« Thousands protest in Japan to remember Fukushima and say "no" to nukes | Main | LIVE WEBCAST: Nuclear Free Planet Symposium on “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident,” March 11-12, 2013 »

The second annual commemoration of Fukushima: the still ongoing accident where an elusive cleanup is really “trans-contamination”

The recovery from the Great Tohoku Earthquake of Eastern Japan and tsunami lags behind schedule. What was supposed to account for temporary housing for tens of thousands of Japanese for two years lingers on for at least several more years. The recovery from the disaster that took away more than 19,000 Japanese lives and millions of tons of debris out into the Pacific Ocean has been compared to the recovery from the devastation of World War II.  While most of the inland debris has been removed much of what were coastal communities remain barren foundations and empty lots.   

But for roughly 160,000 Japanese people evacuated from a 12-mile radius area (230 square miles) around the radioactive ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and an additional 80 square miles to northwest there is no foreseeable return  given that the Japanese government has declared it too radioactive for human habitation.  A larger area roughly the size of Connecticut however is now radioactively contaminated above levels formerly considered radioactive enough to require population relocation (1 millisievert per year).  But in the immediate wake of Fukushima catastrophe, the Japanese government raised this radiation exposure limit to 20 millisieverts per year leaving hundreds of thousands of Japanese living on radioactively contaminated land with the option of “voluntary evacuation” without government benefit for relocation, employment and compensation.

The gargantuan task of cleanup and recovery from the nuclear catastrophe is being stymied by the radioactive gaseous releases measured in billions of becquerels still escaping from the ruptured reactor containment structures. Tens of millions of gallons, hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of highly radioactive seawater that has been pumped into the reactors to cool the destroyed fuel cores are mounting daily in storage tanks on site.  But as storage space for the growing tank farm runs out, Tokyo Electric Power Company has recently announced that it wants to start dumping  “treated” water back into the Pacific Ocean. 

What to do with the radioactive wreckage and the melted nuclear fuel remains a hopeful best guess.  The decommissioning estimates that start out as a projected 40-year task and an estimated $100 billion price tag could yet be eclipsed by yet another and potentially larger disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi site. Any honest and reliable account of a recovery operation’s ultimate time, cost and success remains dubious until the four destroyed reactor units are stabilized and the radioactive leakage halted.  More than a hundred tons of irradiated nuclear fuel precariously sitting in Unit 4 elevated “spent” fuel pool six to ten story up in the damaged reactor building.  This radioactive menace as that in Units 1-3  needs to be expeditiously transferred into more stable dry cask storage canisters before the next predicted major earthquake and tsunami causes any one of theses storage pools to collapse resulting in an atomic fire in the open atmosphere and a radioactive release many times larger than the current catastrophe.

The work to remove the melted reactor fuel deeper in the three reactors currently thought to still be in the basements is not planned to even begin before 2021.  But its exact location is unknown. Multi-million dollar robotic explorations have initially failed after silently disappearing inside the highly radioactive reactor complex.  Meanwhile, TEPCO laborers face an unprecedented danger. Outside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 radiation levels still soar to 1,710 microsieverts/hour. A chest X-ray by comparison is equivalent to 50 microsieverts.  Laborers must battle with these high radiation exposures day to day, both externally and internally, where the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO) admits that at least one-third of the labor force will eventually suffer from thyroid cancer, leukemia and solid cancers. Even this figure is  an unreliable minimum number given the recognized authoritative influence and nuclear power promotional bias exercised by the International Atomic Energy Commission over WHO.

Ultimately, all of these so-called “cleanup,” “decontamination,” and “decommissioning” operations are more clearly being recognized by the Japanese people as the “trans-contamination” of this nuclear catastrophe. Where, in fact,  is this mountain of radioactive debris really going to go? Which communities are going to voluntarily accept to “share the burden”?  The melted reactor fuel, the irradiated fuel parceled and stored in dry casks, the growing lake of radioactive water being stored in larger tank farms, and the contaminated earth being bulldozed into piles and draped with plastic tarpaulins don’t really constitute a “cleanup” if it means moving the contamination to another location, another community, and another generation that will receive all the liability and not one watt of benefit.