Fukushima is a wasteland, but nuclear fallout isn’t the problem

The word ‘radiation’ evokes thoughts of danger, disease and sickness. However, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, the greatest risk may come from another source

  • By Callum Glennen | Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

The ruins of Fukushima are now largely inhabitable, but have been left to rot due to somewhat irrational fears about radiation

In March, Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori announced Olympic baseball would be played at the Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima. Roughly 70km south-east of the stadium is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where in 2011 a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in the meltdown of three of the plant’s reactor cores.

While efforts to secure the reactors are ongoing, the reconstruction of the communities that once surrounded the plant has become increasingly important. While radiation carries the stigma of an invisible, intangible poison that seeps into all it touches, the risks it poses to both people and produce in the region are largely overstated. Politics and public opinion have shaped decisions that are contrary to what may be the best scientific solution, limiting recovery efforts.

The public’s fear of the effects of radiation, whether founded or not, can shape responses to a crisis

Fukushima in context
The accident at Fukushima was rated seven – the highest possible – on the International Nuclear Event Scale, making it a ‘major accident’. The only other incident to receive such a high rating was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

In the time since the event, plenty of work has been done to secure the site, but much more is still needed. Francis Livens, Professor of Radiochemistry at the University of Manchester, said at this point the site could be considered “stable”.

“A lot of the easy mess has been cleaned up, they know what radioactivity is where, and they’re reasonably confident that things are structurally sound enough on a reasonable timescale”, Livens explained. “There’s no obvious thing that’s going to go horribly wrong, horribly quickly. On the other hand, its not OK to say ‘we sorted it, we can walk away’, because they clearly have a lot of fuel debris within the reactors. They’ve got contamination around the place, so it’s many, many years off being sorted.”

The most recent challenge to have emerged at the site is assessing the condition of the nuclear materials within the reactor and ensuring they are secure. The reactor is by far the most radioactive location and remains supremely dangerous. To assess the situation, Tokyo Electric Power Company has been sending in remote-controlled robots, although their success has so far been limited: at least seven robots have broken down while exploring the reactor, suffering problems including getting stuck on the terrain, or having their cameras destroyed by a level of radiation capable of killing a person instantly.

In contrast to the Chernobyl accident, the fuel has more or less remained where it should be. Chernobyl saw the upper shield blown completely off the reactor, dispersing radioactive material into the surrounding area. Livens said the the safety features of the Fukushima plant could be compared to those of a modern car; while it may be crumpled and destroyed at the end of a high-speed crash, if the occupants are safe, it has done its job. “The fuel is, by and large, still in the reactor. So, they have done their most basic safety job. And that’s a good thing; if the fuel had been released in quantity then the accident would have been far worse.”

The philosophical questions of radiation
Deciding what to do with radioactive material is a philosophical question as much as a scientific one. The public’s fear of the effects of radiation, whether founded or not, can shape responses to a crisis in a way that may not actually make the best use of resources.

One such commitment from the authorities was for no contaminated groundwater to be allowed to flow off-site. To meet this commitment, a large number of above-ground water tanks were built to store water on site, and the creation of an ‘ice wall’ – pillars of frozen earth – is underway to stop more groundwater flowing in.

Ambitious and expensive, these defences have questionable benefits. While removing the water from the reactors is necessary, the radiation level it reaches is quite low. Diluting it and releasing it into the Pacific Ocean is an efficient and safe solution, but local fishermen are concerned paranoia of irradiated fish would dissuade anyone from buying their catch.

“You’ve then got to manage everything, and eventually you’ve got to find a way of treating [the water] because of this commitment that’s been given”, Livens said. “That’s a huge amount of energy, effort and resources devoted to something that probably won’t make a blind bit of difference to the overall outcome.”

The greatest health impact from the region is not necessarily from radiation itself, but the fear of radiation

Indeed, rather than radiation, there may be another invisible threat to people living in the region. Professor Geraldine Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London, has visited the Fukushima site a number of times, and said the greatest health impact from the region is not necessarily from radiation itself, but the fear of radiation.

“You’ve got people living in fear that all the awful things people talk about are going to happen to them. This will only increase: fear of cancer and all the rest of it. And, actually, the psychological damage you do to the population is much greater than the actual physical consequences of being exposed to radiation.”

According to Thomas, the effects of radiation on those living near Chernobyl – a far worse accident than Fukushima – were limited: research recorded a marked increase in thyroid cancer in children (already a rare condition) due to iodine making its way into the milk supply. In Japan, the situation is different: the Japanese drink a lot less milk, and people in the area were quickly informed to stay inside or evacuate, massively limiting exposure. Thomas said these precautions will have adequately protected the population. What may be doing more damage are the levels of stress, uncertainty, and economic fallout that have followed the public perception that the site is irrevocably tainted.

Understanding nuclear radiation
Since the Cold War and Chernobyl, any mention of nuclear weapons or power has caused a shudder of fear, and governments tend to respond with a counterproductive degree of caution. Background radiation is literally everywhere, although usually not in doses that will cause specific harm.

“All of us will happily take a paracetamol for a headache”, Thomas explained. “If you take a whole box of paracetamol, you will kill yourself very effectively and there is often no way we can save you from that. We don’t realise we’re all exposed to radiation all the time, and actually
it isn’t doing us any harm.”

The background levels of radiation in the Fukushima area, with the exception of the reactor itself, are now at a level comparable to many other places in the world. As a point of comparison, Thomas pointed to the wild boar that now roam the evacuated areas: “If the boar are doing so well, what’s the problem with humans in there?”

While a long way from the reactor, and more a token gesture than anything, the 2020 Olympics in Japan may alter the average person’s perception that the region is dangerous to even visit. While the surveying and cleaning of the reactor itself will continue for many years, normality must be restored to the region sooner rather than later, for everyone’s sake.

  • Two things should be mentioned in articles like this, and typically aren’t. First, much of the radioactivity that melted the reactors no longer exists. While the Francis Livens quote —

    The fuel is, by and large, still in the reactor. So, they have done their most basic safety job. And that’s a good thing; if the fuel had been released in quantity then the accident would have been far worse.

    is true, it is also true that releasing the fuel in quantity from the Fukushima reactors, or even all the reactors on Earth, could not alter the planet’s radioactivity very much, nor for very long.

    The use of becquerels, extremely small units of radioactivity, often obscures this (although this article avoids that trap). Using ocean units is better two ways: it provides context and makes the numbers easy to grasp.

    One ocean’s worth of radioactivity is 400 megawatts due to naturally present uranium-and-daughters plus 1800 megawatts due to potassium. Compare Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 2 immediately after the earthquake caused its automatic shutdown: (784/0.33*0.0695) megawatts, 165 MW, 0.075 ocean units. Today it is down to (784/0.33*0.000087) MW, 0.000094 ocean units. That’s still enough to very strongly irradiate the inside of its primary containment vessel, but obviously not a risk to the planet — coals to Newcastle — even if it could escape.

    The second thing commonly but misleadingly left out is governments’ strong conflict of interest in these matters, and the strong wish to misunderstand that this conflict seems to create. When hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of fossil fuels are replaced by mere billions’ worth of uranium, governments lose the tens of billions they would have made on the fossil fuels. The government of Japan has been able to accomplish the reverse substitution, and is financially far ahead, at the expense of its people.

    • Kathy Harpster

      oh that’s just great news! And here i was thinking that t he gaping holes in the stainless steel reactor vessels and the grating with the”yellow, glue-like substance”(quoting TEPCO report accompanying the short video footage from the robots designed for high radiation environments, but failed quickly in the levels found there) underneath the reactors where each of the four reactors, spent fuel pools and containment systems have varying types of damages that resulted in various Level 7+ nuclear events individually, simultaneously and present ongoing release events in any case. Hardly a “success story” or testimonial that bathes GE, TEPCO, Japan’s NRA or the Nuke Cartel in a positive light unless the same shills who would try to downplay Fukushima try to convince their victims that “sky shine” is good for everyone too??!! lol.. I don’t buy into big nuke’s. BS disinformation campaign one bit but they’ve shrewdly bullied and bought their way into the top echelons of the elite ruling class do I can bitch all i want and nothing will change. At least not until an event rivaling or exceeding Fukushima occurs in the backyards off Anytown, USA in the heartland and agricultural breadbasket becomes toxic and uninhabitable for the sake of utility companies profits. Then maybe the millions of collective voices will finally be heard albeit a day late and a dollar short….

      • … I can bitch all i want and nothing will change …

        Do you think that makes it OK to take the money?

  • agileprovocateur

    First off you never wrote the story above someone else wrote it you signed your name to it , we know that because your other stories prove your not smart enough to lie like a professional nuke puke machine did above . Besides the fact even Tepco admits the reactors melted down Wikipedia also states it so why are you denying it and how stupid are you to even try to trick people into believing otherwise . 3 Reactors are 100 per cent melt downs so try saying it like this ( 3 reactors are melted down ) see thats not very hard just repeat it a few times and you seem almost human despite the fact you let some one else lie repeatedly in the fable I mean story to trick the 2 or 3 people foolish enough to read your nonsense ,
    Now say 4 reactors lost decades of reactor cores stored in fools pools that use to be at the tops of the buildings piff who am I kidding you can,t even feed yourself or tie your own shoes i,m out of here .

    • Joffan

      Since the article actually says exactly what you apparently want:

      in 2011 a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in the meltdown of three of the plant’s reactor cores

      – your comment seems odd, to say the least.

      The spent fuel stored in the pools (which are level with the reactor vessel) was not “lost”, or even significantly affected. All the spent fuel in what was the fullest pool, in unit 4, has been transferred out and none of the fuel was damaged by this accident. Preparations to move the fuel from unit 3 are well under way.

  • badforu

    This whole article and even this rag reeks of fake news, and its not even good. Japan as a whole is a wasted effort, even if the radioactivity damage is only half true. I doubt the games will finish in tokyo, once they start checking they will be out of there. Why should the best and the brightest allow themselves to be contaminated with radioactive elements. They are in the enviorment over there for sure… over 150 tons of it went up in smoke…. theres alot of it over there. All over the place, an it will remain so long after humans are gone.