Remember the good old days when the scariest thing about hearing the word “nuclear” was George W. Bush’s pronunciation? Read on.
Since November 2013, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, a facility consisting of six nuclear reactors, three of which were destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake that struck Japan, has been attempting to remove 1,300 spent fuel rods from a severely damaged fuel pool inside Fukushima Unit 4.
There is a strong possibility that three of the six reactor cores on site have melted down, literally, right through the basement floor and into the bedrock below the facility. Steam plumes indicate fission is probably still going on underground, but we can’t confirm this because no one knows exactly where those cores are.
Since the disaster struck, TEPCO has been continuously pouring water onto the damaged reactors. After four and half years of inundation, the entire facility is sinking into the water-soaked earth. Most of the water dumped on the reactors becomes radioactive. Much of this water is soaking into the ground, but the vast majority of it has been leaking/dumped into the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, TEPCO has been rapidly assembling makeshift tanks—nearly 1,000 of them—for storing the radioactive effluent.
Like the reactor buildings, these tanks are also titling and sinking into the toxic sludge that mires the entire site. Another strong earthquake will not only rupture these tanks, it will also certainly scuttle any effort to gain control of any of the damaged reactors at Fukushima.
Back to the spent fuel rods. They are clad in zirconium alloy, which spontaneously ignites when exposed to air. They must be kept submerged in water at all times. This is why TEPCO has been dumping water on them. The spent fuel rods at Unit 4 are sitting 100 feet off the ground in a storage pool that is listing dangerously and leaking profusely. TEPCO must remove these fuel rods as soon as possible.
Let me take a moment to mention that we are supposed to believe this is something that is happening “over there.” It is Japan’s problem. It’s being handled and there is nothing to worry about. President Obama himself went on TV right after disaster struck in 2011 and assured the American people Fukushima did not pose a threat to the Unites States. Like his Nobel Peace Prize, this represented, at best, a baseless and foolhardy assumption. At worst, it was a bold face lie. To be fair, the truth would have caused mass panic and chaos, so what else could we expect from our impotent and ineffectual “leaders?” Soon after the earthquake, news about what was going on at Fukushima was blacked out in the U.S. corporate media. Out of sight, out of mind. Perception is reality.
Well folks, the reality is: we should be very worried. As TEPCO proceeds with its attempt to remove the 1,300 spent fuel rods weighing a total of 400 tons from Unit 4, there is a very strong possibility that an accident will occur, one with the potential of generating a radioactive cloud of fallout more than 15,000 times greater than the one created by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive and engineer with over 30 years of experience, says this about the daunting task of trying to remove the spent fuel rods from their racks in the fuel pool:
“Think of a fuel rack as a pack of cigarettes and you try to pull a cigarette out, you pull the cigarette out, it will come out just fine. But if the pack is distorted and you pull the cigarette out, it breaks. Well that’s the problem they’re going to encounter on Fukushima Dai-Ichi Unit 4. The racks are distorted from the earthquake—oh, by the way, the roof has fallen in, which further distorted the racks. The net effect is they’ve got the bundles of fuel, the cigarettes in these racks, and as they pull them out, they’re likely to snap a few. When you snap a nuclear fuel rod, that releases radioactivity again, so my guess is, it’s things like krypton-85, which is a gas, cesium will also be released, strontium will be released.”
A human exposed to a spent fuel rod will die within a matter of minutes. The gases released when a spent fuel rod breaks, burns or explodes go right into the atmosphere and are carried away by the wind. The radioactive isotopes come back down with the rain, into our water, onto our crops, into the oceans and right onto us. Think about that the next time you get caught in the rain.
Even if TEPCO does manage to get the 1,300 spent fuel rods out of Unit 4 without mishap, a few meters away there is another pool with another 6,000 of these things in need of removal. In fact, there are more than 11,000 spent fuel rods onsite at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. And did I mention the three reactor cores that have gone missing?
The risk posed by the Unit 4 spent fuel rod pool is so severe it requires immediate action. But this is where my pessimism comes in. I lived in Japan for 12 years. I worked at several major Japanese corporations. My experience tells me there is no way in hell TEPCO is going to be able to pull this off. As I said, TEPCO only operates the facility. They are not scientists, nor engineers. The Japanese government has announced it is going to take over the dismantling and decommissioning of the plant, but government bureaucrats know even less about what to do than TEPCO.
Fukushima Dai-Ichi is a global threat that requires a global response. We need the smartest, most qualified engineers and scientists on the planet. Allow me to engage in some generalizations here. The fact of the matter is Japan is plagued by a dearth of leadership, an inability to make quick decisions or take bold actions, and most significantly, they suffer from a proclivity to devolve into a clusterfuck when leadership, quick decision-making and bold actions are required. Worse, they never ask for help when they need it, and even refuse help when it is offered, out of a cultural imperative to “save face.” That is all fine and good, except when the entire planet is at risk. Again, don’t take my word for it. Former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata says full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”