On the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, an international panel of leading medical and biological scientists, nuclear engineers, and policy experts were brought together at the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine by Helen Caldicott, the world’s leading spokesperson for the antinuclear movement. This was the first comprehensive attempt to address the health and environmental damage done by one of the worst nuclear accidents of our times.
A compilation of these important presentations, Crisis Without End represents an unprecedented look into the profound aftereffects of Fukushima. In accessible terms, leading experts from Japan, the United States, Russia, and other nations weigh in on the current state of knowledge of radiation-related health risks in Japan, impacts on the world’s oceans, the question of low-dosage radiation risks, crucial comparisons with Chernobyl, health and environmental impacts on the United States (including on food and newborns), and the unavoidable implications for the US nuclear energy industry.
Crisis Without End is both essential reading and a major corrective to the public record on Fukushima.
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No Nuclear Power Is the Best Nuclear Power
The Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, had two causes. The first was the total power outage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant due to the massive earthquake and tsunami, both of which were unprecedented in the history of Japan. The second was man-made: no one had anticipated such a scenario, and so the government had not taken precautions to build adequate facilities and communication structures.
On the evening of March 11, approximately eight hours after the earthquake, Unit 1 experienced a meltdown. The melted nuclear fuel accumulated on the floor of the containment vessel, and this was followed by hydrogen explosions at Units 1 through 4 and meltdowns at Units 1, 2, and 3. Around 3 a.m. on March 15, TEPCO, through the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), requested the evacuation of its workers. If the TEPCO workers had been withdrawn, it would have been almost impossible to keep those nuclear reactors under control. I understood that it would place the TEPCO workers in great danger, but I demanded that they remain there to deal with the nuclear disaster. TEPCO eventually agreed. On March 17, the Self-Defense Forces started dropping water onto the spent-fuel pools from the air. This was my response to the ongoing nuclear disaster.
As the disaster unfolded, I personally reviewed, and had my experts review, the worst-case scenario. There were six nuclear reactors and seven spent-fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, located 7.5 miles from Fukushima Daiichi, had four nuclear reactors and four spent fuel pools. In total, there were ten nuclear reactors and eleven spent fuel pools in the area. Until March 11, the accident at Chornobyl had been the worst nuclear disaster in history, but it had involved only one nuclear reactor. In comparison, all ten reactors could have experienced meltdowns and released radioactive materials into the air. If that had happened, it would have been necessary to evacuate an extremely large area. That was what I was most concerned with at the time.
Shunsuke Kondo, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, pointed out to me that, in the worst-case scenario, people within a radius of 155 miles would have to be evacuated, and they would not be able to return home for ten, twenty, or thirty years. The Tokyo metropolitan area, home to 50 million people and almost half of the entire population of Japan, is within this 155-mile zone. If 50 million people had to abandon their homes, leave their workplaces and their schools, and if patients had to leave their hospitals, there would have been many more victims during the evacuation, and Japan would not have been able to function fully as a nation for a long time. Eventually, through a combination of skillful management and, indeed, divine protection, the spread of radioactivity was minimized by pumping out the reactors before the situation became even more serious. Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario had been dangerously close to becoming a reality.
Japanese nuclear power policy had, until then, been inadequate. Utility companies were not required to prepare for a tsunami by, for example, installing a backup power source at a high elevation. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) under METI was the authority that should have played the main role in handling a nuclear power accident. However, its senior members were not nuclear power experts. They were experts in legislation or economic policy. Neither they nor their staff were prepared for a nuclear disaster of this magnitude, which made the disaster even worse than it might have been.
Since 2011, I have thought about how to handle nuclear power plants in the context of domestic and global energy policy. Considering the risk of losing half our land and evacuating half our population, my conclusion is that not having nuclear power plants is the safest energy policy.
When I consider future energy policy, I am reminded that the sun has been the source of almost all energy on Earth for the last 4.5 billion years. When mankind manipulated the atom, paving the way for nuclear power plants as a source of energy, they created a technology that cannot coexist with life on Earth. Future energy policy should instead focus on expanding the use of renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and biomass energy, without recourse to nuclear power or fossil fuels. In Japan, renewable energy is rapidly gaining popularity and we have introduced a feed-in tariff system since the Fukushima disaster.
The risk of accidents is not the only problem with nuclear power plants. They generate spent fuel — nuclear waste — and no viable solution has been found for its safe disposal. Japan has more earthquakes than anywhere else in the world, and it is almost impossible to store nuclear waste safely here for long periods of time. Moreover, the conventional idea that nuclear power is the cheapest source of energy has been fundamentally disproved. Nuclear power is not cheap, especially when reprocessing and waste disposal costs are taken into consideration, and nuclear power plants are not, and never will be, justifiable economically despite what many experts and politicians in Japan still think. Nuclear power is only a transitional and temporary energy source. The technology will not and should not exist in the next century.CHAPTER 2
Living in a Contaminated World
A nuclear power plant is a facility in which electric power is generated from the energy released by the nuclear fission of uranium. When uranium undergoes fission, fission products accumulate within the core of the reactor. Because the fission products are radioactive, they produce heat.
After Fukushima Daiichi was struck by the earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear power plant lost its ability to generate electricity and to draw electricity from the power grid. The diesel generators for emergency use were flooded by the tsunami. But the radioactive materials in the reactor core continued to produce heat. Without cooling, the reactor core would melt down. Cooling required water, delivering water required a pump, and operating a pump required electricity. But there was no electricity and the pumps were not operable. Nor could anyone deliver water to cool the reactor cores. This could be the fate of any nuclear power plant.
Out of the six nuclear reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Units 1, 2, and 3 were in operation that day when they were struck by the earthquake and tsunami. Although the operators managed to stop the nuclear fission reaction, they failed to stop the decay heat released by the radioactive materials themselves. This led to meltdowns at Units 1 and 3.
The reactor core consists of around 100 tons of sintered uranium ceramic, which does not melt below 2,800 degrees Celsius. The heat in Unit 1, however, was so intense that its core melted. The section of the reactor that contains the core is like a pressure cooker made out of steel, which melts at 1,400 to 1,500 degrees Celsius. The melted ceramic melted through the steel and onto the floor of the containment vessel, the purpose of which is to seal off radiation. The fuel then burned through the protective wall, and radiation was released into the environment. At the same time, the hydrogen generated when the reactor core melted down caused an explosion in the building.
Cesium-137 was one of the most dangerous radioactive materials to be dispersed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The amount of cesium-137 that was released into the atmosphere by Fukushima Daiichi's Units 1, 2, and 3 was 168 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, according to the Japanese government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is an underestimate. Around 400 to 500 times the amount of cesium-137 dispersed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb has since been dispersed into the atmosphere due to the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. At the same time, almost the same amount of radioactive material has dissolved into water, flowing into the ground and into the ocean.
The Fukushima nuclear power plant is located on the Pacific coast of the Tohoku Region. To the east is the sea, and when the wind blew from the west, the radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant moved over the Pacific Ocean. However, when the wind blew from the south or the north, the radiation moved farther into the Tohoku Region or into the Kanto Region, and if Japanese law had been strictly observed, areas with soil contaminated by over 40,000 becquerels per square meter should have been designated as contaminated. However, altogether, this would have covered an area as large as twenty thousand square kilometers and a vast proportion of the Tohoku and Kanto Regions would have had to be evacuated. Faced with such a reality, the Japanese government decided they could do nothing for the people who lived there, and it abandoned them. More than one hundred thousand people who lived within approximately one thousand square kilometers of the plant were evacuated, losing their homes and now living in exile, but about 10 million people were left in areas that should have been designated as contaminated areas. They continue to be exposed to radiation every day.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is ongoing. On March 15, 2011, there was an explosion at Unit 4. Because it was offline at the time of the disaster, all the fuel rods in the reactor core had been transferred to the spent-fuel pool in the reactor building. There had been 548 fuel assemblies in the core, and the spent-fuel pool held 1,331 fuel assemblies. At the moment, they are at the bottom of the spent-fuel pool. The fuel that sank to the bottom of the pool contains enough cesium-137 to be the equivalent of more than 10,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Meanwhile, the reactor building, which was destroyed by the explosion, is still exposed to the environment, and there were aftershocks almost daily in the vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. If another earthquake occurs and should the spent-fuel pool collapse, it will be impossible to cool.
Japan chose to use nuclear energy. That choice has placed a terrible burden on the nation. It has cast the people living around the nuclear power plant into deep despair. It has forced many workers to engage in a desperate struggle to put an end to the disaster. Unfortunately, the clock cannot be turned back. We live in a contaminated world.
We must do what we can to bring an end to the disaster as soon as possible and to reduce the number of people exposed to radiation — especially children. However, Japan has been using nuclear power generation over a long period of time. Despite those in the political and economic spheres insisting that Japan cannot survive without nuclear power, data clearly show that the power supply would not be affected if Japan were to abolish all of its nuclear power plants. All of the nuclear power plants in Japan should be abolished as soon as possible, and Japan's leaders should guide the nation toward that goal so that an even greater tragedy does not occur.CHAPTER 3
Another Unsurprising Surprise
The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi was triggered by a series of foreseeable hazards. The disaster began with an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, which should have come neither as a challenge nor as a surprise. The Fukushima Daiichi plant had been designed for severe accidents, and available evidence suggests that all safety systems survived the shaking and were cooling the reactor core as intended. The earthquake, however, extensively damaged the electric power grid, which the plant needed to power the pumps, the motors, the dampers, the lights, and everything it needed to cool the reactor cores.
It had long been known that the grid was not protected against earthquakes even smaller than 9.0. Forecasting that the grid could fail, workers had installed more than a dozen diesel generators. One diesel generator for each unit was all that was needed to cool the safety systems to prevent reactor core damage. The remaining generators provided backup safety. When the earthquake took away the normal power supply, these emergency diesel generators started automatically, providing power to the equipment needed to cool the reactor cores.
The earthquake, however, also generated a tsunami, which arrived about forty-five minutes later. Forecasting that one day the ocean-side plant might experience a tsunami, the workers had installed a protective seawall around the plant that was nearly fifteen feet tall. Unfortunately, the tsunami that day was nearly forty-five feet tall. Years earlier, researchers in Japan had forecast that the site might be struck by a tsunami close to forty-six feet tall, but the plant's owner and the regulator dismissed this on the grounds that it was overly speculative. No changes were made to the Fukushima seawall. Moreover, the diesel generators for the three reactors operating at the time of the quake were located in the basements of the turbine buildings, which were closest to the waterfront. This placement afforded the greatest protection against the earthquake but the least against flooding. The tsunami, scarcely impeded by the short seawall, inundated the site and flowed into the turbine buildings through open doorways and ventilation system louvers. The diesel generators stopped running as they were submerged in water. The company had put all of its eggs in one soggy basket.
Forecasting that the power grid might be lost and the diesel generators might fail, workers had installed banks of batteries with sufficient capacity to power one safety system for up to eight hours. Some of these were also disabled by the floodwaters, and in any case, the plant was without power for nine days. Forecasting that multiple safety systems might be required, workers had developed backups to the backups, including using diesel-powered pumps on fire trucks and barges to provide cooling water to the reactor cores. But the pressure inside the reactor vessels was nearly four times greater than the water pressure developed by the pumps. In other words, these pumps could not supply makeup water unless the reactor vessel pressure was reduced. Forecasting that it might become necessary to lower the pressure inside the reactor vessel, workers had installed valves that could vent the reactor vessel into the containment building and vent the containment building to the atmosphere, but these valves needed electrical power to work.
Meanwhile, in a cruel irony, the three reactors that were sitting a stone's throw away from the Pacific Ocean faced meltdown due to lack of water to cool them. Forecasting that the reactor cores might overheat and melt down, producing a large amount of hydrogen as the fuel melted, workers had installed systems to purge the air inside the containment building of hydrogen. Even before the plant started up, systems were installed to replace the containment air with nitrogen. The hydrogen released from a damaged quarry reactor core would then mix with the nitrogen. With no oxygen, it could not explode. The accident, however, caused the pressure inside the containment building to rise so high that it forced the hydrogen into the surrounding reactor building, where there was no nitrogen. There were instruments inside the containment building that allowed workers to monitor the amount of hydrogen and the amount of oxygen there, and to vent the containment building when it became necessary. There were, however, no instruments inside the reactor building to monitor hydrogen and oxygen concentrations. Hydrogen gas escaped from the containment buildings into the surrounding reactor buildings, and the result was explosions at three of the reactor buildings.
With all these forecasts, the only surprising thing about Fukushima is that no steps were taken to manage the hazards. The warning signs had been there for many years prior to that disaster.
The three reactor meltdowns forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes, and they are not going back any time soon. The Japan Center for Economic Research recently estimated that the cost of the Fukushima disaster was somewhere between $71 billion and $250 billion. This includes $54 billion to buy the contaminated land from people who had to leave their homes within twenty kilometers of Fukushima Daiichi, and $8 billion in order to compensate the former residents. Even if the actual price tag ends up being on the low end of this $71 billion to $250 billion range, that cost far exceeds the expense of what would have been prudent safety investments years ago.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crisis Without End"
Copyright © 2014 Helen Caldicott.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
Herbert Abrams, Stanford University School of Medicine
David Brenner, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University
Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
David Freeman, former chair, Tennessee Valley Authority
Arnie Gunderson, nuclear engineer, Fairewinds Associates
Hiroaki Koide, Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute
David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists
Joe Mangano, Radiation and Public Health Project
Hisako Sakiyama, member of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission
Alexey Yablokov, Russian Academy of Sciences