This year, on the second anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the author would like to pose the following questions, and invite the reader to do the same.
The Fukushima Disaster is old news…right?
Nuclear power plants are not dirty bombs…right?
Fukushima is no Chernobyl…right?
Radiation from Fukushima Daiichi didn’t affect any other nations…right?
To date, all attempts to model or accurately measure the core damage and radiation releases from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami have proved incomplete, unreliable, and admittedly unable to accurately replicate the sequence of events, largely due to the lack of information available. Two years after the onset of the nuclear disaster, all efforts put forward by the nuclear industry around the world have proved inadequate to stem the tide of public opinion and active opposition to nuclear power.
Still, much has been said about the radioactive releases from Fukushima Daiichi, but one thing remains certain; anyone who attempts to make definitive statements as to minimize the size or scale of the release can do no better than to offer some rudimentary stab at the issue, as the data released to date is woefully insufficient. What little recorded data has been published and peer reviewed has yielded some startling results, which may infer some insight into why so many pro-nuclear voices have been so quick and adamant in their downplaying of the disaster.
Fukushima Daiichi is still in the ‘Early Stages’ of the disaster
In December of 2011, the Japanese government declared the end to the immediate crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, stating that the reactors had reached a state of “cold shutdown”. This was an abominable attempt to persuade the world that the Fukushima disaster was mitigated, controlled, and in the past.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published Protective Action Guidelines (PAGs), which detail the planned response to any nuclear disaster in the United States. According to PAGs, every disaster is broken into three phases, the early stage, the intermediate stage, and the late stages.
Prior to moving from the early stage to any subsequent stages, a incomplete and limited checklist of required items must be cleared. To move from the early stage to the intermediate stage, one merely needs to do two things, first control the source release, and lastly secure the source.
At Fukushima Daiichi, workers have been unable to locate any of the three melted cores, and as of March 2013, there are still over 10 million becquerels per hour, or 240 million becquerels per day, of radioactive cesium being released from the reactors.
Now, TEPCO attempts to minimize these numbers by pointing out that the cesium release from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors was about 800 trillion becquerels per hour right after the disaster, but the fact remains, that a 10 million becquerel release would be a nuclear disaster in itself at any nuclear facility not named Fukushima Daiichi or operated by TEPCO.
Considering the fact that workers have failed to locate three out of three melted cores, and have also failed to control source releases, according to EPA PAGs, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is still in the ‘Early Stage’.
Radiation releases from commercial reactors greater than nuclear weapons
It has been common for pro-nuclear advocates to downplay concerns about the torrid history between the nuclear industry and military factions, the safety of nuclear power plants, or the unexpected hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, often with the defense that commercial facilities are not capable of generating an explosion comparable with a nuclear bomb.
Shortly after the explosion at the Unit 2 reactor early in the morning, IAEA Director General Yukio Amano told reporters from The Associated Press, “There is no longer [a] chain reaction of nuclear material. Reactor vessels and primary containment vessels … stay intact. The release of radioactivity is limited.” But onsite, radiation levels were so high, that they even lead NRC officials on the other side of the ocean to quickly identify that nuclear fuel was in the environment outside of the buildings.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster emphatically proved that they do not have to, and still have potential for far worse releases and fallout than the one dropped in Hiroshima. In August 2011, main stream news reports ran articles relating the Cesium 137 release from Fukushima Daiichi to the Hiroshima style nuclear bomb. The comparison only included the levels of cesium-137 released into the atmosphere during the first four days of the nuclear disaster, limiting the amount of radiation the crippled reactors emitted to 15,000 terabecquerels.
Subsequent analysis would increase the estimated release from Fukushima exponentially, but the press never revisited the comparison. More recent studies have estimated that some 27.1 PBq of Cs-137 was released at Fukushima Daiichi into the ocean just during the first four months of the disaster. Additionally, studies have placed the aerial release between 36.6 PBq and 66 PBq for the first week of the disaster. Conservatively adding the 27.1 PBq aqueous release with the 36.6 PBq aerial release yields a 63.7 PBq combined Cs 137 release.
The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima released 89 terabecquerels of Cesium 137 for comparison. Here is the stunner; there are 1,000 terabecquerels in every petabecquerel. This means every petabecquerel of cesium-137 that escaped from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors was more than the amount released in 100 Hiroshima bombs. This means that even severely limiting the data to only the estimated amounts of Cesium-137 during the first week of aerial release and first four months of aqueous release, the total equaled the same amount which would be released by over 6,350 Hiroshima nuclear bombs.
Comparing Fukushima source to Chernobyl
It has also been popular for pro-nuclear lobbyists to promote the idea that the release at Fukushima Daiichi was not equal to or greater than Chernobyl, and even more, that the potential source release was never on a scale comparable to the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster.
At Chernobyl, the radiation source was confined to the inventory of one reactor, and by using data provided by a 2000 UNSCEAR report to establish the core source at Chernobyl, we can compare it to the Fukushima Daiichi source term as provided in the Stohl report released in 2012.
Chernobyl Cesium 137 Inventory and Release
|Total Inventory||290 PBq||2.9 x 1017|
|30% of Inventory Released||85 PBq||8.5 x 1016|
Fukushima Daiichi Cesium 137 Inventory
|Cesium 137 Inventory in Reactor Cores|
|Unit 1||240 PBq||2.4 x 1017||82.7 % of Chernobyl|
|Unit 2||259 PBq||2.59 x 1017||89.3% of Chernobyl|
|Unit 3||259 PBq||2.59 x 1017||89.3% of Chernobyl|
|Total Cesium Inventory in Units 1 – 3||758 PBq||7.58 x 1017||> 260% of Chernobyl|
|Cesium 137 Inventory in Spent Fuel Pools|
|Unit 1||221 PBq||2.21 x 1017||76.2% of Chernobyl|
|Unit 2||449 PBq||4.49 x 1017||> 150% of Chernobyl|
|Unit 3||396 PBq||3.96 x 1017||> 135% of Chernobyl|
|Unit 4||1,110 PBq||1.11 x 1018||> 380% of Chernobyl|
|Total||2,176 PBq||2.17 x 1018||> 750% of Chernobyl|
|Combined Cesium 137 Inventory|
|Unit 1||461 PBq||4.61 x 1017||> 1,000% greater than Chernobyl|
|Unit 2||708 PBq||7.08 x 1017||> 240% greater than . Chernobyl|
|Unit 3||655 PBq||6.55 x 1017||> 225% greater than Chernobyl|
|Unit 4||1,110 PBq||1.11 x 1018||> 380% greater than Chernobyl|
|Reactors and SFPs||2,934 PBq||2.93 x 1018||> 1,000% greater than Chernobyl|
This data shows the Cesium 137 inventory in the reactors of Units 1 through 3 were each over 80% of the total inventory at Chernobyl. Additionally, the cesium inventory in the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi was only one-quarter of the total amount contained on-site.
Each of the spent fuel pools in Units 2 through 4, were at least 150% the size of Chernobyl. Unit 4 contained not only a full spent fuel pool, but additionally held a full core offload, making its total inventory nearly 4 times that of Chernobyl alone.
Adding up all of the Cesium 137 inventory in the spent fuel pools combined, the total (2,934 PBq) was the equivalent of over ten Chernobyls (290 PBq), even without the reactor inventories added in to the sum.
Releases from on-going nuclear disasters have far reaching effects
Since the first early hours of the disaster, TEPCO has been misleading and downright lying to workers on-site and locals around the nuclear power plant, misleading officials in Tokyo and attempting to manipulate investigations, and destroying the faith citizens around the globe in their own governments and nuclear power plant operators. Officials knew they had to do something, there were over 100,000 Americans known to be in Japan, and 1,300 of them lived in the areas most affected by the earthquake and tsunami and were now in the reach of the nuclear disaster.
Anyone who made any public statements about the situation at Fukushima Daiichi which did not help the public to feel calm and reassured were deflected with the “we’ll review for scientific validity” defense. Even worse than downplaying the concerns about nuclear safety, the government and the industry proactively worked hand in hand to convince and assure the public that the radioactive releases from Fukushima Daiichi were never above negligible levels at international recording stations, let alone a threat to other nations around the world.
On Thursday, March 17th, 2011, President Barack Obama made his first public statement on the nuclear disaster, sternly advising Americans not to worry. “I want to be very clear,” he said at the White House. “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said, “We do not expect to see radiation at harmful levels reaching the U.S. from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants”, and the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal bodies parroted this statement for months in nearly every press release related to the on-going crisis and radiation releases from the plant. Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would later add that Americans should not be concerned about the spread of radiation to the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii, because even if a nuclear meltdown were to occur, releasing significant amounts of radiation, it would take at least six to 10 days to reach the West Coast.
“These releases from the plant, because they’re not elevated, because they’re not getting up high in the atmosphere, they won’t travel very far,” said Kathryn Higley, director of the department of nuclear engineering at Oregon State University. “There are so many factors in our favor. Rain will knock it down. There are 5,000 miles of ocean between us and Japan. It will be diluted, it will mix with sea spray, long before it gets remotely close to us.” Higley admitted that she had spent copious amounts of time in the early days responding to the public outcry and urging calm. She told ABC news, “We have monitoring capability here in the U.S. that is extraordinarily sensitive. We can detect radiation that is like a hundred-thousandth of what you get from a regular X-ray, and we don’t expect to see even that. For the stuff to travel, it has to be picked up by the wind,” she said, “higher-level winds that have global distribution. And that’s just not happening. This is a little like a campfire — the smoke is all near the ground.”
Edward Morse, a nuclear engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail to ABC News. “The levels will not be threatening to life and health but they will be observable.”
“If any radiation were to make it here, it would be merely background levels,” said Jere Jenkins, the director of Radiation Laboratories at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “Nothing for people on the West Coast or people in the United States to be concerned about.”
There were some rare flashes of concern, but they were greatly washed out by the repetitive rhetoric and downplay. Realistically, if leaders really did have a grasp on the situation and the potential outcomes, once the President of the United States tells the nation that there is no harm, there should have been no need for the constant barrage of “me too” statements.
“This is very, very radioactive material,” cautioned Kenneth Bergeron, a physicist who worked at Sandia National Laboratories. “If there is core on the floor and containment penetration, there will be significant public health consequences.”
“We are all-out urging the Japanese to get more people back in there to do emergency operation there, that the next 24 to 48 hours are critical,” an American official told ABC News. If cesium and other radioactive elements with long half-lives get into the air, “that could be deadly for decades,” the official said.
Jeff Masters, a former meteorologist at the National Weather Service who now works at Wunderground.com said, “Any radiation at current levels of emission that might reach these places may not even be detectable, much less be a threat to human health.”
Ok, but enough of what people were saying, what were the facts? On Tuesday, March 15th, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that radiation dose rates of up to 400 millisievert (mSv) per hour had been reported at the Fukushima plant site immediately following one of the explosions. In comparison, a typical chest X-ray exposes an individual to about 0.02 mSv.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano would reveal that levels had risen to over 1,000 millisieverts, before the dose level began falling again to 600-800 millisieverts per hour, which is still considered unsafe for workers. “So the workers cannot carry out even minimal work at the plant now,” Edano said. “Because of the radiation risk, we are on standby.”
“Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don’t turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said to the residents in the danger zone. “These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that.” But according to NRC documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, sheltering in place doesn’t really add that much protection for the public.
Seven US Navy ships were quickly dispatched to the affected eastern coast of Japan to conduct relief operations, but were moved farther downwind from the plant on Sunday, March 13th, after naval personnel on the USS George Washington, a U.S. aircraft carrier assisting in the recovery efforts, detected low levels of radiation, prompting military personnel to take precautions that included limiting outdoor activity.
According to 7th Fleet Commander and Spokesman Jeff Davis, the radiation was first detected by air particulate detectors aboard three helicopters located 60 miles away from the shoreline, while returning to the carrier from a relief mission to the quake and tsunami ravaged city of Sendai. After the helicopters landed on the carrier, radioactive contamination was found on the exterior surface of three aircrafts.
Detectors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan also rang out while it was located 100 miles north east of the crippled plant, and the ships’ crew was exposed to “a very low level of radiation” from a plume emitted by the plant according to reports. After following decontamination protocols, 17 crewmembers aboard and the three helicopters were tested and found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation, and some were found to have clothes and skin contaminated. All of the contaminated clothing was discarded, showers were ordered all around with adequate amounts of soap and water.
What officials didn’t publicize, was that the USS Ronald Reagan had detected 0.6 millirem of radiation just in direct gamma radiation cloudshine from the plume passing overhead, that air samples also taken were 30 times normal background of air out at sea, and all this was over 100 nautical miles from the plant. This was much more significant than experts had thought, but still consistent with known containment venting operations at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (a critical point we will come back to later). To be honest, experts had not even expected that level at 25 miles away, let alone 100, at those levels it would take less than 10 hours to reach levels which would require the establishment of protective action guidelines.
Officials also didn’t mention that crewmembers were found contaminated up to 2,500 disintegrations per minute in some parts of their clothing. They definitely didn’t talk about the fact that at an Air Force Base south of Tokyo, health physics teams had measured 1.5 mSv (150 millirem) per hour thyroid doses in the air. Remember, a typical chest X-ray exposes an individual to about 0.02 mSv (20 millirem).
What caused the hydrogen explosions?
Officials and experts were completely unprepared for the size and devastating veracity of the hydrogen explosions; which ripped apart the Fukushima Daiichi reactor buildings, could be felt over 25 miles away, and left such vivid imprints on the minds of all who viewed the media footage.
For days after the explosions, officials at emergency command centers around the world stood nearly hypnotized watching and re-watching the explosions at the plant, even though by then a gray plume of smoke could be seen rising from Unit 3 on the command center’s television long after the explosions had occurred. Everyone had been helpless while watching the Unit 3 building ripped apart, there was nothing which could be done even though it was the primary focus of concern, even though Secretary Yukio Edano had said the government knew an explosion there was possible after the Unit 1 building was destroyed on Saturday, March 12th.
There have been a lot of quiet whispers in solemn halls of late, of reports and studies which suggest that the amounts of hydrogen just from fuel cladding failure in the reactors would be enough to generate the size of the explosions that were actually witnessed. Some questions have been raised which ask if the majority of the hydrogen was produced from concrete ablation as nuclear fuel escaped the reactor pressure vessel and began attacking the steel and concrete containment structures which house the reactor vessels.
On March 15th, 2011, Dr. Peter Hosemann, a nuclear energy expert and professor at the University of California at Berkeley did not think so, telling the press, “Having too much of the fuel rods exposed for too long of a time can lead to the core melt. Again, if a core melt happens, the reactor pressure vessel and the containment are designed to contain it.”
Some of the brightest minds at national laboratories in the United States have been studying the ex-vessel core melt at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. They haven’t been able to draw a conclusive thread yet, but some research is suggesting that concrete ablation may have played into the Unit 1 reactor building explosion. This may prove to ring true, as it corroborates with radiation measured by the USS Ronald Reagan, which detected radiation levels that corresponded with venting operations on-site, and NRC officials are not the only ones who have admitted that fuel elements have been scattered on-site and up to half a mile away from the explosions, they just haven’t been able to track it back to one specific source over another.
How Japan nuked the world
In conducting the research for this article, the author again returned to the 2012 Stohl study published in the Atmospheric, Chemistry, and Physics Journal, focusing on the Xenon-133 and Cesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi.
At the end of the Abstract, the authors note that, “Altogether, we estimate that 6.4 PBq of 137Cs, or 18% of the total fallout until April 20th, were deposited over Japanese land areas, while most of the rest fell over the North Paciﬁc Ocean. Only 0.7 PBq, or 1.9 % of the total fallout were deposited on land areas other than Japan.”
The casual reader may easily gloss over this, the author did when it was first published, likely too distracted by the fresh details of the noble gas release, which was the largest in history on record, easily exceeding Chernobyl. But, 0.7 PBq, is also 700 TBq, which is equivalent to 700,000,000,000,000 becqerels of Cesium 137, which was deposited on land areas other than Japan. Not just that which passed over, (multiple times as the Fukushima plume was found to traverse the globe every 40 days), but that which was deposited on land areas other than Japan.
At a limited yield of only 89 TBq per detonation, the amount of Cesium 137 which is proposed to have deposited on lands other than Japan, after passing over large expanses of sea and land, is greater than that which would be produced by detonating more than seven and a half Hiroshima-style nuclear bombs in the skies directly overhead.
All of this Cesium, the equivalent to that generated by seven and a half nuclear bombs is thought to have deposited on foreign lands, even more, at least the equivalent of that generated by more than four hundred nuclear bombs, is known to have passed over and deposited elsewhere or still traverse the upper limits of the atmosphere, and North America is one of the first recipients of whatever the prevailing winds drag across the Pacific Ocean, yet none of the EPA guidelines were exceeded.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Are you not reassured?