I believe an insufficient amount of attention has been given, globally, to the delicate condition simmering in Fukushima. It is true that almost all Japanese power plants are currently shut down and that the nuclear issue is at the centre of energy news in Japan. Despite heart-rendering pleas from Fukushima residents, overwhelming anti-nuclear public opinion, protests, die-ins and marches all over Japan, the nuclear path is still alive. The PM, Noda was persuaded last month by the Kansai nuclear industry and their advocates to re-start the Oi plants in Fukui prefecture this summer as a “necessity” for Japan’s businesses and industries. Nuclear energy and the money and power behind it remain a strong force, especially in Japan, the United States, and China. However, if the real condition of just one spent fuel pool (SFP) from Unit 4 (U4) at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant made mainstream news, as much and as often as same-sex marriage in the US, or the whereabouts of AKB48 in Japan, there is no doubt the debate would change.
Thousands of hot spent fuel rods lie in Fukushima’s core reactors, as well as the adjacent SFPs. Actually, there are more stored in the SFPs than originally planned for when the the Mark I and Mark II power plants were first built in the ’70s. The US currently has dozens of these poorly-maintained and vulnerable pools of the same model type. These US pools are also over crowded with spent fuel bundles due to the lack of a sufficient, safe storage facilities and qualified procedures and equipment to move them, even if such a storage site were ever developed.
At the Daiichi plant, the largest number of irradiated spent fuel bundles are located in Unit 4’s SFP. This facility is highly damaged due to the hydrogen explosion following the 3/11 disaster. Although TEPCO claims to have reinforced the structure, it was not even re-enforced it to pre-March 11 conditions. In the explosion, the roof blew off and it remains in that condition, leaving the top exposed. The building is precariously elevated 100 feet in the air, tilting, and it holds limited water levels to keep rods cool. Existing robotic machinery has been used to monitor inside the cores and storage pools and have been destroyed due to temperatures and radiation levels. The technology, skills, and machinery needed to enter, monitor, and fix damage in these facilities is not yet developed. Also, the only protection from another tsunami is a makeshift wall made of bags of rocks.
According to experts (see multiple links below), if a crack develops from a future earthquake or even normal wear and tear in the SFP floors, the water would quickly drain and a radioactive fire would surely follow, emitting Cesium-137 10 times more severe than Chernobyl. Air currents know no borders, therefore Japan’s problem would soon become the world’s problem, and specifically that of the West Coast of North America.
It is difficult for the public to grasp the severity of the state of affairs in Fukushima when the Japanese government, TEPCO, NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency), and the US counterpart, the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) have been united in reassuring us that the reactors and storage pools are stable. However, numerous experts, not presently associated with any of these institutions, are extremely concerned about the true situation. Some experts refer to the problems of Unit 4, as “the highest risk, where there are no simple, risk-free solutions.”
According to an article published on Alternet.org, nuclear waste experts like Robert Alvarez, claim that if the present faulty conditions lead to overheating and igniting of the spent fuel rods, that the “catastrophic fire would cause an unprecedented spread of radioactivity over thousands of miles and would cause the evacuation of Tokyo.”
The Japanese government, TEPCO, NISA, and the NRC are well aware of the hazards of the spent fuel rods. Japan is obviously trying to keep these conditions out of heavy media exposure. The US government and NRC have an interest in keeping this condition quiet so as not to draw attention to dozens of similar precarious, aging core reactors and overcrowded pools in the United States. Many experts, however, express that a united global effort lead by the US is essential.
It is challenging to find a silver lining and frustrating to see most of society being kept from full disclosure, some by choice, some not. However, The German citizens were motivated enough to use their democratic voices and protest over and over until an important change in direction was made. Germany has committed to be nuclear-free and is moving toward a sustainable future with supportive feed-in tariff (FIT) legislation in place to give renewables the boost that the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have long received. So, the good news is that starting July 1, Japan has also instated one of the most generous FIT policies ever to support renewable energy development. Also, citizens continue to organise and raise their voices. Join them on Sayonara Nukes Rally.
Notes from the NRC report: The current condition of the Unit 1, 2, and 3 reactors is relatively static, but those units have yet to achieve a stable, cold shutdown condition. Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 also experienced explosions, further damaging the facilities and primary and secondary containment structures. The Unit 1, 2, and 3 explosions were caused by the buildup of hydrogen gas within primary containment produced during fuel damage in the reactor and subsequent movement of that hydrogen gas from the drywell into the secondary containment. The source of the explosive gases causing the Unit 4 explosion remains unclear. In addition, the operators were unable to monitor the condition of and restore normal cooling flow to the Unit 1, 2, 3, and 4 spent fuel pools.