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No One Wants You to Know How Bad Fukushima Might Still Be

From an incredible article in Vice: “In July, when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced it would move forward with its plan to construct an “ice wall” around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s failed reactors, it seemed like a step backwards. In June, the utility company in charge of decommissioning the plant—which was ravaged by a tsunami in March 2011—indicated that its initial attempt at installing a similar structure had flopped. Its pipes were apparently unable to freeze the ground, despite being filled with a -22°F chemical solution.

Similar techniques have been successfully used by engineers to build underwater car tunnels and mine shafts. But Dr. Dale Klein, an engineer and expert on nuclear policy, isn’t so sure it’ll produce the same results on a project of this magnitude. He says that although freezing the ground around reactors one through four might help corral the water that’s being used by TEPCO as a coolant, there’s little technical understanding of how the natural water sources surrounding the plant might respond. “As the water comes down the mountains towards the ocean, it’s not clear to me that [TEPCO] really know how it is going to move around that frozen barrier,” he said in an interview with VICE.

“But it has to go somewhere,” he continued. “It’s such a complicated site and problem, and I don’t know if they fully understand that yet.”

It’s worrying to hear doubt from someone like Klein, whose expertise ranges from politics to pedagogy. He was appointed to chair the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bush in 2006 and, after stepping down in 2009, he served as the organization’s commissioner in 2010. Now, in addition to being associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, he’s part of an international TEPCO advisory panel and visits Japan three to four times a year to work with officials as they struggle to helm a largely ad hoc clean up effort.

Aside from TEPCO’s unwillingness to consider other engineering solutions, his main point of criticism about Japan’s largest utility company is rooted in one that countless others have voiced since the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami): a suspicious disregard for keeping the public informed.

“When rumors start circulating, TEPCO needs to come forward right away and say, ‘This is what we know, this is what we don’t know,’ rather than staying silent,” Klein said. “They give off the perception that they’re covering up something, when that isn’t what they’re doing at all.”

But it’s hard to give TEPCO the benefit of the doubt when misinformation, lying, and a sub-par approach to safety culture have been central to this quagmire since before the natural disasters. While it’s rarely constructive to point fingers in a time of crisis, it’s worth noting that TEPCO has been reprimanded by the Japanese government, international scientists, peace-keeping organizations, global media outlets, and both anti- and pro-nuclear advocates for its unwillingness to disclose key details at a time when they are desperately needed. Coupled with the unmitigated radiation still pouring into Pacific waters, this helps explain why a Japanese judicial panel announced in late July that it wants TEPCO executives to be indicted.

This negligence can be traced back to the Fukushima plant’s meltdown. Just three months after the plant was crippled, theWall Street Journal came out with a report culled from a dozen interviews with senior TEPCO engineers saying its operators knew some reactors were incapable of withstanding a tsunami. Since the Daiichi plant’s construction in the late 1960s, engineers had approached higher-ups to discuss refortifying the at-risk reactors, but these requests were denied due to concerns over renovation costs and an overall lack of interest in upgrading what was, at the time, a functioning plant. In 2012, it came to light that one such cost-cutting measure was the use of duct tape to seal leaking pipes within the plant.

A year after theWall Street Journalreport, TEPCO announced that the Daiichi plant’s meltdown had released 2.5 times more radiation into the atmosphere than initially estimated. The utility cited broken radiation sensors within the plant’s proximity as the main reason for this deficit and, in the same statement, claimed that 99 percent of the total radiation released from the Daiichi plant occurred during the last three weeks of March 2011. That last part turned out to be untrue—a year later, in June 2013, TEPCO admitted that almost 80,000 gallons of contaminated water had been leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day since the meltdown. As of today, that leak continues.

This year marked the disaster’s third anniversary, but new accounts of mismanagement and swelling radiation levels continue to surface. In February, TEPCO revealed that groundwater sources near the Daiichi plant and 80 feet from the Pacific Ocean contained 20 million becquerels of the harmful radioactive element Strontium-90 per gallon (one becquerel equals one emission of radiation per second). Even though the internationally accepted limit for Strontium-90 contamination in water hovers around 120 becquerels per gallon, these measurements were hidden from Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority for nearly four months. As a response, the national nuclear watchdog agency censured TEPCO for lacking a “fundamental understanding of measuring and handling radiation.”

And last month, TEPCO told reporters that 14 different rice paddies outside Fukushima’s exclusion zone were contaminated in August 2013, after a large piece of debris was removed from one of the Daiichi plant’s crippled reactors. The readings were taken in March 2014, but TEPCO didn’t publicize their findings until four months later, at the start of July — meaning almost a year had passed since emissions had begun to accumulate at dangerous levels in Japan’s most sacred food.

The list, unfortunately, goes on. This is merely the abridged account of TEPCO’s backpedalling and PR shortfalls. It begs many questions, but the most perplexing one is: Why? Why has a crisis that is gaining traction as the worst case of nuclear pollution in history — worse, emission-wise, than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Chernobyl—being smothered with internal censorship? If omission of information isn’t intentional, like Dr. Klein suggests, why haven’t these revelations led to a stronger institutional effort to contain Fukushima and reduce the chance that irregularities go unnoticed or unreported?

When I asked past Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Helen Caldicott these questions, she was quick to respond: “Because money matters more than people.”

Dr. Caldicott was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School when she became president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an American organization of doctors against nuclear warfare, climate change, and other environmental issues, in 1978. The organization, along with its parent body the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, a year after Caldicott left.

Last September, Caldicott organized a symposium at the New York Academy of Medicine entitled, “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of Fukushima,” and has a book coming out on the issue this October. Her expertise on the subject is founded on academic research, but also her lifelong role as a doctor practicing preventative medicine in the nuclear age.

“Japan produces parts for nuclear reactors, like reactor containment vessels,” she said in an interview with VICE. “They’re heavily invested in nuclear power, even though they actually have access to nine times more renewable energy than Germany.”

Although Caldicott says what separates Fukushima from Chernobyl is the continuous leakage of radioactive material, in her eyes they’re unified by an institutionalized effort to keep the veil from lifting. “The Japanese government took three months to tell the world that there had been three meltdowns, even though the meltdowns had taken place in the first three days,” she said. “They’re not testing the food routinely. In fact, they’re growing food in highly radioactive areas, and there are stories that the most radioactive food is being canned and sold to third-world countries.”

“Some doctors in Japan are starting to get very worried about the fact that they’re seeing an increase in diseases but they’re being told not to tell their patients that the diseases are related to radiation,” she continued. “This is all because of money. Bottom line.”

The money she refers to isn’t only rooted in Japan’s export of nuclear reactor parts, or the fact that the economy is starting to reclaim its reign over Japan’s national consciousness. It’s threaded throughout a history of collusion and secretive deals that extend beyond TEPCO’s record. Late last month, a long-term vice president of the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), which sourced nearly 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power sources like Fukushima before the 2011 accident, revealed to Japanese reporters that the company’s president donated approximately $3.6 million to seven different Japanese prime ministers and other political figures between 1970 and 1990. The amount officials received was based on how much their incumbency profited the nuclear and electric energy sectors.

And if it’s not money that lies beneath these multi-faceted attempts at obscuring information about Fukushima, it’s the fear of mass hysteria. When it was revealed that the United Nations-affiliated pro-nuclear group International Atomic Energy Association made a deal with local government officials in Fukushima to classify information that might stoke public concern (like, observers speculate, cancer rates and radiation levels), civilian fears of a cover-up campaign crept out of the mischief associated with conspiracy and into the gravity of a situation that feels more and more surreal.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Royce Christyn
About Royce Christyn (3467 Articles)
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