by Christine Frank
The powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck the northeast coast of Japan on March 11 has led to a cascade of disasters for the Japanese people. Its epicenter was located on a subduction zone where the Pacific Plate is diving beneath the Eurasian Continental Plate into the Japan Trench. The earthquake was Japan’s most powerful and the fifth most powerful ever recorded globally.
The nation sits precariously on the edge of three tectonic plates—the Pacific, Philippine and Eurasian—creating a triple junction of intense seismic activity. It is also located near the Median Tectonic Line, which consists of a series of strike-slip faults of horizontal movement. To build nuclear reactors where such titanic geological forces are at work is sheer suicide.
Because the quake was shallow enough, it caused the seafloor to heave up and away from Honshu Island, resulting in an enormous 10-meter (32.5 ft.) high tsunami that swept inland across the Plain of Sendai. The water was funneled through the streets of seaside port cities and towns three times higher and with even greater force, turning buildings along the wave’s path into piles of toothpicks.
The tsunami extended up to 10 kilometers (6 mi.) inland killing well over 10,000 people, with over 17,000 missing and 500,000 homeless. The northeast coast of Japan is particularly susceptible to tsunamis not only because of tectonic activity but also because of the many deep coastal embayments that amplify the waves and cause great inundations. This is another reason why the placement of nuclear reactors in the region was particularly foolhardy.
The human-made disaster
The human-made part of the disaster is still unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant One, which consists of six boiling water reactors and seven spent fuel rod storage pools. Three of the reactors were already in cold shutdown for routine maintenance. When the quake struck, seismic sensors tripped and activated the neutron-absorbing boron control rods to shut each core down in the working reactors. However, the residual heat from the nuclear piles, whose fissile byproducts continued to split and generate energy, still needed to be dissipated by the electrically-powered water cooling system. Moments later, the tremor felled the power lines that fed the water pumps. The backup diesel-powered generators automatically kicked in and powered the pumps.
Then, the tsunami struck, overflowing the plant’s woefully inadequate seawall and swamping the diesel generators. The next line of backup was a set of batteries, which kept the pumps running for only a few hours before the reactors had nothing to cool them down. Oh, the irony of a power plant without power!
The only option of the plant operators was to pump in seawater with remote fire hoses to cool the reactors. That worked for only a while. As pressure in the cores rose, the seawater evaporated faster than it could be pumped in, exposing the fuel rods to the air. At that point, they began to overheat, with xenon and krypton gas inside the rods exerting pressure, causing the zirconium alloy cladding to swell and crack. In addition, the increased temperature turned more water to steam, which had to be vented into the atmosphere outside. That steam was full of radioactive Iodine-131 and Cesium-137.
At the same time, the intense heat caused the zirconium to interact with the steam and split some of the hydrogen away from the water. The hydrogen gas, set off by a spark, ignited in the remaining oxygen, and exploded. There were hydrogen gas explosions in all three reactors, which shattered the roofs and/or sides of the secondary containments. Reactor No. 3, which uses MOX fuel—plutonium/uranium oxide mix—has a long, vertical crack in its primary containment vessel. And the torus—the doughnut-shaped pressure-suppression chamber—at the base of No. 2 is ruptured.
Because there was no functioning cooling system, hot spent fuel rods began to boil off the cooling water in their storage pools, which drained rapidly, exposing the fuel assemblies. The storage pools are located haphazardly on a mezzanine above the reactors and are shielded by only sheet-metal siding, which is to say, they are not quake-proof. They contain 400 to 700 fuel rod assemblies stacked on racks.
After one year on-line, used fuel still emits 10 kilowatts of decay heat energy per ton and requires continual cooling under at least 30 feet of water. It takes only 140 hours for the water to drop to dangerously low levels with rods six months old. Roughly 100 hours after the quake and power loss, the storage pool of Unit 4, which has fresh fuel only four months old, experienced a fire because the zircalloy began to spontaneously combust like a Fourth of July sparkler. The oxidation reaction that occurs becomes locally self-sustaining at high temperatures.
According to David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the side of each storage pool has a gate, which opens to allow a crane to transfer spent rods from the reactor core to the pool underwater. The gates have inflatable rubber seals, but the air compressing system that maintains them probably went down with the power outage. Consequently, the seals on the pools could very well be deflated, allowing the coolant to drain out.
There has been a constant struggle to pump water in to cool both the reactors and spent fuel assemblies. Efforts to do so by frantically injecting seawater laced with boric acid—boron, for its neutron absorption capacity—have not been successful. The use of the boron to moderate fission is a clear sign that fission is still occurring and some of the fuel has melted and slumped to the bottom of the containment vessels. Salt from the seawater has encrusted on the fuel rods and is insulating against the cooling effects of the water, making for a wasted effort.
An enormous amount of radioactive water continues to leak into the turbine buildings, basements, outside trenches and into the sea. Obviously, the containments have failed. Former Three Mile Island nuclear engineer Arne Gundersen, who calls Fukushima “Chernobyl on steroids,” believes that there are partial meltdowns underway and there has very likely been 70-80% damage to the reactor cores because they went for so long without coolant. As a result, the radioactive molten slag lying at the bottom of the reactors is eating through the graphite seals on the control rods. The seals are also corroding from the extremely hot temperatures and salt, hence, the large amounts of water escaping through damaged pipes into other areas. So now, they have the enormous task of pumping water both in and out.
Radiation levels are off the charts inside and outside the plant. The contaminated water in which workers are sloshing around measures at over 100 REMs per hour. Three or four hours at that exposure is a lethal dose. The deadly levels have made it nigh impossible for workers to access the system and get the runaway facility under control. The radiation spikes have interrupted work many times. Plus, they must toil in small skeleton crews of 50 for very short shifts under constant fear and duress.
According to an anonymous Japanese physicist, who spoke to The New York Times, many of the workers are subcontractors, who are paid a small daily wage to risk their lives, are poorly equipped and trained, and lack full protective gear. Pity them all and their poor families. At least three have suffered radiation burns serious enough to be hospitalized. It is highly likely that there have been many more injuries than TEPCO, the utility that owns the plant, has reported to the media.
In addition to contaminated seawater, plutonium has been found in soil samples around the plant. The inhalation of one microgram of the isotope will kill. Because it is a byproduct of uranium fission, Gundersen believes the plutonium probably volatilized in the zirconium fire in pool No. 4 rather than from the MOX fuel in Reactor No. 3.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an arm of the UN that functions largely as a booster for the global nuclear power industry, has sent two testing teams to Japan. They reported radiation levels of 1600 times above natural background radiation (NBR) 12 miles from the plant. Constant exposure for 26 days at those levels is equivalent to a cumulative exposure of 100,000 microSieverts, fating all who are contaminated to cancer.
There is no doubt that Fukushima radiation levels are approaching those of Chernobyl. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBT), based in Austria, has a worldwide network of detectors used to monitor atomic bomb blasts and sniff out the tiniest traces of radionuclides. Its readings indicate that daily levels of Iodine-131 are 73% of the 1986 disaster and Cesium-137 is 60%.
The radioactive plume has definitely reached North America via winds blowing across the Pacific Ocean. CTBT stations in Alaska, Hawaii, California, and Quebec all agree with the high I-131 and Cs-137 Becquerel readings taken at Takasaki, Japan.
So far in the U.S., 14 states have reported elevated radiation levels. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is also nothing but a promoter of nuclear power, has told us it’s perfectly harmless. Many Americans are not swallowing it and have scrambled to purchase potassium iodide tablets to prevent thyroid cancer, placing a strain on the three suppliers.
The hazards of exposure to radiation have been consistently downplayed by the Japanese government to the general public, admitting it is way above the NBR, yet assuring them it’s harmless. This is a lie and the height of irresponsibility. There are no serious plans to evacuate the thousands of people who will be in harm’s way in the event of a catastrophic multiple meltdown. People in the outer perimeter are merely told to seal their homes and stay indoors, remaining trapped while running out of provisions. Those who have somewhere else to go have wisely fled the area on their own.
The seawater around the plant is crackling, yet there has been no ban on eating seafood. Tap water has been irradiated, but the government has deemed it unsafe to drink for only infants, no one else. Nonetheless, there has been a run on bottled water because everyone is skeptical. Vegetables grown in the northeast are not fit to eat, and a number of nations have banned food imports. Even the rain is radioactive because of heavy atmospheric concentrations.
Helicopter crews dropping water on the crippled reactors have had to abort missions because it is too hazardous. Even airlines are rerouting international flights to avoid the plume. A Russian cargo vessel that sailed past the plant on its return voyage was quarantined, with 19 crew members under medical supervision because of high radiation readings. In addition, the U.S. Navy pulled back a carrier that was flying rescue missions because it feared radiation would be taken in through the ship’s vents if it was anchored too close to the plant.
The beleaguered Japanese people are justifiably expressing their fear, anger, and frustration over being lied to by TEPCO and the government and are demanding to know the truth. They have begun to publically protest in Tokyo and other cities because they know nuclear power is not safe and money-grubbing utilities such as TEPCO do not have their best interests at heart.
Three associated press reporters have exposed the company’s fudging on its earthquake/tsunami risk assessment despite more than ample experience from the past for both to occur. TEPCO made up its own computer model and chose to ignore all geological evidence from prior to 1886 in calculating risk. No wonder the nuclear power industry has an abominable safety record, with regulatory agencies always turning a blind eye to violations.
The tragic outcome of this deadly game of nuclear roulette has been another “Oops!” moment in the continuing nightmare of disaster capitalism. All of Japan’s 54 reactors are similarly situated near the sea on an island complex that is prone to frequent and intense earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. The U.S. likewise has at least 10 nuclear power sites sitting on fault lines.
Three Mile Island
Since their inception, the nuclear weapons and power industries have been enshrouded in secrecy and lies with their propaganda mills churning out falsehoods and fairy tales. Those born in the immediate post-World War II period can recall the scary and thoroughly ridiculous “duck-and-cover” ads run regularly on TV, showing school children how to protect themselves by diving under their desks in the event of an atomic blast. We needn’t mention the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty queens that were grotesquely paraded around annually in swimsuits up until 1957.
They are still lying to us today. The media is repeating the claptrap from the government, saying, yes, there was a partial meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island (near Harrisburg, Pa.) but no radiation escaped because the containment held. But in fact, members of the surrounding farming community exposed to the radioactive emissions from the plant all reported a similar set of symptoms—metallic taste in the mouth, burning and blistering skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and hair loss. Clearly, they were afflicted with radiation sickness.
Many near Three Mile Island also witnessed deaths, stillbirths, and deformities among their livestock and pets, which had been outside for much longer. When they reported these things, the authorities told them that they were suffering from mental anxiety and fear of radiation, and their symptoms were merely psychosomatic! From that we may assume that they had also hallucinated the deaths and deformities of their animals.
Since then, epidemiologists have proven otherwise, showing that subsequent cancer rates were higher where the radioactive plume was most dense compared with cancer rates of areas that were not as heavily irradiated.
The legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster is much worse. The reactor had no containment vessel, so when it exploded it sent an intense radioactive plume 10 kilometers into the air that spread over the entire Northern Hemisphere. Parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were heavily irradiated, with the latter having received 70% of the fallout. The terrible health consequences in the region persist to this day.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the death toll from the cataclysm to be only 4000. However, a new book co-authored by three Russian scientists—“Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”—challenges that gross underestimation, saying it is more like 985,000 fatalities, mostly from cancers. They base this on health data, radiological surveys, and scientific reports from 5000 sources.
The IAEA and WHO have had an understanding that requires underreporting of the hazardous effects of nuclear radiation. In fact, 20 years after Chernobyl, in 2006, WHO presented a whitewash of its health impacts that was scathingly criticized by epidemiologist Rosalie Bertell and others. The editor of the “Chernobyl” book, Janette Sherman, who is a physician and toxicologist, characterized the role of WHO in this case as being “like Dracula guarding the blood bank.” The book also documents disturbing and freakish alterations in the plant and animal life in the region’s ecosystems and its alarming decline in biodiversity.
The steadily deteriorating situation in Japan has touched off another debate over nuclear power around the world because people are tired of greedy utilities gambling with their lives. The conservative government in Germany headed by Angela Merkel has promised to shut down its older reactors, and the Green Party scored an election victory in her home state of Baden-Wuertemberg, where it doubled its vote over the Christian Democrats. China is rethinking its plans to build new reactors, and Switzerland is holding off on replacing some of its older facilities. That is, at least for now.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, is going full steam ahead with six new nuclear power stations and $35 billion in loan guarantees plucked from taxpayers’ wallets. Obama’s pro-nuke Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is still insisting that nuclear power is a necessary part of the nation’s “carbon-neutral” energy portfolio. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission supposedly has launched a series of inspections of the fleet of 104 badly aging and dilapidated reactors, no doubt to justify the extension on their licenses. Congress has likewise gotten busy in holding safety hearings. It’s all a show, of course, to assure us that we can stop worrying about radiation poisoning and learn to love nukes.
There are no safe levels of radiation, no matter how small the amount or what the form, be it gamma or medical x-rays, alpha or beta particles. All of the most common isotopes associated with nuclear reactors—Iodine-129 & 131, Strontium-90, Cesium-137, and Plutonium-238—will harm the human body and other living organisms. When it comes to radioactivity penetrating living tissue, every dose is an overdose that can have mutagenic or carcinogenic effects.
Nuclear power is neither safe nor green and never will be, no matter where the reactors are located, fault lines or not. They are a hazard because of the routine venting of radioactive steam and the regular discharge of tritium-contaminated hot water that harms aquatic and marine ecosystems and pollutes drinking water. Because of their vast complexity, they are plagued with constant equipment failures regardless of how smart the geniuses were who designed them.
Operator error is also a serious problem. The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island was a combination of equipment and operator snafus. The seemingly endless build-up of radioactive wastes threatens all life in the biosphere, now and for thousands of millennia.
Nukes can never be a viable alternative to fossil fuels because, from cradle to grave, greenhouse gases are generated at every stage of the nuclear cycle. Along with radon gas, uranium mining gives off methane emissions. Milling the ore, converting the uranium to yellowcake, its conversion to hexafluoride gas, the enrichment of the hex, the fabrication of the fuel pellets and zirconium tubes, reactor construction, fuel processing and conditioning, the interim and permanent storage of wastes, and the lengthy decommissioning of the plants (over some 60 years) are all highly energy-intensive endeavors.
Plus, nuclear power stations are the most ludicrous and expensive way imaginable to boil water when we could be using the wind and Earth’s more benign geological forces—tides, waves, free-flowing streams—to drive turbines for electricity.
Since the beginning of the Atomic Age, the entire planet has been irradiated to one degree or another. It is high time it stopped, before life as we know it becomes unrecognizable. These abominations must be shut down immediately and decommissioning begun at once. Ultimately, all energy comes from the sun, and we already have the clean technologies to harness it.
The priority should be the conversion to clean, safe, renewable, nonradioactive energy that powers an economy in which the necessities of life are produced according to ecological and human needs, rather than private profits.
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.