No One Wants You to Know How Bad Fukushima Might Still Be
The main point of criticism about Japan's largest utility company is rooted in one that countless others have voiced since the beginning: a suspicious disregard for keeping the public informed.
Fukushima nuclear workers and their supporters raise their fists in front of TEPCO headquarters during a rally in Tokyo on March 14, 2014. Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
Last month, when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced it would move forward with its plan to construct an "ice wall" around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's failed reactors, it seemed like a step backwards. In June, the utility company in charge of decommissioning the plant—which was ravaged by a tsunami in March 2011—indicated that its initial attempt at installing a similar structure had flopped. Its pipes were apparently unable to freeze the ground, despite being filled with a -22°F chemical solution.
Similar techniques have been successfully used by engineers to build underwater car tunnels and mine shafts. But Dr. Dale Klein, an engineer and expert on nuclear policy, isn't so sure it'll produce the same results on a project of this magnitude. He says that although freezing the ground around reactors one through four might help corral the water that's being used by TEPCO as a coolant, there's little technical understanding of how the natural water sources surrounding the plant might respond. "As the water comes down the mountains towards the ocean, it's not clear to me that [TEPCO] really know how it is going to move around that frozen barrier," he said in an interview with VICE.
"But it has to go somewhere," he continued. "It's such a complicated site and problem, and I don't know if they fully understand that yet."
It's worrying to hear doubt from someone like Klein, whose expertise ranges from politics to pedagogy. He was appointed to chair the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bush in 2006 and, after stepping down in 2009, he served as the organization's commissioner in 2010. Now, in addition to being associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, he's part of an international TEPCO advisory panel and visits Japan three to four times a year to work with officials as they struggle to helm a largely ad hoc clean-up effort.
Aside from TEPCO's unwillingness to consider other engineering solutions, his main point of criticism about Japan's largest utility company is rooted in one that countless others have voiced since the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami): a suspicious disregard for keeping the public informed.
"When rumors start circulating, TEPCO needs to come forward right away and say, 'This is what we know, this is what we don't know,' rather than staying silent," Klein said. "They give off the perception that they're covering up something, when that isn't what they're doing at all."
But it's hard to give TEPCO the benefit of the doubt when misinformation, lying, and a sub-par approach to safety culture have been central to this quagmire since before the natural disasters. While it's rarely constructive to point fingers in a time of crisis, it's worth noting that TEPCO has been reprimanded by the Japanese government, international scientists, peace-keeping organizations, global media outlets, and both anti- and pro-nuclear advocates for its unwillingness to disclose key details at a time when they are desperately needed. Coupled with the unmitigated radiation still pouring into Pacific waters, this helps explain why a Japanese judicial panel announced in late July that it wants TEPCO executives to be indicted.
This negligence can be traced back to the Fukushima plant's meltdown. Just three months after the plant was crippled, the Wall Street Journal came out with a report culled from a dozen interviews with senior TEPCO engineers saying its operators knew some reactors were incapable of withstanding a tsunami. Since the Daiichi plant's construction in the late 1960s, engineers had approached higher-ups to discuss refortifying the at-risk reactors, but these requests were denied due to concerns over renovation costs and an overall lack of interest in upgrading what was, at the time, a functioning plant. In 2012, it came to light that one such cost-cutting measure was the use of duct tape to seal leaking pipes within the plant.
A year after the Wall Street Journal report, TEPCO announced that the Daiichi plant's meltdown had released 2.5 times more radiation into the atmosphere than initially estimated. The utility cited broken radiation sensors within the plant's proximity as the main reason for this deficit and, in the same statement, claimed that 99 percent of the total radiation released from the Daiichi plant occurred during the last three weeks of March 2011. That last part turned out to be untrue—a year later, in June 2013, TEPCO admitted that almost 80,000 gallons of contaminated water had been leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day since the meltdown. As of today, that leak continues.
Relatives of tsunami victims offer prayers at the site of their house that was swept by tsunami at Namie, near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on the third anniversary. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
This year marked the disaster's third anniversary, but new accounts of mismanagement and swelling radiation levels continue to surface. In February, TEPCO revealed that groundwater sources near the Daiichi plant and 80 feet from the Pacific Ocean contained 20 million becquerels of the harmful radioactive element Strontium-90 per gallon (one becquerel equals one emission of radiation per second). Even though the internationally accepted limit for Strontium-90 contamination in water hovers around 120 becquerels per gallon, these measurements were hidden from Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority for nearly four months. As a response, the national nuclear watchdog agency censured TEPCO for lacking a "fundamental understanding of measuring and handling radiation."
And last month, TEPCO told reporters that 14 different rice paddies outside Fukushima's exclusion zone were contaminated in August 2013, after a large piece of debris was removed from one of the Daiichi plant's crippled reactors. The readings were taken in March 2014, but TEPCO didn't publicize their findings until four months later, at the start of July—meaning almost a year had passed since emissions had begun to accumulate at dangerous levels in Japan's most sacred food.
The list, unfortunately, goes on. This is merely the abridged account of TEPCO's backpedalling and PR shortfalls. It begs many questions, but the most perplexing one is: Why? Why has a crisis that is gaining traction as the worst case of nuclear pollution in history—worse, emission-wise, than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Chernobyl—being smothered with internal censorship? If omission of information isn't intentional, like Dr. Klein suggests, why haven't these revelations led to a stronger institutional effort to contain Fukushima and reduce the chance that irregularities go unnoticed or unreported?
When I asked past Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Helen Caldicott these questions, she was quick to respond: "Because money matters more than people."
Dr. Caldicott was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School when she became president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an American organization of doctors against nuclear warfare, climate change, and other environmental issues, in 1978. The organization, along with its parent body the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, a year after Caldicott left.
Last September, Caldicott organized a symposium at the New York Academy of Medicine entitled, "The Medical and Ecological Consequences of Fukushima," and has a book coming out on the issue this October. Her expertise on the subject is founded on academic research, but also her lifelong role as a doctor practicing preventative medicine in the nuclear age.
"Japan produces parts for nuclear reactors, like reactor containment vessels," she said in an interview with VICE. "They're heavily invested in nuclear power, even though they actually have access to nine times more renewable energy than Germany."
Although Caldicott says what separates Fukushima from Chernobyl is the continuous leakage of radioactive material, in her eyes they're unified by an institutionalized effort to keep the veil from lifting. "The Japanese government took three months to tell the world that there had been three meltdowns, even though the meltdowns had taken place in the first three days," she said. "They're not testing the food routinely. In fact, they're growing food in highly radioactive areas, and there are stories that the most radioactive food is being canned and sold to third-world countries."
"Some doctors in Japan are starting to get very worried about the fact that they're seeing an increase in diseases but they're being told not to tell their patients that the diseases are related to radiation," she continued. "This is all because of money. Bottom line."
The money she refers to isn't only rooted in Japan's export of nuclear reactor parts, or the fact that the economy is starting to reclaim its reign over Japan's national consciousness. It's threaded throughout a history of collusion and secretive deals that extend beyond TEPCO's record. Late last month, a longterm vice president of the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), which sourced nearly 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power sources like Fukushima before the 2011 accident, revealed to Japanese reporters that the company's president donated approximately $3.6 million to seven different Japanese prime ministers and other political figures between 1970 and 1990. The amount officials received was based on how much their incumbency profited the nuclear and electric energy sectors.
And if it's not money that lies beneath these multi-faceted attempts at obscuring information about Fukushima, it's the fear of mass hysteria. When it was revealed that the United Nations-affiliated pro-nuclear group International Atomic Energy Association made a deal with local government officials in Fukushima to classify information that might stoke public concern (like, observers speculate, cancer rates and radiation levels), civilian fears of a cover-up campaign crept out of the mischief associated with conspiracy and into the gravity of a situation that feels more and more surreal.
Norio Tsuzumi (center, standing), vice president of TEPCO, and employees bow their heads to apologize to evacuees at a shelter in Koriyama. Ken Shimizu/AFP/Getty Images
Despite these efforts, plenty has come to light. As of August 2014, we know that radiation levels around the Fukushima area continue to rise, even after three years of containment attempts. We know that doctors have found 89 cases of thyroid cancer in a study of less than 300,000 children from the Fukushima area—even though the normal incidence rate of this disease among youths is one or two for every million. We know that Japanese scientists are still reluctant to publicize their findings on Fukushima due to a fear of getting stigmatized by the national government.
We also know that US sailors who plotted a relief effort in Fukushima immediately after the disaster have reportedly been experiencing a well-up of different cancers, that monkeys living outside Fukushima's restricted zone have lower blood cell counts than those living in other parts of northern Japan, and that the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War's thorough critique of a recent Fukushima report by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation shows how the international community is severely underestimating the effects of the crisis.
Whether or not TEPCO's ice wall will be as successful as the company's lead engineers expect is ultimately dependent on trial. But Dr. Klein, Dr. Caldicott, and others have their own ideas of what should have been done, and what might still need doing in the near future.
"I would like to see them try external pumps a bit more to see if they can slow the inflow of water," said Dr. Klein. This would involve placing mechanical pumps upstream from the water sources and away from the plant, to collect and contain the water before it passes over the damaged reactors. "Before the accident occurred, they were moving about 27,000 gallons of water a day around the site."
"The problem is that TEPCO has hardly invited in the international community to help to try and solve the problem," says Dr. Caldicott. "A huge company like [Florida-based engineering group] Bechtol, which makes reactors and is a very good engineering company, should have been invited in by the Japanese government to try and propose a way to deal with these problems in an engineering fashion."
At the same time, she recognizes that it's not only up to Japan. "There should be an international consortium of global experts from France, from Russia, from the United States, and Canada, putting their heads together with the Japanese and working out solutions," she said.
Others believe that Japan needs to look northwest, towards the Kremlin. Chernobyl gave Russia and Ukraine a level of experience in handling nuclear failures that stands apart from most of the world.
But even though the ecological effects of Fukushima continue to be hotly debated by scientific organizations and the public, Dr. Klein wants to take a step back from the conversation in order to move towards the endgame. "I'd like to see a completely safe operation. It's complicated," he concedes, "but we need to help support the Japanese clean-up efforts whenever we can."
Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter.