Friday, April 8, 2011

Japan nuclear crisis is here to stay
By Victor Kotsev

Almost a month after the deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the worst nuclear crisis in the world since Chernobyl in 1986, one struggles to find good news coming out of Japan. Even reports of cheerful cooperation between Israeli and Iranian rescue teams in the afflicted areas [1] ring bitter as the island country is forced to dump into the Pacific ocean large amounts of radioactive water and to apologize to its neighbors citing dire emergency. An ecological disaster looms.

The meltdown of the cores of reactors one, two and three at the Fukushima nuclear power plant appears to be have been halted for now, but officials are not out of the woods yet. "It would take a few months until we finally get things under control and have a better idea about the future," said Japanese nuclear safety

agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama, quoted by The Associated Press on Sunday. Among other concerns, the emergency use of large amounts of sea water to cool the melting cores at the plant, 240 kilometers north of Tokyo, may have caused large salt deposits on them that could raise the temperatures again.

At the same time, another crisis is quickly developing: the plant is running out of storage capacity for all the highly contaminated water (some of it over five million times more radioactive than the legal limit) used to cool the reactors. This prompted the controlled release into the ocean of 11,500 tons of the less-contaminated water ("only" 100 times over the norm).

There are more than 60,000 tons of highly radioactive water at Fukushima, and a "breach" at unit number 2 caused some of it to leak into the ocean over the past few days. On Wednesday, workers finally managed to stem the leak, but there is a very real danger of a large-scale environmental catastrophe. On Tuesday, the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), admitted that radiation levels 7.5 million times over the legal limit had been measured at one point in sea water near the plant.

Accurate data are hard to come by: "There is a lot of information which is not available," the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's safety department, Denis Flory, told Reuters. Much of what is known comes from laboratory simulations conducted thousands of kilometers away; a lot of that information, according to a New York Times report, is classified. "Public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic," The New York Times adds.

The disaster, however, is impossible to hide. Even Japanese government officials have scaled down their habitual optimism. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano admitted on Monday that the uncontrolled release of contamination "will have a huge impact on the ocean".

We can only speculate at this point about the precise effects. Previously, marine ecosystems were thought to be relatively invulnerable to the release of radiation. According to the Science Insider:
Radioactive isotopes are most dangerous when animals' bodies absorb them, thinking they're something else. For instance, cesium-137 mimics potassium and is absorbed by muscles, while strontium-90 mimics calcium and is taken up by bones. Since ocean water is full of potassium and calcium in the form of salts, this lowers the chance of an animal's body taking up radioactive particles by mistake.

Furthermore, since the Pacific is so massive, radioactivity will be diluted to levels far too low to be toxic to aquatic life. A much bigger concern is the plume blowing over land and contaminating plant life or the freshwater supply, which would affect animals (including humans) further up the food chain.
Now, however, high levels of radiation are being found in fish as well, and many countries have banned Japanese seafood imports. On Tuesday, India became the first country to ban all food imports from Japan for three months.

This may not be sufficient to protect consumers - as The Japan Times Online reports, "Experts fear the contamination may spread well beyond Japan’s shores to affect seafood overseas." Of particular worry is radioactive cesium, one of the isotopes of which (Cesium-137) has a half-life of 30 years. "The longer half-life means it will probably concentrate in the upper food chain," the report adds.

Translation: radioactive cesium and other toxic elements will take years to make their way up the aquatic food chains. Fish - larger fish in particular - can travel thousands of kilometers, and consequently, nowhere in the ocean will be completely safe to fish. This brings distant echoes of Chernobyl, as even today, radioactively contaminated wild boars are regularly found in Germany, over 1,000 kilometers from the Ukrainian plant.

Plutonium, which so far has not been reported in the sea water, but which was found in soil samples taken over two weeks ago near the plant, is particularly dangerous to human and animal health. In the words of prominent Japanese-American physicist Michio Kaku, interviewed by Natural News, it is "the most toxic chemical known to science. A spec of plutonium a millionth of a gram could cause cancer if it is ingested." Plutonium is a by-product of uranium fission, and is also found in the fuel mixture at reactor number 3.

New data also suggest a greater threat than previously assumed to land ecosystems - and by extension to human populations. This is true specifically about Japan, but also beyond the Japanese islands. According to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS):
Ground level winds often blew inland in the days immediately after the earthquake, contrary to many reports that stated that the radiation was carried out to sea by prevailing winds. While prevailing winds would also have an effect on the longer-range dispersal of radiation, the area outside the plant received elevated levels of radiation as a result of these local wind patterns. In the first 24-48 hours after the shutdown of the reactors, these releases would have contained significantly more radioactivity due to relatively short-lived volatile and gaseous radionuclides. As a result, these releases could have resulted in higher doses to the local population than has been assumed.
Meanwhile, traces of the contamination have spread practically to the entire northern hemisphere. Winds carried the airborne particles first over the Pacific Ocean to North America, and then over the Atlantic to Europe and the western parts of Asia. Natural News reports that radiation was detected in rainwater as far away from Japan as Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States. While the levels mentioned are far too low to cause real concern for human safety, it is important to look out for updates as the crisis continues.

New threats are likely to emerge; late on Tuesday, The New York Times published information from a confidential report it obtained, prepared by American scientists sent to Japan to help with the crisis. The engineers offered a dark assessment of the situation, cautioning that flooding the reactors to cool them may have made them more vulnerable to aftershocks of the level 9 earthquake that initially caused the crisis. They warned also of the possibility of hydrogen buildup as a result of the sea water injection, as well as of other dangers. [2]

The report also validates concerns that I covered three weeks ago in my article Japan catastrophe sends shock waves Asia Times Online, March 17, 2011) - over the status of spent fuel at the plant, and specifically over the integrity of spent fuel tanks located on top of the reactor buildings that exploded early in the crisis. In the words of The New York Times:
The document also suggests that fragments or particles of nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools above the reactors were blown "up to one mile from the units," and that pieces of highly radioactive material fell between two units and had to be "bulldozed over," presumably to protect workers at the site. The ejection of nuclear material, which may have occurred during one of the earlier hydrogen explosions, may indicate more extensive damage to the extremely radioactive pools than previously disclosed.
As a whole, the situation remains extremely volatile, and according to some reports, Japan is even considering wrapping the reactors in "giant sheets'.' [3] Most observers (including the ISIS and Dr Kaku) have raised their assessment of the severity of the accident to level six "serious accident" on the INES scale (where level seven, "major accident',' assigned so far only to Chernobyl, is the highest possible). Some have even speculated that another upward revision may ensue.

Meanwhile, few doubt that Japan will ultimately recover from the disaster, but for now its prospects look bleak. Aside from the public health consequences of the ongoing nuclear crisis, economic challenges are mounting. Estimates of the total price of the crisis currently top US$300 billion, and will likely rise.

According to a Reuters report, "Analysts suggest power blackouts will ultimately cause the biggest economic damage to Japan." Reuters points out that "power demand tends to peak" in the summer, and that "the power crunch could get worse" then. This comes on top of worries over the loss of food export revenues - specifically from the fishing industry. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported, that industry alone produced close to $17.5 billion.

In short, while the worst-case scenarios have been averted to date, it is much too early to breathe a sigh of relief. The crisis is here to stay, and its full consequences are still to be felt.

1. Iranians, Israelis join forces in Japan,, April 4, 2011.
2. U.S. Sees Array of New Threats at Japan’s Nuclear Plant, The New York Times, April 5, 2011.
3. Japan mulls huge sheet for nuclear plant, al-Jazeera, April 4, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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