Clearing up the mess from nuclear disasters

Following the latest incident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister, cut short his visit to the G20 world summit in St Petersburg to rush to Rio de Janeiro, where delegates were meeting to decide the venue of the 2020 Olympic Games. They duly voted for the Tokyo bid after he assured them that the problems would be solved in time for the games and there would be no danger from radiation or contaminated food. However, there is very little chance that this will be the case given the track record of the private operators, Tepco, since the disaster of February 2011.

At the end of August this year, Tepco announced that 305 tonnes of radioactive water had leaked from a storage tank at the stricken site. This event was then classified as a level three, ‘serious incident’, by Japan’s nuclear regulation authority. Level seven is the worst possible – as at Chernobyl in 1986, and in the original Fukushima accident. Yet, in November 2011, nine months after the meltdown of three reactors following an earthquake and tsunami, Tepco had said that the plant was sealed and all radiation had been contained. As a result of the latest radioactive leak, South Korea has banned all fish caught in the area of Fukushima, accusing the Japanese authorities of not giving them accurate information about the plant.

Every day 400 tonnes of water come down from the mountains overlooking Fukushima and run over the damaged nuclear reactors. This is done deliberately to cool down the melted cores of the reactors that are still active. This process makes the water radioactive, so Tepco then treats it to remove the most toxic Caesium 137 isotope and stores the processed water, still significantly radioactive, in huge tanks.

At present there are 1,060 tanks holding 1,000 tonnes each of water. The current problem arose when a high level of radiation was found in a ditch near the containment tanks, presumably due to leakage from them. Tepco has found holes in associated tanks due to corrosion, possibly due to the huge amount of salt deposited in the area after millions of tonnes of seawater was used to cool the plant after the original meltdown.

The operators still do not know exactly what has happened at the site. The molten fuel collected like candle wax at the bottom of the reactor vessels but then ran through cracks in the piping and machinery below. It is possible that it has also penetrated the containment vessel entirely and run into the ground, but there is no information about this. The long-term plan is to try to remove the nuclear material from the damaged reactors to eliminate the basic source of the radiation. Ironically, this very difficult operation is scheduled for the summer of 2020, at exactly the time the athletes will arrive for the Olympic Games.

Experts warn: may not be possible to remove toxic materials

Experts are warning that it is far from clear that it will be possible to remove the toxic material. Professor Per Peterson, chair of the department of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has said that it is likely that the primary containment vessel is corroding after being exposed to salt water and that the priority must be to flush out the salt to halt further corrosion. If this is not done “it will become challenging or impossible to get the damaged fuel out”, he said. Peterson added that, if the fuel cannot be removed, Tepco “will have to manage those plants at that site for millennia going into the future”. There are currently no plans by Tepco to follow the advice of Professor Peterson. No wonder that nuclear operators in Britain, like EDF, are trying to get the government to take all the risk before they will agree to build a new generation of nuclear stations.

Despite the clear evidence that everything is not under control at Fukushima, the Japanese government intends to reopen the nuclear power facilities that were shut down after February 2011.

The last line of defence of the nuclear proponents is that, despite the calamities at Fukushima, the radiation emitted does not pose a significant danger. Attempts to manage public opinion on this issue gave rise to what would have been farcical clashes between the Japanese government and Tepco, if the issues were not so serious. In the run-up to the vote for the Olympics, Tepco released data that radiation emissions were 2,200 millisieverts per hour, a potentially very dangerous figure if a victim was exposed for more than a few hours. The chair of the Japanese nuclear regulation authority then criticised the company for scare-mongering, saying that using the millisieverts per hour unit was like “describing what something weighs by using centimetres”.

If true, such a level of scientific ignorance by the firm operating the plant would indeed be shocking. However, the fact is that the 2,200 millisieverts per hour figure is correct. Using this way of describing the radiation emissions allows risks to health to be directly assessed, whereas the preferred unit of the regulation authority, becquerels, which measures the radiation level in the water, cannot be so directly linked to risk.

Controversy also arose over the type of radiation given out. Tepco made the point that the great majority of the radiation was of the beta type, as opposed to far more dangerous gamma rays. This does not mean to say, though, that beta radiation is safe. It is true that beta radiation can only penetrate about two metres and can be blocked by simple shields. Nonetheless, workers at the site working in close proximity to the leaks would potentially still be at risk, if not wearing any protective equipment through accident or oversight.

In this latest incident, the concentration of gamma radiation in the water, which poses the main danger to the public, was low. There is, however, significant scientific uncertainty about the risk posed by low levels of radiation. For example, estimates of the casualty figures for the Chernobyl disaster vary enormously due to the lack of accurate evidence concerning the victims and exactly what levels of radiation they were exposed to.

No alternative to nuclear power?

The environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot uses low casualty estimates to justify his position that there is no alternative to nuclear power, since it does not produce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and is therefore a lesser evil in the battle against climate change. Yet there is an alternative to both nuclear and fossil fuel power generation: renewable energy – wind, wave and solar. If renewables were combined with a massive programme to improve energy efficiency, all our power requirements could be met without ‘the lights going out’.

The shambles at Fukushima has been made worse by the role of the private firm, Tepco, which runs the operation. For Tepco the capitalist ‘rules of the game’, above all the quest for profit, will always come first, as it will for the governments that represent the interests of these companies. Clearing up the mess from nuclear disasters must be in the hands of workers at the plants, the affected communities, and broader society, democratically represented by a workers’ government.

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