Fukushima’s toxic legacy

Devastation at Fukushima
Devastation at Fukushima

“The one thing certain about this crisis is that Tepco does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. Nor does the Japanese government. The situation demands a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers our species can muster.” On September 19, 2013, veteran anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman made the above impassioned plea for urgent international action, in an excellent article summing up the dire situation at Fukushima[1]Fukushima two and a half years on: what is really going on?  It is becoming ever clearer that the situation is not under control, contrary to assurances from plant operators Tepco, and the Japanese government. So Fukushima has been in the headlines again after two years of little media attention outside Japan after the initial drama, when an earthquake on 11 March 2011 caused three nuclear reactors to melt down, emitting large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere over Japan and beyond. Fortunately more and more researchers and journalists are speaking out.

The basic picture of the state of the Fukushima Daiichi site has four features: first, emissions into the atmosphere continue, though at a lower level than in the months following the accidents. Second, nobody knows exactly where the three melted cores are as reactor buildings 1 to 3 are all too hot to be properly inspected, whether by humans or robots. It is quite likely that much of the material has flowed out of the containment vessels, making its way down through the concrete platforms into the aquifer below the plant, and may already be contributing to the contamination flowing into the Pacific. Third, huge amounts of contaminated water are flowing from the site into Fukushima harbour and thence into the Pacific Ocean, and probably have been since soon after the accident.

Fourth, and worst of all, a worse catastrophe threatens than what has gone before: the prospect of explosions and chain reactions starting from one of the fuel pools, fuel pool 4 being a special risk.

Vast quantities of old fuel rods are held in various precarious pools around the site, and as the fourth reactor was out of service at the time of the earthquake, its load of new fuel rods, together with large numbers of used ones, is in a badly damaged pool on the roof of the badly damaged reactor building (yes, on the roof, just like at plants of the same design in America). The crux of the problem is that the pool is too dangerous to be left as it is, but attempting to remove the fuel rods also courts disaster, as explained below.

Earthquakes are frequent in Japan, and last year geophysicists predicted that a very severe earthquake near Fukushima is highly likely to happen in the near future[2]. The Reactor 4 building is so damaged that it is hard to imagine the fuel pool surviving a bad earthquake. The whole structure has supposedly been strengthened by Tepco, but it is tilting and sinking, and recently there have been two more pieces of very bad news relating to the state of the reactor building.

First, Tepco’s clumsy efforts to cool the reactors and their cores with huge doses of water, and to dam up the flows of cooling water and contaminated groundwater to stop them running into the Pacific, have very predictably caused the ground below the Reactor 4 building to become saturated with water, making the building more liable to sink or slip. It has been pointed out since shortly after the original accident that the fuel rods in the pool have to be kept out of contact with each other and under water at all times, otherwise their zirconium cladding could ignite, further raising the temperature of the rods, and possibly leading to an absolutely devastating explosive release of nuclear material from fuel pool 4 and from the ‘common fuel pool’ which is so close to pool 4 that it would be likely to be set off by an explosion in the latter .

The second piece of bad news is that it now emerges that the ‘fuel assemblies’ (sets of rods) in pool 4 are in an even poorer state than previously supposed, the rods have become brittle, and Tepco is having to pump boron into the water because the boron casings for the rods have disintegrated. The original lifting gear is broken, and the pool is full of debris as well as of rods. So commentators are now saying that it will be even harder than previously imagined to remove 1500 fuel fragile fuel rods without a single fatal mistake, either exposing rods to air and ignition, or bringing them too close together, risking a criticality (nuclear chain reaction event). Yet the task has to be attempted, as the alternative is just to wait for the near certainty that some combination of the structural problems of the building, the increasingly unstable foundations, and a bad earthquake, will combine to bring the pool down, emptying the water and exposing the rods to violent contact with each other and to air.

What are the consequences to the ecosystem, including humans?

Most scientists accept the evidence that high levels of radiation cause illness and death. However in assessing the impact of Fukushima, there are three problems.

First, for the public to obtain an accurate picture of radionuclide emissions, there would need to have been thorough monitoring and estimation of emissions and of since March 2011 throughout Japan and over most of the globe, plus honesty and transparency in both monitoring and reporting, and neither of these seem to have been in place. So the best that the public can do is seek out and make a judgement for themselves on estimates made by various researchers.

Second, while some scientists believe that damage from radiation is dose-dependent, so even low-dose radiation will cause damage[3], others believe that low-dose radiation causes little or no damage to living organisms. Partly because this latter view is obviously beneficial to powerful corporations such as General Electric who designed the Fukushima reactors and to state personnel who favour nuclear power, it tends to be prevalent in the mainstream media. But common sense suggests that if DNA can clearly be seriously damaged by high doses of radiation it is likely that it can also be damaged by medium or low ones, and that even if lack of adequate monitoring and research means that not everyone thinks there is convincing evidence of this, the precautionary principle[4] would still dictate that every effort be made to minimise the exposure of humans and the rest of the ecosystem to the emissions from Fukushima – in other words, err on the safe side. It should also be noted that while just over 19,000 deaths from the tsunami is an  known figure now[5], cancer and other diseases will be showing up for a long time to come in individuals alive at the time of the accident, plus any damage to DNA will also be carried down into future generations, so it would be premature to conclude that total radiation damage and deaths from the accident are clearly less numerous or important than deaths caused immediately by the earthquake and tsunami just because they cannot be precisely calculated. Moreover it seems that the scale of damage if there is a colossal further emission of radiation from the fuel pools would cause a lot of additional deaths both in the short and the long term.

This brings us to the third problem – monitoring and researching possible health problems in humans Japan and beyond, and damage to the rest of the biosphere. Again, this is bedevilled by lack of systematic work and transparency. In fact there is a battle going on in Japan (and indeed further afield) between those who either believe there are no serious problems as a result of the accident, or that the problems must be covered up, and other people who believe there are very serious problems which must be dealt with. Much of official Japan is on the side of a cover-up, but increasing numbers of researchers and activists are speaking out and trying to get their data publicised, and there is also plenty of anecdotal evidence about people around Fukushima showing signs of radiation sickness or surprising levels of heart disease, with a jump in thyroid cancer in children since the accident[6].

What do we need to do?

A massive increase in pressure is required to force the Japanese, U.S. and British governments to accept the need for serious co-ordinated international action, very quickly, as earthquake or storm or water damage could prove fatal to fuel pool 4 at any time, and Tepco is planning to start clearing the fuel pool within 60 days – yet several commentators including a former worker with 11 years’ experience at Fukushima doubts whether the clearance will happen without provoking the disaster it is  designed to avoid.

Here, the labour movement and green movement should be demanding transparent (not secret) international action, and asking Cameron to explain what Britain’s attitude is, since Britain has a member on the new so-called “oversight”, (or in plain English “cover-up”) panel, and has a responsibility to seek broad international co-operation, not to aid the cover-up and ignore the risk to human life of any future catastrophe. We should also do solidarity work with Japanese organisations, and build the work of Stop Nuclear Power UK[7].

In May last year 72 Japanese organisations appealed to Ban Ki Moon and the United Nations to organise a Nuclear Safety Summit to deal with the question of fuel pool 4 and an independent safety assessment, saying:

It is clearly evident that Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 spent nuclear fuel pool is no longer a Japanese issue but an international issue with potentially serious consequences. Therefore, it is imperative for the Japanese government and the international community to work together on this crisis before it becomes too late. We are appealing to the United Nations to help Japan and the planet in order to prevent the irreversible consequences of a catastrophe that could affect generations to come.”

Of course, the appeal was unsuccessful, first, because the bureaucracy of the UN tends not to act unless it gets a text message from Washington, while the U.S. nuclear industry, including General Electric, which designed the Fukushima plants, and has many similar ones still in operation in the U.S., has enormous political power over the U.S. state, which in any case believes in nuclear power as a strategic necessity for military purposes; plus, the Japanese government is putting deferral to U.S. wishes and to the fetish of free market capitalism, in the form of Tepco, and to the vain hope of not being found out, above the safety of its citizens and of the world.

However, demonstrations against nuclear power continue in Japan, and more and more researchers and journalists are sounding the alarm about the whole situation, and especially the state of fuel pool 4, and the water flowing into the Pacific. Harvey Wasserman’s plea, cited above, is to the UN via a petition, and to President Obama, but much more vigorous pressure than that is needed to expect any result.

An international team that can try to take control of the situation is needed, dealing most urgently with the fuel pool situation, but also with the flow into the Pacific. Many commentators behave as though this is inevitable, yet most of the radio-nuclides could be filtered out of the water if more money and ingenuity were set to work (breaking news is that a majoring filtering apparatus has just gone down), more and better tanks need to be built, and the aquifer coming down from the hills to the plant needs to be re-routed – capitalists are ready enough to re-route rivers to produce hydro-electricity –they need to be forced to move this one.

Now, and even more if the scale of the disaster increases, we need to call for more safety measures – monitoring, reducing people’s exposure, education about public health measures; and we also need to call on the public worldwide to educate themselves on decontamination measures, since we can expect governments to ignore this aspect.

Lastly, a short article can only skim the surface of this tragedy, but I strongly recommend researching the subject and getting active. Because of uncertainty about quantitative estimates and the reliability of predictions, we cannot say exactly how bad would be the effects of an ignition of one of the fuel pools. But several serious commentators say that they believe it would cause huge damage, even threatening the future of humanity. Robert Alvarez has calculated that the fuel pools contain 85 times the amount of long-lived radioactive material than was emitted by Chernobyl – such a figure cannot be taken lightly[8]. We need to recognise that the effects of a fuel pool explosion could be terrible, and attempt to mitigate the risks of it happening.

 To learn more

For the quickest way into the subject, go to

1. Greenpeace International (campaigns)




2. ENE News (masses of links to articles and videos about Fukushima, including research work, interviews with academics, and reports of anecdotal evidence about health problems in Japan from Japanese sources.)


3. Fairewinds





[1] http://www.freepress.org/columns/display/7/2013/1985

[2] http://www.egu.eu/news/3/

[3] See for example http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000026.htm

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17219008

[6] See http://enenews.com/ for links to extensive and varied material on these topics.


[7] http://stopnuclearpoweruk.net/events/network

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-alvarez/the-fukushima-nuclear-dis_b_1444146.html

  1. Clearly, the spent fuel rods in pool 4 represent a major problem, but I wonder if there isn’t an element of exaggeration in this article, which can damage the socialist case against nuclear power. Resorting to the “precautionary principle”, without a discussion of how socialists would apply that principle, does not really help. I could cite the principle as an argument against cars: after all, they kill 2 million people a year – more than any single infectious disease.

    But the most weird statistic is the one fro Roberet Alvarez, that the fuel pools (all of them, not just pool 4, as this article suggests) contain 85 times more radioactivity than was released at Chernobyl. Without knowing what proportion of the radioactivity in Chernobyl was encased in the sarcophagus this is like comparing eggs with coffee beans. Also, as the article talks about possible nuclear fission taking place during removal of the fuel, with an associated production of an unknown quantity more of radionuclides, I don’t see Alvarez’s figure was arrived at.

    One of the reasons people like George Monbiot have moved to the position of support for nuclear power is that a lot of anti-nuclear activists make gross errors on safety and other issues (cost, GHG emissions), possibly willfully. Along with the examples above can be included the falsified “map” of radiation levels over the Pacific after Fukushima, the stories about birth defects in the USA, Helen Caldicott’s ludicrous statement that the US government subsidised nuclear power by $15.3 per kWh – i.e. $15.3 MILLION for every hour’s operation of a 1GW reactor – or The Ecologist’s over-estimate by a factor of 100 of the amount of concrete used in building nuclear power stations, thereby grossly miscalculating nuclear power’s CO2 emissions.

    There will always be people who argue that nuclear power doesn’t kill as many people as coal power – and we need to concede that they may have a point.

    For socialists the issue must be that it is a technology that has been developed to meet the needs of capital and is entirely under their control and not of the people who work in it, live near the installations or use their products. Under such circumstances, safety issues will always be a low priority. Fukushima shows this in spades from the initial design (water as coolant and moderator, as in all boiling water and pressurised water reactors: the crazy siting of the spent fuel pools) to the way TEPCO and the Japanese government have behaved after the accident.

    What is needed is a workers’ and community plan for energy supply (and for dealing with Fukushima).

  2. The situation is bad but you do your cause more harm than good.

    The zirconium alloy used in the fuel rods does not ignite when exposed to air. A simple image search for “nuclear fuel rods” will return many images of fuel rods out in the air. How hard was that?

    The spent fuel rods will not start a nuclear chain reaction if they come in contact. If they did then they still have plenty of useful fissile material remaining and they never would have been removed from the reactor. There’s a reason the word “spent” is used.

    • It is certainly true that zirconium does not ignite spontaneously in air at normal temperatures, but I think the fear is that the heat due to decay of radionuclides, of which there are large quantities in spent fuel rods, could be sufficient to cause it to ignite once it is taken out of the cooling ponds (after all, why is the fuel in cooling ponds in the first place?) The free energy of formation of zirconium oxide is very large (i.e. the oxide is very stable, even at very high temperatures), so once the temperature is elevated to a few hundred degrees, zirconium is liable to catch fire.

      The second point about rods causing a chain reaction is more difficult for someone who is not a nuclear engineer to answer. I can’t imagine that “spent” fuel rods have no fissile material left in them and it is the case the nuclear reactors have been built that use non-enriched uranium, so some kind of reaction is presumably theoretically possible if adjacent spent rods come close enough. The pond water acts as a moderator (this means water slows neutron down and increases the chance of their “capture” by a uranium 235 nucleus, NOT that it slows down nuclear reactions!). This would not be as “efficient” as a natural uranium reactor, where the moderator is heavy water (D2O), but I presume some kind of reaction is possible, as it is in natural uranium deposits. I should imagine the reaction could be stopped fairly quickly though, and it might be the case that there are born compounds in the water (boron stops neutrons and is the material the control rods are made from).

      The danger from the radionuclides is greater than that from the uranium, in my opinion.

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