Nuclear Crisis: Fukushima and the Uncertain Future

Author: Rachel Appel | December 2014

Abstract:

This case study is intended to shed light on the nuclear crisis that Japan is currently facing today despite there being little evidence available concerning the recent tragedy. Part I will explain nuclear energy – what it does, how it works, and what the advantages and disadvantages of such a technology are. While nuclear energy has the potential to improve our vulnerable climate and help mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases, the slightest mistake can also result in irreversible devastation. Furthermore, Part II will discuss how the nuclear power plant meltdown at Fukushima may just be a small glimpse at future events to come. The nuclear power plant at Fukushima, which began melting down after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan 2011, continues to spill radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean today and initially caused a massive radioactive plume that spread across the entire world’s atmosphere. By discussing certain events of this disaster that bare similarities to the disaster of Chernobyl in 1986, and also focusing on specific health issues and human rights violations, this information will highlight many factors that make this nuclear crisis in Japan worse than some ‘experts’ and government officials are claiming it to be.

Keywords: Nuclear Crisis; Fukushima; Japan Radiation; 2011 Tsunami

Introduction

It is evident that the world’s resources are diminishing at an alarming rate, and at what appears to be the eleventh hour, the world is on a desperate search for a solution. As stated by the recent IPCC’s Fifth Assessment on Climate Change, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” It seems that the world as a whole is in search of an energy source that is cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient than current sources and it’s comforting to know that there are options to help mitigate the emissions of our pollutants. However, we have to take caution along our pursuit of new and innovative energy so that we simply don’t just mask one problem with the complications of another. What may appear as a solution for our current conditions, may just be a temporary fix that will lead to greater problems down the road; this could be the fate of nuclear energy if we don’t take caution when controlling such a powerful resource.

This case study is intended to shed light on the nuclear crisis that Japan is currently facing today despite there being little evidence available concerning the recent tragedy. Part I will explain nuclear energy – what it does, how it works, and what the advantages and disadvantages of such a technology are. While nuclear energy has the potential to improve our vulnerable climate and help mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases, the slightest mistake can also result in irreversible devastation. Furthermore, Part II will discuss how the nuclear power plant meltdown at Fukushima may just be a small glimpse at future events to come. The nuclear power plant at Fukushima, which began melting down after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan 2011, continues to spill radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean today and initially caused a massive radioactive plume to spread across the entire world’s atmosphere. By discussing certain events of this disaster that bare similarities to the disaster of Chernobyl in 1986, and also focusing on specific health issues and human rights violations, this information will highlight many factors that make the nuclear crisis in Japan worse than some ‘experts’ and government officials are claiming it to be.

Part 1

What is nuclear energy?

So what exactly is nuclear energy? In short, Nuclear energy originates from the splitting of uranium atoms – which is a highly radioactive element – in a process called fission. Fission releases heat energy that can be used to produce steam, which is then used in a turbine to generate electricity, and thus can replace society’s current high reliance on coal. This process takes place in water immersed reactors for two main reasons: (1) The water is used to produce steam necessary for the turbines. (2) The water acts as a cooling system since nuclear energy creates incredibly high temperatures. Countless studies claim that nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), or nitrogen oxides (NOX) during the actual energy process (EPA, 2013). Nevertheless, it is still a controversial matter on how much pollution is caused during mining for the necessary uranium and what types of hazards are created with regards to water.

What are the benefits?

The industrial world runs on energy and about 85% of the world’s energy is provided by fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas to be exact (IPCC, 2007). Through the burning of fossil fuels, we introduce 23 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year into the atmosphere – that’s 730 tons per second (WWF, 2014). Half of it is absorbed in the oceans and lands, and the other half remains in the atmosphere. This is significantly altering the composition of the atmosphere and seriously affecting the climate of our planet. Today, over 400 nuclear reactors provide electricity in 30 countries (Comby, 2001). Nuclear energy produces almost no greenhouse gases which are produced in massive quantities when fossil fuels are burned. Pound for pound, uranium provides 16,000 times more electric power than coal which is currently our main source of electricity. To put this in a better perspective, one gram of uranium yields about as much energy as a ton of coal or oil (Sailor, 2000).

What are the risks?

On the other side of the spectrum, nuclear waste produced from a power plant – although relatively small when compared to the waste of other sources of energy – contains highly radioactive material. So the question is, where does all of that material go? There is still no official means of disposal for it, so for now the waste sits in barrels buried beneath earth’s surface in deep underground engineered facilities (IAEA, 2014). In the early years of nuclear energy, the waste was dumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans and unfortunately, it takes thousands of years for this material to breakdown. Nuclear power plants also require large quantities of water for steam production and cooling. Many even remove substantial amounts of water from rivers, lakes and oceans which can damage aquatic life (EPA, 2013). While fossil fuel power causes most emissions at the power plant site itself, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the nuclear fuel cycle are caused in processing stages upstream and downstream from the plant (Lenzen, 2008). For example, emissions and waste generated from uranium mining and runoff can contaminate groundwater and surface water resources with heavy metals and traces of radioactive material.

Radiation

Nuclear energy is a relatively new and emerging science with the possibility to become a main source of power for many countries. In fact, France already derives about 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy (WNA, 2014). What seems like a great solution to help power our ever growing industrial world also has the potential to create disaster that can result in unimaginable devastation. Nuclear radiation cannot be seen, felt, tasted or smelt. It is an invisible poison that is naturally released and produced in small amounts by plants, however, it can be deadly when overexposure is reached. The principal risk and main controversy associated with nuclear power stems from the health effects of radiation that is caused by radioactive isotopes – a form of an element (in this case, uranium) – with an unstable nucleus that stabilizes itself by emitting radiation in the form of alpha, beta, and gamma rays. This radiation is composed of subatomic particles that can penetrate deep inside the human body and can damage DNA cells and thus initiate cancer. If they strike sex cells, it can cause a genetic disease in children which begins during pregnancy (Mettler, 2002). The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated the following: “Radiation is known to cause cancer in humans. Radiation can also cause other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.” While nuclear power plants supply the United States with about 20 percent of its electricity, they account for less than one-hundredth (1/100) percent of the average American’s total radiation exposure (EPA, 2013). However, when there is a nuclear power plant meltdown, there is no stopping it, containing it or reversing the damage caused.

Part 2

The Great East Japan Earthquake

On March 11th 2011, at 2:46pm, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake took place 231 miles off shore of Tokyo, Japan, at a depth of 15.2 miles (CNN, 2014). The earthquake caused a massive tsunami that not only resulted in unimaginable destruction, but damaged several nuclear reactors throughout the region. Moments after the earthquake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the U.S. and after about an hour, waves up to thirty feet high hit the Japanese coast, sweeping away vehicles, causing buildings to collapse, and severing roads and highways. The US Geological Survey says the quake appears to have moved Japan’s main island by 8 feet (Voigt, 201). At least six million homes – ten percent of Japan’s households – were without electricity, and a million were without water. Then, overnight, a 6.2 magnitude aftershock hit just outside Fukashima, and by five o’clock the following morning, the Japanese government declared a nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Officials report that the earthquake and tsunami had cut off the plant’s electrical power and that backup generators had failed. As of February 2014, the confirmed death toll in Japan was 15,884 and the Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about five million tons of debris offshore, but that 70 percent sank, leaving 1.5 million tons of solid pollution floating in the Pacific Ocean (CNN, 2014).

The Radiation that Spread Across the World

On March 13th, two days after the earthquake, people living within twelve miles of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant began a government-ordered evacuation and as more and more information became public about the dangerous levels of radiation, more people continued to evacuate further and further away from the danger. The total number evacuated so far is about 200,000 and there is very little of hope of these people ever being able to return home (Schnoor, 2012). A day after the power plant’s reactors had failed, the atmospheric emissions of radionuclides had already begun to spread throughout Japan and resulted in radioactive snowfall that extended hundreds of miles Northwest from the nuclear power plant site – an area that includes Tokyo (Hirose, 2012). It was clear that a major radiation plume was beginning to make its way across the Pacific Ocean and it eventually reached the United States on March 17th. Then, on March 20th, traces of radioactive isotopes were detected in Iceland and Germany and by March 23rd, the rest of Europe had detected traces as well (Pittauerová, 2011). By March 26, virtually every country in the Northern Hemisphere detected radionuclides and on April 13th, the equator no longer acted as a barrier, causing the radiation plume to spread to the Southern Hemisphere of the Asia-Pacific region (Thakur, 2012). Since then, radioactivity detected on a global scale has significantly decreased, however effected regions of Japan and the Pacific Ocean continue to see rises in levels of radiation. On April 12th 2011, Japan’s nuclear agency declared that the Fukushima Daiichi crisis was not a Level 5 event as previously determined, but instead a Level 7 (CNN, 2011). This is the highest level event, signifying a “major accident” which is right on scale with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. This means that a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects has occurred and requires implementation of planned and extended countermeasures (Thakur, 2012). The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is not simply the result of the earthquake and tsunami hitting the east coast of Japan, but due to the failure of Japanese authorities to protect the people, therefore violating natural human rights by not disclosing vital information (Tabuchi, 2012). They are withholding from the Japanese public full information on radiation levels, which is similar to the situation that happened in Chernobyl 1986 – as time went on, information was released little by little and for many people within range of that disaster, it was already too late. Although that accident happened over 25 years ago, the children born long after the event are still living with the poisoned land and food grown around the region and there is fear that this is the future for most of Japan (Bolsunovsky, 2011). Radiation expert Rianne Teule, who has worked as a Greenpeace nuclear campaigner for ten years says, “I have personally seen the impacts of the Chernobyl disaster. I know the risks the population was exposed to, and how disruptive and long-lasting the consequences of a nuclear accident can be” (Schnoor, 2012). The dangerous products of the nuclear meltdown were radioactive forms of iodine and cesium (Thakur, 2012). Both of them can cause dangerous health risks, but in different ways. Radioactive iodine decays naturally in a matter of weeks. However, due to the natural absorption of iodine by the thyroid gland, exposure to the radioactive form of iodine can lead to thyroid cancer. To help prevent this illness, those exposed were treated with potassium iodine pills. The true danger is the exposure to radioactive cesium. It can exist up to thirty years, allowing a continued danger as it flows through the natural life cycle that involves water, soil, and animal life (Buesseler, 2011). The existence of cesium will not show an immediate effect on the health of the Japanese people because it requires long term ingestion for the body to show any negative effects. For this reason, the immediate ban on the sale of any food being produced in the effected region was quickly enforced. Globally, there is a concern regarding the safety of trade products coming from Japan (Landau, 2011). Many countries demand paperwork proving that food has been tested before being shipped; some even do additional testing themselves to verify food safety. This has had an immediate effect on trade and is resulting in economic impact at both the local and international level.

TEPCO

Finally, in July 2013, TEPCO, The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in charge of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, admitted that radioactive groundwater has been and is currently leaking into the Pacific Ocean from the March 2011 disaster and they have been unsuccessful in stopping it. A Japanese government report was released criticizing TEPCO. The report says that the measures taken by TEPCO to prepare for disasters were “insufficient” and the response to the crisis was “inadequate” (CNN, 2014). The Fukushima site is alongside the Pacific Ocean which is a convenient source of reactor cooling water. When TEPCO was considering Fukushima for nuclear power reactors they admit they were advised that a potential tsunami could flood the plant, however, they went searching for other opinions and ignored the warnings (Wasserman, 2014). In recent news, just last month, TEPCO admitted failure in its attempt to halt the flow of toxic water into underground tunnels alongside the ocean and said that it will try using a specially developed cement instead (Kyodo, 2014). Initially, TEPCO sought to freeze the water in a section of the tunnel which was intended to stop the inflows and outflows and allow the accumulated water to be pumped out, however, it has since failed.

Should Tokyo be Worried?

Doctor Shigeru Mita, who recently moved to Okayama-city, to open a new clinic, wrote a short essay in a newsletter published by the Association of Doctors in Kodaira, a metropolitan area of Tokyo. He closed his previous clinic in March 2014, which had served the community of Kodaira for more than 50 years (Cleveland, 2014). He says, “In the event of a South Eastern Earthquake, which is highly expected due to the vulnerable fault lines, it is reasonable to assume a scenario of meltdown in the nuclear power plants followed by radiation contamination in Tokyo. I have been worried about the possibility of radiation contamination in Tokyo, so I had repeatedly requested the medical association, the municipal government and the local public health department to stock medical iodine, however, every time my request was turned down; the reason given was that Tokyo did not expect such an event. Hence there was no plan for preparing for this event.” According to Doctor Mita, it is clear that Eastern Japan and Metropolitan Tokyo have been contaminated with radiation. Since December 2011, he has conducted thyroid ultrasound examinations, thyroid function tests, general blood tests and biochemical tests on about 2000 concerned people and families. Patients report nosebleeds, hair loss, lack of energy, blood clotting, visible urinary hemorrhage, skin inflammations, coughs and various other symptoms (GRN, 2014). Mita says, “Ever since March 11th, everybody living in Eastern Japan including Tokyo is a victim, and everybody is involved… I must state that the policies of the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Japanese government cannot be trusted. They are simply far too distanced from the harsh realities that people in Chernobyl still face today.” Mita continues to say that mothers have researched frantically on radiation to protect their children and that they can no longer trust either government offices or their children’s schools. Various mothers say that family doctors were willing to listen about other symptoms, but their faces turned sour at the slightest mention of radiation and ignored the mothers’ questions (GRN, 2014).

USS Ronald Reagan

In response to the devastation caused by the tsunami, thousands upon thousands of humanitarian workers were quickly sent to Japan including U.S. Navy sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. Sadly, many of these young sailors returned home with thyroid cancer, Leukemia, brain tumors and more. So far, seventy-one of them have reported serious radiation sickness and are currently filing a lawsuit against TEPCO, who operates the Fukushima Daiichi energy plant. In fact, a handful of the people onboard are unsure they will live much longer. According to the crew, they knew something was wrong when plumes of metallic-tasting snow began drifting over the ship. Lindsay Cooper, a sailor onboard, recalled of the day in March 2011 when she and many fellow crew-mates watched a sudden storm blow toward them from the tsunami-torn coast of Fukushima, Japan. She says, “I was standing on the flight deck, and we felt this warm gust of air, and suddenly, it was snowing,” It was unknown then, but the snow was caused by the freezing Pacific air mixing with a plume of radioactive steam from the shattered nuclear reactors (Murtha, 2013). Aside from the plume, the toxic radioactive seawater was sucked into the ship’s desalinization system, flowing out of its faucets and showers, and into the use of the crew members. According to the Navy, the ship has a multimillion-dollar radiation-detection system, but it takes time to be set up and activated, and because TEPCO did not send out efficient warnings they were blinded and unprepared (Wasserman, 2014). To make things worse, the ship was unable to dock anywhere – Japan didn’t want them and neither did Korea or Guam because they all deemed the ship too radioactive to enter their ports. The ship floated in the Pacific for two and a half months until Thailand finally took them in (Murtha, 2013). These men and women are accusing TEPCO of downplaying the levels of nuclear radiation concerning the ship’s contaminated water supply, which inevitably led to crew members unknowingly drinking, washing their bodies and brushing their teeth with radioactive water. The $4.3 billion carrier is now docked in San Diego and many question whether it belongs there at all. Attempts to decontaminate U.S. ships irradiated during the Pacific nuclear bombs tests between 1946-1963 proved useless (Wasserman, 2014).

Conclusion

It is evident that the world’s resources are diminishing at an alarming rate and the world is currently on a desperate search for a solution. Many may agree that nuclear energy is not the answer to our problems and may actually make the situation worse. The nuclear power plant at Fukushima, which began melting down after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan 2011, continues to spill radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean today and initially caused a massive radioactive plume to spread across the entire world’s atmosphere. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is not simply the result of the earthquake and tsunami hitting the east coast of Japan, but due to the failure of Japanese authorities to protect the people, therefore violating natural human rights by not disclosing vital information. They are withholding from the Japanese public full information on radiation levels, which is similar to the situation that happened in Chernobyl 1986. Major corporations like TEPCO who ultimately make the decisions, will continue to ignore the harsh realities and are already pushing plans to build more nuclear power plants in Japan, despite the Fukushima Daichii disaster and despite the protests of thousands of Japanese citizens. They have overlooked warning signs from the past, payed no attention to events from Chernobyl and are now disregarding not only the safety of Japanese citizens, but the health of the Pacific Ocean, which ultimately concerns the health of the entire world.

References

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