Radioactive Waste Still Leaking Five Years After Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi reactors could take decades and cost billions of dollars
SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
March 11 marks the five-year anniversary of the most powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami in recent memory. It hit Japan, causing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which evolved into a crisis.
The nuclear disaster forced tens of thousands of people to flee a 20-kilometer radius around the reactor. Plant-operated [Tokyo] Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO, managed to avert the worst scenario by pumping water, much of it from the sea, into the Daiichi damaged reactors and spent fuel pools. After several scares, including one where radioactive water spilled into the sea, reactors were stabilized by December of the same year. Five years on, however, the nuclear power plant is still leaking radioactive water.
To help understand why this is still happening is Arjun Makhijani. He is a nuclear and electric engineer, and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Arjun, thank you so much for joining us today.
ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Thank you, Sharmini, for having me.
PERIES: So, Arjun, why is it taking so long to fix the leak?
MAKHIJANI: Well, nuclear power is forever. So, basically, what happens in the course of a nuclear reaction: you split the atom and you get two fragments from that, and those fragments of uranium are much more radioactive than the original uranium, and some of them last for a very long time, and some of them are quite mobile.
Now, in the normal course of operation of a nuclear reactor, the fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets and it all sits inside the reactor. There are some radioactivity emissions, but they are not huge in terms of the kinds of concerns we’re talking about. When there is a meltdown, like the accident we had at Fukushima Daiichi, or Chernobyl, there are, the fuel pellets actually melt and they form, like, a molten concrete that moves toward the bottom of the reactor.
Now, in the case of Three Mile Island, where that happened, that molten core was contained within the reactor, and as that happens, also, the chemical reactions generate hydrogen. In Three Mile Island, the hydrogen fire, or explosion, was contained within that concrete dome associated with that reactor. At Fukushima the three buildings actually blew up from hydrogen explosions, and there was this meltdown, so all this radioactivity, a lot of that radioactivity then escaped.
A part of it is volatile, like cesium, so it evaporates, literally, and then of course it goes into the air, iodine-131. Some of it is soluble. Now, normally the soluble part would remain inside the reactor, but at Fukushima it seems that there has been, at least in one reactor and possibly in more than one, the molten core has just melted its way not only through the reactor but also through all the containments, and I suspect that some of it is in the soil. We don’t know because they haven’t been able to figure out exactly where all this molten material is, but I think the evidence is that the groundwater is contacting the radioactive material, and so the groundwater is getting contaminated, and a large part of the problem of contamination of water comes from that fact, also the fact that it’s raining and the rain, of course, makes the radioactivity mobile.
Last point on this is that two difficult materials in this regard are cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, which means you have to worry about it for a couple of hundred years, and strontium-90, which also has a similar half-life, 29 years, and so you also have to worry about it for a couple of hundred years. And so this stuff just stays around, and so long as you don’t remove it it’s an environmental and health threat, and Fukushima Daiichi is right on the ocean, so whenever the radioactivity washes off the site it winds up in the ocean.
PERIES: And all the technical aspects are rather important, but what’s happening to the people who were affected by the crises and the people that were evacuated from the 20-mile radius? What are the conditions there? Have they moved back? Are they still at risk?
MAKHIJANI: Well, about 160 thousand people left their homes after the disaster. there was an evacuation zone, but it turned out the contamination was more widespread and more directional. It was directional toward the northwest. It wasn’t in a circle, so while they initially evacuated a circle, turned out that some of the parts of the circle were not contaminated, and then there were parts that were beyond that circle that were contaminated.
Currently, I think, there almost 100 thousand people who have not gone back. The government thinks that many more people can go back, but, you know, the places are contaminated. You are being asked to trust a system that essentially betrayed you multiple times, that didn’t level with the public, that has manifestly, by its own actions, put the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan, which were all shut down about a year later, above the questions of resettlement and cleanup and other aspects of the Fukushima disaster, and they basically have tried to minimize the dangers of radiation, so a lot of people have not returned.
Families have split up, so sometimes the men will say, you know, my job is there, my farm is there, my work is there. I want to go back. And the women might say, well, we don’t want to go back, how can we take our children back to these radioactive, contaminated areas? So it’s not only the health risk and the cancer risk, but there are all of these other social-economic–There’s this social-economic fallout that I think is at least as important as the radioactive fallout.
PERIES: And are there health risks from this manifesting itself now?
MAKHIJANI: Yes. There’s some evidence of thyroid problems and thyroid cancer risks. Most of the cancers are solid cancers, and the latency period of radiation-induced cancers, except for leukemia, are quite long, so you should expect to see the cancers in the coming decade. This is an accident that won’t stop, because they don’t know how to get all that material out.
The people most at risk, actually, are the workers who are cleaning up the plant and who are also cleaning up the environment around the plant, where there was a lot of this radioactive fallout. Cleaning up is actually a euphemism, because you can’t really clean the stuff up. They’re scraping up the dirt, and, let me see, there are 10, more than 10 million one-ton plastic bags containing radioactive debris and waste from this cleanup outside the plant, and they’re just sitting there, these plastic bags. The pictures of them are very stunning, and nobody knows what will happen if there’s another tsunami and there are these 10 million radioactive waste-containing plastic bags, and one thousand tanks containing radioactive water besides the radioactive water that’s going into the ocean.
So the workers are significantly at risk. There are more than 30 thousand of them, and–
PERIES: –And have there been any medical attempts to test them, to deal with what they might be getting exposed to?
MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, they are being monitored for radioactivity, most of them, I suspect. My, so I haven’t followed this blow-by-blow, to confess, but when I did follow it quite closely initially, for about a year, my impression was that the monitoring was deficient and that the internal monitoring, which is what you eat and breathe and what gets inside your body, which is very, very important, was not as frequent and as thorough as it should be. And I think the same, possibly, applies to a lot of the affected people.
So there are a lot of cancers that are not associated with radioactivity, so in order to know, you know, what was the added risk from the radiation exposure, you have to have very thorough studies, and I am not confident that these thorough studies are being done. It’s very hard for us to know, because not long after Fukushima the Japanese government passed a kind of anti-freedom of information law where it became illegal to diffuse and acquire and talk about certain kinds of information, so you know they have something to hide when they’re doing that.
PERIES: Okay. And besides the government, who is obviously mandated to deal with this, the former leader of the head of the Tokyo Electric Power Company team dealing with the radioactive water says that they will need another four years or so, until 2020, to fix it. Many critics, including yourself, said that TEPCO, who ran the plant, who were not equipped to deal with it, and of course that is all coming to. Is the government and TEPCO in any better position to deal with this now, having, you know, five years have passed, and are you any more confident about the way they are dealing with it?
MAKHIJANI: So let me give one very important credit where it is due, which is that in one of the reactors, which was not operational at the time of the accident, reactor number four, there was a lot of very hot, radioactive waste in the spent fuel pool, where it is stored, and a lot of people, including me, feared that, you know, a loss of cooling could result in a very major disaster, and it was very important to empty that pool and store that waste more safely because that building had also been affected severely by the accident.
They have been able to empty that pool. They have also made progress in some other areas. However, I think TEPCO was not a very responsible company, and had many, many problems in terms of its disclosures and dishonesty before this accident. The chairman of TEPCO actually escaped, and did not show up for a month after the accident, so not very responsible. If it had not been for the prime minister of Japan, who has now become an opponent of nuclear power, Prime Minister Kan, we may be looking at a very different disaster, because TEPCO was thinking of abandoning the site which would have, of course, resulted in the kind of much worse accident that people feared. We’re very lucky that Tokyo did not have more fallout on it.
So Nuclear power is a very strange beast. We’re making plutonium just to boil water, and then all these radioactive materials. And so if you have an accident you can’t pick up the pieces and move on. This is an accident that has been going on for 40 years. They’re not going–five years–They’re not going to clean it up in the next four years, let me assure you. Getting that molten fuel from the reactors, even approaching it and handling it, you know, robotically, is going to take a long time, decades probably.
PERIES: And TEPCO is, apparently, right now seeking permission to build an underground ice wall to contain it all. Is this a reasonable proposal, and is it going to work?
MAKHIJANI: Well, I’m skeptical about this ice wall. I think they have built it, or are well along the way. The idea is to prevent water. So it’s in a mountainous area, and the mountains are kind of upstream from the reactor site, so the water flows through the site and, as I was explaining, picks up the radioactivity and contaminates the groundwater and so on, and that’s part of the reason they have, you know, these millions of gallons of radioactive water stored onsite.
I thought that they should have put this radioactive water in a supertanker and taken it to another site for treatment, and proposed it at the time of the accident. I know the Japanese authorities saw my proposal, but they ignored it, and so I don’t think that this accident has been well handled from the beginning in most of the respects. Fortunately the prime minister ordered that the sea water be put into the reactors so there wasn’t, you know, bigger hydrogen explosions and a worse radioactive catastrophe than already happened.
PERIES: Arjun Makhijani. He’s the author of “Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy.” Thank you so much for joining us today.
MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Sharmini. It was a pleasure.
PERIES: And you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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