by William Boardman
obody in the world knows how to dispose of radioactive waste safely and permanently. That’s a given. The Japanese central government is presumably aware that anything it does with still the unmeasured but vast amount of radioactive waste from Fukushima’s six nuclear power generators will be temporary. Leaving it in place is not an option. So Tokyo announced on August 29 that the Fukushima waste would be stored for 30 years in Fukushima prefect, in an “interim facility” to be built probably in nearby Okuma or Futaba (now evacuated)
Plutonium levels from Fukushima may be relatively low in the Pacific
The same day the plan to store Fukushima’s radioactive waste next door to the Fukushima nuclear complex was announced, the MarineChemist blog on Daily Kos reported on measurements of plutonium in the Pacific Ocean made in April 2014. The conclusion from those measurements, made within about 90 miles (150 km) of the Fukushima plant, was that the triple meltdown at Fukushima had not added measurable amounts of plutonium to the ocean near the site. As the study put it: “Our results suggested that there was no significant variation of the Pu [plutonium] distribution in seawater in the investigated areas compared to the distribution before the accident.”
That sounds like good news. But all it really means is that the added plutonium from Fukushima, so far, may be relatively trivial in comparison to the already-elevated level of plutonium contamination from nuclear weapons testing more than fifty years ago. The isotopes most relevant, Plutonium-240 and Plutonium-239, have half-lives of 6,500 years and 24,100 years respectively. The half-life is the time it takes for half the amount of a radioactive element to become benign.
And plutonium is but one part of the radiation load. There are thousands of nuclides and isotopes. Some have a half-life of almost no time at all. Many others, including those released by Fukushima – cesium, strontium, tritium, iodine, tellurium – have half-lives measured in years, decades, and centuries, during which time they remain dangerous, albeit decreasingly. (According to a report in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2013, the amount of radioactive cesium from Fukushima measured in central Europe in 2011 was under-reported by orders of magnitude.)
The Pacific study apparently ignored everything but plutonium in its study of ocean radioactivity. It also ignored all radioactivity in the rest of the Pacific Ocean, all the areas more than 90 miles from Fukushima.
The worse news is that there is little or no reliable, systematic, continuous measurement of radiation levels anywhere, not just related to Fukushima. Nor is there any honest, comprehensive, serious study of the effects of the radiation that’s not being measured. Independent scientists have sharply criticized this failure to gather reliable data in what amounts to a pattern of global denial. The Nobel Prize-winning organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War issued a report in June sharply criticizing the United Nations’ work on Fukushima. The physicists said that the UN’s optimistic assumptions had no credible basis in current research. Even stronger criticism was reported in the August 22 London Times:
The United Nations is deliberately ignoring evidence of genetic damage caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to international scientists who point to signs of mutations in animals, birds and plants. Members of the US-based Chernobyl and Fukushima research initiative have denounced a recent UN report on the 2011 disaster in Japan which, they say, fails to take proper account of symptoms as diverse as spotty cows, infertile butterflies, and monkeys with low blood cell counts.
Fukushima Effects More Lingering than Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
Now it turns out that the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were worse than originally reported after the March 11, 2011, shutdown of the six-reactor complex (one of the 15 largest in the world). Even after viewing underwater robot video footage of the collapsed reactor interior in May 2011, according to Japanese officials, “Experts believe that the fuel rods, not visible in the clip, were left largely undamaged despite the disaster.”
That was not true.
By November 2011, the official story changed: Fukushima Unit 3 suffered “only” a partial meltdown, involving about 63% of the reactor’s core, according to TEPCO. Unit 3 contains mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that is about 6% plutonium. The core of 548-566 fuel assemblies with 63 fuel rods each (more than 35,000 rods) is estimated to weigh about 89 tons. Radiation levels inside the reactor have remained lethal since March 2011.
On August 6, 2014, more than three years after the accident, on the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, TEPCO announced that its revised assessment was that 100% of the reactor core had melted down and pooled at the bottom of the concrete containment vessel. There, TEPCO now believes, the molten fuel rods have penetrated about 68 cm (about 27 inches) into the concrete bottom of the vessel, but the mass remains contained.
Radioactive water buildup; rice paddies and monkeys contaminated
American media (perhaps world media) continue to under-report news about Fukushima, providing almost no reliable, continuous coverage for assessing a critical event that has potentially global consequences, even though it’s unfolding minute-to-minute. The failure of governments to address the spread of radiation, and its intensity, creates an information vacuum. Rather than doing their own reporting, most mainstream media report only anecdotally, or not at all. This allows scare-mongers to take a serious, ongoing crisis and make it apocalyptic (for example, “How the Entire Pacific Is Polluted and Can Kill All Sealife”).
In a limited effort to provide some perspective, here are a few summaries of recent reports of some of the ongoing difficulties at Fukushima:
Rice paddies outside the Fukushima evacuation zone have been contaminated with radioactive material, according to a July report from Japan’s agriculture ministry. The ministry suspects that the contamination (especially Cesium) came, at least in part, from the removal of radioactive wreckage around Fukushima’s Unit 3, When the debris was moved, apparently, radioactive dust trapped beneath it was exposed and blew away. TEPCO did not immediately inform the public of the ministry’s findings.
Since at least 2013, the Japanese government has allowed farmers to grow rice in evacuation zones in Fukushima prefect, as close as 6 miles from the nuclear complex. The rice is sold commercially. Farmers use potassium fertilizer in an effort to reduce the amount of cesium absorbed into the rice. The government has said it would test all Fukushima rice for radioactivity before allowing it to go to market.
Wild monkeys living 43 miles away from Fukushima have detectable levels of radioactive cesium, while wild monkeys living farther away had no detectable levels of cesium, according to Scientific Reports on July 24. The contaminated monkeys also have lowered counts for both white and red blood cells, counts that indicate a damaged immune system. Professor Shinichi Hayama, at the Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University in Tokyo, told the Guardian that:
… during Japan’s snowy winters the monkeys feed on tree buds and bark, where Cesium has been shown to accumulate at high concentrations.
“This first data from non-human primates – the closest taxonomic relatives of humans – should make a notable contribution to future research on the health effects of radiation exposure in humans,” he said….
“Abnormalities such as a decreased blood cell count in people living in contaminated areas have been reported from Chernobyl as a long-term effect of low-dose radiation exposure.”