The ‘lesson’ from Fukushima? Nuclear safety does not exist in reality.
That’s the conclusion in a new report from Greenpeace International on the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan that erupted at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant a year ago.
“There are only nuclear risks, inherent to every reactor, and these risks are unpredictable,” the report warns. “At any time, an unforeseen combination of technological failures, human errors or natural disasters at any one of the world’s reactors could lead to a reactor quickly getting out of control.“
“Lessons from Fukushima” (here) lays the blame for the disaster on the same “institutional failures”– political influence, industry-led regulation, and a ‘dismissive attitude toward nuclear risks’ – responsible for the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) disasters — and for nuclear perils yet to come.
The potential for similar catastrophic disasters is not limited to Japan. Dozens of existing and planned new reactors all over the world are burdened with similar technological weaknesses that proved fatal at Fukushima Daiichi, have substantial governance and management issues, and operate without effective independent supervision.
Longstanding collusion between Japan’s nuclear safety regulator, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA) and the ‘regulated’ utility company TEPCO –created the “self-regulatory” environment responsible for the disaster.
“The institutional failures at Fukushima are a reality check on the nuclear industry’s claim of safe nuclear power,” writes Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer and former industry official turned whistleblower who contributed to the report. Gundersen has provided expert testimony in support of challenges to relicensing of decrepit nuclear plants before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and publishes ongoing investigations into the Fukushima disaster (here).
Those reports include revelations about safety design flaws in the General Electric Mark 1 reactors that failed at the Fukushima nuclear plant. There are 23 GE Mark 1 reactors in operation in the U.S., and nuclear experts, along with national and regional watchdog groups – have called for the GE reactors to be shut down. The NRC has dismissed motions calling for suspensions of these reactors until the implications of the failed reactors in Japan have been determined.
The “attitude of allowed deception” between TEPCO and Japan’s safety regulators gave TEPCO the license to “falsify, omit and withhold information on safety records and inspection records,” Gundersen writes. Examples:
- When it was revealed that TEPCO falsified inspection records to hide cracks in reactor systems at 13 of its 17 nuclear stations, including the Fukushima Daiichi, regulators subsequently “waved away concerns about increased accident risk based upon calculations supplied by TEPCO.”
- TEPCO falsified test data on the air-tightness of the reactor containments of Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 in the early 1990s. This was revealed in 2002, along with other damage cover-ups in the re-circulation pipe system in eight of TEPCO’s reactors.
- Only weeks before the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), Japan’s nuclear safety regulator, had approved an extension for Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 for an additional 10 years.
The approval did not require any plant modifications and there was no substantive review of the station’s 40-year-old tsunami protections. This despite the fact that both TEPCO and NISA knew greater protections were needed, based on warnings and reports issued over a 15-year period.
As early as 1997, TEPCO was aware of the tsunami risk and ignored it. “If we engineered factoring in every possible worst case scenario, nothing would get built,” said a TEPCO official at the time, quoted in the report.
In 2008, an internal TEPCO report showed that plant, designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 meters, could be hit by a tsunami exceeding 10 meters. “TEPCO had dismissed and concealed the study calling it ‘unrealistic’,” Gundersen reports.
Over 150,000 people evacuated their homes as a result of radioactive fallout from the disaster. Of those, 100,000 were forced to evacuate from the Fukushima prefecture between March and May 2011, and 50,000 people (minimum, according to government estimates), fearful of radiation exposure, evacuated voluntarily – “ignoring official claims that life inside or around Fukushima Prefecture is safe,” the report states.
In the evacuation process, an unknown number of people were unnecessarily exposed to radiation because they were evacuated to areas with more, not less, fallout.
This was due to incorrect use of government software developed to forecast fallout patterns following an accident. Simulations were not used correctly to protect some populations, and others were not published. The report notes that data from 3/14/11 was provided to US military forces through the Japanese Foreign Ministry, but the public was not officially informed of that data until March 23.
Evacuation of hospital patients and other vulnerable people failed. In Fukushima, services were suspended because hundreds of doctors and nurses in the area resigned to avoid radiation. Patients from one hospital and a nearby home for the elderly were sent to shelters and 45 of 440 patients died after staff fled.
The government denied there were dangers from radiation releases, according to the report. At a news conference on March 12, the Chief Cabinet Secretary stated there would not be a large release of radiation from the plant and people living outside a 20 km radius would not be affected. Two weeks later, people living within a 20 to 30 km radius were asked to evacuate voluntarily. In late April, the government extended the evacuation zone to specific areas up to 50km. More people outside the 20km evacuation zone were asked to evacuate in June, July and August.
Earlier this year it was revealed that government data showed that in a worse-case scenario that was projected as possible, evacuation would have included Tokyo and other areas up to 250km from the nuclear plant.
“Clearly, evacuation planning based on circles with diameters of several kilometers is too rigid and hopelessly inadequate in the case of nuclear power plants,” the report concludes.
Radiation continues to leak from the plant where the “situation is still fragile.” Small leaks have continued and “another major leak is still a possibility.” Airborne radioactive materials were released at a rate of 60 million becquerels an hour in December and 70 million becquerels an hour in January, according to the report.
Release of airborne radioactivity is estimated to be between 10% and 40% of the quantity released in the Chernobyl accident. For xenon-133, it is 2.5 times higher than the release at Chernobyl. About 80% of this release went towards the ocean, and because it occurred at the junction of two oceanic currents, idistribution of the pollution was more widespread.
The report predicts food shortages (“a severe nuclear accident always triggers a severe long- term food problem”) and points out that people living on land contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 are still ingesting radioactive elements daily, and many are affected by on-going internal contamination.
In Japan controls on food contamination limits were set early on and extended shortly afterward to include seafood. But “authorities keep failing to foresee the scale of problems with contaminated food and crops” and “the government has insufficient programmes for monitoring and screening radiation levels.”
The report notes the difficulty in monitoring seafood and seawater. Because some species can bioaccumulate radioelements (cesium can be concentrated in a fish more than 100 times than in seawater) detection limits in seawater should be very low, but have been set too high, according to the Oceanographic Society of Japan.
Japan is allowing the production of food in the contaminated areas except for products in which contamination levels exceed control limits, according to the report. But the policy has is flawed because it is impossible to test all foods.
Further: “Institutions were unable to predict and avoid many problems, such as beef contamination due to feeding cattle on contaminated rice straw. Nor did they expect the tea leaves to exceed the limit as far away as Shizuoka” (300 km from the nuclear plant).
Of the 150,000 people who evacuated, many people lost nearly everything they owned, and the government – and TEPCO – have denied them sufficient support and compensation. The Japanese legislation on liability and compensation does not define rules and procedures for compensation – how it should be paid, who is eligible or not – and, as a result, there is “lots of space for interpretation,” the report states.
People who evacuated voluntarily to avoid radiation exposure are not entitled to file a claim for compensation; only those people living in specified evacuation zones and were moved by order of the government are entitled to claim. Some people received an initial one-time support package of $13,045 several months after being relocated.
“What was supposed to be the first package of larger compensations began six months later when TEPCO provided people with a 60-page application form, accompanied by another 150 pages of instructions. Many people struggled to understand it, and many others simply gave up, choosing to forget and move on,” according to the report.
Overall costs of the disaster including compensation and decommissioning the Daiichi plant’s six reactors are currently estimated to be between $500 to $650 billion.