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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/10/21

Fukushima Meltdowns Turn 10, Still Getting Worse

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Fukushima Daiichi's multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns started 10 years ago. They are not over. They are not even close to over. Nuclear disasters don't ever end. The radioactive danger slowly decays over decades, during which it needs constant safety management until radiation measurements are below "acceptable levels." That's still not safe.

Fukushima continues to be a low-level nuclear disaster, as it has been for 10 years. The initial explosive accident has been mitigated, but the danger has never been fully contained. Recent news from Fukushima is hardly reassuring.

On February 13, a major earthquake hit the region. Not as powerful as the 2001 earthquake that led to the Fukushima meltdowns, the 2021 earthquake nevertheless unsettled the unstable nuclear complex. This caused one or more leaks of radioactive water from the damaged reactors, according to public broadcaster NHK. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owns and operates the Fukushima facility promptly denied that there were any new leaks. TEPCO acknowledged radioactive water spilled from the fuel rod storage pools but said that caused no danger to the public. Two days later, TEPCO was reporting: "Currently there are no abnormalities at TEPCO's nuclear power stations that would have an impact off-site."

More than a week after the earthquake, TEPCO acknowledged that seismometers at Unit 3 were not working. TEPCO admitted it has been aware of the outage since the previous July.

There is an unknown number of old leaks in the Fukushima containment buildings, dating to the original collapse and since. Clean groundwater infiltrates the reactor buildings, comes into contact with the melted cores, and is contaminated. Some of this contaminated water is collected in tanks above ground at the facility. The rest of the contaminated water filters out of the plant and into the Pacific Ocean. No one has a reliable measurement of the radioactive water draining continuously into the ocean.

Maintaining the coolant water level inside the reactors is critical to prevent further meltdown of the cores at the bottom of the containment structure. TEPCO pumps 3 tons of water per hour into the reactors to cool the fuel debris (a ton of water is about 240 gallons). A week after the earthquake of February 13, TEPCO acknowledged that the water levels in Unit 1 and Unit 3 had dropped by a foot or more and that water levels continue to drop every day. TEPCO does not know why the water level is dropping or where the water is going. TEPCO is responding to the water drop by pumping more water into the reactors to keep the water level up. While this will keep the melted nuclear fuel covered, it will also create more contaminated water for TEPCO to store in surface tanks that are running out of capacity (about 1.37 million tons, or 328 million gallons). Ten days after the earthquake, TEPCO reported that the quake had shifted 53 of them (out of 1,074), but that there were no leaks.

TEPCO did not know whether the water level in Unit 2 was dropping because Unit 2 instruments had been removed.

Another source of contaminated water is the numerous nuclear fuel pools on the site. The stored fuel rods also need to be covered in water to keep from melting down.

On February 28, TEPCO announced it had completed the two-year process of removing 566 fuel assemblies from the fuel pool at the top of the Unit 3 building. The fuel is now stored at ground level in another part of the facility, where it still needs to be cooled to be safe. While this is relatively good news, it is a miniscule part of the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant. Even with Unit 3, the hardest part is ahead: locating and removing the melted nuclear core under water at the bottom of the building.

Media coverage of Fukushima is generally scanty, and much of the mainstream coverage is little more than press-release-based happy talk, like the Washington Post story on March 6 with the headline:

A decade after Fukushima nuclear disaster, contaminated water symbolizes Japan's struggles

Little about that headline is based in reality. It is not a decade "after" the nuclear disaster, it is a decade after it began. It is a decade into the disaster, with decades to go before it can be even be close to over. Arguably, "contaminated water symbolizes Japan's struggles," depending on what that might mean. Contaminated water is hardly the biggest part of the Fukushima clean-up or the most dangerous or the most expensive. Contaminated symbolizes the "sorcerer's apprentice" aspect of Fukushima in the way it self-multiplies without actually accomplishing anything more than making the situation worse. The Post doesn't explain what its headline is supposed to mean.

The Japanese government and TEPCO have been trying to dump their radioactive water in the Pacific at least since 2019. They claim that the water will be treated, most but not all radionuclides removed, and that dumping it will be perfectly safe. The Post treats this claim as if it were reasonable, but the Post talks to no nuclear scientists (rather relying on non-nuclear environmentalists for "balance"). As far as this "perfectly safe" dumping goes, the Post quotes unnamed experts as saying, "The only thing holding them back appears to be the Olympics and the bad publicity it could generate before the Games begin in July."

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Vermonter living in Woodstock: elected to five terms (served 20 years) as side judge (sitting in Superior, Family, and Small Claims Courts); public radio producer, "The Panther Program" -- nationally distributed, three albums (at CD Baby), some (more...)
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