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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

D L Smith said ..

I have never heard of using sulfated interventions, and not being a scientist myself, wonder at the possibility. it seems too easy and too cut and dried. Cesium does not break down into harmless elements, not for 300 years.

February 5, 2014
Eva v said ..

Prepare for a world with far fewer humans but an even greater need for enough humans to survive several hundred thousand years to deal responsibly and skilfully with the horrific waste we have allowed to accumulate. Sadly for all other species, we have made ourselves indispensable, stupid, greedy, oversexed, proud and shortsighted as we have been.

January 17, 2014
Nicole Scott said ..

All the scientific literature published regarding the releases from Fukushima Dai'ichi were calculated based on faulty information, namely the explosions alone. Given that new news has come to light regarding over 300 tons of radionuclide contaminated water flooding into the ocean every day ever since the accident, combined with the additional releases (level 3 leakage of storage containers), additional leakages in unit 1, as well as their other additional dumps in tons above and beyond the daily leakage, what new scientific figures might their be with regard to the plume running along the Kuroshio ocean current? Also, given the fact that the corium are still in fission (evidenced by the tests of seaweed by Greenpeace - 127,000 Becquerels per kilogram in the seaweed species Sargassum Horneri to be exact, which show continued elevated levels of iodine 131 which has a half life of 8 days), what other isotopes are in the water aside from cesium and in what concentrations?What are the bi products of the corium specifically while they are in fission? What is the difference between the radioactive waste coming from the MOX corium compared to the other two corium? How much tritium, strontium 90, uranium, and plutonium loads are flooding into the sea in what concentrations? In light of this new truth with regard to the un-contained corium and ongoing leakage in tons everyday, what can we expect by way of the dispersion in the water cycle, ie: what concentrations might we expect of these radiological isotopes in the coming rains, and advection fog along the pacific coastal regions? Will an independent consortium of scientists test and monitor bio accumulations in California produce to ensure children are not fed certain foods to mitigate harm, since specific radiological isotopes target specific organs and bones? Is there, or will there be full disclosure as to the concentrations of each respective radionuclide in foods grown along the western seaboard, now that we are aware of the level of contamination ongoing in the Pacific Ocean?

November 23, 2013
misca said ..

RIP for those who died.

November 21, 2013
ishika patel said ..

it is so sad...

November 21, 2013
Peter Russell said ..

I fear that the nuclear industry with half a century of lies and cover ups has already committed mankind to its eventual extinction. Having cut the rope holding this sword of Damacles, there is no way of returning to sanity.

November 8, 2013
Tim said ..

Unless something is done very soon, the Pacific Ocean will be permanently poisoned with dangerous radioactive isotopes and its fish unsuitable for human consumption. The truth is too dramatic for any politician to admit. Tokyo's population is slowly being poisoned and really ought to be evacuated to safer regions. The true costs are much much higher than 1 Trillion USD. However, there seems to be total denial of reality. Fukushima requires a World wide coordinated effort, and resources should be diverted away from the unnecessary wars presently being orchestrated by the military-industrial complex (as warned by President Eisenhower). We have the worst industrial accident in human history to address, so all these unnecessary wars around the Wold are diverting effort and resources away from the urgent existial task that Fukushima now represents. There is a desperate need for sanity in the situation.

October 27, 2013
Patrick McGean said ..

With all of this radiation why is the information from Pub Meds and cons of nuclear energy? Sulfur can protect and repair the damage of radiation exposure. Pub med seven times since 1957, and not published by pHarma, who publishes peer review literature. Cesium 137 sulfates into a harmless element. Not an opinion. Plutonium far deadlier than Cesium sulfates, harmlessly. Our study members who have undergone radiation therapy protected their healthy cells with organic sulfur a crystal food. Why is it that nuclear experts don't shit know about biology, and the period table? Mineral sulfur dumped onto the failed GE reactors, the land and into the sea and the sulfated radiation won't harm the fish, nor any more dead infants on the West Coast of the US. Mr. Starr we know how bad it is but we know how to negate the stupidity of man. Organic sulfur in the people of Chernobyl and Fukushima and the sulfated radiation leaves harmlessly and the damage done is repaired. That should be your message, Sir. The sulfur in on the ground in Hawaii, and GE can afford the planes. The Spin stops now, the Nukes shut down, individual solar will end our need for nukes, and scientists who know nothing about biology. Got Sulfur?

October 26, 2013
Boggy said ..

I think its bad that this happend, great webbside

October 13, 2013
Bill Gates said ..

To many dyslexic scientists, the full extent of the costs and consequences of the Fukushima Dachii disaster are still nuclear...

June 19, 2013
Veronica said ..

i am very greatful for the information on this site thankyou ;P

June 2, 2013
Rodger said ..

very accurate information thankyou ;P

June 2, 2013
Velda Smith said ..

Not surprising at all. Working in the medical profession for over 38 years I am seeing too many coworkers being diagnosed with breast or thyroid cancers past 5 years.

December 2, 2012
troy livingston said ..

a must watch video https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151331036138245 i have been collecting information on fukushima since day one please feel free to copy or share, over 7000 photos. https://www.facebook.com/duke.thehazard/photos_albums

November 22, 2012
LR Weinmann said ..

Thank you for this factual, sober assessment of the Japanese reality. US Senator Ron Wyden has taken a great interest in the matter as the situation has grave consequences for the US west coast in particular, but he is a voice in the wilderness. There is no Congressional caucus on nuclear safety and there should be. And GE, the designer of the Mark 1s, should be held liable since design flaws which aided and abetted the disaster have been long known. Finally, a recent Japanese parliament report found that although the disaster was precipitated by a natural event, it was a lax safety regime due to collusion between nuclear regulators and the nuclear industry to blame for the current state of affairs -- a cautionary tale for those of us all too familiar with the troubling state of US nuclear energy production.

November 20, 2012
CaptD said ..

Much more about San Onofre, the worst US reactor by far and what the DAB Safety Team has written about it! https://docs.google.com/folder/d/0BweZ3c0aFXcFZGpvRlo4aXJCT2s/edit

November 18, 2012
Brett Stokes, Adelaide said ..

For me, the judgement is already very clear, with plenty of evidence that we are dealing with organised liars, with their peer-reviewed propaganda and their culture of contempt and corruption. So I see the need to change the agenda, I see the need to start setting the agenda for dismantling the uranium mining and nuclear cartels. This PSR article is a step forward. The real dollar costs of the ongoing TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi atrocity are starting to be counted. There is clear risk of further tragic massive illegal emissions of radioactive poisons, as well a guarantee of ongoing high levels of emissions. The risks of nuclear catastrophe are global, with dozens more unsafe GE Mark1 reactors with their (known since 1967) ECCS design faults that guarantee meltdowns if power is cut off for a few hours.

November 17, 2012

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