By William Boardman
Just because no one seems to know what to do about Fukushima is no excuse to go on lying about and/or denying the dimensions of reality, whatever they might be. There are hundreds, probably thousands of people with little or no authority who have long struggled to create a realistic, rational perspective on nuclear threats. The fundamental barrier to knowing the scale of the Fukushima disaster is just that: the scale of the Fukushima disaster.
Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima 2011 are not really comparable
Chernobyl is the closest precedent to Fukushima, and it’s not very close. Chernobyl at the time of the 1986 electric failure and explosion had four operating reactors and two more under construction. The Chernobyl accident involved one reactor meltdown. Other reactors kept operating for some time after the accident. The rector meltdown was eventually entombed, containing the meltdown and reducing the risk. Until Fukushima, Chernobyl was considered the worst nuclear power accident in history, and it is still far from over (albeit largely contained for the time being). The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone of roughly 1,000 square miles remains one of the most radioactive areas in the world and the clean-up is not even expected to be complete before 2065.
At the time of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima plant had six operating reactors. Three of them went into meltdown and a fourth was left with a heavily laden fuel pool teetering a hundred feet above the ground. Two other reactors were undamaged and have been shut down. Radiation levels remain lethal in each of the melted-down reactors, where the meltdowns appear to be held in check by water that is pumped into the reactors to keep them cool. In the process, the water gets irradiated and that which is not collected on site in leaking tanks flows steadily into the Pacific Ocean. Within the first two weeks, Fukushima radiation was comparable to Chernobyl’s and while the levels have gone down, they remain elevated.
Despite their significant differences as disasters, Chernobyl and Fukushima are both rated at 7 – a “major accident” on the International Nuclear Event Scale designed in 1990 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That is the highest rating on the scale, a reflection of the inherent denial that colors most official nuclear thinking. Designed by nuclear “experts” after Chernobyl, the scale can’t imagine a worse accident than Chernobyl which, for all its intensity, was effectively over as an accident in a relatively short period of time. At Fukushima, by contrast, the initial set of events was less acute than Chernobyl, but almost three years later they continue without any resolution likely soon. Additionally Fukushima has three reactor meltdowns and thousands of precarious fuel rod assemblies in uncertain pools, any of which could produce a new crisis that would put Fukushima clearly off the scale.
And then there’s groundwater. Groundwater was not a problem at Chernobyl. Groundwater is a huge problem at the Fukushima plant that was built at the seashore, on a former riverbed, over an active aquifer. In a short video, nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson makes clear why groundwater makes Fukushima so hard to clean up, and why radiation levels there will likely remain dangerous for another hundred years.
The Japanese government and nuclear power industry have a history of not telling the truth about nuclear accidents dating back at least to 1995, as reported by New Scientist and Rachel Maddow, among others. Despite Japan’s history of nuclear dishonesty, Japanese authorities remain in total control of the Fukushima site and most of the information about it, without significant objection from most of the world’s governments, media, and other power brokers, whose reputation for honesty in nuclear matters is almost as bad as Japan’s. In such a context of no context, the public is vulnerable to reports like this from the Turner Radio Network (TRN) on December 28:
The reassuring aspects of the condition of Unit #3 – radioactive releases are not new, they’re less intense than they once were, the nuclear waste is cooling – while true enough, provide only a false sense of comfort. Also true: radiation is released almost continuously, the releases are uncontrolled, no one seems to be measuring the releases, no one seems to be tracking the releases, no one is assessing accumulation of the releases. And while it’s true that the waste is cooling and decaying, it’s also true that a loss of coolant could lead to another uncontrolled chain reaction. (“Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 is not going to explode,” says Gunderson in a headline, but he can’t know that with certainty.)
For the near future, what all that means, in effect, is that the world has to accept chronic radiation releases from Fukushima as the price for avoiding another catastrophic release. And even then, it’s not a sure thing.