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

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Clearing the radioactive rubble heap that was Fukushima Daiichi, 7 years on — Scientific American

” Seven years after one of the largest earthquakes on record unleashed a massive tsunami and triggered a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, officials say they are at last getting a handle on the mammoth task of cleaning the site before it is ultimately dismantled. But the process is still expected to be a long, expensive slog, requiring as-yet untried feats of engineering—and not all the details have yet been worked out.

When the disaster knocked out off- and on-site power supplies on March 11, 2011, three of the cooling systems for the plant’s four reactor units were disabled. This caused the nuclear fuel inside to overheat, leading to a meltdown and hydrogen explosions that spewed out radiation. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), responded by cooling the reactors with water, which continues today. Meanwhile thousands of people living in the surrounding area were evacuated and Japan’s other nuclear plants were temporarily shut down.

In the years since the disaster and the immediate effort to stanch the release of radioactive material, officials have been working out how to decontaminate the site without unleashing more radiation into the environment. It will take a complex engineering effort to deal with thousands of fuel rods, along with the mangled debris of the reactors and the water used to cool them. Despite setbacks, that effort is now moving forward in earnest, officials say. “We are still conducting studies on the location of the molten fuel, but despite this we have made the judgment that the units are stable,” says Naohiro Masuda, TEPCO’s chief decommissioning officer for Daiichi.

Completely cleaning up and taking apart the plant could take a generation or more, and comes with a hefty price tag. In 2016 the government increased its cost estimate to about $75.7 billion, part of the overall Fukushima disaster price tag of $202.5 billion. The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, said the cleanup costs could mount to some $470 billion to $660 billion, however.

Under a government roadmap, TEPCO hopes to finish the job in 30 to 40 years. But some experts say even that could be an underestimate. “In general, estimates of work involving decontamination and disposal of nuclear materials are underestimated by decades,” says Rod Ewing, a professor of nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. “I think that we have to expect that the job will extend beyond the estimated time.”

The considerable time and expense are due to the cleanup being a veritable hydra that involves unprecedented engineering. TEPCO and its many contractors will be focusing on several battlefronts.

Water is being deliberately circulated through each reactor every day to cool the fuel within—but the plant lies on a slope, and water from precipitation keeps flowing into the buildings as well. Workers built an elaborate scrubbing system that removes cesium, strontium and dozens of other radioactive particles from the water; some of it is recirculated into the reactors, and some goes into row upon row of giant tanks at the site. There’s about one million tons of water kept in 1,000 tanks and the volume grows by 100 tons a day, down from 400 tons four years ago.

To keep more water from seeping into the ground and being tainted, more than 90 percent of the site has been paved. A series of drains and underground barriers—including a $325-million* supposedly impermeable “wall” of frozen soil—was also constructed to keep water from flowing into the reactors and the ocean. These have not worked as well as expected, though, especially during typhoons when precipitation spikes, so groundwater continues to be contaminated.

Despite the fact contaminated water was dumped into the sea after the disaster, studies by Japanese and foreign labs have shown radioactive cesium in fish caught in the region has fallen and is now within Japan’s food safety limits. TEPCO will not say when it will decide what to do with all the stored water, because dumping it in the ocean again would invite censure at home and abroad—but there are worries that another powerful quake could cause it to slosh out of the tanks.

Fuel Mop-up

A second major issue at Fukushima is how to handle the fuel¾the melted uranium cores as well as spent and unused fuel rods stored at the reactors. Using robotic probes and 3-D imaging with muons (a type of subatomic particle), workers have found pebbly deposits and debris at various areas inside the primary containment vessels in the three of the plant’s reactor units. These highly radioactive remains are thought to be melted fuel as well as supporting structures. TEPCO has not yet worked out how it can remove the remains, but it wants to start the job in 2021. There are few precedents for the task. Lake Barrett—director of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant during its decommissioning after a partial meltdown at the Middletown, Pa., facility in 1979—says TEPCO will use robots to remotely dig out the melted fuel and store it in canisters on-site before shipping to its final disposal spot. “This is similar to what we did at Three Mile Island, just much larger and with much more sophisticated engineering because their damage is greater than ours was,” Barrett says. “So although the work is technically much more challenging than ours was, Japan has excellent technological capabilities, and worldwide robotic technology has advanced tremendously in the last 30-plus years.”

Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, doubts the ambitious cleanup effort can be completed in the time cited, and questions whether the radioactivity can be completely contained. Until TEPCO can verify the conditions of the molten fuel, he says, “there can be no confirmation of what impact and damage the material has had” on the various components of the reactors—and therefore how radiation might leak into the environment in the future.

Although the utility managed to safely remove all 1,533 fuel bundles from the plant’s unit No. 4 reactor by December 2014, it still has to do the same for the hundreds of rods stored at the other three units. This involves clearing rubble, installing shields, dismantling the building roofs, and setting up platforms and special rooftop equipment to remove the rods. Last month a 55-ton dome roof was installed on unit No. 3 to facilitate the safe removal of the 533 fuel bundles that remain in a storage pool there. Whereas removal should begin at No. 3 sometime before April 2019, the fuel at units No. 1 and 2 will not be ready for transfer before 2023, according to TEPCO. And just where all the fuel and other radioactive solid debris on the site will be stored or disposed of long-term has yet to be decided; last month the site’s ninth solid waste storage building, with a capacity of about 61,000 cubic meters, went into operation.

As for what the site itself might look like decades from now, cleanup officials refuse to say. But they are quick to differentiate it from the sarcophagus-style containment of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine. Whereas the Chernobyl plant is sealed off and the surrounding area remains off-limits except for brief visits—leaving behind several ghost towns—Japanese officials want as many areas as possible around the Daiichi site to eventually be habitable again.

“To accelerate reconstruction and rebuilding of Fukushima as a region, and the lives of locals, the key is to reduce the mid- and long-term risk,” says Satoru Toyomoto, director for international issues at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Nuclear Accident Response Office. “In that regard, keeping debris on the premises without approval is not an option.” ”

by Tim Hornyak, Scientific American

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**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

Fears of another Fukushima as Tepco plans to restart world’s biggest nuclear plant — The Guardian

” If a single structure can define a community, for the 90,000 residents of Kashiwazaki town and the neighbouring village of Kariwa, it is the sprawling nuclear power plant that has dominated the coastal landscape for more than 40 years.

When all seven of its reactors are in operation, Kashiwazaki-kariwa generates 8.2m kilowatts of electricity – enough to power 16m households. Occupying 4.2 sq km of land along the Japan Sea coast, it is the biggest nuclear power plant in the world.

But today, the reactors at Kashiwazaki-kariwa are idle. The plant in Niigata prefecture, about 140 miles (225km) north-west of the capital, is the nuclear industry’s highest-profile casualty of the nationwide atomic shutdown that followed the March 2011 triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.

The company at the centre of the disaster has encountered anger over its failure to prevent the catastrophe, its treatment of tens of thousands of evacuated residents and its haphazard attempts to clean up its atomic mess.

Now, the same utility, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco], is attempting to banish its Fukushima demons with a push to restart two reactors at Kashiwazaki-kariwa, one of its three nuclear plants. Only then, it says, can it generate the profits it needs to fund the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and win back the public trust it lost in the wake of the meltdown.

This week, Japan’s nuclear regulation authority gave its formal approval for Tepco to restart the Kashiwazaki-kariwa’s No. 6 and 7 reactors – the same type of boiling-water reactors that suffered meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi.

After a month of public hearings, the nuclear regulation authority concluded that Tepco was fit to run a nuclear power plant and said the two reactors met the stricter safety standards introduced after the 2011 disaster.

Just before that decision, Tepco gave the Guardian an exclusive tour of what it claims will be the safest nuclear plant in the world.

Now, as on the day of the triple disaster that brought widespread destruction to Japan’s northeast coast, Kashiwazaki-kariwa has the look of a working nuclear plant. Just over 1,000 Tepco staff and 5,000-6,000 contract workers provide the manpower behind a post-Fukushima safety retrofit that is projected to cost 680 billion yen ($6.1bn).

They have built a 15-metre-high seawall that, according to Tepco, can withstand the biggest tsunami waves. In the event of a meltdown, special vents would keep 99.9% of released radioactive particles out of the atmosphere, and corium shields would block molten fuel from breaching the reactors’ primary containment vessels. Autocatalytic recombiners have been installed to prevent a repeat of the hydrogen explosions that rocked four of Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors.

Other parts of the sprawling complex are home to fleets of emergency vehicles, water cannon, back-up power generators, and a hilltop reservoir whose 20,000 tonnes of water will be drawn to cool reactors in the event of a catastrophic meltdown.

“As the operator responsible for the Fukushima accident, we’re committed to learning lessons, revisiting what went wrong and implementing what we learned here at Kashiwazaki-kariwa, says the plant’s chief, Chikashi Shitara. “We are always looking at ways to improve safety.

“Because of our experience at Fukushima, we’re committed to not making the same mistakes again – to make the safety regime even stronger. That’s what we have to explain to members of the public.”

‘This is no place for a nuclear power plant’

The public, however, is far from convinced. Last year, the people of Niigata prefecture registered their opposition to the utility’s plans by electing Ryuichi Yoneyama, an anti-nuclear candidate, as governor. Exit polls showed that 73% of voters opposed restarting the plant, with just 27% in favor.

Yoneyama has said that he won’t make a decision on the restarts, scheduled for spring 2019, until a newly formed committee has completed its report into the causes and consequences of the Fukushima disaster – a process that could take at least three years.

For many residents, the plant’s location renders expensive safety improvements irrelevant. “Geologically speaking, this is no place for a nuclear power plant,” says Kazuyuki Takemoto, a retired local councillor and a lifelong anti-nuclear activist.

Takemoto cites instability caused by the presence of underground oil and gas deposits in the area, and evidence that the ground on which Tepco’s seawall stands is prone to liquefaction in the event of a major earthquake.

Local critics have pointed to the chaos that could result from attempting to evacuate the 420,000 people who live within a 30km radius of Kashiwazaki-kariwa. “That’s more people than lived near Fukushima, plus we get very heavy snowfall here, which would make evacuating everyone impossible,” Takemoto adds. “The situation would be far worse than it was in Fukushima.”

Adding to their concerns are the presence of seismic faults in and around the site, which sustained minor damage during a magnitude-6.6 offshore earthquake in 2007. Two active faults – defined by nuclear regulators as one that has moved any time within the last 400,000 years – run beneath reactor No. 1.

But for Tepco, a return to nuclear power generation is a matter of financial necessity, with the utility standing to gain up to ¥200 billion in annual profits by restarting the two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.

The bill for decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi, decontaminating neighbourhoods and compensating residents affected by the meltdown could reach 21.5tr yen [$191bn], according to government estimates. That is on top of the money the firm is spending on importing expensive fossil fuels to fill the vacuum left by the nuclear shutdown.

Earlier this year, the Japan Centre for Economic Research said the total cost of the four-decade Fukushima cleanup – including the disposal of radioactive waste from the plant’s three damaged reactors – could soar to between 50-70tr yen.

“As Tepco’s president and our general business plan have made clear, restarting the reactors here is very important to us as a company,” says Shitara.

Much is at stake, too, for Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has put an ambitious return to nuclear power generation at the centre of his energy policy. His government wants nuclear to provide about 20 percent Japan’s electricity by 2030 – a move that would require the restart of about 30 reactors.

Of the country’s 48 operable reactors, only four are currently online. Several others have passed stringent new safety tests introduced in the wake of Fukushima, but restarts have encountered strong local opposition.

As part of the restart process, people across Japan were recently invited to submit their opinions on the Kashiwazaki-kariwa restart and Tepco’s suitability as a nuclear operator.

Kiyoto Ishikawa, from the plant’s public relations department, insists Tepco has learned the lessons of Fukushima. “Before 3-11 we were arrogant and had stopped improving safety,” he said. “The earthquake was a wake-up call. We now know that improving safety is a continuous process.”

The firm’s assurances were dismissed by Yukiko Kondo, a Kariwa resident, who said the loss of state subsidies if the plant were to remain permanently idle was a sacrifice worth making if it meant giving local people peace of mind.

“Tepco caused the 2011 accident, so there is no way I would ever support restarting nuclear reactors here,” she said. “They kept telling us that Fukushima Daiichi was perfectly safe – and look what happened.” ”

by Justin McCurry, The Guardian

source with internal links

Six years after Fukushima, robots finally find reactors’ melted uranium fuel — The New York Times

” FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT, Japan — Four engineers hunched before a bank of monitors, one holding what looked like a game controller. They had spent a month training for what they were about to do: pilot a small robot into the contaminated heart of the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant.

Earlier robots had failed, getting caught on debris or suffering circuit malfunctions from excess radiation. But the newer version, called the Mini-Manbo, or “little sunfish,” was made of radiation-hardened materials with a sensor to help it avoid dangerous hot spots in the plant’s flooded reactor buildings.

The size of a shoe box, the Manbo used tiny propellers to hover and glide through water in a manner similar to an aerial drone.

After three days of carefully navigating through a shattered reactor building, the Manbo finally reached the heavily damaged Unit 3 reactor. There, the robot beamed back video of a gaping hole at the bottom of the reactor and, on the floor beneath it, clumps of what looked like solidified lava: the first images ever taken of the plant’s melted uranium fuel.

The discovery in July at Unit 3, and similar successes this year in locating the fuel of the plant’s other two ruined reactors, mark what Japanese officials hope will prove to be a turning point in the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.

The fate of the fuel had been one of the most enduring mysteries of the catastrophe, which occurred on March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and 50-foot tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems here at the plant.

Left to overheat, three of the six reactors melted down. Their uranium fuel rods liquefied like candle wax, dripping to the bottom of the reactor vessels in a molten mass hot enough to burn through the steel walls and even penetrate the concrete floors below.

No one knew for sure exactly how far those molten fuel cores had traveled before desperate plant workers — later celebrated as the “Fukushima Fifty” — were able to cool them again by pumping water into the reactor buildings. With radiation levels so high, the fate of the fuel remained unknown.

As officials became more confident about managing the disaster, they began a search for the missing fuel. Scientists and engineers built radiation-resistant robots like the Manbo and a device like a huge X-ray machine that uses exotic space particles called muons to see the reactors’ innards.

Now that engineers say they have found the fuel, officials of the government and the utility that runs the plant hope to sway public opinion. Six and a half years after the accident spewed radiation over northern Japan, and at one point seemed to endanger Tokyo, the officials hope to persuade a skeptical world that the plant has moved out of post-disaster crisis mode and into something much less threatening: cleanup.

“Until now, we didn’t know exactly where the fuel was, or what it looked like,” said Takahiro Kimoto, a general manager in the nuclear power division of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco. “Now that we have seen it, we can make plans to retrieve it.”

Tepco is keen to portray the plant as one big industrial cleanup site. About 7,000 people work here, building new water storage tanks, moving radioactive debris to a new disposal site, and erecting enormous scaffoldings over reactor buildings torn apart by the huge hydrogen explosions that occurred during the accident.

Access to the plant is easier than it was just a year ago, when visitors still had to change into special protective clothing. These days, workers and visitors can move about all but the most dangerous areas in street clothes.

A Tepco guide explained this was because the central plant grounds had been deforested and paved over, sealing in contaminated soil.

During a recent visit, the mood within the plant was noticeably more relaxed, though movements were still tightly controlled and everyone was required to wear radiation-measuring badges. Inside a “resting building,” workers ate in a large cafeteria and bought snacks in a convenience store.

At the plant’s entrance, a sign warned: “Games like Pokemon GO are forbidden within the facility.”

“We have finished the debris cleanup and gotten the plant under control,” said the guide, Daisuke Hirose, a spokesman for Tepco’s subsidiary in charge of decommissioning the plant. “Now, we are finally preparing for decommissioning.”

In September, the prime minister’s office set a target date of 2021 — the 10th anniversary of the disaster — for the next significant stage, when workers begin extracting the melted fuel from at least one of the three destroyed reactors, though they have yet to choose which one.

The government admits that cleaning up the plant will take at least another three to four decades and tens of billions of dollars. A $100 million research center has been built nearby to help scientists and engineers develop a new generation of robots to enter the reactor buildings and scoop up the melted fuel.

At Chernobyl, the Soviets simply entombed the charred reactor in concrete after the deadly 1986 accident. But Japan has pledged to dismantle the Fukushima plant and decontaminate the surrounding countryside, which was home to about 160,000 people who were evacuated after accident.

Many of them have been allowed to return as the rural towns around the plant have been decontaminated. But without at least starting a cleanup of the plant itself, officials admit they will find it difficult to convince the public that the accident is truly over.

They also hope that beginning the cleanup will help them win the public’s consent to restart Japan’s undamaged nuclear plants, most of which remain shut down since the disaster.

Tepco and the government are treading cautiously to avoid further mishaps that could raise doubts that the plant is under control.

“They are being very methodical — too slow, some would say — in making a careful effort to avoid any missteps or nasty surprises,” said David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was a co-author of a book on the disaster.

“They want to regain trust. They have learned that trust can be lost much quicker than it can be recovered.”

To show the course followed by the Manbo, Tepco’s Mr. Hirose guided me inside the building containing the undamaged Unit 5 reactor, which is structurally the same as two of the destroyed reactors.

Mr. Hirose pointed toward the spot on a narrow access ramp where two robots, including one that looked like a scorpion, got tangled in February by debris inside the ruined Unit 2.

Before engineers could free the scorpion, its monitoring screen faded to black as its electronic components were overcome by radiation, which Tepco said reached levels of 70 sieverts per hour. (A dose of one sievert is enough to cause radiation sickness in a human.)

Mr. Hirose then led me underneath the reactor, onto what is called the pedestal.

The bottom of the reactor looked like a collection of huge bolts — the access points for control rods used to speed up and slow down the nuclear reaction inside a healthy reactor. The pedestal was just a metal grating, with the building’s concrete floor visible below.

“The overheated fuel would have dropped from here, and melted through the grating around here,” Mr. Hirose said, as we squatted to avoid banging our heads on the reactor bottom. The entire area around the reactor was dark, and cluttered with pipes and machinery.

To avoid getting entangled, the Manbo took three days to travel some 20 feet to the bottom of Unit 3.

To examine the other two reactors, engineers built a “snake” robot that could thread its way through wreckage, and the imaging device using muons, which can pass through most matter. The muon device has produced crude, ghostly images of the reactors’ interiors.

Extracting the melted fuel will present its own set of technical challenges, and risks.

Engineers are developing the new radiation-resistant robots at the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center. It includes a hangar-sized building to hold full-scale mock-ups of the plant and a virtual-reality room that simulates the interiors of the reactor buildings, including locations of known debris.

“I’ve been a robotic engineer for 30 years, and we’ve never faced anything as hard as this,” said Shinji Kawatsuma, director of research and development at the center. “This is a divine mission for Japan’s robot engineers.” “

by Martin Fackler, The New York Times

source with photos, video and internal links

Fukushima evacuee to tell UN that Japan violated human rights — The Guardian

” A nuclear evacuee from Fukushima will claim Japan’s government has violated the human rights of people who fled their homes after the 2011 nuclear disaster, in testimony before the UN in Geneva this week.

Mitsuko Sonoda, who voluntarily left her village with her husband and their 10-year-old son days after three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant went into meltdown, will tell the UN human rights council that evacuees face financial hardship and are being forced to return to neighbourhoods they believe are still unsafe almost seven years after the disaster.

“We feel abandoned by the Japanese government and society,” Sonoda, who will speak at the council’s pre-session review of Japan on Thursday, told the Guardian.

An estimated 27,000 evacuees who, like Sonoda, were living outside the mandatory evacuation zone when the meltdown occurred, had their housing assistance withdrawn this March, forcing some to consider returning to their former homes despite concerns over radiation levels.

In addition, as the government attempts to rebuild the Fukushima region by reopening decontaminated neighbourhoods that were once no-go areas, tens of thousands of evacuees who were ordered to leave will lose compensation payments and housing assistance in March next year.

The denial of financial aid has left many evacuees facing a near-impossible choice: move back to homes they fear are unsafe, or face more financial hardship as they struggle to build lives elsewhere without state help.

“People should be allowed to choose whether or not to go back to their old homes, and be given the financial means to make that choice,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan.

“If they are being put under economic pressure to return, then they are not in a position to make an informed decision. This UN session is about pressuring the Japanese government to do the right thing.”

Evacuees are being encouraged to return to villages and towns near the Fukushima plant despite evidence that some still contain radiation “hot spots”.

In Iitate village, where the evacuation order was lifted this March, much of the surrounding forests remain highly radioactive, although homes, schools and other public buildings have been declared safe as part of an unprecedented decontamination effort.

“You could call places like Iitate an open-air prison,” said Ulrich. “The impact on people’s quality of life will be severe if they move back. Their lives are embedded in forests, yet the environment means they will not be allowed to enter them. Forests are impossible to decontaminate.”

After months of moving around, Sonoda and her family settled in Kyoto for two years, where local authorities provided them with a rent-free apartment. They have been living in her husband’s native England for the past four years.

“We’ve effectively had to evacuate twice,” said Sonoda, who works as a freelance translator and Japanese calligraphy tutor. “My son and I really struggled at first … we didn’t want to leave Japan.”

Concern over food safety and internal radiation exposure convinced her that she could never return to Fukushima, aside from making short visits to see relatives. “It’s really sad, because my village is such a beautiful place,” she said. “We had a house and had planned to retire there.”

The evacuations have forced families to live apart, while parents struggle to earn enough money to fund their new accommodation and keep up mortgage payments on their abandoned homes.

“Stopping housing support earlier this year was an act of cruelty,” Sonoda said. “Some of my friends had to go back to Fukushima even though they didn’t want to.”

Greenpeace Japan, which is assisting Sonoda, hopes her testimony will be the first step in building international pressure on Japan’s government to continue offering financial help to evacuees and to reconsider its resettlement plan.

It has called on the government to declare Fukushima neighbourhoods unsafe until atmospheric radiation is brought to below one millisievert (mSv) a year, the maximum public exposure limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

While 1 mSv a year remains the government’s long-term target, it is encouraging people to return to areas where radiation levels are below 20 mSv a year, an annual exposure limit that, internationally, applies to nuclear power plant workers.

“Why should people, especially women and children, have to live in places where the radiation level is 20 times the international limit?” Sonoda said. “The government hasn’t given us an answer.” ”

by The Guardian

source with internal links