Massive leakages of heavily contaminated water, crumbling structures, and spent fuels that if exposed to air could release 85 times as much lethal caesium as was released at Chernobyl are obvious reasons why urgent help is needed from the world’s top experts.
Petition to Ban Ki-Moon
Harvey Wasserman, American journalist, author, democracy activist and advocate for renewable energy, urges us to sign a petition to be delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:
In a desperate attempt to cope with the continuing crisis since the nuclear meltdown in March 2011, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) says that it may begin trying to remove more than 1 300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool within 60 days. The pool is precariously perched on top of a tilting, sinking building that could come crashing down in the next earthquake or all by itself. (A relatively small earthquake did strike Fukushima prefecture 19 September.)
The 400 tons of fuel in that pool could release more than 15 000 times the radiation released at Hiroshima. TEPCO does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle the job, and nor does the Japanese government. It needs a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers, says Wasserman 
Thousands of tons of heavily contaminated water are pouring through the Fukushima site (see Box 1). This is also further undermining the unstable structures at Fukushima, including the one supporting the Unit 4 fuel pool.
Groundwater carries contamination to ocean and throughout the site
According to Greenpeace International , documents newly obtained by the Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s international daily news) reveal that US nuclear experts had urged TEPCO to install frozen soil barriers as early as April 2011 to try and prevent groundwater contamination. But TEPCO officials sent a memo to government officials to delay the announcement so as to protect the company’s finances and investors’ confidence. Banri Kaieda, then head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees the promotion of nuclear power, agreed to hold off the announcement, with TEPCO Executive Vice President Sakae Muto reportedly promising to quietly proceed with the ice wall project, but never did so. TEPCO denies that Muto made such an agreement.
Now nearly two and a half years later, an estimated 800 to 1 000 tons of groundwater flow down through the plant each day, with 300 tons of contaminated water entering the ocean. In addition, 400 tonnes of contaminated water a day seep into damaged reactor buildings. Workers are unable to identify where the water is entering the buildings or how to stop the seepages. The radiation levels remain so high that they cannot get close enough to do anything.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has promised $470 million of taxpayer money to begin building the ice wall, as international pressure mounts in advance of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games recently awarded to Tokyo.
Spent fuel assemblies the major hazard in exposed and damaged pools
More than 6 000 fuel assemblies are now sitting in a common pool just 50 metres from Unit 4, some containing plutonium. The pool is not contained, leaving it vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, earthquake, or other mishap .
More than 11 000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site, amounting to 85 times as much lethal caesium as was released at Chernobyl, according to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez.
Spent fuel must be kept under water, as it is clad in zirconium alloy that will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill a person nearby in a matter of minutes. A fire could force all personnel to flee and make electronic machinery stop working. A new fuel fire at Unit 4 would spew out a continuous stream of lethal radiation poisons for centuries.
Arnie Gundersen, nuclear engineer for forty years, who once manufactured fuel rods, points out that the fuel rods in Unit 4 core are bent, damaged and brittle to the point of crumbling. Cameras have revealed worrying quantities of debris in the already wrecked fuel pool. The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the unit 4 pool are “unique and daunting,” says Gundersen, and must be done to “100% perfection.”
That is not all.
Radioactive water leaking from storage tanks
As of mid-September, TEPCO was storing 435 000 tons of radioactive water in aboveground tanks as well as in basements of the reactor buildings, 137 000 more tons than were stored the previous year , and rising. But these storage tanks are leaking.
Radiation readings shot up by more than 20 % to their highest levels early in September . Radiation hotspots have spread to three holding areas for hundreds of the tanks storing water contaminated by being flushed over three reactors that melted down in March 2011.
Readings just above the ground near a set of tanks showed radiation as high as 2 200 mSv on 3 September 2013 (a day before the 6.9 magnitude earthquake off southern Japan); the previous high in areas holding the tanks was 1 800 mSv recorded 3 days earlier. Both levels would kill an unprotected person within hours. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said the recently discovered hotspots are highly concentrated and easily shielded.
TEPCO said one of the tanks was leaking last month. Another small leak was found later and the rising number of areas with concentrated radiation is raising concerns of further leaks. The government has ordered TEPCO to transfer all the water held in about 310 weaker bolted tanks to more reliable wielded tanks that take longer to build, although an NRA official has said some of the wielded tanks too might not be safe, as they are lined up on the ground rather than on a concrete foundation.
Continued dumping of radioactive water into the ocean
TEPCO has admitted it dumped 1 130 tons of reportedly low-level radioactive water into the nearby Pacific Ocean in early September, after heavy rainfall resulted in water collecting within barriers set up around the tanks of contaminated water . Officials said the water contained between 3 and 23 Bq/L radioactive strontium. Although the legal limit for strontium in seawater is 30 Bq/L, TEPCO later acknowledged that they had not tested the water for Cs-134 or Cs-137.
Groundwater wells in the area, the site of a recent leak of 300 tons of highly radioactive water, have begun to show increasing levels of contamination. Samples taken from one well near the leak on 14 September tested 170 000 Bq/L of tritium.
Japan’s fishermen are incensed; and say they will put off test-fishing for white-bait until next spring and consumer confidence remains low. The NRA plans to begin radiological testing of ocean waters off the Fukushima coast, using a ship with a radiation counter that will examine the ocean floor within a 1 000 km radius.
The government of South Korea has refused to lift an indefinite ban on seafood imports from 8 Japanese prefectures, which was imposed on 9 September 2013.
It is one year since the NRA was set up to oversee nuclear safety. Chairman Shunichi Tanaka issued a reminder that the Fukushima disaster is still in a precarious state and a danger to Japan’s citizens.
Remaining reactors to be decommissioned
Prime Minister Abe urged TEPCO officials to decommission the two remaining undamaged reactors 5 and 6. TEPCO has been reluctant, hoping they could be restarted for profit. The government has already injected a trillion yen into TEPCO last year. The company might ask for another trillion as decommissioning costs. TEPCO finally agreed to shut down reactors 5 and 6 which are nearing the end of their 40 year lifetime in any case . This would enable the company to concentrate workers and other resources to cope with decommissioning reactors 1 to 4, a process expected to take 40 years.
No easy homecoming for evacuees
Approximately 160,000 people were forced to evacuate in the first days of the crisis, and tens of thousands remain displaced . The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology estimated total decontamination costs at $50 billion. Municipal officials are concerned that residents will not return, as decontamination efforts have not been successful, and fear of radiation remains high. Many former residents are worried that conditions at the Fukushima plant are still unstable.
Although the government lifts evacuation orders once radiation levels fall below 20 mSv per year, the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends exposure no more than 1 mSv per year. Many residents no longer believe official radiation estimates released by the Japanese government, which are often lower than readings gathered by citizens and independent organizations using hand-held Geiger counters. Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer from Iitate, told Reuters, “They remove the ground under the posts, pour some clean sand, lay down concrete, plus a metal plate, and then put the monitoring post on top. In effect, this shields the radiation [emitting] from the ground. I asked the mayor, ‘why don’t you protest to the central government?’ But the municipality isn’t doing anything to fix the situation.”
For more information on the real extent of the Fukushima disaster and how to cope with radioactive contamination see  Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl — an ISIS special report, SiS 55.
- “The crisis at Fukushima’s Unit 4 demands a global take-over” Harvey Wasserman, Common Dreams, 20 September 2013, https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/09/20-1
- “Fukushima nuclear crisis update for September 17 to September 19, 2013, Christine McCann, 20 September 2013, Greenpeace International, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/fukushima-nuclear-crisis-update-for-september/blog/46707/
- “Record radiation readings near contaminated water tanks”, Aaron Sheldrick and Mari Saito, Reuters, 4 September 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/04/us-japan-fukushima-tanks-idUSBRE98301020130904
- “Fukushima nuclear crisis update for September 20th to September 23rd, 2013, Christine McCann, 23 September 2013, Greenpeace International, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/fukushima-nuclear-crisis-update-for-september/blog/46748/
- Ho MW, Greaves S and Saunders PT. Death Camp Fukushima Chernobyl, ISIS special report, 2012, also Science in Society 55, 11-42, 2012.