Future of Nuclear Power in Question
It’s become a ticking time bomb. A very costly one.
The long, dark shadow cast by the meltdown at Japan’s
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station grew longer and
darker yesterday as the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tepco, admitted that 300 tons of highly toxic radioactive water had leaked from purpose-built storage tanks. Tons more are leaking daily.
In fact, water is leaking out from all over the site and there are no accurate figures for radiation levels.
The disaster, caused when the tsunami that followed the devastating earthquake in 2011 knocked out backup generators pumping water to cool the fuel rods, has cost more than $200 billion and is now expected to cost billions of dollars more.
A Nuclear Crisis Moment
The human cost, so slow is the impact of radiation, won’t be measurable for a generation. It has profoundly shaken confidence in the future of nuclear power.
The Japanese nuclear energy watchdog raised the incident level from one to three on the international scale that measures the severity of atomic accidents. This was an acknowledgement that the power station was in its greatest crisis since the reactors melted down after the tsunami in 2011.
But some nuclear experts are concerned that the problem is a good deal worse than either Tepco or the Japanese government are willing to admit. They are worried about the enormous quantities of water, used to cool the reactor cores, being stored on site.
Some 1,000 tanks have been built to hold the water. But these are believed to be at around 85% of their capacity and every day an extra 400 tons of water are being added.
“The quantities of water they are dealing with are absolutely gigantic,” said Mycle Schneider, who has consulted widely for a variety of organizations and countries on nuclear issues.
“What is worse is the water leakage everywhere else– and not just from the tanks. It is leaking out from the basements, it is leaking out from the cracks, it is leaking all over the place. Nobody can measure that. It is much worse than we have been led to believe, much worse,” said Mr. Schneider, who is lead author for the World Nuclear Industry status reports.
At a news conference, the head of Japan’s nuclear regulation authority Shunichi Tanaka appeared to give credence to Mr. Schneider’s concerns, saying that he feared there would be further leaks.
“We should assume that what has happened once could happen again, and prepare for more. We are in a situation where there is no time to waste,” he told reporters.
The lack of clarity about the water situation and the continued attempts by Tepco to deny that water was leaking into the sea has irritated many researchers.
Dr. Ken Buesseler is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has examined the waters around Fukushima.
“It is not over yet by a long shot. Chernobyl was in many ways a one week fire-explosive event but nothing compared to the potential of this disaster right on the ocean.”
“We’ve been saying since 2011 that the reactor site is still leaking– whether that’s the buildings and the ground water, or these new tank releases. There’s no way to really contain all of this radioactive water on site.”
“Once it gets into the ground water, it’s like a river flowing into the sea; you can’t really stop a ground water flow. You can pump out water, but how many tanks can you keep putting on site?” Buesseler said.
Several scientists also raised concerns about the vulnerability of the
huge amount of stored water on site withstanding yet another earthquake.
New Health Concerns
The storage problems are compounded by the inflow of ground water, running down from the surrounding hills. It mixes with radioactive water leaking out of the reactor’s basements and leaches into the sea, despite the best efforts of Tepco to stem the flow.
Some of the radioactive elements like Cesium contained in the water can be filtered by the earth. But other elements are managing to get through– and this worries watching nuclear experts.
“Our biggest concern right now is if some of the other more mobile isotopes such as Strontium 90 get through these sediments in the ground water. They are entering the oceans at levels that then will accumulate in seafood and will cause new health concerns,” Dr. Buesseler noted.
There are also worries about the spent nuclear fuel rods that are being cooled and stored in water pools on site. Mycle Schneider says these contain far more radioactive Cesium than was emitted during the explosion at Chernobyl.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that there isn’t a crack in the walls of the spent fuel pools. If salt water gets in, the steel bars would be corroded. It would basically explode the walls. You cannot see that and you can’t get close enough to the pools,” he said.
The disaster in 2011 has profoundly shaken confidence in the future of nuclear power – a situation exacerbated by rising costs. Until Fukushima, the risk of catastrophic meltdown that occurred at Chernobyl was supposed to be one in 100,000.
But Fukushima occurred almost exactly 25 years after Chernobyl and that slashes the estimate to one in 5,000. In addition, the kind of cascade of devastating events that hit Fukushima hadn’t previously been factored into risk probability assessments.
Now regulatory authorities all over the world have been forced to consider whether, however unlikely, more than one accident could happen in quick succession, and what the consequences would be. The whole risk and safety assessment framework of nuclear power plants—and their disaster costs– have been called into question.
In a letter to the UN secretary general, Mitsuhei Murata says the official radiation figures published by Tepco cannot be trusted. He says he is extremely worried about the lack of a sense of crisis in Japan and abroad.
This view is shared by Mycle Schneider, who is calling for an international taskforce for Fukushima.
“The Japanese have a problem asking for help. It is a big mistake and they badly need it.”
Fukushima’s problems are far from over. Just hope the latest nuclear fallout from this disaster doesnt’ reach the
shores of Humboldt anytime soon.
(Via the BBC and The Guardian News)