Fukushima’s underground ice wall keeps nuclear radiation at bay — CNET

” The intricate network of small metal pipes, capped off by six-foot-high metal scaffolding, shouldn’t stand out amid the numerous pieces of industrial equipment littered throughout the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. After all, it’s a power plant.

I take a closer look, and notice spheres of ice perched upon the smaller pipes, which line the center of the structure. The facility sits at the water’s edge, and there’s a brisk breeze blowing through.

But not that brisk.

It turns out, coolant is running through the pipes, freezing the soil below and creating an impermeable ice wall that’s nearly 100 feet deep and a mile long, encircling the reactors.

It’s like a smaller-scale subterranean version of the Wall in Game of Thrones, but instead of keeping out White Walkers and wights, this line of defense keeps in a far more realistic danger: radioactive contaminants from melted-down reactors that threaten to spill into the water by Fukushima Daiichi.

Daiichi is the site of the worst nuclear disaster, which happened after an earthquake hit on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami that devastated the facility. Two 50-foot-high waves knocked out the power generators that were keeping three of the six reactors’ fuel rods cool, triggering explosions and meltdowns that forced more than 160,000 people to flee their homes. Many of them still haven’t returned.

I came to Fukushima to check out the robots tasked with the near-impossible task of cleaning up Fukushima Daiichi. While here, I encountered this underground wall of ice.

The structure, which cost roughly $300 million, paid for by public funds, serves as critical protection, defending the Fukushima area from one of the most radioactive hotspots in the world. While Tokyo Electric Power Co., also known as Tepco, struggles to find a way to remove radioactive material from the facility – a process the government estimates could take more than four decades – the more immediate concern is what to do with the contaminated water leaking out from the facility.

One of the solutions has been to put up (down?) this underground ice wall, which prevents much of the surrounding groundwater from getting in. And while the practice of freezing soil to create a barrier has been around for more than 150 years, the magnitude of the application that stands before me is quite literally groundbreaking.

“Nobody has taken on a project of this scale,” Hideki Yagi, general manager of Tepco’s Nuclear Power Communications Unit, tells me through an interpreter.

Ice cold

While the term “ice wall” has a colorful ring to it, engineers use the more academic-sounding term Artificial Ground Freezing. The technique came out of France in 1862 as a way to help with the construction of mine shafts before German engineer F.H. Poetsch patented it. Since then, it’s been used to aid in building underwater tunnels or vertical shafts, as well as to cut off groundwater or redirect contaminated materials.

At Fukushima, my eyes follow the path of the pipes, which stretch around the reactor building. A Tepco employee tells me that a calcium chloride solution is pumped down through a smaller inner pipe, and circulated back up a large outer pipe.

The coolant brings down the temperature of each pipe to -30 degrees Celsius, or -22 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pipes are spaced about three feet apart. The cold emanating from each one hardens the soil around it.

The point of the ice wall is to keep the groundwater that runs down from the mountains to the west from entering Fukushima Daiichi and mixing with the toxic water leaking out of the Unit 1, 2 and 3 reactors. That is,  keep the clean water on the outside of the wall, while the contaminated water stays inside.

Tepco and manufacturing partners, such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi, are working on robots to identify and determine how to clear out the radioactive materials in each of the reactors’ primary containment vessels, essentially the heart of each facility.

Until then, they need a way to slow or stop the flow of water into the facility. At least initially, Tepco wasn’t even sure if the project was feasible.

“One of the challenges was how they would inject the pipes into the earth at such a deep level without impacting the other operations around it, and whether it would work,” Yagi says.

With the wall in place, Tepco says it has been able to reduce the level of contaminated water generated from Daiichi. But a Reuters report in March 2018 found that the wall still let a fair amount of clean water in, adding to the volume of toxic water the company needs to deal with. Tepco, however, says it’s been effective in reducing the volume.

“We know this is not the end of our effort,” says a company spokesman. “We will be continuously working hard to reduce the amount of  generation of contaminated water.”

The leaky bucket

Imagine a leaky bucket that constantly needs to be filled with water. At the same time, the water from the leak needs to be collected and stored. And there’s no end in sight to this cycle.

That essentially is the problem that Tepco faces at Daiichi. The fuel rods stored in the three radioactive units constantly have to be cooled with fresh water, but leaks mean the company needs to be vigilant about keeping the tainted liquid from getting out of the facility’s grounds.

Since the accident nearly eight years ago, Tepco has collected 1.1 million tons of contaminated water in 900 tanks stored on the grounds at Daiichi. The company estimates it has enough space in the 37.7-million-square-foot facility to house an additional 270,000 tons of water, which means it would run out sometime in 2020.

“We’re conscious of the fact that we can’t keep storing more and more water,” Kenji Abe, a spokesman for Tepco’s decommissioning and decontamination unit, says through an interpreter.

Tepco has worked on several solutions to decrease the level of contaminated water generated by the facility. The company has switched from tanks sealed with bolts to welded tanks, which offer greater storage capacity and less risk of leaks. There’s a steel wall by the water to keep the contaminants from flowing into the ocean. Tepco has also covered 96 percent of the surface of most of the facility with concrete, preventing rainwater from seeping in.

Then there’s the ice wall, which has done its share of lowering the amount of contaminated water generated from the facility by keeping out most of the groundwater.

Over the past three and a half years, Tepco has seen the amount of polluted water generated fall by a quarter to just under 3,900 cubic feet of water per day, with occasional spikes during periods of rainfall.

The final element

I’m in full protective gear, including a Tyvek coverall, hardhat and full-face respirator mask, walking through one of three water treatment facilities at Daiichi. I move hastily, trying to keep up with my Tepco guides, when my suit gets snagged on an exposed bolt.

Did the suit rip? My eyes shoot back at my photographer and widen with fear. This is usually the part in an outbreak movie that dooms a key character. I look down and see the suit is still intact, and breathe a sigh of relief.

It turns out, I didn’t need to panic. The facility, called the Advanced Liquid Processing System, isn’t radioactive, although it’s designed to remove radioactive elements from the collected water. There are three such facilities, which can process a total of 70,630 cubic feet of water a day.

So far, treatment technology from partner companies like Kurion and Sarry have enabled Tepco to remove 62 of the 63 radioactive elements from the water, but one, tritium, remains.

It’s this one element, which is bonded to the water at an atomic level, that means Tepco needs to keep collecting and storing the water.

Lake Barrett, a senior adviser to Tepco who previously served as acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the US Department of Energy, notes that reactors in China and Canada already discharge water with tritium.

“It’s fundamentally safe,” Barrett says.

But organizations such as Greenpeace have called for Tepco to keep storing the water, noting that much of the early batches of treated water far exceed safety limits for radioactive elements.

Given the sensitivities around Fukushima, Tepco must continue to store the water. A spokesman said the company isn’t planning to disperse the water. But it is one option being considered by the Japanese government, which ultimately makes the decision.

“Resolving the issue of the contaminated water is something we haven’t yet reached a final solution on,” Yagi says.

Analyzing the data

Underneath the building housing the restaurant and employee rest area is a water treatment analysis center, a super-clean area that requires us to go through numerous radiation tests and four sets of boot changes.

There are glass beakers containing sea water, groundwater and water from the ALPS facilities. Scientists walk around in silence, moving beakers from one machine to another. A dozen machines in a second room measure the gamma ray levels.

The facility was originally built underground in 2014 because it needed to be on the Daiichi site, but couldn’t be exposed to radiation because of the nature of the tests. The walls are 8 inches thick, with the more sensitive labs hardened with an additional 20 inches. The facility has grown by 16 times over the past four years as it expanded the number of workers and machines.

“No other facility in Japan can handle the amount of data and work we do here,” says a Tepco scientist working at the facility who preferred not to identify himself.

He adds that all of the data is released publicly. “That’s because society demands work with a high level of trust,” he says.

The scientist explains that Japan has set a legal radioactivity limit of 60,000 becquerel per liter of tritium. But the treated water is still at 1.7 million Bq per liter, or roughly 30 times what’s deemed safe.

So, for now, Tepco must continue collecting the water. And the ice wall continues to stand, invisible to onlookers, as one of the most important lines of defense. ”

by Roger Cheng, CNET

source with photos and a video showing how robots have been used to view melted fuel

Prime Minister Abe uses the Tokyo Olympics as snake oil cure for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdowns — Fairewinds Energy Education

” As we prepare for the eighth remembrance of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, Fairewinds is ever mindful of what is currently happening in Japan.

There has never been a roadmap for Japan to extricate itself from the radioactive multi-headed serpentine Hydra curse that has been created in an underfunded, unsuccessful attempt to clean-up the ongoing spread of migrating radioactivity from Fukushima. Rather than focus its attention on mitigating the radioactive exposure to Japan’s civilians, the government of Japan has sought instead to redirect world attention to the 2020 Olympics scheduled to take place in Tokyo.

Truthfully, a situation as overwhelming as Fukushima can exist in every location in the world that uses nuclear power to produce electricity. The triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi are the worst industrial catastrophe that humankind has ever created.

Prior to Fukushima, the atomic power industry never envisioned a disaster of this magnitude anywhere in the world. Worldwide, the proponents and operators of nuclear power plants still are not taking adequate steps to protect against disasters of the magnitude of Fukushima!

Parts of Japan are being permanently destroyed by the migrating radioactivity that has been ignored, not removed, and subsequent ocean and land contamination is expanding and destroying once pristine farmlands and villages. For reference in the US and other countries, Fukushima Prefecture is approximately the size of the State of Connecticut. Think about it, how would an entire State – its woods, rivers, and valleys, eradicate radioactive contamination?

Let’s begin with the reactors and site itself. There was a triple meltdown in 2011, yet Tokyo Electric banned the use of the word “meltdown” in any of its communications with Japanese civilians. Now we know that in the first week after the tsunami, each molten radioactive core melted through its six-inch-thick steel reactor, burned and chemically reacted with the concrete underneath, and all are now lying in direct contact with groundwater. Aside from a few grainy pictures of those cores showing burn holes in the reactors, nothing has been done to remove the cores and to prevent further contamination of the groundwater. I have witnessed schemes including a mining operation to bore under the reactors and an underground train to collect the molten masses, but those schemes are decades from fruition. The government of Japan claims that the Fukushima site will be entirely cleaned and decommissioned in less than forty years, a date that will definitely slip AFTER the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are held, and one that is scientifically impossible since some radioactive isotopes will be spread across the Fukushima site and surrounding landscape for 300 years and others for 250,000 years.

Fukushima’s radioactive reactor cores have been in direct contact with groundwater for the last eight years, and then that highly toxic radioactive water enters the Pacific Ocean. When the disaster struck TEPCO wanted to build an ice-wall to prevent the spread of the contamination, which I knew would fail. I advocated immediately surrounding the reactors with a trench filled with zeolite, a chemical used to absorb radiation at other atomic facilities.

“The problem with freezing the soil is that as soon as you get an earthquake, you lose power and then your ice turns to mush and you’re stuck.” Gundersen, who has visited the Fukushima power plant in the past, said a better solution would be to dig a two-meter wide trench down to bedrock level and fill it with a material called zeolite: a volcanic material that comes from Mother Nature.

“It’s incredibly good at filtering radioactive isotopes. So whatever is inside the fence will stay inside and whatever is outside the fence would be clean,” said Gundersen, who estimates the price tag for such a project would be around $10 billion.

TEPCO’s ice wall has not eliminated radiation from spreading via groundwater. How will Fukushima’s owner TEPCO and the government of Japan successfully clean and mitigate the damage caused by the three atomic reactors that each lost their fuel to a meltdown? These problems were never anticipated in Japan where these reactors were built and operated or in the United States where the Fukushima nuclear plants were engineered and designed and the parts were manufactured.

Since the meltdowns in 2011, Fairewinds notified the world that the recovery plans for the proposed cleanup would be almost untenable, calling it a ‘long slog’. From the very beginning, I made it clear that “the nuclear disaster is underfunded and lacks transparency, causing the public to remain in the dark.” Sadly, eight years later, nothing has changed.

In February 2012 when I spoke to the press at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Press Club, the government’s recovery from the radiation released by Fukushima has never been about protecting the people of Japan. It was clear in the immediate aftermath of the world’s largest atomic power disaster and still today, the government of Japan is focused on protecting the financial interests of the nuclear power corporations in Japan so they may build new reactors as well as continue to operate the old ones. Clearly, the steps taken by the government of Japan shows that the survival of the electric generating corporations like Hitachi, Toshiba, Tokyo Electric and others are more important to the Abe Government that the survival of 160,000 evacuees and the future of the food supply emanating from Japan’s agriculture and aquaculture.

Evacuees in Japan are being forced to move back to their community and their homes that remain radioactively contaminated by the Fukushima Daiichi detonations and meltdowns. The government of Japan and the alleged global regulator, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – which was chartered by the United Nations (UN) to both promote and regulate atomic power generation – have raised the allowable public radiation level more than 20-times what it originally was rather than return to land to the condition it once was.

An exposé released in early February 2019 in The Washington Post said that, 

For six years, Namie was deemed unsafe after a multiple-reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In March 2017, the government lifted its evacuation order for the center of Namie. But hardly anyone has ventured back. Its people are scattered and divided. Families are split. The sense of community is coming apart…

As we at Fairewinds Energy Education have repeatedly said since the tragic 2011 meltdowns, understanding why the fate of the 160,000 evacuees from the toxic Fukushima landscape does not matter to the government of Japan, one must simply follow the money trail back to the corporations producing Japan’s electricity. As Fairewinds has noted from its personal experience, and what The Washington Post and the people of Japan clearly understand is that these meltdown refugees are simply pawns in a much bigger issue of money and politics. According to The Washington Post article,

For the people of Namie and other towns near the Fukushima plant, the pain is sharpened by the way the Japanese government is trying to move beyond the tragedy, to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a symbol of hope and recovery, a sign that life can return to normal after a disaster of this magnitude…. Its charm offensive is also tied up with efforts to restart the country’s nuclear-power industry, one of the world’s most extensive networks of atomic power generation. [Emphasis Added].

Six Olympic softball games and a baseball game will be staged in Fukushima, the prefecture’s bustling and radiation-free capital city, and the Olympic torch relay will start from here.

To determine whether or not Olympic athletes might be affected by fallout emanating from the disaster site, Dr. Marco Kaltofen and I were sponsored by Fairewinds Energy Education to look at Olympic venues during the fall of 2017. We took simple dirt and dust samples along the Olympic torch route as well as inside Fukushima’s Olympic stadium and as far away as Tokyo. When the Olympic torch route and Olympic stadium samples were tested, we found samples of dirt in Fukushima’s Olympic Baseball Stadium that were highly radioactive, registering 6,000 Bq/kg of Cesium, which is 3,000 times more radioactive than dirt in the US. We also found that simple parking lot radiation levels were 50-times higher there than here in the US.

Thirty of the dirt and fine dust samples that I took on my last two trips to Japan in February and March 2016 and September 2017 were analyzed at WPI (Worchester Polytechnic Institute. The WPI laboratory analysis are detailed in the report entitled: Measuring Radioactivity in Soil and Dust Samples from Japan, T. Pham, S. Franca and S. Nguyen, Worchester Polytechnic Institute, which found that:

With the upcoming XXXII Olympiad in 2020 hosted by Japan, it is necessary to look into the radioactivity of Olympic venues as well as tourist attractions in the host cities… Since thousands of athletes and millions of visitors are traveling to Japan for the Olympics, there has been widespread concern from the international community about radiation exposure. Therefore, it is important to investigate the extent of radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi incident…

The measured results showed a much higher activity of Cesium-137 in the proposed torch route compared to other areas. Overall, the further away from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the lower the radioactivity. The activity of Cesium-137 in Tokyo, the furthest site from the plant, was the lowest when compared to the other sites. Therefore, the activity of Cesium-137 in Tokyo sample was used as the baseline to qualitatively estimate the human exposure to radiation.

.… At the Azuma Sports Park, the soil and dust samples yielded a range of 78.1 Bq/kg to 6176.0 Bq/kg. This particular Olympic venue is around 90 km from the Nuclear Power Plant. The other sites that are closer to the Nuclear Power Plant like the tourist route, proposed torch route, and non-Olympic samples have higher amounts due to the close proximity to ground zero of the disaster.

 … the proposed torch route samples had the highest mean radioactivity due to their close proximity to the plant. Based on the measurement, we estimated qualitatively that the radiation exposure of people living near the Azuma Sports Park area was 20.7 times higher than that of people living in Tokyo. The main tourist and proposed torch routes had radiation exposure of 24.6 and 60.6 times higher, respectively, than in Tokyo…. Olympic officials should consider using the results of this project to decide whether the radioactivity level at the proposed torch route and the Olympic venues are within acceptable level.

On a more personal note, I witnessed first-hand the ongoing radioactive devastation in and around the Namie area like that detailed in The Washington Post’s revealing and factual essay. During the two weeks I spent in and around Namie in September 2017 I took six short videos showing what the devastation looks and feels like up close. These short iPhone videos total less than 5-minutes of run time. I was on my own, without a videographer, so these short films probably lack the professional quality viewers may usually associate with Fairewinds, however, they do convey the very palpable feeling of gloom and emptiness pervading the ghost towns I visited. I am sharing the first three short videos in today’s blog. We will be releasing a Part 2 of this Fukushima update, which will feature another three short films.

Longtime Friends of Fairewinds may remember that back in 2011, Prime Minister Noda (he was between the ousted Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was PM when the Fukushima Meltdowns occurred and today’s Prime Minister Abe), claimed that the three melted down Fukushima reactors were in ‘cold shutdown’, which they were not, in order to lay the groundwork for Japan’s Olympic bid. Noda claimed “… we can consider the accident contained”. Fairewinds compared Noda’s “cold shutdown” hypocrisy to former President George Bush crowing about “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Sadly, what we said in 2011 still rings true today:

Is the Japanese government and the IAEA protecting the nuclear industry and not the people of Japan by claiming that Fukushima is stable when it is not? Fairewinds’ chief engineer Arnie Gundersen outlines major inconsistencies and double-speak by the IAEA, Japanese Government, and TEPCO claiming that the Fukushima accident is over. Dynamic versus static equilibrium, escalated dose exposures to the Japanese children and nuclear workers, and the blending of radioactive materials with non-contaminated material and spreading this contaminated ash throughout Japan are only a small part of this ongoing nuclear tragedy.

Later in 2013, Japan pressed the International Olympic Committee and bribed some of its members to accept the Olympics in 2020 according to an Associated Press article February 18, 2019 by Journalist Haruka Nuga.

Members of the JOC executive board are up for re-election this summer. There is speculation Takeda…[ Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda, who is being investigated for his part in an alleged bribery scandal] will not run, or could be replaced. French investigators believe he may have helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympics in a vote by the International Olympic Committee.

Takeda has been JOC president since 2001. He is also a powerful IOC member and the head of its marketing commission. He has not stepped aside from either position while the IOC’s ethics committee investigates.

…French authorities suspect that about $2 million paid by the Tokyo bid committee — headed by Takeda — to a Singapore consulting company, Black Tidings, found its way to some IOC members in 2013 when Tokyo won the vote over bids from Istanbul and Madrid… Takeda last month acknowledged he signed off on the payments but denied corruption allegations. An internal report in 2016 by the Japanese Olympic Committee essentially cleared Takeda of wrongdoing.

Tokyo is spending at least $20 billion to organize the Olympics. Games costs are difficult to track, but the city of Tokyo appears to be picking up at least half the bill.

Much of Japan’s focus has been to show that the Fukushima area is safe and has recovered from a 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and the meltdowns at three nuclear reactors. [Emphasis Added]

Here is what I said in a video on Fairewinds website in 2013, when the original Tokyo Olympic announcement was made.

I think hosting the Olympics in 2020 is an attempt by the Japanese to change the topic. I don’t think people around the world are going to care until 2020 approaches. There is a seven-year window for the Japanese government to work to make Tokyo a showcase for the entire world to view. I think the Japanese government wanted to host the Olympics to improve the morale of the people of Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Unfortunately, it’s taking people’s attention off of the true cost of the accident, in terms of both money and public health.

Placing the Olympics in Tokyo was and still is a ploy to minimize the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns and to take the public’s attention away from a pressing emergency that still needs resolution for the health and safety of the people of Japan.

Fairewinds Energy Education will keep you informed with Part 2, at fairewinds.org. ”

by Arnie Gundersen, edited by Maggie Gundersen, Fairewinds Energy Education

Thank you, Fairewinds, for your diligent reporting. 🙂

source with photos and videos

Seismologist testifies Fukushima nuclear disaster preventable — The Mainichi

” TOKYO — A seismologist has testified during the trial of three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant, that the nuclear crisis could have been prevented if proper countermeasures had been taken.

“If proper steps had been taken based on a long-term (tsunami) evaluation, the nuclear accident wouldn’t have occurred,” Kunihiko Shimazaki, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, told the Tokyo District Court on May 9.

Shimazaki, who played a leading role in working out the national government’s long-term evaluation, appeared at the 11th hearing of the three former TEPCO executives as a witness.

Prosecutors had initially not indicted the three former TEPCO executives. However, after a prosecution inquest panel consisting of members of the public deemed twice that the three deserve prosecution, court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors indicted the three under the Act on Committee for Inquest of Prosecution.

Court-appointed attorneys insist that former TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto, 67, and others postponed implementing tsunami countermeasures based on the long-term evaluation, leading to the disaster.

The government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion released its long-term evaluation in 2002 predicting that a massive tsunami could occur along the Japan Trench including the area off Fukushima.

In 2008, TEPCO estimated that a tsunami up to 15.7 meters high could hit the Fukushima No. 1 power station, but failed to reflect the prediction in its tsunami countermeasures at the power station.

The Cabinet Office’s Central Disaster Prevention Council also did not adopt the long-term evaluation in working out its disaster prevention plan.

Shimazaki, who was a member of the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion’s earthquake research panel in 2002, told the court that the Cabinet Office pressured the panel shortly before the announcement of the long-term evaluation to state that the assessment is unreliable. The headquarters ended up reporting in the long-term evaluation’s introduction that there were problems with the assessment’s reliability and accuracy.

In his testimony, Shimazaki pointed out that the Central Disaster Prevention Council decision not to adopt the long-term evaluation led to inappropriate tsunami countermeasures.

With regard to factors behind the council’s refusal to accept the evaluation, Shimazaki stated that he can only think of consideration shown to those involved in the nuclear power industry and politics.

“If countermeasures had been in place based on the long-term evaluation, many lives would’ve been saved,” Shimazaki told the court.

Shimazaki served as deputy chairman of the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

(Japanese original by Epo Ishiyama, City News Department, and Ei Okada, Science & Environment News Department) “

published in The Mainichi

source

Fukushima’a other big problem: A Million tons of radioactive water — Wired

” The tsunami-driven seawater that engulfed Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has long since receded. But plant officials are still struggling to cope with another dangerous flood: the enormous amounts of radioactive water the crippled facility generates each day. More than 1 million tons of radiation-laced water is already being kept on-site in an ever-expanding forest of hundreds of hulking steel tanks—and so far, there’s no plan to deal with them.

The earthquake and tsunami that hammered Fukushima on March 11, 2011 triggered meltdowns in three of its six reactors. That left messes of intensely radioactive fuel somewhere loose in the reactor buildings—though no one knows exactly where. What is known, however, is that every day, as much as much as 150 tons of groundwater percolates into the reactors through cracks in their foundations, becoming contaminated with radioactive isotopes in the process.

To keep that water from leaking into the ground or the Pacific, Tepco, the giant utility that owns the plant, pumps it out and runs it through a massive filtering system housed in a building the size of a small aircraft hangar. Inside are arrays of seven-foot tall stainless steel tubes, filled with sand grain-like particles that perform a process called ion exchange. The particles grab on to ions of cesium, strontium, and other dangerous isotopes in the water, making room for them by spitting out sodium. The highly toxic sludge created as a byproduct is stored elsewhere on the site in thousands of sealed canisters.

This technology has improved since the catastrophe. The first filtering systems, installed just weeks after the disaster by California-based Kurion Inc. (which has since been bought by Veolia, a French resource management company), only caught cesium, a strong gamma radiation emitter that makes it the most dangerous of the isotopes in the water. The tubes in those arrays were filled with highly modified grains of naturally occurring volcanic minerals called zeolites. By 2013, the company developed entirely artificial particles—a form of titano silicate—that also grab strontium.

The filters, however, don’t catch tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. That’s a much trickier task. Cesium and strontium atoms go into solution with the water, like sugar in tea; but tritium can bond with oxygen just like regular hydrogen, rendering the water molecules themselves radioactive. “It’s one thing to separate cesium from water, but how do you separate water from water?” asks John Raymont, Kurion’s founder and now president of Veolia’s nuclear solutions group. The company claims to have developed a system that can do the job, but Tepco has so far balked at the multi-billion dollar cost.

So for now, the tritiated water is pumped into a steadily growing collection of tanks. There are already hundreds of them, and Tepco has to start building a new one every four days.

Tepco has at least reduced the water’s inflow. As much as 400 tons per day was gushing in just a couple of years ago. In an effort to keep the groundwater from getting in, Tepco has built a network of pumps, and in 2016 installed an underground “ice wall”—a $300 million subterranean fence of 30-yard-long rods through which tons of sub-zero brine is pumped, freezing the surrounding earth. All of which helps, but hasn’t solved the problem.

Tritium is far less dangerous than cesium—it emits a weaker, lower-energy form of radiation. Still, all that tritiated water can’t just be stored indefinitely. “Some of those tanks and pipes will eventually fail. It’s inevitable,” says Dale Klein, a former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has been consulting with Tepco since the early days following the disaster. (In fact, hundreds of tons of water leaked out of the tanks in 2013 and 2014, sparking an international outcry. Tepco has since improved their design.)

Klein, among others, believes that the concentrations of tritium are low enough that the water can safely be released into the sea. “They should dilute and dispose of it,” he says. “It would be better to have a controlled release than an accidental one.”

But the notion of dumping tons of radioactive water into the ocean is understandably a tough sell. Whatever faith the Japanese public had left in Tepco took a further beating in the first couple of years after the meltdowns, when several investigations forced the company to acknowledge they had underreported the amount of radiation released during and after the disaster. Japan’s fishing industry raises a ruckus whenever the idea of dumping the tritiated water is broached; they already have to contend with import restrictions imposed by neighboring countries worried about eating contaminated fish. Japan’s neighbors including China, Korea, and Taiwan have also objected.

For now, all Tepco can do is keep building tanks, and hope that someone comes up with a solution before they run out of room—or the next earthquake hits. “

by Vince Beiser, Wired

source with internal links and photo

Is Fukushima doomed to become a dumping ground for toxic waste? — The Guardian

” This month, seven years after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdowns and explosions that blanketed hundreds of square kilometres of northeastern Japan with radioactive debris, government officials and politicians spoke in hopeful terms about Fukushima’s prosperous future. Nevertheless, perhaps the single most important element of Fukushima’s future remains unspoken: the exclusion zone seems destined to host a repository for Japan’s most hazardous nuclear waste.

No Japanese government official will admit this, at least not publicly. A secure repository for nuclear waste has remained a long-elusive goal on the archipelago. But, given that Japan possesses approximately 17,000 tonnes of spent fuel from nuclear power operations, such a development is vital. Most spent fuel rods are still stored precariously above ground, in pools, in a highly earthquake-prone nation.

Japanese officialdom relentlessly emphasises positive messages regarding Fukushima’s short- and medium-term future, prioritizing economic development and the gradual return of skeptical evacuees to their newly “remediated” communities. Yet the return rate for the least hard-hit communities is only about 15%. Government proclamations regarding revitalisation of the area in and around the exclusion zone intone about jobs but seem geared ominously toward a future with relatively few humans.

The Fukushima prefecture government is currently promoting a plan, dubbed The Innovation Coast, that would transform the unwelcoming region into a thriving sweep of high-tech innovation. Much of the development would be directed towards a “robot-related industrial cluster” and experimental zones like a robot test field.

The test field would develop robots tailored for disaster response and for other purposes on a course simulating a wide range of hurdles and challenges already well represented in Fukushima itself. Large water tanks would contain an array of underwater hazards to navigate, mirroring the wreckage-strewn waters beneath the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a number of meltdown-remediating underwater robots have met a premature demise in recent years.

Elsewhere on the robot test field, dilapidated buildings and other ruins would serve as a proving ground for land-based disaster-response robots, which must navigate twisted steel rods, broken concrete and other rubble. Engineered runways and surrounding radiation-hit areas would serve as prime territory for testing parlous aerial drones for a range of purposes in various weather conditions – which would be difficult or impossible to achieve elsewhere in relatively densely populated Japan.

The planned site for the test field would link with a secluded test area about 13km south along the coast to coordinate test flights over the exclusion zone’s more or less posthuman terrain.

Naturally, unlike Fukushima’s human residents, robots would be oblivious to the elevated radiation levels found outside the Fukushima Daiichi facility. In addition, prefectural officials have suggested that the exclusion zone environs could play host to a range of other services that don’t require much human intervention, such as long-term archive facilities.

Proud long-time residents of Fukushima, for their part, see all this development as a continued “colonisation” of the home prefecture by Tokyo – a well-worn pattern of outsiders using the zone for their own purposes, as were the utility representatives and officials who built the ill-fated plant in the first place.

Years of colossal decontamination measures have scraped irradiated material from seemingly every forest, park, farm, roadside, and school ground. This 16 million cubic metres of radioactive soil is now stored in provisional sites in and around the exclusion zone, waiting to be moved to an interim storage facility that has hardly been started and for which nearly half of the land has not yet even been leased.

The state has promised to remove all the contaminated soil from Fukushima after 30 years, and government officials have been scrupulous in insisting that this will be the case – for soil. Yet in a nation with about 17,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel rods and no willing candidates for secure repositories, it is only a matter of time before it becomes possible for politicians to publicly back the idea of transforming the area around Fukushima Daiichi into a secure repository.

Government officials, including those tasked with nuclear waste storage, describe the quintessentially Japanese strategy of saki-okuri, or calculated postponement, in the context of nuclear waste storage. Such perception management is a subtle business, but by quietly and unrelentingly pushing back the day of reckoning – slowly changing the terms of debate – the broadly distasteful prospect of storing Japan’s most dangerous material in its most tragically maltreated region would become gradually less intolerable to Japanese sensibilities.

The expanse of Fukushima in and around the exclusion zone represents an already contaminated area with, since 2011, far fewer residents to protest against such plans. Such a rare opportunity for relatively unopposed intervention in a struggling area will surely prove irresistible to the nuclear lobby.

Fukushima has been marginalised, disenfranchised, and outmanoeuvred for decades. After all, the electricity from Fukushima Daiichi went straight to the capital, not to Fukushima itself, which bore the risks. Since 2011, Fukushima has been saddled with the staggering burden of the meltdown’s aftermath that, despite government PR, will encumber and stigmatise its citizens for at least several decades. ”

by Peter Wynn Kirby, The Guardian

source

**7 Years on, sailors exposed to Fukushima radiation seek their day in court — The Nation

At over 1,000 feet in length and weighing roughly 100,000 tons, the USS Ronald Reagan, a supercarrier in the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet, is not typically thought of as a speedboat. But on a March day in 2011, the Nimitz-class ship was “hauling ass,” according to Petty Officer Third Class Lindsay Cooper.

Yet, when the Reagan got closer to its destination, just off the Sendai coast in northeastern Japan, it slowed considerably.

“You could hardly see the water,” Cooper told me. “All you saw was wood, trees, and boats. The ship stopped moving because there was so much debris.”

Even after more then 20 years in the service, Senior Chief Petty Officer Angel Torres said he had “never seen anything like it.” Torres, then 41, was conning, or navigating, the Reagan, and he describes the houses, trucks, and other flotsam around the carrier then as “an obstacle course.” One wrong turn, he worried, “could damage the ship and rip it open.”

The Reagan—along with two dozen other US Navy vessels—was part of Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friends”), the $90 million rescue, disaster-relief, and humanitarian mobilization to aid Japan in the immediate aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. For the sailors, the destruction was horrific—they told me of plucking bodies out of the water, of barely clothed survivors sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather, and of the seemingly endless wreckage—but the response was, at first, something they’d rehearsed.

“We treated it like a normal alert,” Cooper said. “We do drills for [these] scenarios. We went into that mode.” She and her approximately 3,200 shipmates moved food, water, and clothing from below to the flight deck where it could be put on helicopters and flown to the stricken residents.

But that sense of routine soon changed.

“All of the sudden, this big cloud engulfs us,” Torres said. “It wasn’t white smoke, like you would see from a steam leak,” he explained, but it also wasn’t like the black smoke he saw from the burning oil fields during his deployment in Kuwait in 1991. “It was like something I’d never seen before.”

Cooper was outside with her team, on the flight deck, prepping before the start of reconnaissance flights. She remembers it was cold and snowing when she felt, out of nowhere, a dense gust of warm air. “Almost immediately,” she said, “I felt like my nose was bleeding.”

But her nose wasn’t bleeding. Nor was there blood in her mouth, though Cooper was sure she tasted it. It felt, she said, “like I was licking aluminum foil.”

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm local time, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck about 40 miles east of Japan’s Oshika Peninsula. The quake, the world’s fourth largest since 1900, devastated northern Honshu, Japan’s main island. At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located near the epicenter on the Pacific coast, the temblor damaged cooling systems and cut all electrical power to the station—power that is needed to keep water circulating around the active reactor cores and through pools holding decades of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel.

Several of the diesel-powered emergency generators at Daiichi kicked in to restart some of the safety systems, but less than an hour after the earthquake a 43-foot-high wave triggered by the quake swept over the sea wall, flooding the facility, including most of the generators, some of which had been positioned in the basement by the plant’s designer, General Electric.

Without any active cooling system, the heat in the reactor cores began to rise, boiling off the now-stagnant water and exposing the zirconium-clad uranium fuel rods to the air, which set off a series of superheated chemical reactions that split water into its elemental components. Hundreds of workers from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the station’s owner, struggled valiantly to find a way to circulate water, or at least relieve the pressure now building in the containment vessels of multiple reactors.

But the die was cast by the half-century-old design, with results repeatedly predicted for decades. The pressure continued to build, and over the course of the next two days, despite attempts to vent the containment structures, hydrogen explosions in three reactor buildings shot columns of highly radioactive gas and debris high into the air, spreading contamination that Japan still strains to clean up today.

And yet, despite this destruction and mayhem, proponents of nuclear power can be heard calling Fukushima a qualified success story. After all, despite a pair of massive natural disasters, acolytes say, no one died.

But many of the men and women of the Seventh Fleet would disagree. Now seven years removed from their relief mission, they’d tell you nine people have died as a result of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi—and all of them are Americans.

For the sailors on the Reagan who have spoken about it, the reaction to encountering the cloud was bewilderment.

“At first, we were still dialed in,” said Torres. “We didn’t really have a chance to take in what we were experiencing. It was more like, ‘Well, this was different.’” But when he came off watch, sitting in his office, his perception changed to “What the hell just happened?”

Cooper described the same response: “We didn’t really know what was going on.” But after about 10 minutes, the crew was told to go below deck. It was there, as she was first learning about the problems at Fukushima Daiichi from the television, that Cooper recalls hearing an announcement on the public-address system indicating that the ship might have been hit by a plume of radiation from the nearby power plant. Shortly thereafter, Cooper said, the mission got “hectic—just kind of a crazy mess.”

Cooper said the crew hadn’t been warned in advance of any radiation risk, and she didn’t think the Reagan’s commanding officers had any foreknowledge either. But after radioactive contamination was suspected, those aboard the carrier say, everything changed.

Everyone who, like Cooper, had been on the flight deck was ordered to the fo’c’sle, the forward part of the ship, to “implement decontamination.” Cooper said she was instructed to “take anything you can off without getting naked.” She was told to write her name on her discarded clothes and boots—which she saw being piled in the middle of the room—then the crew was “wanded,” as Cooper described it, and given “white, plastic painters’ suits.”

For Torres, news of the radiation came through the rumor mill before he heard about it from his commanding officer. “It was minimal”—that was the impression Torres was given—still, the ship’s meteorologist tracked the wind and talked with Torres about taking the Reagan north of whatever it was they’d just passed through. But Torres was soon instructed to head back toward the coast. They had a HADR, a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission, to complete, and since they’d already been exposed—though they’d take precautions such as turning off the ship’s ventilation—they were going back to where they’d encountered the cloud.

It was likely about this time that Cooper recalled being woken up. “I was asleep in my rack when I had someone shake the living shit out of me.” She said she was told with great urgency that she needed to get to the hangar bay immediately to get a gas mask.

As Cooper stood in her pajamas and flip-flops, waiting for her mask and filter canisters, she looked around: “People were shoving wet rags in the cracks of the hangar bay door so none of the air would seep through, and they had rags stacked high along the entire wall,” she said. “It was crazy.”

“After that,” Cooper told me, “our ship went from ‘OK, we got this,’ to, like, ‘Oh, my God… we have no idea what we’re doing.’”

For Marine Lance Corporal Nathan Piekutowski—who arrived several days later with the USS Essex, a Wasp-class amphibious-assault ship—there seemed to be some advanced warning, and he said his preparation initially proceeded in an orderly fashion: “They had us shut all the portholes, all the windows, all the doors.” Piekutowski said they attempted to seal off the berthing area and stayed inside while they headed toward Japan. He was issued iodine tablets—which are used to block radioactive iodine, a common byproduct of uranium fission, from being absorbed by the thyroid gland—and fitted for an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suit. He was also told not to drink water from the ship’s desalination system.

(Those I spoke with from the Reagan said they’d filled out consent forms for iodine tablets, but then never received the pills.)

Piekutowski wasn’t particularly troubled by these precautions. He knew they had plenty of bottled water on the ship, and, by the time they were near the coast, they were allowed back on deck with no special protection. “We were never once told to put on our NBC suits.” He had been issued big rubber over-boots and a gas mask along with the suit. “Those were in sealed plastic, like freezer bags,” he told me. “Mine stayed sealed till we got back to Hawaii.”

Torres, the senior petty officer, recounted, “One of the scariest things I’ve heard in my career was when the commanding officer came over the loudspeaker, and she said, ‘We’ve detected high levels of radiation in the drinking water; I’m securing all the water.’” That included making showers off limits.

Torres described a kind of panic as everyone rushed to the ship store to buy up cases of bottled water and Gatorade—“they didn’t want to dehydrate.”

Cooper also remembers the announcement on the water contamination: “We were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” She was among those trying to buy bottled water, but said it was quickly taken off the shelves—reserved for “humanitarian assistance.” Instead, Cooper said she was told she’d be issued rations of one bottle of water per day. For the long, hard shifts spent outside, Cooper said it was not nearly enough. She said an attitude set in among her shipmates, “We were like, ‘Fuck that, we’re already exposed—I’m gonna drink the water.’”

“We didn’t know how else to handle it,” she told me. “Like, you’re exposed on the flight deck, you’re exposed in the hangar bay, you’re exposed in berthing, you’re exposed walking, you’re exposed eating—congratulations, now you’re drinking it.”

“You’re working up top for like 18 hours, you’re busting your ass off—you need to hydrate.”

Cooper described her days during Operation Tomodachi starting before dawn and ending after 8 pm, with one 30-minute break for lunch, using the bathroom, and any personal business she could squeeze in. “They didn’t want you coming downstairs too many times because it just took too long,” she said, describing a lengthy and isolating decontamination process that was supposed to keep her and about 20 of her shipmates on the flight deck from spreading radioactive contamination to the rest of the carrier. “If you had to go to the bathroom, you were pretty much shit out of luck,” Cooper said of the time and hassle required to get to the women’s restrooms one floor below deck. “A lot of us females had to hold it in—it was miserable.”

The long hours, the short rations, and the unrelenting tableau of death and destruction drifting by the ship combined with the constant reminders that they were exposed to an unknown amount of radioactive contamination wore on the crew. They felt committed to the mission, and gratified to help, but the threat of radiation presented an aggravating obstacle. “Every time we got close to do humanitarian assistance,” said Cooper, “we’d need to dodge another plume.”

Even when operating normally, reactors like the ones designed and built by General Electric at Fukushima Daiichi produce highly radioactive isotopes of noble gases such as xenon and krypton, explained nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who encountered the phenomenon when he worked at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Waterford, Connecticut, in the 1970s. Millstone’s first reactor was a GE Mark 1 boiling-water reactor (BWR), the same model that failed at Fukushima. (Millstone 1 ceased operation in 1998; two other reactors of a slightly different design remain in use at the facility.)

But, as detailed by Gundersen—who is now one of the directors of Fairewinds Energy Education, a nuclear-industry watchdog—superheated “cracked fuel,” like that in the crippled Daiichi reactors, “immediately releases noble gases.”

“And that happens before the explosions” that destroyed the three reactor-containment buildings at Fukushima, he said. As Gundersen sets out the time line of the disaster, fuel began to crack within six hours of the earthquake, and TEPCO’s plant operators would have known it. “They had to know,” he told me, “because when the containment pressure started to go up, that was a clear indication that the fuel was failing.”

So, in those early hours, pressure built inside the Mark 1’s containment vessel to a point where it is thought to have broken the seal on the massive metal lid, and, as plant workers desperately tried to vent some of the gas and relieve that pressure, a radioactive plume formed over the coast.

And as the venting failed and the containments on three reactor units ruptured and exploded, a volume of radioactive xenon and krypton estimated to be about triple what was released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, wafted from Fukushima Daiichi over the next eight days. “Eighty percent of the radiation went out to sea,” said Gundersen. “That’s good for Japan, but it’s not good for the sailors, that’s for sure.”

Marco Kaltofen, president of Boston Chemical Data Corporation and an engineer with over 30 years of experience investigating environmental and workplace safety, noted that sensors in Richland, Washington, nearly 5,000 miles across the Pacific, saw a sixfold increase in radioactive noble gases in the days after the start of the Fukushima crisis. Chiba, the prefecture east of Tokyo, nearly 200 miles south of Fukushima, recorded radiation levels 400,000 times over background after the explosions.

Closer to the release, Kaltofen figured, would be orders of magnitude worse. “A bad place to be is a couple of miles offshore,” he said.

When told what the sailors experienced in the earliest days of the operation, Gundersen and Kaltofen differ slightly on their interpretations. Gundersen finds symptoms like the metallic taste consistent with the radiation exposure possible from a plume of otherwise odorless xenon or krypton. Kaltofen thinks that indicates exposure to some of the radioactive particulate matter—containing isotopes of cesium, strontium, iodine, and americium—that was sent into the air with the hydrogen explosions. But both believe it speaks to a notable degree of radiation exposure.

Cindy Folkers agreed. Folkers is the radiation-and-health specialist at the clean-energy advocacy group Beyond Nuclear, and when she hears the symptoms reported by the Tomodachi sailors, she hears the telltale signs of radiation exposure. And when told of what those relief workers experienced next, and the speed with which their symptoms manifested, she said she thinks the levels of exposure were higher than some have reported—or many would like to admit.

Just what the two large companies responsible for the design and operation of Fukushima Daiichi—TEPCO and GE—will admit is at the center of a pair of lawsuits currently moving through US courts. Or at least should be, if and when it gets in front of a jury.

“We’re still trying to get to the merits,” attorney John Edwards, the former US senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee, told me, “because the merits of the case are so strong.” Edwards, along with attorneys Cate Edwards (his daughter) and Charles Bonner, represent what Bonner told me were now upward of 400 sailors who accuse the Japanese utility and the US industrial giant of gross negligence in the design, construction, maintenance, and operation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and of deliberately obscuring the radiologic disaster that rapidly unfolded after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

And if that were all there was to it, many who have examined the Fukushima disaster—including the Japanese government’s own investigation, Japan’s prime minister at the start of the crisis, Naoto Kan, and even TEPCO itself—would say the plaintiffs have a point.

Before the first of the Daiichi reactors was brought online (construction began in 1967, and operation commenced in 1971), there were already open concerns about its design and placement. Originally conceived in the 1950s, the General Electric BWR Mark 1 was thought by some of its own designers to have too small a containment structure to survive a prolonged LOOP—a loss of onsite power. The ability to adequately vent the containment was also called into question, as was the resilience of the containment vessel’s metal alloy. In 1976, three GE engineers who had worked on the Mark 1 quit to protest the manufacturer’s lack of urgency in addressing flaws they said would cause reactor containment to fail in a loss-of-cooling accident.

In readying the site for Fukushima Daiichi, TEPCO opted to cut down the natural 115-foot sea wall, to less than 33 feet, to reduce construction costs and make it easier to access seawater for cooling. The emergency cooling systems were also placed close to shore and did not use submersible pumps. That whole facility was placed behind what was originally only a 13-foot-high sea wall (later raised to nearly 19 feet), despite evidence that eight tsunamis of at least 40 feet had hit the area in the 70 years prior to the agency’s breaking ground on Daiichi. Many emergency generators were situated in the basement, and diesel-fuel tanks were placed on a flood plane, leaving them vulnerable to the massive wave that slammed the site in 2011.

Within two years of the containment breaches, Kan, by then the former prime minister, was telling experts and investigators, including nuclear engineer Gundersen, that TEPCO had withheld critical information about what was happening at Fukushima in the first hours and days of the crisis. In 2016, TEPCO was forced to admit it failed to publicly declare a meltdown at the three crippled reactors, even though its internal guidelines indicated from early on that meltdowns were indeed occurring. And just last spring, a Japanese court found TEPCO (along with the government) guilty of negligence, not just in handling the disaster but also, in the years prior, in declaring the events at Daiichi “predictable” and preventable.

But none of that has been heard by a US jury. For over four years, a number of sailors, Marines, and other military-relief personnel have waited for their day in court while their attorneys wade through motions from the defendants, GE, and TEPCO, challenging venue and jurisdiction.

In an e-mailed statement, General Electric, while expressing “heartfelt sympathy for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami,” and appreciation for “the hard work and dedication of our US service members,” said claims “can and should be addressed under Japan’s nuclear compensation law.” TEPCO also “appreciates the plaintiffs’ service on Operation Tomodachi,” according to its e-mail, but declined to comment outside of court on pending judicial actions. TEPCO did add, “It is most unfortunate that some of the plaintiffs are ill.”

Ruby Perez was a 22-year-old petty officer first class on the Reagan during Operation Tomodachi. She was also pregnant. Perez told her mother, Rachel Mendez, about the snow falling during the first days of the operation. She and her shipmates were excited by a moment of diversion from the misery around them. As Mendez relayed her daughter’s story to me, “They were playing in it, eating the snow, making snow cones, making snowmen.”

Cooper, part of the flight deck crew, remembers the snow, too, though not so much as a light moment but rather as a symbol of decaying morale. After days of long hours and short rations, feeling isolated from the below-deck crew, knowing she’d been exposed to some radiation, she felt “knocked down.”

“Nobody really cared about anything. People were making radioactive snowmen on the flight deck out of radioactive snow,” she said. Dealing with the contamination and the stress “completely changed the dynamic of the ship.”

“Stress” was what the Reagan’s medical staff told Cooper when she asked about her blurred vision, poor depth perception, and loss of equilibrium during the early days of the mission.

“Gastroenteritis” was what she and many of her shipmates were told as a wave of bowel problems swept through the carrier over the next several weeks.

“I had a lot of issues with the restroom,” Cooper told me. “I don’t think I was the only one. People would shit themselves on the flight deck so often that it wasn’t even a surprise anymore. Like when you saw someone running from one side of the flight deck to go to decon[tamination], you knew something was happening.”

Torres’ experience was comparable. “I was going to the bathroom constantly,” he said. “I would eat something and I would go to the bathroom almost immediately.” It happened so often, Torres told me, that he developed severe internal hemorrhoids that eventually required multiple surgeries.

But when he visited the shipboard doctor, Torres was told he had diverticulitis, a disease not typically seen in men that young. “Watch your diet, don’t eat spicy food, and drink lots of water, eat lots of fiber,” that was the advice he said he received.

Cooper heard much the same: “Stay hydrated—drink water and eat a bland diet.” But the symptoms didn’t subside. “They didn’t attribute it to anything except ‘it’s going around,’” she said. But if that’s so, it’s been going around a long time. “I haven’t had a solid bowel movement since,” said Cooper.

Soon after Operation Tomodachi ended, when the Reagan ported in Bahrain, Cooper, who was 21 at the time, noticed her hair thinning. “I used to have really, really thick hair,” she said, but in Bahrain it became brittle and started falling out. Cooper said it still hasn’t recovered.

She also told me she now bruises easily and gets “burning, tingling sensations” on her arms, and a rash that extends from her hands to her elbows—an area that coincides with where she’d had her sleeves rolled up when she encountered the cloud at the start of the Japan mission. Cooper has also recently needed veneers on teeth she said have started to “shatter and break.”

For Piekutowski, the lance corporal from the Essex, he didn’t feel particularly sick until over a year after Operation Tomodachi. He was back stateside in the fall of 2012, and felt fatigued and had lost weight, and in November of that year, his ankles swelled up to the size of his calves. “I’m an in-shape and slim guy, and usually have pretty good definition,” he told me. His doctor thought it might be gout, though Piekutowski was skeptical. “I told him, I drink as much as the next 21-year-old, but I don’t drink that much.” Then, on Christmas Day, he lost the sight in his left eye. “That’s when I knew I should probably get to the hospital,” he said.

In the ER, Piekutowski said the doctors seemed to recognize right away what a blood test and bone-marrow biopsy later confirmed: He had leukemia. “They were honestly surprised I was still walking,” he said. Medical staff put him in a gown and rushed him to a bigger hospital.

Piekutowski was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of blood cancer most often seen in men over age 65. It is rare to see it in an otherwise healthy 21-year-old. He began treatment in Arizona, where he’d been living, but then moved to Chicago to be closer to his parents and what Piekutowski called “some pretty amazing doctors.”

From Christmas 2012 to Valentine’s Day 2014, Piekutowski figures he spent eight months in hospitals. He first went through a year of chemotherapy, but after four months in remission, his leukemia returned. He had radiation and a stem-cell transplant at the start of 2014, which has so far kept him cancer-free. But Piekutowski is still struggling to rebuild his immune system, and battling stiffness and stomach problems. “I feel like I’m 60,” he said.

Petty Officer Perez gave birth to her daughter Cecilia on March 26, 2011, and it was soon afterward that she told her mom she was feeling ill. “She just kept saying her menstrual periods would keep going and going and never stop,” said Mendez.

Despite her health, she reenlisted at the end of her tour. She was in San Diego trying to sort out some missing paperwork on her enlistment when she was hospitalized for a uterine hemorrhage. According to her mother, Perez was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in July 2016. Mendez wanted her daughter to come back to Texas, where she grew up, but Perez refused. She always believed she’d get better. “I can’t go home,” Mendez said Perez told her, “I just reenlisted. I still owe the Navy two years.”

On December 7, 2016, Ruby Perez died.

Perez is one of the eight deceased service members represented in the suits slowly making their way in US courts. Her daughter Cecilia, whose health will require a watchful eye well into adulthood, is also a plaintiff. So are 24 men and women currently living with various forms of cancer. So is a sailor whose son was born with brain and spinal tumors and lived only 26 months.

“We have a lot of clients with bone and joint issues, degenerative discs,” Cate Edwards told me, “young, healthy, active individuals who have trouble walking now.”

The most prevalent ailments, according to the younger Edwards, are thyroid-related. Thyroid cancers are some of the earliest to emerge after nuclear accidents because of the easy pathway for absorption of radioactive iodine. Childhood thyroid cancers skyrocketed in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine in the first two decades after Chernobyl. According to a study published in the journal of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, individuals who were 18 or under at the time of the disaster in Fukushima Prefecture were 20-to-50 times more likely to be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the period between the March 2011 and the end of 2014.

And health experts will tell you it is still too early to see many of the cancers and other illnesses that increase in incidence after exposure to ionizing radiation. Some can take 20 or 30 years to emerge. “That these sailors are getting the health effects they are already experiencing tells me that the radiation levels were extraordinarily high, and that we are likely just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said nuclear-engineer Gundersen. “I think we’re going to see more of these people in the same boat as this initial wave of hundreds.”

“I can’t believe in a couple of years,” he added, “we won’t have thousands.”

Which is why, Cate Edwards told me, everyone who was part of Operation Tomodachi, even those who haven’t yet been diagnosed with particular ailments, are going to need additional medical monitoring for decades to come.

But General Electric and Tokyo Electric Power contend that these US citizens, from the US armed forces, who served on US ships, should seek their legal remedies in Japanese courts. “We believe these claims can and should be addressed under Japan’s nuclear compensation law, which provides relief for persons impacted by these events,” said GE in its e-mailed statement. (TEPCO did not respond specifically to a question about venue.)

The plaintiffs’ lawyers dismiss this idea. “It’s the difference between winning and losing,” John Edwards told me. “If the case ends up in Japan, it just goes away.”

The Edwardses and Bonner paint a picture of a Japanese legal system that is slanted in favor of industry. “You don’t get a jury trial in Japan,” said Bonner. “You don’t get punitive damages. Plaintiffs have to pay exorbitant fees to have their cases tried before politically involved judges,” and are not allowed to seek recovery of court costs, he said.

John Edwards added that Japan rarely awards damages for pain and suffering, loss of life, or the effects on a family. “They have an established compensation system,” he said, “they have never paid a dime for personal injury—it’s all for property damage.”

Indeed, while there were rulings in Japan’s courts last year against TEPCO and in favor of Japanese citizens, the awards were notably small (averaging $5,400 per person in one case, $1,500 in another), and were meant as compensation for residents of towns surrounding the nuclear plant who had to relocate. In a separate case in February, a Japanese court ordered TEPCO to pay $142,000 to the family of a 102-year-old man who killed himself after being told he’d have to leave his home inside the Fukushima radiation zone. TEPCO is still considering whether it will appeal.

One group of Tomodachi plaintiffs has been cleared to proceed in the US by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A second group is still fighting in San Diego to establish jurisdiction in California courts, a hurdle all three of the plaintiffs’ attorneys are confident they will eventually clear.

And when the merits of the case have their day in a US court, “the only real defense,” for TEPCO and GE, said John Edwards, “is to try to argue, ‘Yeah, we screwed up, we know it was bad, but is that what really caused what happened to these people?’” In other words, the defendants will concede there was a disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, but will contend the plaintiffs weren’t harmed by it.

There are pretty strong indications that just such a defense is in the works. TEPCO spokesman Shinichi Nakakuki asserted in an e-mail to me that “objective scientific data demonstrates that plaintiffs were not exposed to amounts of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant sufficient to cause illness.” Nakakuki wrote that radiation estimates by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) “confirm that the doses received by the plaintiffs were below the level that would give rise to adverse health effects.” The spokesman also referenced a report submitted by the US Defense Department to Congress in 2014 that downplayed the link between service on the Reagan during Operation Tomodachi and the specific cancers that had then emerged among crew members.

Time is one of the keys to understanding both of these reports. The Defense Department looked at the cancer rates only three years removed from the service members’ exposure, far too short a period to predict future numbers, according to radiation-expert Folkers. The UNSCEAR paper is even older than the DoD testimony, and has been roundly criticized for attempting to make bold predictions based on a small window and data extrapolated from analysis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which, aside from being drawn from a radically different exposure scenario, has itself been called into question by doctors and epidemiologists). UNSCEAR also appears to have averaged exposure over the entire island, not accounting for the notably higher exposures of those closest to the Daiichi reactors, according to analysis from Folkers’s Beyond Nuclear.

Dr. Keith Baverstock, the former chief radiation-protection expert at the World Health Organization who studied the Chernobyl disaster, said at the time that the UNSCEAR report was “not qualified to be called ‘scientific,’” and questioned the panel’s impartiality because its funding and membership came from the countries with the largest nuclear-power programs.

All of the radiation experts interviewed wondered whether the true scale of the radiation doses sustained by the Tomodachi sailors was ever measured. Safety specialist Kaltofen argued that most measurements don’t account for what are called “hot particles”—minute bits (6 to 9 microns in diameter) of intensely radioactive matter that can be extremely dangerous in close proximity, or if ingested, but are easily missed by measuring devices mere inches away. He also pointed out that different tissues are vulnerable to different isotopes in different ways, and that some parts of the body are much more sensitive to exposure than others. “One of them is the bowel,” he said, “because your intestines have villi, which are rapidly reproducing cells, and that means that they are extremely susceptible to radiation.” If radiation were ingested, or if the gut were exposed to a large external dose, you could see signs of real damage.

These are deterministic signs of radiation exposure, said Kaltofen, meaning you get a specific biological effect that might not itself be cancer, but would indicate the size and kind of exposures that could cause cancers later on. Folkers, discussing the sailors, put it more starkly: “The people in this case might be the dosimeters.”

Gundersen’s experience with radioactive noble gases led him to make another observation about dose estimates. Unless measurements were taken during those first days when ships were likely cloaked in plumes of radioactive xenon and krypton, the exposure would be missed, thus contributing to far-lower-than-accurate dose assessments. “Gases don’t show up on swipe tests, or anything like that,” he said. (Again, this level of methodological detail is not evident in the studies cited by TEPCO.) And Folkers stressed that the increased sensitivity to radiation seen in women and children is not part of most exposure models.

Folkers told me that there is a blood test that could more accurately estimate individuals’ exposures. Karyotyping, mapping chromosomes to look for specific abnormalities closely tied to radiation damage, has been around for decades, she said, but is too rarely done. (No one interviewed for this story believes karyotyping was done on the participants in Operation Tomodachi.) Folkers said that the tests are not only capable of predicting some future illnesses; they can also be used to extrapolate backward to determine the time and intensity of suspected radiation exposure.

But that level of specificity is not the argument lawyers expect in court, nor is it the standard public-health experts would say is appropriate. “Definitive cause is not the standard for protecting public health,” said Folkers, “association is the standard.”

In the case of the Tomodachi sailors, there was exposure to radiation, even if there is some dispute over the size and kind of dose any particular individual received. There are a number of symptoms and illnesses, long associated with radiation, that have been reported in the service members. If people are sick, would doctors, epidemiologists, workplace-safety experts, or public-health officials wait for absolute certitude of a causal link before implementing treatments and preventive actions?

Folkers and Kaltofen each said they would not. Even Petty Officer Cooper’s experience showed that the Navy—whether or not it acknowledges this now—had a basic recognition of this standard. “When you went down there,” she told me about her trips to the medical station on board the Reagan, “you were supposed to tell them if you were on the flight deck.” Depending on the answer, said Cooper, you might have seen a different doctor. “As soon as you said [where you worked], then, pretty much, they knew your issues.”

Cooper had actually reenlisted after Operation Tomodachi, but when the Navy told her “‘OK, you’re gonna do another sea tour with the Reagan,’” she said her response was “Nonononononono.” She told me she didn’t want any possible additional exposure to radiation on a ship she saw as contaminated from stem to stern. Cooper “took the hit” and applied for an “early out” from her reenlistment.

And the Navy, according to Cooper, “fast-tracked an early out because they understood.” Asking off the Reagan became so common, she told me, that there was a little “cheat sheet” on how to expedite the paperwork. “An early out would normally have taken me six months,” she said, “but they got it done in like two weeks.”

Cooper said that because her commanders were there, they understood what she’d suffered through after the radiation exposure, and knew the toll it took on the Reagan’s crew. “That deployment took a lot out of people,” she said. “A lot.”

For Torres, readjusting to civilian life after 27 years in the Navy was made much more difficult because of his post–Operation Tomodachi health problems. His own gastrointestinal difficulties, surgeries for hemorrhoids and hernias, and low-energy levels when he returned stateside deeply affected his mood and his relationships. Torres also said he feels guilt over “the young 17-, 18-year-old kids standing outside,” having to watch them “getting directly exposed” to the radioactive fallout as he stood inside conning the ship. “I have a lot of conflicted feelings,” he told me. “Could I have done something more? All these ‘what ifs.’”

There are plenty of “what ifs” to go around, but Torres is probably one of the last people who should feel guilty. Sure, Cooper now expresses regret for drinking too much of the ship’s tainted water. Piekutowski wishes he’d found a way to avoid spending five days exposed to the elements without any protection. Even Rachel Mendez, mother of Ruby Perez, wonders if she shouldn’t have been so encouraging when her daughter decided to join the Navy.

And some who served question if the Navy did all it could to protect its personnel (though not all, and not all the time). Did the Reagan spend too much time too close to shore? Did commanders always put the health and safety of sailors first when addressing the contamination of the ship and the water system? Did the US military measure properly for radiation, or perform the right tests for exposure? Are they doing all they can now to track the health of, and to care for, the Tomodachi veterans?

Watchdogs and health experts will tell you those are valid questions—especially if they better ensure the well-being of all the sailors going forward—but the attorneys will say that, while the military and the VA have responsibilities for the medical care of service members and veterans, “they are not, in a legal sense,” as Cate Edwards told me, “responsible for the exposure itself.”

(The Navy, for its part, said in an e-mailed statement that it has “a long distinguished history with the successful management of its occupational ionizing radiation exposure program.” It acknowledged some risk from radiation exposure at any level, but said the risks borne by the Reagan sailors were “small compared to other risk” accepted in work and everyday life. In making this assessment, they cite the same 2014 Defense Department report referenced by TEPCO.)

“The end of the road is not the VA,” said John Edwards. The main issue, as Edwards put it, is, “If you’re going to have nuclear plants, make sure they’re designed, built, maintained, and monitored properly.”

And the question of whether TEPCO and GE did do those things properly is not just of interest to the sailors or the residents of northern Honshu—in the minds of all the attorneys and experts interviewed for this story, it is of keen relevance to tens of millions of people living in the United States.

“There’s an obvious connection between what happened in Japan and what could happen in the United States,” said John Edwards. “What they failed to do in the manufacture and maintenance of the facility in Japan also occurred, and is occurring, in the US.”

There are currently 99 operating civilian nuclear reactors in the United States, and 22 of those are General Electric Mark 1 boiling-water reactors—the make and model identical to the three that melted down and exploded at Fukushima Daiichi. Based on a 1955 design, all but four of the US reactors have now been online for more than 40 years. All of them have the same too-small primary containment vessel, the same questionable alloys, the same bolted-on lid, the same safety systems, and (with one exception) the same vent “upgrade” that failed to prevent the tragic failures at the Japanese nuclear plant. Large US cities, such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, are all closer to BWRs than Tokyo is to Fukushima Daiichi.

“It starts with the design,” Cate Edwards told me, and the complaint filed on behalf of the Tomodachi sailors goes into great detail about the flaws on the Japanese reactors that mirror the ones in the United States. “Each one of these Mark 1 BWRs is defective,” said Bonner.

For Folkers, the lesson is to look at nuclear power plants through the lens of public health. Don’t wait until after an incident to argue over which illnesses might or might not have been caused by a particular dose. Instead, Folkers urged, establish baselines for what the population’s blood work and chromosomes look like beforehand. Then, instead of only starting the fact-finding after an accidental release of radiation, or when a mysterious cancer cluster emerges—when too many vested interests invoke “what-aboutism,” as she called it, to obscure responsibility—already-informed public officials and medical professionals can focus on the response to emerging health problems.

For Kaltofen, the environmental-safety expert, the focus should be on prevention and planning before treatment and tracking. “It’s very hard to come up with a response plan after the fact,” he said.

And, most importantly, for the sailors, Marines, and pilots who rushed into harm’s way to provide emergency aid and humanitarian relief to people battling a devil’s trident of disasters, the acknowledgment of their radiation exposure and the acceptance of responsibility by those who caused it could potentially be as life-changing as their service in Operation Tomodachi.

Sure, it might mean a measure of financial compensation were they to win a settlement, but for the sailors who spoke to me, that would be secondary. Foremost, a victory in court would mean a degree of respect for what they did, how they’ve suffered, and what they might need down the line—not just for those who are ailing today but also for the potentially thousands who might get sick in the future. As Angel Torres told me, “Set up an infrastructure to address those issues. Do the right thing and provide for people that were misled. Let them know, ‘You are not alone.’” ”

by Gregg Levine, The Nation

source with photos and internal links