Science in Society Archive

Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold

Fukushima is just one among many similar disasters waiting to happen worldwide; governments and regulators have systematically downplayed the risks and hidden the real costs of nuclear power; there is no place for nuclear in a truly green energy portfolio; furthermore, there is a lot we can do to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Nuclear crisis following earthquake & tsunami

On Friday 11 March 2011, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami. The official toll by 6 April was 12 468 dead, and more than 15 000 missing [1], hundreds of thousands lost their homes, millions are still either without electricity or affected by shortages of electricity [2]; and most worrying of all, a nuclear disaster with no end in sight. The earthquake and tsunami were unstoppable, but was the nuclear disaster waiting to happen, and could it have been avoided? 

It started with the earthquake, which damaged the power grid, cutting off the electricity needed to run the cooling system of the nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi station located in the town of Okuma in the Futaba District of Fukushima Prefecture on the east coast of Japan, 210 kilometres north of Tokyo. The station consists of six boiling water reactors designed by General Electric with a combined power of 4.7GW [3], and is one of the 25 largest nuclear power plants in the world.

On that day, reactor units 1, 2, and 3 were operating, but units 4, 5, and 6 had already shut down for routine inspection. When the earthquake struck, units 1, 2 and 3 shut down automatically, and electricity generation stopped. Normally the plant could use external electrical supply, which is essential for powering the cooling and control systems after shutdown, as substantial heat would still be generated by the fuel rods; but the earthquake had damaged the power grid. Emergency diesel generators started but stopped abruptly less than an hour later. The plant was protected by a sea wall designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 metres, but the tsunami rose to a height of over 10 metres, topping the sea wall and flooding the generator building. Further emergency power was supplied by batteries to last about eight hours.

The earthquake struck at 05:46 (GMT); Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan declared a nuclear emergency at 10:30. By midday, people living within 1.3 miles of the power station were evacuated [4]. At 19:30, a government spokesman admitted the possibility of radioactive material leaking from the reactor vessel. An hour later, engineers were forced to vent steam from reactor 1 to relieve pressure, which resulted in radioactive material leaking out.

At 07:37 the next day, an explosion destroyed the concrete building housing reactor 1. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano insisted the reactor core was intact. At 12:22, officials announced they were to flood the reactor with seawater to reduce the risk of overheating. Late that night, it was revealed that the cooling system of another reactor had failed. Next morning, Mr. Edano told a press conference that an explosion was possible at reactor 3, but again assured that “there would be no significant impact on human health.”

More than 200 000 people were evacuated from the area around the Fukushima plant late that afternoon.  Japanese officials confirmed that 22 people had suffered radiation contamination. The reactor 3 building exploded at 02:00, 14 March; again officials insisted the reactor core was intact. Two hours later, officials admitted that more than 190 people had been exposed to radiation. At 13:30, the government warned of a third explosion, and later admitting that the fuel rods were melting in all three reactors. Despite that, Cabinet Secretary Noriyuki Shikata stated: “We have no evidence of harmful radiation exposure.” The explosion tore through reactor 2 at 23:00.

At 01:00, 15 March, the Japanese government confirmed that there was damage to the structure of reactor 2. Mr Edano stated: “We have not recorded any sudden jump in radiation indicators.” An hour and a half later, Mr. Edano confirmed that reactor 4 building was on fire, releasing more radiation. At 02:40, Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned of danger from more leaks and told the 140 000 people living within 19 miles of Fukushima Daiichi to stay indoors, saying: “The [radioactivity] levels seem very high, and there is still a high risk of more radiation coming out.” Mr. Edano added: “Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health.”

Within the week, the nuclear accidents were upgraded from level four to five, on par with the Three Mile Island, and exceeded only by Chernobyl in 1986 [3]. Two days later (19 March), Managing Director of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owned the power plant, Akio Komiri, wept as government officials acknowledged that the radiation spewing from the over-heated reactors and spent-fuel storage ponds was enough to kill people [5].  Mr. Edano admitted that “the unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami” had not been anticipated under their “disaster management contingency plans.”

Meanwhile, workers at the devastated plant continued with their heroic battle to prevent a complete meltdown, which, some fear could be another Chernobyl. The spent fuel storage pond at Reactor No. 4 had boiled dry. Military trunks sprayed the reactors with tonnes of water for a second day. Engineers tried to get the cooling pumps working again after laying a new power line from the main grid. They admitted that burying the reactors under sand and concrete, as in Chernobyl, may be the only option to stop a catastrophic release of radiation.  

Some experts warned that even concrete burial was not without risk. 

Anatomy of the unfolding nuclear disaster

The Fukushima Daiichi reactors use U-235 fission to generate electricity for TEPCO (see box). Reactor No. 3 runs on mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, in which uranium is mixed with other fissile materials such as plutonium from spent reactor fuel or from decommissioned nuclear weapons [6].

How nuclear power works

Matter is made of atoms. An atom is the smallest unit of a chemical element. It consists of a core nucleus containing elementary particles protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons on the outside. Each proton carries a positive charge, which is balanced by the negative charge of each of the electrons, so that the atom is electrically neutral on the whole. Neutrons do not carry any electric charge.

The elements are identified by their atomic number - the number of protons, the same as the number of electrons - and atomic mass - the total number of protons and neutrons - the mass of electrons are very much smaller and therefore neglected in the atomic mass. The simplest element is hydrogen; it consists of a single proton and a single electron, and is represented as H with atomic number 1 and atomic mass1. Helium is the next simplest element with 2 protons and 2 neutrons, and is represented as He, with atomic number 2 and atomic mass 4. There are currently 118 elements identified.

Most elements exist as isotopes: different forms of the element that have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. Thus, hydrogen has two other isotopes, and unusually are given names of their own, deuterium (with one neutron, atomic mass 2) and tritium (with two neutrons, atomic mass 3). The element uranium has an atomic number of 92, with 92 protons in its nucleus, and between 141 and 146 neutrons, giving rise to six isotopes, identified by their atomic mass; the most common are U-238 (with 146 neutrons) and U-235 (with 143 neutrons). U-235 is unique in being the only naturally fissile isotope (i.e., capable of splitting).

The protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus are held together by strong forces, which overcome the electromagnetic repulsion between the positively charged protons.  Strong forces act only at very close range; beyond that, weak forces due to electromagnetic interactions take over, so like charges repel and opposite charges attract.

Nuclear power comes from the immense amount of heat energy released during nuclear fission of U-235 inside a nuclear reactor [7] (see Energy Strategies in Global Warming: Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?  SiS 27).  The nucleus of U-235, on being struck by a slow (relatively low energy) neutron, splits into two more or less equal halves, and at the same time, throws off two or three new neutrons (the number ejected depends on how the U-235 atom splits), which could be captured by other U-235 nuclei, setting off a chain reaction. However, U-235 comprises about 0.7 percent at most of naturally occurring uranium, and so the chance for getting a sustained chain reaction is very small. To get a sustained chain reaction for a nuclear reactor, U-235 has to be enriched to 3-4 percent. For nuclear weapons, enrichment to at least 90 percent is required [6].

The bulk of naturally occurring uranium is U-238, which is not fissile. However, on capturing a fast (high energy) neutron, U-238 undergoes transmutation into the next element plutonium, which is fissile. Thus, plutonium can be bred from uranium fuel in a reactor [7].

Most nuclear reactors, including those at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi generating station, rely on harnessing the heat from nuclear fission to boil water into steam, in order to drive steam turbines and generate electricity [6-8].

The enriched uranium is formed into inch-long pellets and stacked into long rods collected together into bundles. The bundles are submerged in water inside a pressure vessel. To prevent overheating, control rods made of materials that absorb neutrons, such as cadmium, boron or hafnium, are inserted into the uranium bundle. By raising or lowering the control rods, the rate of the nuclear reaction and hence the rate of heat production can be controlled. The uranium bundle heats the water and turns it into steam. The steam drives a turbine to produce power. In some nuclear power plants, the steam from the reactor goes through a secondary, intermediate heat exchanger to convert another body of water to steam to drives the turbine, so the radioactive water/steam (immediately next to the fuel rods) never contacts the turbine.

A concrete liner typically encloses the reactor’s pressure vessel and acts as a radiation shield. That liner, in turn, is enclosed within a much larger steel containment vessel, which also houses the equipment plant workers use to refuel and maintain the reactor. The steel containment vessel serves as a barrier (primary containment) to prevent leakage of any radioactive gases or fluids from the plant (see Figure 1). Finally, an outer concrete building protects the steel containment vessel. This concrete structure (secondary containment) is designed to be strong enough to withstand earthquakes or a crashing jet airliner. These secondary containment structures are necessary to prevent the escape of radiation/radioactive steam in the event of an accident. The absence of secondary containment structures in Russian nuclear power plants allowed radioactive material to escape in Chernobyl.

Figure 1  Fukushima reactor,

The pellets of uranium fuel are contained in fuel rods made of an alloy of zirconium. There are thousands of these fuel rods inside a reactor's innermost chamber, the pressure vessel (see box). Water inside the pressure vessel cools the fuel rods preventing overheating, and also creates the steam to drive the turbines.

The pressure chamber is encased in a protective steel shell called the primary containment vessel. Around the base of the primary containment vessel is a doughnut-shaped structure called the torus that serves a safety function [9].  If pressure becomes too high in the pressure vessel, steam can be vented into the torus through a series of relief valves. The primary containment vessel and the torus are in turn encased by the secondary containment building, a large box of steel and concrete. This building also houses a storage pool where spent nuclear fuel is kept in cold, circulating water. The water keeps the radioactive spent fuel from overheating and melting, and also prevents radiation going into the atmosphere.

When the earthquake struck offshore on Friday 11 March, the Fukushima Daiichi plant was not badly damaged, and its emergency shutdown procedures went into effect. The control rods were inserted among the fuel rods to stop the fission reaction.

But even though the fission reaction came to a halt, the radioactive by-products of past fission reactions continued to generate heat, so it is essential for cooling systems to continue working to prevent overheating and potential meltdown.

Explosion at reactor 1 building

It happened first in reactor 1 where intense heat inside the pressure vessel evaporated too much water, exposing the zirconium alloy fuel rods to steam and other gases, which caused reactions that produced hydrogen gas. As pressures in the inner chamber reached dangerously high levels, steam (containing some radioactive elements) was vented first into the primary containment vessel, and then into the secondary containment building. But the hydrogen gas appeared to have reacted with oxygen in the secondary containment structure, causing an explosion that ripped the roof off the building on Saturday. While this explosion did release some radioactive material, experts believed it did not damage the primary containment vessel [9, 3], but they were wrong (see later).

Explosion at reactor 3 building

A similar chain of events tore the roof off the building housing reactor 3 on Monday morning. There, the operators resorted to pumping seawater into the pressure chamber to cool it, but were not able to prevent the explosion. TEPCOofficials initially said that the No. 3 primary containment vessel was intact. But on Wednesday (16 March), white steam issued from building No. 3, raising fears that the primary containment vessel had cracked due to the explosion and was releasing radioactive steam. Even if the primary containment vessels were intact in these two reactors, the extremely high temperatures in the reactors may have melted parts of the zirconium alloy fuel rods, and some of the uranium pellets. Melted uranium could drip down to collect at the bottom of the pressure chamber. If enough of it gathers there, it could begin to eat through the chamber walls and then the primary containment vessel, resulting in the worst-case scenario commonly referred to as a complete “meltdown” [9].

There is also a danger of the fuel collecting and momentarily re-igniting a self-sustaining chain reaction.

Plant operators continued to pump seawater through reactors 1 and 3 in an effort to keep them cool and avert further explosions. The corrosive salt water has effectively rendered the reactors unfit for future use.

On 17 March, new problems arose at the No. 3 reactor site, this time at the spent fuel pool. It appeared that the pool had heated up, causing some of its water to evaporate away and possibly exposing the spent fuel rods to the air. That could cause the nuclear fuel inside to begin melting, increasing the amount of radiation emitted.

That morning, two helicopters flew over the building to dump water on building No. 3. Later that day, police trucks used water cannons to send jets of water into the building, with limited success. Finally the Japanese military sent its own water-spraying trucks to blast 30 tons of water into building No. 3 in 30 minutes. A day later, seven trucks repeated the water-spraying operation, blasting 45 tons of water into building No. 3.

Spikes of radiation made the situation increasingly dangerous for workers in the plant’s shielded control rooms and difficult for outside personnel to approach the site.

Reactor No. 2 explosion more serious

The accident in the No. 2 reactor building occurred during the morning of 15 March, and was regarded more serious than the two prior explosions because it was the first blast involving a primary containment vessel.

The operators were trying, with limited success, to pump seawater into the pressure chamber. According to reports, the vents intended to release steam and relieve pressure were stuck closed, and the high pressure inside the chamber prevented the injection of seawater. As the water level in the chamber stayed obstinately low, the fuel rods were thought to be fully exposed to the air for six and a half hours. Commenting on the crisis in the No. 2 reactor, TEPCO said it “could not deny the possibility that the fuel rods were melting.”

The blast in reactor building No. 2 was thought to involve the torus, when operators were venting steam into it to relieve pressure in the pressure chamber. The hydrogen exploded within the torus, damaging the primary containment chamber, so radioactive contamination would be free to escape.

TEPCO workers began trying to reconnect the plant to the electrical grid. But as of 22 March, Reactors 1, 2 and 3 were still without core cooling systems, and the fuel rods were thought to be partially or fully exposed [3].

Spent fuel at reactors No. 4, 5, and 6

These three reactors were offline at the time of the earthquake, but soon become another source of concern. Fires broke out in reactor building No. 4 on 15 and 16 March, and TEPCO officials warned that fires are possible in the other two buildings.

In these three buildings, spent fuel is stored in water-filled tanks and kept cool. In reactor building No. 4, the water temperature was reported to have risen from 40 to 84 C, suggesting that the fuel rods overheated, causing the zirconium alloy cladding to partially melt and react with water or steam to produce hydrogen gas that could have sparked a blast. According to reports, the actual substance burning in building No. 4 was lubricating oil used in machinery near the storage pool.

The fires in building No. 4 had gone out, but not before it had drastically, though temporarily, increased radiation levels around the reactor.

On 17 March, Unit 6 was reported to have diesel-generated power and this was to be used to power pumps in unit 5 to supply more water. Preparations were made to inject water into the reactor pressure vessel once mains power could be restored to the plant, as water levels in the reactors were said to be falling. It was estimated that grid power might be restored on 20 March through cables laid from a new temporary supply being constructed at units 1 and 2. But this was still not accomplished by 29 March (see below).

On 18 March reactor water levels remained around 2 m above the top of fuel rods. On 19 March emergency cooling was reestablished for Units 5 and 6. On 20 March NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) announced that both reactors had been returned to a condition of cold shutdown.  External power was partially restored to unit 5 via transformers at unit 6 on 21 March. As of 22 March, the spent fuel at reactors 5 and 6 remained undamaged [3].

Situation remains “very serious”

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains “very serious” to this day, according to IAEA update.

On 29 March, IAEA reported [10] contaminated water found in trenches close to the turbine buildings of Units 1 to 3. Dose rates at the surface of this water were 0.4 millisieverts/hour for Unit 1 and over 1000 millisieverts/hour for Unit 2 as of 26 March. A sievert is a dose of ionising x-ray or gamma radiation absorbed in body tissue equal to 1 joule per kilogram of body tissue. The average individual background radiation dose is 0.23μSv/hr (0.00023mSv/hr); 0.17μSv/hr for Australians, 0.34μSv/hr for Americans. The Fukushima level of >1 000 millisieverts/h is thus 4-5 million times the background. The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan said the higher activity in the water discovered in the Unit 2 turbine building may be caused by the water that has been in contact with molten fuel rods and “directly released” into the turbine building. In other words, a partial meltdown may have occurred. Measurements could not be carried out at Unit 3 because of “the presence of debris.”

Fresh water has been continuously injected into the Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) of Units 1, 2 and 3. From 29 March at Unit 1, the pumping of fresh water through the feed-water line will no longer be performed by fire trucks but by electrical pumps with a diesel generator. The switch to the use of such pumps has already been made in Units 2 and 3. At Unit 3, the fresh water is being injected through the fire extinguisher line.

Fresh water was to be pumped into the spent fuel pool of Unit 4.

Spreading contamination hazardous to health

Radioactive fission products have been spreading from Fukushima. The radioactive isotopes of greatest concern to health are Iodine-131 (I-131) and cesium-137 (Cs-137) [11]. I-131 has a half-life of 8 days (half of it will have decayed after 8 days). Therefore, it is most hazardous immediately following an accident. It also tends to vaporize and spread easily through the air. Iodine in the human body is taken up and concentrated by the thyroid, where it can lead to thyroid cancer in later life. Children exposed to I-131 are more likely than adults to get cancer later in life. To guard against absorption of I-131, people are advised to take potassium iodine pills proactively to saturate the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine so it is not able to absorb any iodine-131.

Cs-137 has a half-life of about 30 years, and will take more than a century to decay to a safe level. Within the body, Cs-137 substitutes for potassium, the major inorganic ions existing in high concentrations inside cells.  Cesium-137 is passed up the food chain, and can cause many different types of cancer.

On 28 March, deposit of iodine-131 was detected in 12 prefectures and cesium-137 in 9 prefectures of Japan [10]. The highest levels were found in the prefecture of Fukushima with 23000 becquerel per square metre for iodine-131 and 790 becquerel per square metre for caesium-137. (A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity defined as 1 nuclear transformation per second. There is an average of about 50 becquerel per cubic metre of air inside a home from radon.)

Based on measurements of I-131 and Cs-137 in soil sampled from 18 to 26 March in 9 municipalities at distances of 25 to 58 km from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, the total deposition of iodine-131 and cesium-137 has been calculated. The average total deposition determined for iodine-131 range from 0.2 to 25 Megabecquerel per square metre and for cesium-137 from 0.02-3.7 Megabecquerel per square metre. The highest values were found in a relatively small area in the Northwest from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

As of 28 March, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s recommendations for restrictions on intake of drinking water based on I-131 concentration remain in place only in four locations in the prefecture of Fukushima. To date, no recommendations for restrictions have been made based on Cs-137. The Japanese limit for the ingestion of drinking water by infants is 100 becquerels per litre.

Five soil samples, collected at distances between 500 and 1000 metres from the exhaust stack of Unit 1 and 2 of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on 21 and 22 March, were analysed for plutonium-238 and for the sum of plutonium-239 and plutonium-240.

Concentrations reported are similar to those deposited in Japan as a result of the testing of nuclear weapons.

As for food contamination, Japan’s Health Ministry reported on 25 March that tests have found levels of radioactive iodine up to 17 to 20 times the legal limit in samples of raw milk, spinach and two leaf vegetables as far away as 75 miles from the damaged nuclear plant [12]. Contamination was also found on canola and chrysanthemum greens in three more prefectures.  Tainted milk was found 20 miles from the nuclear plant, spinach was collected from farms up to 75 miles south of the plant. Testing at some locations also found levels of radioactive caesium 4 times the legal limit.

According to the Los Angeles Times,TEPCO revealed on 5 April that it had found I-131 at 7.5 million times the legal limit in a seawater sample taken near the stricken Fukushima plant, and government officials instituted a health limit for radioactivity in fish [13]. Other samples contained radioactive caesium at 1.1 million times the legal limit. On 4 April, Japanese officials detected more than 4 000 becquerels of racioactive iodine per kilogram in a fish called sand lance caught less than 3 miles offshore from the town of Kitaibaraki, about 50 miles south of Fukushima Kaiichi, the fish also contained 447 becquerels of Cs-137.

On 5 April, Mr. Edano said the government was imposing a standard of 2 000 becquerels of radioactive iodine per kilogram of fish, the same level it allows in vegetables.

For comparison, the European Union’s legal limit before Japan’s nuclear crisis was 600 becquerels (cesium 134 and cesium 137) per kilogram; but has since jumped more than 20 fold to 12 500 becquerels per kilogram [14].

All three reactors damaged and releasing high levels of radioactivity

The IAEA update on 4 April 2011 [15] stated that full off-site power from the grid has been restored to temporary electric pumps set up to supply water to cool the reactor vessels 1, 2 and 3. It also revealed that all three reactor vessels had been damaged, with reactor 2 “severely damaged”. Highly radioactive water was leaking from a crack in the turbine building of reactor 2 to the sea at 5 million times the legal limit (down from high of 7.5 million times).  

Meanwhile radioactive wastewater had been accumulating in the reactor buildings, and TEPCO had been given permission by the Japanese Government to discharge 10 000 tonnes of low level contaminated water from their radioactive waste treatment facility to the sea. This is in order to make room for storing highly contaminated water found in the basement of Unit 2 turbine building.  A further  1 500 tonnes of low level contaminated water will be discharged from the pit under the drains of units 5 and 6 to prevent water leaking into the reactor buildings and potentially damaging safety-related equipment.

The level of contamination in the low level permitted discharge is 100 times the legal limit [2], in addition to the highly radioactive leaks into the sea.

 “As a result of Tokyo electric’s desperate but failed efforts to cool the reactors, they are about to release perhaps an unprecedented amount of radioactivity into the environment,” Shaun Burnie, a nuclear consultant to Greenpeace Germany told the Guardian [2].

Officials say the situation is unlikely to get under control for several months, and independent analysts warn it might be years.

TEPCO reported success in plugging the leak on 6 April, though there remains uncertainty as to where the radioactive water was leaking from [13].  Meanwhile, a new threat has emerged [1].

Officials at TEPCO said a dangerous hydrogen buildup is taking place at reactor 1 inside the reactor's containment vessel, a sign that the reactor's core has been damaged, and another explosion may result from the hydrogen buildup. Engineers are injecting nitrogen into the reactor to drive out oxygen.

Nuclear safety in the spotlight

The Fukushima disaster dominated a meeting in Vienna of signatories to the Convention on Nuclear Safety that was supposed to prevent a repeat of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl [2].

“I know you will agree with me that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has enormous implications for nuclear power and confronts all of us with a major challenge,” Yukiya Amano, head of the IAEA, told the participants, “We cannot take a ‘business as usual’ approach.”

It has been clear for some time now that the ‘business as usual’ approach is inadequate (see [16] Close-up on Nuclear Safety, SiS 40). A detailed assessment of nuclear accidents and malfunction carried out by Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed a litany of design faults in nuclear reactors that fail to protect the public adequately against accidents and malfunction due to human error, mechanical hitches, or external events such as tornados and earthquakes. In particular, there is no protection against malevolent or terrorist attacks. This applies to both existing nuclear reactors and “Generation III” reactors in the pipelines or under construction. So in many ways, Fukushima was a disaster waiting to happen. But it is by no means alone.

In particular, Thompson condemned the calculation of risk in risk assessment (which applies to everything from nuclear power to GMOs), in which risk = hazard x probability. So however big the hazard, it can be reduced to a very small acceptable risk if the probability is close to zero; such as a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a giant tsunami.

The Fukushima disaster has triggered a re-evaluation of nuclear energy programmes worldwide [17]. Leak of water from Canadian Pickering Nuclear Generating Station into Lake Ontario, 5 days after Fukushima caused many Canadians to question the safety of nuclear power plants. In the United States, a New York Times editorial called for Americans to “closely study” their own plans for coping with natural disasters. Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, said Fukushima was “a wake-up call for anyone who believed that, after 50 years of nuclear power in this world, we have figure it out and can go back to business as usual.” Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced a freeze on all nuclear power development projects, including design of a nuclear power plant contracted with Russia. China froze nuclear plant approvals on 16 March.

The US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported 14-near misses at US nuclear plants in the past year alone [18]. The serious lapses included engineers accidentally switching off safety system, electrical circuits failing and workers not knowing how to activate the system to summon emergency services. The UCS report released 18 March 2011 came as Obama ordered a comprehensive review of US’ 104 active nuclear power plants. The report says the review is much needed, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a mixed safety record, catching some problems but overlooking others, or allowing them to be neglected.

UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said Britain may back away from nuclear energy because of safety fears and a potential rise in costs after the Fukushima disaster [19].

Countries around the world are reviewing their nuclear options [20]. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a three-month review of plans to continue operating her country's 17 nuclear power plants. Switzerland suspended the approval process for three nuclear power plants, so safety standards can be reconsidered. And India has ordered safety inspections for all of its nuclear plants. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her country has plenty of alternative sources of energy and does not need nuclear power.

The Japanese government has criticized TEPCO for its handling of the nuclear disaster, including giving confusing radiation readings, being slow to admit the seriousness of the situation, and in its response. Many Japanese people no longer trust the company [21].

The Wikileaks website released recent US embassy cables expressing unease over all

the different nuclear power companies operating in Japan, of which TEPCO is the biggest. Taro Kono, a member of the Japanese parliament, told US diplomats that these firms were “hiding the costs and safety problems associated with nuclear energy.” That is no news (see [22] The Real Cost of Nuclear Power, SiS 47 and [23] Nuclear Industry’s Financial and Safety Nightmare, SiS 40, debunking the UK government’s estimates). A report several years ago found that TEPCO falsified nuclear safety data at least 200 times between 2000 and 2007.

The Japanese government has attempted to downplay the health hazard from the radiation leaks, as have governments and regulators worldwide. They have also been at pains to minimize the deaths from past nuclear disasters. The official number of deaths attributed to Chernobyl by the IAEA is 4 000. But senior Russian scientists documented deaths and illnesses at least 100 times more [24] (see Truth about Chernobyl, SiS 47).

Fukushima the last nail in the coffin?

Fukushima should be the last nail in the coffin for the nuclear industry, as so much damning evidence has emerged indicating that it is extremely uneconomical and unsafe as well as highly unsustainable. Nuclear is not a renewable energy. In terms of savings in carbon emissions and energy, it is worse than a gas-fired electricity generating plant when available uranium ore falls below 0.02 percent, as it would in decades, just simply keeping up with existing nuclear facilities [25] (see The Nuclear Black Hole, SiS 40).

There are other repercussions.

Japan’s nuclear disaster is toxic, not just for the environment - in the huge amounts of radioactive wastes spewed out into the atmosphere, deposited on land, leaked, and indeed flushed out into the sea - it is also toxic for Tokyo Electric Power Company [21]. UK’s Guardian newspaper reports the company facing a financial meltdown while its engineers are struggling to bring the nuclear meltdown under control. TEPCO’s Nikkei stock index plummeted by 18 percent on 4 April to a 60 year low; the Japanese are losing faith in their nuclear industry.

TEPCO faces hefty costs for replacement power, construction of new generation capacity in place of damaged plants, and decommissioning at least 4 and possibly all 6 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. It is also liable for compensation to local businesses and residents affected by the radiation leaks; and lawsuits are likely. An analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated compensation charges of over £74 bn if the crisis continues for more than two years.

TEPCO is being propped up by the Bank of Japan and other big Japanese Banks, and three major financial institutions are lending 1.9 trillion yen to deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, TEPCO’s credit rating has been downgraded by Moody’s and Standard & Poor. Moody’s said: “TEPCO will remain highly leveraged and unprofitable for an extended period of time and will face substantial risk regarding nuclear liability.”

TEPCO’s finance is so intricately bound up with the big banks that its demise will definitely send shivers throughout the world’s financial markets already knee-deep in national debts and recession.

There is talk of nationalisation to prevent loss of confidence in the world markets.

Financial markets have already responded with sharp falls. The stock prices of many energy companies reliant on nuclear sources dropped; while the one silver lining in this unmitigated disaster is that renewable energy companies rose in value dramatically by 15 to 20 percent [26]. It reaffirms the conclusions of our special report [27] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 that a wide variety of affordable and truly green energies - renewable, environmentally friendly, healthy, safe, non-polluting and sustainable – are already available for all nations to become energy self-sufficient and 100 percent renewable within decades. Policies and legisations that promote innovations and internal market, and decentralised, distributed small to micro-generation are the key.

We have explicitly ruled out the nuclear option, with a recommendation that existing nuclear power stations should be decommissioned at the end of their designated life times. Uranium mining should cease and clean-up should begin. At the same time, weapons grade uranium should be consumed in existing reactors in accordance with nuclear disarmament. In addition, major public investment should be directed towards making safe toxic and radioactive nuclear wastes by means of low energy nuclear transmutation (see final chapter of our report [27], also [28]Transmutation, The Alchemist Dream Come True and other articles in the series, SiS 36; and [29] LENRs for Nuclear Waste Disposal, SiS 41) for this new scientific development that is still being ignored by the mainstream. There is hope for putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle.


A month after the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is still in a dangerous condition [30]. While the release of radioactive material has slowed down, it has already reached a tenth that of Chernobyl, which is why the INES rating of the incident has been raised to 7, the maximum. TEPCO itself has warned that the radiation total could still exceed the Chernobyl figure if the leaks are not repaired. According to a leaked assessment by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there is still a danger that the containment structures or the emergency cooling systems may fail. The IAEA states that the situation remains very serious; the most positive thing it can find to say is that there are early signs of recovery in in some functions such as electrical power and instrumentation. The Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan has acknowledged that despite all the efforts that have been made in the past month, “ ... it has not yet reached the point where we can predict what will happen.”

Article first published 11/04/11


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Rory Short Comment left 12th April 2011 17:05:17
As a retired ex-engineer turned IT professional it was fascinating reading here-in of the events and remedial actions taken at Fukushima. Sitting here in Johannesburg South Africa reading this article was a bit like having an armchair read of a gripping fictional thriller the trouble is that it was not fiction and even more importantly it need never have happened if the nuclear plant had never been built in the first place. Such events arise from hazards that are completely humanly created. It is completely within our choice as to whether we create such hazards or not. Why do we do it then? I think the under-lying motivation in the creators of these hazards is purely and simply short term financial rewards for themselves and they manage to dupe the rest of society into going along with their plans.

Todd Millions Comment left 13th April 2011 18:06:48
A good summa-I've limited terminal time,and have had too rely on machine translations from japanese,which is fraught but fukushima was reported too having had its operation licence renewed on all reactors-before the quake(since removed from tepco site) and the decade long pr engineering here in the frosty bannana republic-That-'if only chernobayl had had a containment structure,it wouldn't have blown up'cant,only stopped after the 3rd explosion at fukushima. The rest of the ongoing b.s. by'hoggetowne experts' is simply staggering.As is the media complicity. While is too soon-I would like too know how much worse the waves would have being without the barrier walls.Those at least would have being done as well as could be.I should also like too know-how much of the small hydro that japan gets most of its electricity from survived the quake and with what damage?This is vital since despite limited pondage too store capacity,I expect that as japanese researches have already shown-Solar panel tiled roofs,WIth this hydro cap-for night and cloud conditions could supply all electrical needs with an elegant load match.Lovins has reported that 70% of the hydro capacity survived WW2intact,and was vital too the rebuilding efforts after.So how much survived a quake unprecedented even in Japan would be of some vital intrest,and a foudation for MUCH needed reality.