by Christine Frank
On March 11, Northeastern Japan was struck by a Magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake, followed by a powerful tsunami from which the nation is still struggling to recover. The human-made part of the disaster is also still in progress at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant One, where three of its six reactors have experienced hydrogen explosions and partial meltdowns (70-80%).
A fourth unit had a self-sustaining zirconium oxide reaction when its spent fuel rods were exposed to fresh air because their storage pool was cracked by the earthquake and has been leaking ever since. Its fuel rods are emitting gamma rays, which go into the atmosphere, bounce off the air molecules through “sky shine” and rain back down on the site, making work around the plant extremely difficult. The pool could also be releasing volatile plutonium, the most deadly substance known.
Nuclear engineer and Vermont Yankee activist Arne Gundersen believes that Unit 2, which has a hole in its reactor vessel bottom, is still in serious trouble. It is not cooling, and the reactor pressure readings appear to indicate the presence of hot hydrogen gas. The pressure in its containment—the box enclosing the reactor—is non-existent, indicating that the explosion caused a leak.
Gundersen also believes that Unit 1 has reached periodic criticality because of the neutron beam that was detected 13 times along with the presence of Chlorine-38, Tellurium-129, and radioiodine-131 & 132. The Chlorine-38 isotope does not exist in nature. Therefore, it could have come from only one thing—the splitting of uranium atoms whose neutrons were being absorbed by the natural Chlorine-37 in the seawater the workers were injecting to cool the reactors.
Tellurium-129 has a half-life of only 70 minutes. So it can exist only if there has been fission in the last half day. From this, Gundersen has concluded that Unit 1 has been experiencing an on/off fission or “inadvertent criticality” because the water with which they flood the reactor boils off, igniting a new chain reaction each time temperatures rise.
Areva is the French nuclear engineering firm that is providing technical assistance to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns the plant. At an invitation-only seminar at Stanford University, Areva nuclear engineer Alan Hanson said of the Fukushima cataclysm, “Clearly, we are witnessing one of the greatest disasters in modern times,” even while he was minimizing the radiation levels in his power point presentation.
Nonetheless, deadly radioactive fallout has been released into the atmosphere, ocean, soil, food, and drinking water, endangering the Japanese people as well as the rest of the planet. An atmospheric plume has been carried around the globe by prevailing wind patterns, and the enormous amounts of radioactive water leaking or being purposely discharged from the plant into the sea are being swept across the Pacific by ocean currents, reaching the shores of the Americas.
These releases have increased to such levels that they are now being measured in teraBecquerels. A tera is a trillion. To offer some idea of what that means, one Curie is that quantity of a radioactive material that will have 37 billion disintegrations or transformations per second. It is the largest radiation measurement. The warning symbol for the presence of high radioactivity measured in Curies is a running human figure—six yellow and black triangles deemed inadequate. It means, “Run like Hell!” One Becquerel equals one disintegration per second. Therefore, a teraBecquerl exceeds the number of disintegrations in a Curie by a factor of ten, and we should all be running like hell! If only we had somewhere safe to go.
That is why we have the right to know the actual exposure levels and health risks. And our own government agencies, the media, and the medical establishment must stop lying and tell us the truth.
The situation in Japan has been continuously out of control and is yet to be stabilized, as temporary contract workers—whose lives are being sacrificed—have struggled unsuccessfully to get the stricken plant’s cooling systems back on line. Many of them have lost their families and homes. They are toiling in lethal radiation levels without hope and under tremendous pressure and stress, yet the fate of the world is in their hands.
The facility is in its death throes, and TEPCO has admitted that its crippled nuclear power plant will have to be scrapped. Company officials have acknowledged that it could take up to nine months to get the plant into cold shutdown, assuming that further setbacks would not delay the process.
TEPCO does not plan to bury the facility in a steel-reinforced concrete sarcophagus as was done at Chernobyl, where the entombment has gaping holes and is leaking. Instead, they plan to develop specialized equipment to remove the damaged fuel and store it. It’s a good question as to how and to where it will be transported. It will take decades for the plant to be decommissioned once they cool down the still melting fuel rods.
However, they must still pump out 18.5 million gallons of contaminated water from turbine buildings and nearby trenches before they can get the cooling systems back up and running. They are using Areva technologies to reduce the radioactivity and desalinate the seawater so it can be used to cool the reactors. Because the radioactivity is through the ceiling in all of the buildings as well as on the grounds, humans cannot enter them. To figure out what is going on inside, TEPCO has sent in remote-control robots to view the interiors so they can assess the damage. It took several weeks for the personnel to be trained how to use them. High humidity from all the water has fogged up the camera lenses so they’re having trouble seeing what’s going on. The Pacbots will probably be so irradiated they’ll be unapproachable.
Because of widespread damage to the containments, storage pools, and plumbing, enormous amounts of radioactive water are leaking throughout the plant and entering the sea, threatening marine ecosystems and the people, who depend upon the fisheries. To reduce the levels of radioactive Cesium, workers have been dumping bags filled with sand and zeolite into the sea. Zeolite is a form of clay mined in Australia that absorbs radioactive isotopes. It can also be taken internally to decontaminate the body. In addition, they have been bulldozing contaminated soil around the facility, either turning it over or removing and replacing it, which means it gets dumped somewhere and becomes somebody else’s problem.
One of Japan’s most important farming regions is being completely irradiated, as is its groundwater. An ionizing plume has encircled Earth from the release of radioactive steam, three hydrogen explosions, and a zircalloy reaction, putting everyone at risk for cancer and threatening unborn fetuses with birth deformities and children with leukemia and thyroid cancer.
The irresponsibility of the Japanese government is utterly astounding, but typical. Originally the accident severity was rated at five, the equivalent of Three Mile Island, which is bad enough. Then it was upgraded to seven, as severe as Chernobyl. Yet to quell public fear and outrage, the government has stalled on mass evacuations until they are now way too late in terms of the cumulative exposure of the local people.
They have deliberately delayed a full, forced emergency evacuation because they prefer to downplay the severe health impacts for which the population has been at risk since the get-go. The authorities have lackadaisically set the deadline at the end of May for another 10,000 to be evacuated. Fortunately, many have already left. But because Japan is an aging nation, there are many elderly who have been abandoned, and the government apparently is doing nothing to help them.
We cannot afford to allow the capitalist system to gamble with human lives and the biosphere, which as we know from the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster of 1986, will lose a tremendous amount of biodiversity. This will certainly be true for the marine ecosystem. It is essential that we voice our opposition to this absurdly expensive and deadly form of energy, which threatens the health of the entire planet. The technological wonder of nuclear power is a horrible lie, and at its inception was nothing but a cover for the proliferation of nuclear warheads.
On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Russian and Ukrainian heads of state called for stricter safety standards for nuclear power plants. This will do little good since the technology is inherently unsafe on every conceivable level. Plus, the radioactive wastes will remain on the planet, affecting life for thousands of generations in perpetuity. There is virtually no “away,” so radiation is forever.
We cannot allow the U.S. government and corporations to Nuke the Climate by duping the American people into thinking that nuclear reactors are eco-friendly. Given the routine venting of radioactive steam and the discharge of tritium-laced water, the likelihood of catastrophic accident due to equipment malfunction, operator error—and yes, natural disaster—in addition to the endless waste problem, nukes are not a clean form of power and never will be regardless of what Obama’s new energy standard purports them to be.
We can all appreciate the fact that heavily subsidized TEPCO has been ordered to compensate the victims of its recklessness and cost-cutting with a measly million yen, or $12,000. Since we know they fudged on their earthquake assessment, will anyone be charged with criminal negligence? Has anyone from BP been charged for the Gulf oil spill, for that matter? Clearly, the real culprit here is the ruthless drive for profits at any cost, which to the capitalist class is just fine as long as it’s Mother Earth, toiling humanity, and the rest of the biosphere that pay the price—and indeed, we are.
There is no need for this nuclear madness when we can harness the benign energy produced through nuclear fusion by the sun, using the clean, renewable, non-radioactive technologies we already have at our disposal—wind turbines and solar arrays.
We must build a movement to halt the “Nuclear Renaissance” being planned and demand that they shut down all existing reactors, whether they are on earthquake fault lines or not, and begin the lengthy process of decommissioning them immediately. The entire U.S. fleet of 104 nuclear power stations are aging and dilapidated, yet the government has seen fit to extend their licenses and allow increased output, while the radioactive wastes continue to pile up ad infinitum with no solution for safe storage.
We must end this brutal war on nature. Ultimately, the only way to do that is to establish a zero-waste, zero-growth, steady-state, green, sustainable, democratically planned and collectively run ecosocialist economy, which puts ecological and human needs before private profits. No more nukes!
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.