Japanese government $500 million ice wall is a precarious, temporary fix, not a permanent solution to the radioactive water leaking from stricken nuclear reactors
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In Japan, the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors are continuing to emit record levels of dangerous radiation. Now the Japanese government has stepped in and pledged nearly $500 million to help stop the leaks.
Now joining us to stop this discuss this ongoing environmental crisis is Arjun Makhijani. He’s an engineer who specializes in nuclear fusion and the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He’s authored numerous reports in books on energy and environmental-related issues.
Thank you so much for joining us.
DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI, PRESIDENT, INSTITUTE FOR ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH: Sure. You’re welcome.
NOOR: So can you give us your reaction to these latest developments in Japan over this growing crisis, this continuing leaks of record levels of radiation?
MAKHIJANI: Well, this is a crisis that has been evolving for more than two years now, and the latest revelations are just one more thing, but one more very serious thing.
What has been happening is the fuel in the reactors melted and melted right through the reactors in three reactors. And that fuel still has to be cooled, even though it’s molten. And so they have to add cooling water. But now the buildings are damaged and the groundwater is coming up and contacting the molten fuel in the buildings or in the basements of the buildings.
And they’re collecting this groundwater and storing it in hastily build tanks. There are 1,000 of them, and some of them have begun to leak. And the radioactive water in these tanks is very, very radioactive. So near one of the tanks, the radioactivity is so high that you could get a lethal dose of radiation in a few hours. In other places it’s much less, but it still–you could get an annual dose as a worker in 10, 12, 15, 20 minutes. So the working conditions on the site are very difficult. The site is contaminated. And 300 tons (that’s about 80,000 gallons) a day of contaminated water are going from the site and pouring into the ocean underground.
NOOR: And so this has been happening for more than two years now. Now the government has a new plan to build what’s been described by some as an unprecedented ice wall to help contain this leak. What are your thoughts about whether this can effectively contain this?
MAKHIJANI: Well, I think it can at best be a palliative. Ice walls are not a new thing. They are known. But they’re usually a temporary construction expedient. This would not be a temporary construction expedient, because they’re planning to remediate this site over a period of decades, not years. Moreover, the size of this project is huge, unprecedented. To build it on a highly radioactively contaminated site would be very difficult, ’cause have to dig up a lot of dirt, and that dirt is contaminated. Now you’re putting–like there are coils in your freezer, you’re putting coils like that in the soil to freeze the soil. If there is an earthquake, of course those coils could break, and then you have an ice wall that is no longer an ice wall. The ice will melt, and you have contaminated water that had been holding up, building up over a long period of time, and that would pour into the ocean. So I don’t know that this thing–this is definitely not going to solve the problem. It’s going to be difficult to build it. It will take time. And in the meantime, this contaminated water is simply building up, and they’re going on building new tanks, even though they have more than 1,000 tanks already.
NOOR: And so there are some reports that by 2014 or maybe sooner this radiation will be hitting the United States and other parts of the world. Talk about the growing international concern about this crisis.
MAKHIJANI: Well, the initial release of radioactivity from Fukushima was very large. There was a release to the air because of the meltdowns and the explosions, hydrogen explosions. And then there were also releases to the ocean. There was fallout from the atmosphere into the ocean of quite a large amount of radioactivity. The French Radioprotection Institute called it the largest incident of radioactive pollution of the oceans in history. So of course the fish in the ocean are contaminated, and the ocean currents do disperse the radioactivity. It takes about three years, I think, for contaminated water discharged near Fukushima to reach the west coast of the United States. Of course, the fish migrate a lot faster than that.
NOOR: Is this a source of concern, growing concern in the U.S.? And can you also talk about the international response? What lessons have been taken from this disaster? And how do you evaluate whether countries and corporations have done enough to really address the seriousness of this problem?
MAKHIJANI: Yeah. Well, there are not alarming levels of radiation in the United States. I mean, the main problem is in Japan. But people are very concerned, and I think rightly so. And what I have said is the Food and Drug Administration should be regularly monitoring the seafood and publishing the results very publicly and doing a thorough job of it, and the Environmental Protection Agency should be monitoring the seawater and rainwater and so on–rainwater now not so important, but certainly sea water monitoring is important. And they should make these results public.
As for the second part of your question, different countries have drawn different results. So Germany already had decided after Chernobyl, the disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, to phase out nuclear power, because they could not contemplate what would happen if they had a similar accident in Germany. After Fukushima, they decided to accelerate their nuclear phaseout. So they’re going to shut down all their nuclear reactors by 2022, and essentially charting a path to a nearly completely renewable energy sector in Germany, or at least electricity sector.
The French rely 75 percent on nuclear energy. They did some serious assessments also, and they realize that if they have an accident, anything like Fukushima, it would be very, very difficult for France or a large part of France to recover from that–hundreds of billions of dollars of damage, besides, of course, the question of how you reoccupy contaminated areas.
In the United States, it hasn’t seemed to have much impact. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did a report and an assessment, and they are requiring reactor operators to make some changes to improve safety and emergency management, but overall they have gone on licensing reactors after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Recently they have stopped licensing, but not because of Fukushima. It’s because the courts have said, you don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste, and you’ve got to figure that out first. So, until then, they have stopped licensing decisions.
In other countries, in China they made a pause and went on. In India, I don’t think they made even a pause.
In Japan, of course, essentially all the nuclear reactors are set. The public has largely gone against nuclear energy, but not yet the politicians, or the politicians in power, anyway.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll keep following this story.
MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much. I’d be happy to come back.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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