The Meltdown Continues

It’s been three months since Japan was struck with a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, and the radiation impacts from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remain a continued, constant threat. Hundreds of plant workers are still struggling to contain the radiation spewing from what is now acknowledged to be one of the world’s worst nuclear meltdowns. Radiation threats have forced more than 80,000 residents living within 19 miles of the plant to evacuate their homes to temporary shelters such as school gyms and community centers, and Japanese officials are looking to expand that evacuation zone as recent monitoring data shows new “hot spots” of elevated contamination farther away from the stricken plant.

On June 11, the Japanese bowed their heads in a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., the exact time the earthquake struck, and an estimated 2,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators gathered in Tokyo, walking toward the Economy Ministry and the head offices of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima plant.

Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter [which measures radiation] in one hand, my tools in the other.”

Last week, Japanese nuclear officials grimly announced that the radioactive emissions initially released within the first few days from the stricken plant were more than twice as much as previously reported and that three of the four core reactors at the Fukushima site have most likely experienced large-scale fuel meltdowns.

Workers have been continuously hosing down the plant since the cooling systems failed in March, in turn producing over 100,000 tons of highly radioactive runoff water. Much of this radioactive water has spilled or been released into the Pacific Ocean, and the full extent of the damage that contaminated water will bring to marine life is still unknown. Greenpeace has already found unsafe radiation levels in marine species as far as 50 kilometers offshore. TEPCO is currently testing water decontamination equipment that will hopefully remove radioactive substances, oil and sea salt from the runoff water so it can be reused as a reactor coolant, and 370 water tanks have been shipped to the plant that will be able to store more than 40,000 tons of excess contaminated water.

Retired engineer Yasuteru Yamada believes the Fukushima clean-up job is too important to be left to TEPCO. He has gathered 250 retirees and workers over 60 to form the team “Skilled Veterans Corps.” Yamada is seeking to replace the younger workers currently at the radiation-contaminated plant for “logical” reasons.

“I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live,” he says. “Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.”

So far, the Skilled Veterans Corps have not received permission from the Japanese government to enter the plant, while the radiation exposure limit for emergency workers has been raised from 100 millisieverts to 250 millisieverts. TEPCO released a statement today that at least eight of the plant workers have definitely been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, and though none of them are showing immediate health problems, they will require long-term monitoring as they have an increased risk of cancer. All eight have been transferred to desk jobs.

“We find it extremely regrettable,” said Tadashi Mori, a health ministry official in charge of occupational health. Mori said the ministry plans to take “appropriate steps’ over TEPCO’s violation when the results are confirmed. TEPCO has also admitted that workers in the earliest, most chaotic, dangerous moments of the crisis did not wear masks and lacked the appropriate equipment to monitor their radiation exposures.

Japan’s crisis inspired Germany’s recent decision to discontinue using nuclear power completely by 2020, but countries like France and the U.S. remain committed to their nuclear programs. Top U.S nuclear officials in The Nuclear Energy Institute, the Electric Power Research Institute and the Institute of Nuclear Power Relations have formed the “Fukushima Response Steering Committee” to “learn the lessons” from Japan and “apply them at our plants,” Tony Pietrangelo, the energy institute’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said at a news conference in Washington. “We must continually evolve and improve standards of practice and adapt to events and new information,” he said.

The U.S. government has already appointed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to conduct a 90-day review of U.S. reactor safety. Though the U.S. nuclear industry believes its plants are safe, the Fukushima Response Steering Committee will “triple check” existing U.S. standards, Pietrangelo said. This includes examining issues such as whether plants can cope with a “station blackout,” when power lines are cut and backup generators fail, or whether storage pools filled with spent radioactive fuel rods will overheat during an accident. The industry’s post-Fukushima review will aid the NRC’s work, he said.

The NRC has inspected how U.S. plants are prepared to prevent overheating and meltdown after extreme events like natural disasters and terrorist attacks as well as the nuclear industry’s plans for bringing reactors under control if a meltdown can’t be prevented. The NRC concluded that almost one in five nuclear plants needed to improve plans for preventing meltdowns after large fires, explosions, electricity blackouts or extreme floods, and while all nuclear plants have severe-accident guidelines, almost two in five don’t carry out drills on bringing a meltdown under control.

While Japanese officials hope for Fukushima to be stabilized and shut down by early next year, Americans remain concerned whether tests conducted by the NRC and industry groups will be sufficient in producing the investments needed to keep them safe from a similar catastrophe.

“The nuclear industry owns an alarming track record of ignoring safety flaws and downplaying lapses, and it does not deserve the trust of regulators or the public,” said Damon Moglen, the climate and energy project director at Friends of the Earth. “The more than 150 million Americans who live within an hour’s drive of a nuclear reactor deserve nothing short of a thorough, independent analysis of what went wrong in Fukushima and the threats posed by reactors in their backyards.”