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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Costs and Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster

By Steven Starr

The destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, caused by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, resulted in massive radioactive contamination of the Japanese mainland. In November 2011, the Japanese Science Ministry reported that long-lived radioactive cesium had contaminated 11,580 square miles (30,000 sq km) of the land surface of Japan.[i]  Some 4,500 square miles – an area almost the size of Connecticut – was found to have radiation levels that exceeded Japan’s allowable exposure rate of 1 mSV (millisievert) per year.

About a month after the disaster, on April 19, 2011, Japan chose to drastically increase its official “safe” radiation exposure levels[ii] from 1 mSv to 20 mSv per year – 20 times higher than the US exposure limit.  This allowed the Japanese government to downplay the dangers of the fallout and avoid evacuation of many badly contaminated areas.

However, all of the land within 12 miles (20 km) of the destroyed nuclear power plant, encompassing an area of about 230 square miles (600 sq km), and an additional 80 square miles (200 sq km) located northwest of the plant, were declared too radioactive for human habitation.[iii] All persons living in these areas were evacuated and the regions were declared to be permanent “exclusion” zones. 

The precise value of the abandoned cities, towns, agricultural lands, businesses, homes and property located within the roughly 310 sq miles (800 sq km) of the exclusion zones has not been established.  Estimates of the total economic loss range from $250[iv]-$500[v] billion US.  As for the human costs, in September 2012, Fukushima officials stated that 159,128 people had been evicted from the exclusion zones, losing their homes and virtually all their possessions. Most have received only a small compensation to cover their costs of living as evacuees.  Many are forced to make mortgage payments on the homes they left inside the exclusion zones. They have not been told that their homes will never again be habitable. 

Radioactive cesium has taken up residence in the exclusion zone, replacing the human inhabitants.  Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and since it takes about 10 half-lives for any radionuclide to disappear, it will maintain ownership of the exclusion zone for centuries.

Once a large amount of radioactive cesium enters an ecosystem, it quickly becomes ubiquitous, contaminating water, soil, plants and animals. It has been detected in a large range of Japanese foodstuffs, including spinach, tea leaves, milk, beef, and freshwater fish up to 200 miles from Fukushima.  Radioactive cesium bioaccumulates, bioconcentrates, and biomagnifies as it moves up the food chain. Routine ingestion of foods contaminated with so-called “low levels” of radioactive cesium has been shown to lead to its bioaccumulation in the heart and endocrine tissues, as well as in the kidneys, small intestines, pancreas, spleen and liver.  This process occurs much faster in children than in adults, and children are many times more susceptible than adults to the effects of the ionizing radiation their internal organs are then exposed to.

Decontamination in the exclusion zones is proving futile.  Efforts to clean up highly contaminated areas are generally failing because melting snow and rainwater run off the contaminated hills and return to recontaminate homes and land.  Diversion ditches have failed to stop the process.  Areas significantly contaminated with radioactive cesium and other long-lived radionuclides can no longer sell and export agricultural crops. 

In addition to its effects on land, the Fukushima disaster produced the largest discharge of radioactive material into the ocean in history.[vi] Fifteen months after 733,000 curies of radioactive cesium were pumped into the Pacific, 56 percent of all fish catches off Japan were found to be contaminated with it.[vii]  Fishing continues to be banned off the coast of Fukushima, where 40 percent of bottom dwelling fish (sole, halibut, cod) were recently found to have radioactive cesium levels higher than current Japanese regulatory limits. 

Meanwhile, the destroyed Fukushima reactors and spent fuel ponds, which hold huge quantities of radioactive waste, are far from being stabilized.  Reactors #1, #2 and #3 every day discharge radioactive gases that emit a billion becquerels of radiation.  The uranium cores of reactors 1, 2 and 3, which completely melted down and then melted through the bottom of the steel reactor vessel,[viii] will continue to produce enormous amounts of radiation and heat for many years.  Every day, ten tons of seawater is poured upon each of the melted cores; the water becomes intensely radioactive and then rapidly leaks out of the containment4 into the adjacent turbine building.  It is then pumped through an expensive cooling system that traps the radioactivity in filters the size of small cars, which become highly radioactive and are being placed in a nearby field.  Fifty million gallons of intensely radioactive water have already been collected and stored on site.[ix]  Thousands of additional radioactive gallons continue to accumulate daily, and the jury-rigged pipe system connecting the storage tanks remains at risk, should another large quake strike the area.

Other forms of maintenance are also required to avoid potentially catastrophic radiation-releasing events.  The intense gamma radiation from the melted fuel causes the seawater to disassociate into hydrogen and oxygen gas. In order to prevent further hydrogen explosions, which have already destroyed the buildings housing reactors 1, 3 and 4, nitrogen gas must be continually pumped into the leaking containment vessel. This process must continue for another six or seven years.  Reactor building #4 was severely damaged by the earthquake and a massive hydrogen explosion. It holds a spent fuel pool with 1,532 nuclear fuel assemblies, which contain about 10 times more radioactive cesium than was released by the Chernobyl disaster.[x]  Should building 4 collapse, its fuel pool would lose its cooling water, and the gamma radiation from the exposed fuel assemblies would then be immediately lethal to anyone within 300 feet.  It would be impossible to access the site, including the common pool that contains 6,000 fuel assemblies, which is located 50 feet from building 4. 

The Fourth Reactor at Fukushima on February 20, 2012. The yellow area is the containment vessel. --The Asahi Shimbum Digital

Thus the collapse of building 4 could lead to the release of many times more radiation than has already escaped from Fukushima.  This would leave much of Japan uninhabitable and would constitute a global disaster.

Tokyo Power and Electric Company (TEPCO, the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant) is pursuing a timetable that will require about two and a half years to safely removed the spent fuel assemblies from building 4.  In August, TEPCO stated that reactor 4 building can withstand a quake in the upper 6 magnitude.[xi]  Let’s hope so, because experts forecast that there is a high probability of an earthquake of this magnitude or greater occurring at Fukushima.[xii] It is an open question as to whether or not building 4 could withstand such an event.

There are 23 nuclear reactors of the same design as those at Fukushima now operating in the US.  US spent fuel pools contain many times more spent fuel than the spent fuel pool at reactor building 4 in Fukushima Daiichi.[xiii]  It is past time to shut these reactors down and place their spent fuel rods in dry-cask storage, which is not vulnerable to a loss-of-coolant disaster.[xiv] 



[i] The Asahi Shimbun. “Radioactive Cesium Spread as far as Gunma-Nagano Border.” The Asahi Shimbun.12 Nov. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ2011111217258>

[ii] Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, National Research Council. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006. Web. <http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=030909156X>

[iii] World Nuclear News. “Another evacuation order lifted.” World Nuclear News . 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Naraha_evacuation_order_lifted_1508121.html>

[iv] NewsonJapan.com, “Fukushima Cleanup Could Cost up to $250 Billion” NewsOnJapan.com. 6 Nov. 2012 <http://newsonjapan.com/html/newsdesk/article/89987.php>

[v] Gundersen, Arnie & Caldicott, Helen. “The Ongoing Damage and Danger at Fukushima.” Fairewinds Energy Education. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://fairewinds.org/content/ongoing-damage-and-danger-fukushima>

[vii] Roslin, Alex. “Post-Fukushima, Japan’s Irradiated Fish Worry B.C. Experts.” Straight.com 19 Jul. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012 <http://www.straight.com/article-735051/vancouver/japans-irradiated-fish-worry-bc-experts>

[viii] Nuclear Information & Resource Service. “Nuclear Crisis in Japan.” Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nirs.org/fukushima/crisis.htm>

[ix] Yamaguchi, Mari. “Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Plant’s Contaminated Water Storage Running Out Of Space.” The Huffington Post. 25 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/25/fukushima-nuclear-disaster_n_2016407.html>

[x] Akio Matsumura. “Correspondence on the New Photo of Reactor Unit No. 4 at Fukushima.” Akio Matsumura. 21 Feb. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://akiomatsumura.com/2012/02/correspondence-on-the-new-photo-of-reactor-unit-no-4-at-fukushima.html>

[xi] The Asahi Shimbun. “TEPCO: No. 4 Reactor Building Can Withstand 6-Plus Intensity Quake.” The Asahi Shimbun. 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201208310042>

[xii] ScienceDaily. “Fukushima at Increased Earthquake Risk, Scientists Report.” ScienceDaily. 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 6 Nov. 2012. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120214100819.htm>

[xiii] Alvarez, Robert. “Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage.” Institute for Policy Studies. May 2011. <http://www.ips-dc.org/files/3200/spent_nuclear_fuel_pools_in_the_US.pdf>

[xiv] Alvarez, Robert et al. “Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States.” Science and Global Security. 11 (2003): 1-51.

 

Comments

Boidar Kornic said ..

There is no 100% safe any nuclear plant, regardless of what any engineer says.

July 30, 2015
Bozidar said ..

I would require the CEO and the management of the Power company to live near the nuclear reactor plant, as a proof that it id safe.

July 30, 2015
Bryan Stephenson said ..

I was born and raised on the central coast of California. There is an active power plant owned by PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric (Diablo Canyon). It was built in the mid to late 1960's, but it is placed near various earth quake fault lines and by rock slides. I am having a hard time trying to get my friends and family aware of the potential risks of "contamination." My home town is Santa Barbara. Diablo Canyon is near Lompoc, California and is near the west coast. After, researching and viewing three disasters three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is time now for Diablo Canyon to go offline and be decommissioned, before an earthquake or tidal waves and rock slides knock it off its foundation.

July 2, 2015
Kate Park said ..

Oh, the endless horror...

June 2, 2015
megha joseph said ..

OMG!!!!

May 13, 2015
Dr Tim said ..

Yet there are conferences and meetings internationally whereat "experts" proclaim nuclear power to be the solution for anthropogenically-forced climate change. At such meetings, unless Fukushima is only mentioned briefly in passing, one is shown the exit door and it made clear that one is unwelcome. Such is the level of delusion that presently pertains in the nuclear industry. Insanity rules the present situation.

May 6, 2015
sai praneeth said ..

Many people do not realize that seawater has a natural concentration of uranium. the entire sea water/ocean has 4.5 billion tons of uranium. so how can we say that a small amount of nuclear material into ocean, will affect the entire human evolution.and due to oceanic currents this leakage will be carried to the entire ocean and thus becomes less / negligible comparitively.

May 3, 2015
Dr Tim said ..

Now we find that Japan is restarting at least one of its nuclear reactors, having learnt nothing from Fukushima. Problem is that the world has become subservient to an economic discipline dictated by Wall Street and the City of London that dictates profits for shareholders, perpetual economic growth and so forth, without any consideration for environment and resource limitations. The Nobel Committee give Nobel Prizes in Economics for the economists who pedal this perpetual growth rubbish (note: Nobel Prize has been generally discredited as merely a politically correct organisation, subservient to the present economic order). The Japanese government, likewise IAEA and WHO, are largely ignoring the situation in Japan, hoping the general public will forget about Fukushima, and that the problem of Fukushima will simply "waft" itself away without any monetary cost. Fact is that, at Fukushima, we have three China Syndromes (yes, the coriums have penetrated into the ground beneath at least one of the reactors, and there is nothing that can be done to try to ameliorate the situation - maybe that is why GE, Tepco, the Japanese Government, IAEA, WHO are not doing anything about the situation - they are powerless and clueless, and have no real solutions).

April 26, 2015
monkey said ..

helps a lot!

April 23, 2015
Matt said ..

Fantastic article. It is very well written and incredibly informative with the statistics and figures provided. Thank you for publishing this.

April 20, 2015
chinwe said ..

Useful and educating. Thanks a lot.

April 15, 2015
rick dickinson said ..

Thanks

March 31, 2015
Greg said ..

Man's continued inhumanity to men women and children. Mankind with its incessant Desire to one up God the creator of the heavens and the earth, has opened up the perverbial PANDORAS

March 23, 2015
tabz vivitah said ..

this really helps alot in my assignment

March 22, 2015
Percy said ..

This is disheartening

February 16, 2015
Cara said ..

Thanks this really helped!

February 9, 2015
John P said ..

Thanks, helped me on my humanities assignment.

October 29, 2014
Linda said ..

this was good thank u!!!!!

October 8, 2014
Billy Bob said ..

This is some quality shit. Good job, Legends!

August 27, 2014
John Smith said ..

High end/top notch stuff

August 27, 2014

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