 2013, TEPCO announced it had detected radioactive strontium and other beta- emitting substances measuring 140000 Bq/L(litre) in water sampled in one of the facility drainage ditches  (see Figure 1). It was the highest radiation level recorded since it began checking water in drainage ditches in August. The legal limit for strontium emission is 30 Bq/L. The ditch where the high radiation level was detected is near the tank that was discovered in August to have leaked ~300 tons of radioactive water. The site is just 700 metres from where the ditch empties into the ocean. TEPCO workers have placed sandbags further along the ditch in an attempt to prevent radioactive material reaching the ocean.
Figure 1 Diagram of the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant
To deal with the pools of contaminated rainwater accumulated since two typhoons that brought heavy rainfall to the Fukushima plant, TEPCO moved the water to the underground storage tanks that the company had stopped using after radioactive water escaped from one of them in April 2013 .
Groundwater wells in the area have begun to show increasing levels of contamination . Samples taken from one well near the leak on 14 September tested 170000 Bq/L of tritium.
On 21 December 2013, a new record of 1.9 million Bq/L of beta-emitting radioactive substances was found in water at its No. 2 reactor. And radioactive caesium was detected in deeper groundwater at No. 4’s well .
Radioactive water from Fukushima nuclear plant will reach the west coast of the United States early in 2014 , though airborne radioactivity started arriving on the US Pacific Coast just 4 days after the start of the accident (see later).
Shortage of workers, low pay and morale & high costs to the taxpayer
TEPCO president Naomi Hirose said the company was looking to transfer workers from power plants elsewhere in order to address the growing staff crisis at Fukushima Daiichi. There have been reports of workers at the plant suffering from low pay and morale, long hours and illegal hiring practices, sometimes involving organized crime syndicates .
Documents have emerged revealing TEPCO’s refusal to pay for the costs of the Fukushima cleanup, and the refusal being accepted by the government. The government is selling bonds to finance the assistance to TEPCO Interest payments on which may reach 70.4 billion yen, and to be borne by the Japanese taxpayer. The decontamination costs alone are estimated at more than 5 trillion yen (~US$50 billion).
Continued dumping of radioactive water into the ocean and mass die-offs in the Pacific
TEPCO has admitted it dumped 1130 tons of reportedly low-level radioactive water into nearby Pacific Ocean in early September, after heavy rainfall resulted in water collecting within barriers set up around the tanks of contaminated water . Officials said the water contained between 3 and 23 Bq/L radioactive strontium. Although the legal limit for strontium in seawater is 30 Bq/L, TEPCO later acknowledged that they had not tested the water for caesium Cs-134 or Cs-137.
TEPCO has also indicated that in the end, all low-level radioactive water will be dumped into the Pacific Ocean . It is trying to decontaminate highly radioactive water with an ‘advanced liquid processing system’ that can strip all radioactive substances from the water except tritium. It claims the system will eventually process 500 tonnes of water a day. But the equipment has failed repeatedly so far.
The Pacific Ocean has been a sink for high and low levels of radioactively contaminated water for more than two and a half years, with no end yet in sight. The first meltdown incidents beginning 11 March 2011 spewed out 2.5 times more radioactive Xenon-133 than Chernobyl and 40% of the Cs-137, with 80% ending up in the Pacific Ocean. It was already the single largest radioactive discharge into the ocean, by far (see later).
There have been worrying reports of mass deaths of animals over the past year . Polar bears, seals and walruses along the Alaska coastline are suffering fur loss and open sores, according to US Geological Survey. There is an epidemic of sea lion deaths along the California coastline. At island rookeries off the southern California coast, 45% of pups born in June have died, according to Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service based in Seattle. Normally less than one-third of the pups would die. “It’s gotten so bad in the past two weeks that the Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an “unusual mortality event”. Along the Pacific coast of Canada and Alaska coastline, the population of sockeye salmon is at a historic low. Fish all along the west coast of Canada are bleeding from their gills, bellies and eyeballs. More disturbingly, from Canada to California, starfish are dying en masse. They simply disintegrate and turn into ‘goo’ . No one has examined whether the toxic radioactivity released from Fukushima may be responsible for the mass deaths. But a vast field of radioactive debris from Fukushima approximately the size of California has crossed the Pacific Ocean and is starting to collide with the east coast . Radioactivity of coastal waters off the US west could double over the next five to six years. There are other signs that the Fukushima crisis has gone global (see later).
There is still no systematic scientific monitoring on the impacts to the Pacific while release of radioactivity from Fukushima continues unabated. One potentially highly effective method for stripping radioactive nuclides from water uses graphene oxide  (see Graphene Oxide for Nuclear Decontamination, SiS 59). There is an urgent need for international effort to stem the radioactive leak into the Pacific, and to mop up the radioactivity released before the Ocean dies.
The official line is that no one has died from the Fukushima accident, and very few will, if any. The reality is quite different.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has been criticized by human rights groups and UN special rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover , for its studies on Fukushima finding “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected.” Japan’s Human Rights Now have also called for UNSCEAR’s report to be revised and recommend that evacuation from contaminated areas where radiation exceed 1 millisievert per year rather than the government’s recommendation of 20 millisievert a year.
Data on casualties from the Fukushima meltdown and fallout are hard to come by. But even TEPCO has admitted that 10% of 2000 Fukushima Nuclear Plant workers face  “increased thyroid cancer risk” due to exposure to nuclear radiation. There were no official deaths from radiation among the 50 workers who bravely stayed on site to deal with the aftermath of the accident, although the supervisor Masao Yoshida died of oesophagus cancer in July 2013 .
However, fifty-one crew members of USS Ronald Reagan say they are suffering from a variety of cancers as a direct result of their involvement in Operation Tomodachi, a US rescue mission in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster in March 2011. The affected sailors are suing TEPCO . All in their 20s, the sailors have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, leukaemia, people going blind from tumours on the brain, and all kinds of gynaecological problems. The numbers could grow significantly as 150 additional crew members are being screened. The sailors’ lawyer Charles Bonner says that at least 75 sailors are affected.
The US sailors are certainly not alone. Thyroid cancer rates have shot up in Fukushima children . Before the nuclear meltdowns, health authorities estimated thyroid cancer rates among Fukushima’s children at between one and two cases in every million. Since the disaster, the Fukushima local government carried out a large-scale screening programme, and with about 200000 children tested, found 18 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer and 25 more suspected cases, an unexpectedly high rate.
One person who is impressed and worried about the increased thyroid cancer rate among Fukushima’s children is Akira Sugenoya, mayor of Matsumoto City in Nagano, and also a respected thyroid surgeon. He spent five years treating children in Ukraine and Belarus suffering from thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl disaster, and is highly critical of official dismissal of the findings. “The doctors in Fukushima say it shouldn’t be emerging this fast, so they say it’s not related to the accident. But that’s very unscientific, and it’s not a reason that we can accept.” Other experts, such as Geraldine Thomas, a specialist in molecular pathology of cancer at Imperial College London in the UK, argues that “if you look for a problem, especially if you use an incredibly sensitive technique, which is what the Japanese are actually, you will find something.”
In November 2013, 15 more young people were confirmed or suspected as having thyroid cancer . But Fukushima’s health authorities are acting almost in secret , even refusing requests for a simple age breakdown of the thyroid cancer victims, citing privacy reasons. This fuels accusations of cover-up by the parents.
Independently, a study on newborns in five US Pacific Coastal states exposed to airborne radioactivity including I-131 from the Fukushima fallout revealed a 26% increase the incidence of congenital hypothyroidism in the months after airborne radioactivity arrived in the US, compared with equivalent periods the previous year, and also with the rest of the US, which is less exposed  (Congenital Hypothyroidism & the Fukushima Fallout in the USA, SiS 61).
Long-term ecological impacts
That is not all. The Fukushima nuclear accident spread radioactive contamination over more than 3500 square miles of the Japanese mainland. An in-depth study involving both field work and lab experiments found deformities in wild caught butterflies caused by low-dose radiation from the Fukushima fallout persist and worsen over generations, and could be reproduced by internal and external exposure to radioactivity in the lab  (Fukushima Mutant Butterflies Confirm Harm from Low-Dose Radiation, SiS 56). This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as long-term ecological impacts are concerned.
Researchers led by Jacqueline Garnier-Laplace at the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) in Cardarache used measurements of radioactivity in soil samples collected 31 March from the zone of greatest atmospheric deposition, the Iitate Village area located 25-45 km northwest of the Fukushima site . Soil concentration of Cs-134 was 62400 Bq/kg, Cs-137, 72 900 Bq/kg and I-131 108 000 Bq/kg (with back calculations to the date of deposition estimated at 430000 Bq/kg). These were used to estimate the dose rate absorbed by forest biota, taking account of both external radiation from the contaminated environment, as well as internal radiation from radionuclides incorporated within the organisms. These gave dose rates of 1 mGy/d over the first 30 days for plants, 1.5 for bird, 2.3 for soil invertebrates, and 3.9 for forest rodents. If other radioisotopes measured in the soil were included, the total dose rate estimates ranged from 2 to 6 mGy/d. These values are 10 to 100 times greater than dose rates considered safe for terrestrial ecosystems. The lack of a more severe impact to the forest ecosystem is partially due to the accident occurring in late winter.
Much more severe impacts are likely for the coastal ecosystem next to the Fukushima nuclear plant. The dose rates were performed similarly, except that they include external irradiation by the contaminated marine sediments as well as the surface water. Seawater concentration of I-131 reached 180000 Bq/L on 30 March with an associated 47000 Bq/L of Cs-137 measured 330 m offshore. Activity concentrations decreased rapidly with distance due to very high dilution in the seawater. Nonetheless, maximum dose rates for I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137 ranged from 210 to 4 600 mGy/day, lowest for marine birds and the highest for macroalgae, with intermediate values of 2 600 mGy/day for benthic biota – fish molluscs, cruataceans. The calculated dose rates and ecological impacts are presented in Figure 2.
Figure 2 Calculated dose rates and ecological impacts on different terrestrial and marine organisms
“At such high dose rates, marked reproductive effects, and even mortality for the most radiosensitive taxa are predicted for all marine wildlife groups whose life-history characteristics confine them to the near-field, contaminated release area,” the authors concluded . Dominique Boust, director of the IRSN in Cherbourg suggests that sediments in the region could contain 10000 to 10 million Bq/kg shortly after the accident in 2011 . Fish could carry 10000–100000 Bq/kg and algae, some particularly susceptible to iodine uptake, could contain up to 100 million Bq/kg. These amounts would decrease very quickly with time.
However, these conclusions were disputed in a study of surface water radioactivity released from the Fukushima meltdown by Ken Buesseler at Woods Hole Massachusetts US Michio Aoyama at the Meteorological Research Institute, Tsukuba, and Masao Fukasawa at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology Yokosuka . Concentration of radioactivity peaked in early April with Cs-137 at 68 million Bq/m3 one month after the earthquake, decreasing by a factor of 1000 in the month following. Concentrations through the end of July remained higher than expected implying continued releases from the reactors or other contaminated sources, such as groundwater or coastal sediments (as consistent with the leaks discovered later). By July, levels of Cs-137 were still more than 10 000 times higher than levels measured in 2010 in the coastal waters off Japan (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 Surface ocean water concentrations of radioactivity from 21 March to 31 July
As expected the highest concentrations were at the points closest to the discharge site, and less at two other sites on the coast at increasing distances south of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Dilution occurred rapidly as can be seen by the much lower concentrations measured at points 30 km from the coast (green dots).
Compared to Chernobyl accident in 1986, an increase in waters off Japan was barely seen, but in the Baltic and Black Seas they peaked in a sharp spike in 1986 in the 10-1 000 Bq/m3 range; about a million times below the Fukushima activities of Cs-137 immediately at the discharge point and 10 times below the initial levels at the 30 km monitoring line. Thus, the initial release from Fukushima was a larger source by far, already the largest accidental release of radionuclides to the ocean. Astonishingly, these researchers concluded that it would still have “minimal impact on marine biota of humans due to direct exposure in surrounding ocean waters.”
The unexplained mass deaths on the Pacific northeast coast (see above) may indeed have been triggered by the massive radioactive release into the ocean water and accumulating in the ocean sediment, as predicted by the French scientists. But no one appears to be doing any systematic monitoring.
Even if radioactivity drops off to low levels, there is a large literature on the long term deleterious impacts of low dose radiation, recently explained through bystander effects affecting cells that are not directly targeted by the radiation (see  Bystander Effects Multiply Dose and Harm from Ionizing Radiation, SiS 55)
Recent research by Timothy Mousseau at University of South Carolina and Anders Møller at Université Paris Sud and their colleagues showed that birds in Chernobyl had high frequency of albino feathering and tumours as well as increased rates of cataracts decades after fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown , while tree growth was and remains suppressed. They undertook those studies in response to the World Health Organization’s Chernobyl Forum 2006, which, apart from vastly under-reporting human health impacts, stated that plant and animal communities doing “incredibly well and come back better than ever because of the absence of people.” In reality, there is no single scientific paper to base that statement on. The opportunities to study the long term impact of low level radioactive exposure in nature are once again slipping away in Fukushima as with Chernobyl. “The funding for independent scientists to do basic research in contaminated areas in Fukushima is not there.” And at the same time, the fine work that has been done  was ferociously attacked by nuclear supporters as well as the pro-nuclear regulators .
No easy homecoming for evacuees
Approximately 160 000 people were forced to evacuate in the first days of the crisis, and tens of thousands remain displaced . The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology estimated total decontamination costs at $50 billion. Municipal officials are concerned that residents will not return, as decontamination efforts have not been successful, and fear of radiation remains high. Many former residents are worried that conditions at the Fukushima plant are still unstable.
Although the government lifts evacuation orders once radiation levels fall below 20 mSv per year, the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends exposure no more than 1 mSv per year. Many residents no longer believe official radiation estimates released by the Japanese government, which are often lower than readings gathered by citizens and independent organizations using hand-held Geiger counters. Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer from Iitate, told Reuters, “They remove the ground under the posts, pour some clean sand, lay down concrete, plus a metal plate, and then put the monitoring post on top. In effect, this shields the radiation [emitting] from the ground. I asked the mayor, ‘why don’t you protest to the central government?’ But the municipality isn’t doing anything to fix the situation.”
For the real extent of the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters and how to cope with radioactive contamination see  Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl – an ISIS special report, SiS 55.