Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think
Scientific experts believe Japan’s nuclear disaster
Last Modified: 16 Jun 2011 12:50
“Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,”
Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, told Al
Japan’s 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that crippled the
cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) nuclear plant in
Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns that
forced evacuations of those living within a 20km radius of the plant.
Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power
engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70 nuclear power
plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant likely has more exposed
reactor cores than commonly believed.
“Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed,”
he said, “You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because
of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there
is no means to cool them effectively.”
TEPCO has been spraying water on several of the reactors and fuel cores, but
this has led to even greater problems, such as radiation being emitted into the
air in steam and evaporated sea water – as well as generating hundreds of
thousands of tons of highly radioactive sea water that has to be disposed of.
“The problem is how to keep it cool,” says Gundersen. “They are pouring in
water and the question is what are they going to do with the waste that comes
out of that system, because it is going to contain plutonium and uranium. Where
do you put the water?”
Even though the plant is now shut down, fission products such as uranium
continue to generate heat, and therefore require cooling.
“The fuels are now a molten blob at the bottom of the reactor,” Gundersen
added. “TEPCO announced they had a melt through. A melt down is when the fuel
collapses to the bottom of the reactor, and a melt through means it has melted
through some layers. That blob is incredibly radioactive, and now you have water
on top of it. The water picks up enormous amounts of radiation, so you add more
water and you are generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive
Independent scientists have been monitoring the locations of radioactive “hot
spots” around Japan, and their findings are disconcerting.
“We have 20 nuclear cores exposed, the fuel pools have several cores each,
that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl,” said Gundersen.
“The data I’m seeing shows that we are finding hot spots further away than we
had from Chernobyl, and the amount of radiation in many of them was the amount
that caused areas to be declared no-man’s-land for Chernobyl. We are seeing
square kilometres being found 60 to 70 kilometres away from the reactor. You
can’t clean all this up. We still have radioactive wild boar in Germany, 30
years after Chernobyl.”
Radiation monitors for children
Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters finally admitted earlier this
month that reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima plant experienced full
TEPCO announced that the accident probably released more radioactive
material into the environment than Chernobyl, making it the worst nuclear
accident on record.
Meanwhile, a nuclear waste advisor to the Japanese government reported that
about 966 square kilometres near the power station – an area roughly 17 times
the size of Manhattan – is now likely uninhabitable.
In the US, physician Janette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano
published an essay shedding light on a 35 per cent spike in infant mortality in
northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima meltdown, and may well be the
result of fallout from the stricken nuclear plant.
The eight cities included in the report are San Jose, Berkeley, San
Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Boise, and the time
frame of the report included the ten weeks immediately following the disaster.
“There is and should be concern about younger people being exposed, and the
Japanese government will be giving out radiation monitors to children,” Dr MV
Ramana, a physicist with the Programme on Science and Global Security at
Princeton University who specialises in issues of nuclear safety, told Al
Dr Ramana explained that he believes the primary radiation threat continues
to be mostly for residents living within 50km of the plant, but added: “There
are going to be areas outside of the Japanese government’s 20km mandatory
evacuation zone where radiation is higher. So that could mean evacuation zones
in those areas as well.”
Gundersen points out that far more radiation has been released than has been
“They recalculated the amount of radiation released, but the news is really
not talking about this,” he said. “The new calculations show that within the
first week of the accident, they released 2.3 times as much radiation as they
thought they released in the first 80 days.”
According to Gundersen, the exposed reactors and fuel cores are continuing to
release microns of caesium, strontium, and plutonium isotopes. These are
referred to as “hot particles”.
“We are discovering hot particles everywhere in Japan, even in Tokyo,” he
said. “Scientists are finding these everywhere. Over the last 90 days these hot
particles have continued to fall and are being deposited in high concentrations.
A lot of people are picking these up in car engine air filters.”
Radioactive air filters from cars in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo are now
common, and Gundersen says his sources are finding radioactive air filters in
the greater Seattle area of the US as well.
The hot particles on them can eventually lead to cancer.
“These get stuck in your lungs or GI tract, and they are a constant
irritant,” he explained, “One cigarette doesn’t get you, but over time they do.
These [hot particles] can cause cancer, but you can’t measure them with a Geiger
counter. Clearly people in Fukushima prefecture have breathed in a large amount
of these particles. Clearly the upper West Coast of the US has people being
affected. That area got hit pretty heavy in April.”
Blame the US?
In reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe, Germany is phasing out all of its
nuclear reactors over the next decade. In a referendum vote this Monday, 95 per
cent of Italians voted in favour of blocking a nuclear power revival in their
country. A recent newspaper poll in Japan shows nearly three-quarters of
respondents favour a phase-out of nuclear power in Japan.
Why have alarms not been sounded about radiation exposure in the US?
Nuclear operator Exelon Corporation has been among Barack Obama’s biggest
campaign donors, and is one of the largest employers in Illinois where Obama was
senator. Exelon has donated more than $269,000 to his political campaigns, thus
far. Obama also appointed Exelon CEO John Rowe to his Blue Ribbon Commission on
America’s Nuclear Future.
Dr Shoji Sawada is a theoretical particle physicist and Professor Emeritus at
Nagoya University in Japan.
He is concerned about the types of nuclear plants in his country, and the fact
that most of them are of US design.
“Most of the reactors in Japan were designed by US companies who did not care
for the effects of earthquakes,” Dr Sawada told Al Jazeera. “I think this
problem applies to all nuclear power stations across Japan.”
Using nuclear power to produce electricity in Japan is a product of the
nuclear policy of the US, something Dr Sawada feels is also a large component of
“Most of the Japanese scientists at that time, the mid-1950s, considered that
the technology of nuclear energy was under development or not established
enough, and that it was too early to be put to practical use,” he explained.
“The Japan Scientists Council recommended the Japanese government not use this
technology yet, but the government accepted to use enriched uranium to fuel
nuclear power stations, and was thus subjected to US government policy.”
As a 13-year-old, Dr Sawada experienced the US nuclear attack against Japan
from his home, situated just 1400 metres from the hypocentre of the Hiroshima
“I think the Fukushima accident has caused the Japanese people to abandon the
myth that nuclear power stations are safe,” he said. “Now the opinions of the
Japanese people have rapidly changed. Well beyond half the population believes
Japan should move towards natural electricity.”
A problem of infinite proportions
Dr Ramana expects the plant reactors and fuel cores to be cooled enough for a
shutdown within two years.
“But it is going to take a very long time before the fuel can be removed from
the reactor,” he added. “Dealing with the cracking and compromised structure and
dealing with radiation in the area will take several years, there’s no question
Dr Sawada is not as clear about how long a cold shutdown could take, and said
the problem will be “the effects from caesium-137 that remains in the soil and
the polluted water around the power station and underground. It will take a
year, or more time, to deal with this”.
Gundersen pointed out that the units are still leaking radiation.
“They are still emitting radioactive gases and an enormous amount of
radioactive liquid,” he said. “It will be at least a year before it stops
boiling, and until it stops boiling, it’s going to be cranking out radioactive
steam and liquids.”
Gundersen worries about more earthquake aftershocks, as well as how to cool
two of the units.
“Unit four is the most dangerous, it could topple,” he said. “After the
earthquake in Sumatra there was an 8.6 [aftershock] about 90 days later, so we
are not out of the woods yet. And you’re at a point where, if that happens,
there is no science for this, no one has ever imagined having hot nuclear fuel
lying outside the fuel pool. They’ve not figured out how to cool units three and
Gundersen’s assessment of solving this crisis is grim.
“Units one through three have nuclear waste on the floor, the melted core,
that has plutonium in it, and that has to be removed from the environment for
hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “Somehow, robotically, they will have
to go in there and manage to put it in a container and store it for infinity,
and that technology doesn’t exist. Nobody knows how to pick up the molten core
from the floor, there is no solution available now for picking that up from the
Dr Sawada says that the creation of nuclear fission generates radioactive
materials for which there is simply no knowledge informing us how to dispose of
the radioactive waste safely.
“Until we know how to safely dispose of the radioactive materials generated
by nuclear plants, we should postpone these activities so as not to cause
further harm to future generations,” he explained. “To do otherwise is simply an
immoral act, and that is my belief, both as a scientist and as a survivor of the
Hiroshima atomic bombing.”
Gundersen believes it will take experts at least ten years to design and
implement the plan.
“So ten to 15 years from now maybe we can say the reactors have been
dismantled, and in the meantime you wind up contaminating the water,” Gundersen
said. “We are already seeing Strontium [at] 250 times the allowable limits in
the water table at Fukushima. Contaminated water tables are incredibly difficult
to clean. So I think we will have a contaminated aquifer in the area of the
Fukushima site for a long, long time to come.”
Unfortunately, the history of nuclear disasters appears to back Gundersen’s
“With Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now with Fukushima, you can pinpoint
the exact day and time they started,” he said, “But they never end.”
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