Fukushima FAQ

What Led to the World-Threatening Problems at Fukushima?

On March 11, 2011, the nuclear reactor complex Fukushima Daiichi, located on the eastern Japanese coast, sustained massive damage from an earthquake and tsunami, resulting in huge and continuing releases of radiation into air, water, and earth. Power loss (including failure of back-up power) led to loss of cooling for radioactive fuel, accompanied by a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of tons of radioactive materials that continue today such as plutonium, uranium, iodine-131, cesium-137, and strontium-90. (see also fukushima-update-how-much-threat, meltdown.) In addition to the nonstop continuing radiation releases from Fukushima, and the various critical problems threatening to release massive radiation, Japan is incinerating huge amounts of radioactive debris, and planning to continue through at least March 2014. (see also incinerator workers suffer cardiac arrest.)

The March 11, 2011, disaster spent a week or so as front-page news, and then the media (especially in Japan and in English-speaking countries) put out the word that things were under control at Fukushima — and dropped the crisis reporting, shifting what little coverage ensued to the effects on Japan, how Japan was restarting its affected industries (supposed return to business as usual), articles on what nuclear lessons were to be learned “post-Fukushima”, statements that the U.S./world is so safe from Fukushima radiation that no monitoring is necessary, that okay so the reactor 4 building is buckled and tilted — it’s perfectly safe — and okay so the ocean has 50 million times more radiation than usual — it’s not a problem. Do an internet search for the word “Fukushima” plus the name of any of the standard news outlets — including NPR, BBC, WSJ, NYT, CNN, HuffingtonPost — to see how, after the first week or so, they directed your attention away from the disaster unfolding at Fukushima. Continue reading this FAQ to learn what has really been happening.

Since the Fukushima accident, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the Japanese government, and various shady corporate, political, and underworld partners have been wrestling, mostly in private, with an almost impossible array of problems at Fukushima Daiichi, trying, in their fashion, to avert massive disaster on many fronts. Their actions have been colored by self-interest — such as avoiding liability and not wanting to spend money to fix the problems — as well as by callous incompetence and by the requirement that the full extent of the looming disasters be hidden from the public (frequent lies and more lies), for fear of crashing economies worldwide (Tokyo is the third-largest financial power on Earth) — and so as to avoid creating unrest among people facing, or already experiencing, irradiation.

Tepco’s plan for dealing with the ongoing crisis calls for beginning to remove spent fuel in 2014 (or maybe November 2013), and beginning to remove the melted fuel inside the reactors within 10 years or so of the accident, with an estimated 30 to 40 years needed to finish “clean-up“. (see also Tepco status reports.)

Fukushima Daiichi sits on a fault line, and sits directly on the Pacific Ocean coast, protected from tsunamis by only a few bags of rocks. Japan is located in the Ring of Fire and is very seismically active. Numerous earthquakes have occurred in the area of Fukushima Daiichi since March 11, 2011, some of which are thought to have further damaged the facilities. The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2012 that, according to Japanese scientists, seismic activity was picking up a great deal and Tokyo (212 km/131 mi from Fukushima Daiichi) has a 70% probability of being hit by “the big one” by 2016. There is great concern that various Fukushima reactors, especially reactor 4, could not survive another earthquake. In addition, Japan experiences frequent typhoons, with hurricane-force winds and torrential rain (bringing ground liquefaction, landslides, and storm surge). (see also Tepco pumping groundwater.)

The most pressing systemic problem at Fukushima — ongoing since the earthquake and into the foreseeable future — is the need to constantly keep the nuclear fuel cool despite the devastated conditions of the reactors and their cooling systems. Once fuel rods get too hot, they start burning, sending clouds of radioactive ash and dust into the air. Kirk James Murphy, writing on March 15, 2011, explains:

Translation for laypeople: Without enough water to cover them, the fuel rods will keep on igniting, just like trick birthday candles keep re-igniting after we blow them out. Just like trick birthday candles, the only way to put out the fuel rods is to put them under water. That’s why even after Monday’s reactor 4 spent fuel rod fire was quenched, the spent fuel rod pool caught fire again this afternoon.

Unlike trick birthday candles, the spent fuel rods burn hot (3300 degrees F) enough so that the radioactive material in the rods is aerosolized: carried into the atmosphere in clouds of hot smoke. And unlike our trick birthday candles, the spent fuel rods in reactor building 4 are four stories off the ground – just like the other five reactor spent fuel pools at Fukushima. And unlike our trick birthday candles, right now the radioactivity around the spent fuel rods is so high that no one can approach them to put out the fire….

(see also National Geographic video explanation.) As they burn, they release “large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of thirty years. When cesium-137 it enters the environment, it essentially acts like potassium and is taken up by plants and animals that use potassium. (For the record, that includes you.)” There are an estimated 4,277 metric tons of nuclear fuel at Fukushima Daiichi (24 more times than at Chernobyl), including 66,550 fuel rods in a pool located in a buckled building (reactor 4), suspended 30 meters (100 feet) up in the air. Based on U.S. Energy Department data, Fukushima has an estimated 11,138 fuel assemblies on-site, and each fuel assembly contains about 50 to 80 fuel rods, for a minimum total of more than half a million fuel rods.

According to Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Energy, “Based on U.S. Energy Department data, assuming a total of 11,138 spent fuel assemblies are being stored at the Dai-Ichi site, nearly all of which is in pools, they contain roughly 336 million curies (~1.2 E+19 Bq) of long-lived radioactivity. About 134 million curies is Cesium-137 — roughly 85 times the amount of Cs-137 released at the Chernobyl accident as estimated by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)…. Many of our readers might find it difficult to appreciate the actual meaning of the figure, yet we can grasp what 85 times more Cesium-137 than Chernobyl would mean. It would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”

Fukushima’s caretakers have been cooling the fuel rods by pumping in ocean water, which had never been done before anywhere, and which is having some unappealing effects, such as uranium buckyballs that have been rising in sea mists on the U.S. west coast. (see groundwater radiation, groundwater wells, strontium-90 releases.)

Since the March 2011 disaster, Fukushima has experienced repeated and continuing criticalities, meltdowns, releases of radioactive steam and smoke, flashes of light, intense light in reactor sections for long periods of time, failures of cooling systems, fires….

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