As if there wasn’t enough to be worried about with the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan that began nearly three years ago, there have been a number of false stories and misleading graphics circulating on the internet. At the end of December, there were a flurry of reports that reactor Unit 3 was once again melting down. In reality, steam that has been coming out of the reactor for several months was mistaken as evidence of a meltdown. In fact, the steam is caused by condensation over the melted reactor core. Apparently, media staff dedicated to fact checking and source verification went on holiday at some media outlets.
While there is likely radiation in the steam, it’s negligible compared to the radioactive water that continues to be a major problem. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) own officials say the situation is not under control, and nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen with Fairewinds Energy Education places water at the top of the list of things preventing successful containment of the disaster. As we covered in our last update on Fukushima, contaminated water has been a considerable problem since the disaster began. Polluted, radioactive water has been flooding the buildings, coming in contact with the melted cores, and flushing out, contaminating groundwater and the Pacific Ocean with Cesium-134, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90.
A recent Scientific American article diminishes the possible impact on the West Coast of the U.S., while an Al Jazeera series on the disaster says there isn’t much to worry about unless strontium-90 is not cleaned out of the water that will inevitably be dumped into the Pacific. Yet, ever since leaks began to be reported last August, large leaks of highly contaminated water have occurred time and again. The most recent leak was in late December, and consisted of 225 tons of water containing 440 becquerels per liter of Strontium-90. The legal limit is 10 becquerels per liter. A worker who helped in the area where the leaky water storage tanks are stored recently came forth with detailed accounts of intentionally shoddy work and efforts to save money even if it meant shirking safety measures.
To make matters much worse, the shortage of workers has created a new black market of labor recruiters who recruit homeless men, take a huge cut of their wages, and pay the workers less than local minimum wage for “working on the $35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan larger than Hong Kong.” One can only imagine how little oversight might exist within such a recruitment system, even though the workers are working on decontamination projects that require diligence and consistency.
But, all is well in Tokyo, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who assured the Olympic Committee that “the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.” However, just a few days after the Olympic Committee awarded Tokyo the bid to host the 2020 Olympic games, Kazuhiko Yamashita, an executive officer of TEPCO, contradicted the Prime Minister, saying “We regard the current situation as not being under control.” In fact, in 2012, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan suppressed a worst-case-scenario report that suggested a mandatory evacuation of a 100 mile radius and a voluntary evacuation of 150 miles, which included Tokyo. The harsh reality is, in the devastating event of another severe earthquake, additional explosions and meltdowns could occur.
This is just one example of how Japan and TEPCO are complicit in manipulating information. To ensure state-sponsored control of information, the Diet, Japan’s legislature, just passed a state secrets law that will expand the definition of what information is considered “state secret” and prosecute whistle-blowers, including journalists. The law, supported by the United States, caused protests from the Japanese public.
Closer to home, an informative new video from Fairewinds’s Arnie Gundersen discusses the risk to the U.S. West Coast population from the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi releases, addressing concerns about walking by or swimming in the Pacific Ocean, how safe California’s beaches are and about eating Pacific seafood.
In just two months, we will reach the third anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and triggered this horrific nuclear disaster that remains out of control. It is imperative for all of us to be aware of the tremendous impacts that energy choices can and do have on society, the economy and the global environment and to do what we can to minimize or prevent those effects by moving towards cleaner, safer options.
–SACE’s high risk energy choices program director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.