Fukushima Recovery a Vexing Colossus

John LaForge

Over 19 million tons of radioactively contaminated soil have been collected in 1-ton bags  and stacked in thousands of places in Japan, since the triple meltdowns of March 2011.  Eleven million tons could be incinerated. KYODO photograph.
Over 19 million tons of radioactively contaminated soil have been collected in 1-ton bags and stacked in thousands of places in Japan, since the triple meltdowns of March 2011. Eleven million tons could be incinerated. KYODO photograph.

A limited rundown of the legacy of Fukushima’s triple reactor catastrophe is in order on its 8th anniversary.*

The worst dump of radioactivity to the Pacific Ocean in history, is what Ken Buesseler, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says. He has been recording Fukushima’s Pacific Ocean contamination since it started. For the PBS News Hour in March 2016, he reported, “This event is unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean.” While Fukushima is often called “the second worst” radiation accident behind Chernobyl, Buesseler wrote, “More than 80% of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific -- far more than reached the ocean from Chernobyl.” Buesseler also said, “It is incorrect to say that Fukushima is under control when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site and enhanced after storms.”

Worst airborne radiation spill in 25 years: Forbes reported March 28, 2011, that the US EPA had recorded Fukushima’s radioactive iodine-131 in rainwater in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts at levels above the maximum allowed in drinking water. EPA’s air monitoring also found Fukushima’s radioactive iodine-131 in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Nevada. Nothing close to this immense, hemisphere-wide radiation dispersal had happened since Chernobyl in 1986.

Japanese water was tainted widely. Traces of radioactive cesium were found in popular baby formula, according to Japan Today, Dec. 7, 2011, only after hundreds of thousands of babies had eaten some. And Japan Times, reported April 22, 2011 that radioactive iodine-131 from Fukushima was detected in the breast milk of four women living near Tokyo, 150 miles from Fukushima. The public demanded an investigation into the impact of the radiation on mothers and babies.

Greenpeace reported in December 2017 that while heavily contaminated towns like Iitate and Namie had topsoil scraped off from populated areas, the problem remained that decontamination left “islands … which are surrounded by forested mountains, for which there is no possible decontamination.”  Consequently the cleaned up areas “are subject to recontamination through weathering processes and the natural water and lifecycle of trees and rivers.” Because of how long cesium-137 stays dangerously radioactive, “this will be an on-going source of significant recontamination for … 300 years.” Earlier, in January 2012, the Guardian noted the same problem. “In heavily contaminated places like Kawamata” where “houses backed by wooded hills are very common … runoff from uphill can re-contaminate lowlands.”

The Worst reactor disaster by volume of fuel melted and waste in cooling pools. Major reactor meltdowns at Santa Susanna in California (1959), Windscale in England (1957), Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), or Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), involved a single fuel inventory. Fukushima’s meltdowns involve three whole reactors’ full of melted and mangled fuel rods, and an additional 1,573 uranium fuel rods in damaged condition in damaged pools of cooling water. The three masses of melted fuel may never be recovered much less containerized.

• The Largest evacuation in history of nuclear power fled Fukushima: 160,000 evacuated from the zone first set at 12, and later expanded to 19 miles. Two weeks after the start of the meltdowns, people from between 12 to 19 miles away were encouraged to “voluntarily evacuate.” The US government recommended that people stay 50 miles away.

• Colossal volumes of radioactive debris include what the New York Times reported on in March 2017: 400 tons of contaminated water per day; 3,519 containers holding 60,000 tons of radioactive mud or sludge; 64,700 cubic meters of discarded protective clothing; branches and logs from 220 acres of deforested land; 200,400 cubic meters of radioactive rubble; and 3.5 billion gallons [17 million cubic yards] of radioactive soil. According to Greenpeace, 11 million tons of this radioactive soil is to be being incinerated, raising new airborne contamination risks.

• Most vexing reactor disaster: Estimates of the amount of radiation released by the disaster keep changing. In Feb. 2012, scientists said that far more cesium was released than what was claimed earlier. An amount of cesium released to the air “twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas,” was reported the Meteorological Research Institute. The volume and variety of Fukushima’s radioactive waste is astounding. 

• The failed “ice wall” plan shield groundwater away from the reactors’ foundations – which were smashed and cracked by the earthquake -- means that hundreds of tons of water keeps pouring every day into the reactor buildings where it’s contaminated by contact with the masses of melted uranium fuel.

•The failed water filtration system (ALPS) built to partially clean up the highly contaminated cooling water and groundwater, means that 1 million tons of waste water held in 1,000 giant tanks is not cleaned up at all, and must filtered again by an as-yet-unknown method that needs to be designed and engineered from scratch. Meanwhile the tanks are vulnerable to another earth quake that could happen any time. Japan Times reported last March 29, “Seven years on, radioactive water at Fukushima plant still flowing into ocean.”

*Detailed investigations by Greenpeace provide some of the best information: * Reflections in Fukushima: The Fukushima Daiichi Accident, Seven Years On,” March 2018 * Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacies of Chernobyl and Fukushima,” 9 March 2016 * Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear business makes people pay and suffer,” 16 February 2013 * “Lessons from Fukushima,” 28 February 2012