This is the second part of my recount of my visit to Fukushima from earlier this year. For part 1 see here. It has been a long time between part 1 and part 2. Apologies, much important work has come up in the meantime.

Having left the officials at Naraha town we continued further into the exclusion zone, en route to J-Villiage. J-Village was the training centre for the Japanese national soccer team which has now been repurposed as the induction headquarters for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant site.

At J-Village we received an introduction from a Tepco official explaining the current main challenges at the site and what we could expect to see. It was quickly evident that the big problem was, in a word, water.

Receiving a briefing at J-Village. Apparently it is good luck in Japan to seat bald white men together. L-R Ted Nordhaus, Ben Heard, Barry Brook, Mike Berkowitz

The damaged reactor 1 building requires a flow of water to keep the melted fuel sufficiently cool. Unfortunately, a closed loop has not been established. Prior to the accident event, there was known groundwater ingress that was managed on an ongoing basis without a problem. Now, groundwater was entering the reactor building along with the flow of cooling water. The water was becoming contaminated, and an increasing quantity of contaminated water was accumulating.

To ameliorate this problem, a groundwater by-pass had been established to intercept the ground water before it entered the reactor. This water could then be held, tested and if clean… in principle it should be allowed to be dumped to the ocean where it was heading anyway.

But, at this time, they couldn’t. They did not have permission. The official was disarmingly frank about this, evident even through translation: Tepco simply could not argue for commonsense outcomes in this situation. They were running on zero trust. They would do what they were told until they were told to do otherwise. This was despite the testing revealing the by-passed groundwater to be close to pristine. Then of course there was the far-from-pristine water passing through the reactor. More on that later.

We re-boarded the bus from J-village to head to the site. From here the journey through the exclusion zone became interesting. The effects of absence became more and more pronounced as we passed through villages that had been simply left. Cars sat for sale in car lots with creepers beginning to cover them. Most homes had been fixed from the quake damage, but some damage remained. Trees were sprouting out of some roads, and rice paddies were overrun with “weeds” according to our guide. These weeds were trees saplings, aggressively reclaiming land as forest. Fukushima and the surrounds are positively verdant. It is a beautiful place with dense forest abutting paddies and villages. With the taming influence of humans removed, the forest was not hesitating to spread. Anyone with the impression that the exclusion zone is any form of “wasteland” need not be concerned. Nature is thriving.

Rice paddies are fast returning to nature
Abandoned and decaying

There were innumerable black bags through the exclusion zone. The scale is difficult to appreciate without seeing it. In these bags were held contaminated soil and debris that was being gathered and centralised for eventual disposal. Without going and taking samples and readings it is impossible for me to say with certainty whether that represented as sensible thing to do from the point of view of human health. However I have serious doubts.

The ubiquitous black bags

There were several dosimeters being used as we travelled, giving us real-time information on radiation readings. You can follow our journey in radiation with this map. Readings climbed steadily the closer we got to the site, however only really going from a small fraction to a larger fraction of inconsequential levels. We were occasisionally alerted that we were approaching a “hot-spot” where a level around 10 micro-sieverts per hour was recorded. That’s about 80-90 milli-sieverts per year if you stayed in that spot for every hour of the year… health wise, a complete non-event.

If that is indicative of what was regarded as requiring this aggressive remediation, it would suggest to me that this practice is further evidence of the harm of radiation being blown out of all proportion and catalysing a response that is costly in more ways than one. Bear in mind, we were approaching from the south, not the north-west, which is where most of the plume from the accident went. I would expect there to be some locations outside the main site where deposition of radioactive material really did demand clean up. In that case it should be cordoned and cleaned up in the manner of a chemical spill. What seems to have happened instead is that a semi-circle that was intended as an emergency evacuation response has been maintained for no real reason, with remediation occurring in response to fear rather than any critical examination of the costs and benefits of doing so.

Upon arriving at the site of the reactors we disembarked for further induction to prepare for our tour. We would tour the site by bus and wear basic personal protective equipment: surgical masks, gloves and booties.

Preparing for site visit. Prof Tom Wigley to my right. Note personal dosimeters are worn to measure our cumulative dose while on site

As we toured the site I had three major impressions. The first is that the site is tidy and well-organised. Over three years after the incident, most of the vision for the site remains from the very early days of tsunami-damaged chaos. That is not the case anymore. Roads around site are in good condition. Piping and cabling is well ordered. Nearly all debris has been removed. The site headquarters is a high-tech control hub with multiple-redundancy protected communication with Tokyo and other nuclear stations. Thousands of workers per day work and eat there. Tepco buys local produce for the workforce. New accommodation for the workforce was nearing completion. Matters are not perfect; this is a major workplace and we were informed of one fatality where a worker fell from a water tank.

Inside the site headquarters.

Secondly, radiation levels at parts of the site were indeed elevated however it was remarkably localised. At the foot of the badly damaged reactor 1, we sat for a few minutes in the impressive reading of >400 microsieverts per hour. That’s about 3.5 sieverts per year. If you got 3.5 sieverts all at once, you are pretty much dead. So as far as a workplace goes, this is a serious challenge. However, just a couple of hundred metres away, on the ocean side of reactor 5, levels were normal background; not elevated in any way. The radiation hazard is localised and easily detected. I cannot for the life of me understand why it has not been treated as such.

The third major impression was the stored water. We knew they were storing a lot of contaminated water, however the scale of this beggars belief. The tanks in question are huge, far larger than they appear in photos and they are accumulating at a staggering rate. This begs the challenging question: does it need to be?

Just a few of the water tanks. They are so much bigger than you realise

The contaminated water is being captured and passed through a two-stage decontamination process. This process is incredibly effective. The water is virtually completed decontaminated, with the exception of tritium.

Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of hydrogen. It easily bonds with oxygen to form tritiated water. This is chemically identical to normal water, so they cannot get it out. Tritiated water is the main way tritium gets into the body. As my new friend Gerry Thomas explained, the health impacts of radioactive materials need to be judged on not just their radioactive half-live, but also on their biological half-life: how long does it stay in the body?

Being in the form of water, tritium will spread uniformly through the soft tissue of the body rather than accumulating in any one place. That reduces the risk of any harm. Within 10 days half will have been excreted, within one month virtually all will be gone. Upon decay it releases a low-energy electron, or beta-particle, generally regarded as the lowest-risk form of ionising radiation (compared to alpha and gamma).

The storage of tritiated water at site was extraordinary and, again, I had to consider the costs and benefits. We were staring out at the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean, surrounded by stored water that was desalinated and decontaminated barring a natural hydrogen isotope. The stored water needed a 1000-times dilution to be returned to drinking water standards of tritium. Knowing all this and seeing the extraordinary efforts being made to contain this, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: just dump the stuff. Surely that would be safe. But I didn’t know.

It was when I got back to Australia and looked into the potential consequences that I got the shock of my life: releasing tritiated water to ocean has been standard practice, both in Japan and globally, for a long time. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency has been sampling seawater around tritiated water outlets, monthly, since 1978! In the thirty sampling areas immediately surrounding the discharge points they found that 82 % of samples taken were below the detection limit for tritium and dilution factors ranged from 240-6,500,000! It is a well-known, well-understood practice. The storage of tritated water at Fukushima does indeed appear to be little more than a costly exercise in giving in to fear of radiation. It’s as nutty as it looks.

This all has global implications. Interested parties would naturally look to Fukushima to understand the costs of a nuclear accident. But if many of the costs incurred are basically on the back of bullshit, with no scientific basis and good environmental decision-making being rejected, then we have a serious problem. We will drive up the costs of nuclear, globally, in a range of ways on utterly false pretences. This is, I have little doubt, precisely the intended outcome of those who continually seek to amplify people’s fear of radiation. This needs push-back, not acquiescence.

When we completed the visit we handed back our personal dosimeters. My dose was equivalent to 1/7th the dose I received flying from Sydney to Tokyo… and I had to fly home yet. Anyone scared of radiation should stay away from Fukushima… just not for the reason you might think!

Overall, it seemed there was no hurry to “fix” the Fukushima site, more an understanding that it had to be done properly. Unfortunately there seemed little hurry to open the exclusion zone either. I was left with the depressing impression that the area would become sacrificial; that it was just too hard, and it would simply become an area for scientific study. As the Chernobyl exclusion zone has shown us that may prove a boon for some biodiversity, but it is so sad for the people it effects.

I left with a heavy heart. The meltdowns at Fukushima were serious accidents that should not have happened. The response has been a catastrophe that must not be repeated.

Leaving Fukushima in a traffic jam of residents. They can enter during the day, but cannot stay at night. Fixing their towns has not been the priority it seems.

28 comments

  1. That’s entirely in line with the impression I have from keeping abreast of the situation. A complete absence of reason from government to local fishermen. With a huge and totally unnecessary cost to the evacuees. Also great cost to Tepco, but it is stoically doing what it has to do.

  2. I see Helen Caldicott is speaking before the Royal Commission tomorrow. Link. No doubt she will have plenty to say on Fukushima given that she maintains it is worse than Chernobyl.

  3. For completeness, tritium is basically the least dangerous radioactive isotopes that exist, since additionally the energy of it’s beta radiation is very low, so the WHO classify 10 000 Bq/l water as safe to drink since if 100% of the water you were drinking during one year was contaminated at this level, you would get only 1 mSv of contamination.
    There’s a woman who was exposed to a release of about 1.7 TBq of tritium, ingesting 35 GBq of it, with no health consequence at all even 10 years later. But it’s not surprising as it’s estimated to represent about 400 mSv of exposure.
    The craziest think I’ve been reading is the idea that Tepco should evaporate the tritium http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/04/08/national/tepco-may-evaporate-tritium-laced-fukushima-water-instead-of-ocean-release/
    It’s not actually dangerous of course, but whilst the release in the ocean would almost guarantee that no human is exposed to it, that’s not the the case anymore if you evaporate it :

    1. You can induce DNA damage giving tritium to animals in extraordinary doses. My Royal Commission submission has the details.

      To get the kind of doses used in the animal research with the water from Fukushima, you’d need to be drinking 112 litres per day … If you inject water with 37 million Bq per litre into animals all their lives you can induce some cancers.

  4. SA’s high penetration wind and solar is enabled by a greater amount of gas generation. Trouble is the gas sources are running out or can make bigger bucks as export LNG. The new solution to dwindling supply seems to be to steal it from the Timorese
    http://www.businessspectator.com.au/news/2015/10/26/energy-markets/sa-government-pushing-nt-gas-pipeline-connection
    The NT’s own gas at Mereenie in the centre is also fast depleting but they have offshore fields that can be connected to Darwin. The fields are actually off WA or close to Timor but in the Australian maritime zone.

    I doubt the pipeline will go ahead due to cost. SA mines minister Koutsantonis seems to have little faith in wind, solar or nuclear to deliver in time. He could be right.

  5. Thanks for describing your experiences.

    It seems that the long-term policy response to Fukushima will be much more damaging than the event itself.

  6. By the way, the face masks that you were issued are not suitable to prevent inhalation of fine particles.

    They are operating theatre masks, really only designed to stop theatre staff spitting into a patient’s open wounds. It is a common misconception that basic theatre masks protect the wearer from particulates.

    Protection from airborne pathogens and particles, such as radioactive dust, requires a P2 mask, which can be tightly moulded to the face and provides some seal on the sides so the air can not be entrained laterally, but must pass through the filter material. P2 masks are much more expensive than basic theatre masks.

    The masks issued in the photographs are really just a placebo, for a sense of security and show.

    1. Facemasks like those are ubiquitous in Japan – they’re the equivalent of a ‘lucky charm’ against disease and ill-health.

  7. The Japanese authorities should have been told about Eric Voice, “plutonium man.” He ingested plutonium into his system and later had it injected directly into his blood stream to show that it had no harmful effects on humans. And an acquaintance of mine handled it on a daily basis with only gloved hands for three years while working at Lucas Heights. He suffered no ill effects. As Paul Davies wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser, August 1998. “The dangers of radiation have always been ludicrously exaggerated.”

    1. @John Newlands
      Australia isn’t mentioned in the linked GEH-Canada press release, nor is it clear how a heavy-water reactor can do the same used-fuel burn-up job in SA as that contemplated for S-PRISM fast reactor. Some were hoping the UK’s plutonium stock could be used to seed an initial generation of S-PRISM, either there or in Australia, though either one could be a few years off compared with CANDU. Not that there should be a real rush — plutonium has a reasonably good shelf life.

        1. @John Newlands
          Thanks for the Nuclear Royal Commission link to testimony by GE-Hitachi’s Dr Eric Loewen. Heavy-water CANDU was never mentioned. What Dr Loewen did mention there at the end (P-969) was that the UK’s requirement was for plutonium disposition without recycling, i.e., convert their plutonium oxide recovered from light-water reactor fuel reprocessing, which UK did on an international scale over the course of many decades via PUREX derived wet chemical process, convert that plutonium to fuel for again, a once-through use in a reactor, then secure the resulting waste in a long-term deep geological repository:

          So what we proposed was the same fuel fabrication process to make metallic fuel, which is easy to do, which is robust, and we would convert that plutonium oxide into PRISM fuel, and
          then we would take that fuel and use that to make some electricity.

          15 Now, in the UK for their policy reasons, they don’t want to do any recycling. So this is what we call plutonium disposition to where we make fuel, it runs in the reactor to a certain level and then that would be put into a deep geological repository.

          Now, this once-through plutonium disposition was not the use for which S-PRISM was originally envisioned, and I think GE-Hitachi is interested in it primarily as a way to finance a first-of-a-kind plant and get some experience with it. Future customers really appreciate being able to buy an operationally tested product. But it is not necessarily the most economic way to operate an S-PRISM, and for this once-through application it is easy to see where CANDU might have a competitive advantage: burn through the plutonium in a once-through pass, denaturing it in the process to greatly reduce any chance of theft and divertment to weapons use, dispose of the resulting waste lightly used plutonium in a deep repository or pay Australia to take it off their hands, and when done they’ve got a CANDU reactor well suited for existing UK light-water fuel cycle.

          That isn’t at all what Senator Edwards is proposing for Australia. There you’ve got a clean slate; no legacy PUREX recycling and LWR fuel cycle. You can do what’s best for Australia.

          Pouring concrete “within a year or two” might be possible for the sort of “dry” (no power, no radiation) training facility mentioned by Dr Loewen, but probably not for any operational reactor. But this is Australia, so who knows? Certainly, it is quite likely that a production-tested and internationally marketed CANDU heavy-water system could be brought up faster than a first-of-a-kind S-PRISM, and has a certain advantage in not absolutely requiring enriched uranium, and if Australia wanted to get into the fuel fabrication business without enrichment, CANDU would be an option.

          CANDU might also be a slightly faster way to get substantial nuclear capacity on the grid and displacing brown coal than S-PRISM, but licensing will still take time, probably more than just a few years but at least there’s lots of international CANDU experience to leverage to prove me wrong.

          But the attraction of S-PRISM is its closed fuel cycle, and relatively short ~500 year lifetime of the residual “waste” (if that’s what it truly is). That might prove a critical selling-point to the public who ultimately must sign off on this thing, keeping firmly in mind the whole premise of this business model is to finance an Australian nuclear power industry on the back of used-fuel that others will pay to have taken off their hands.

          And will have to go somewhere. Just where, and when, and for how long, and what other reactor technologies might be considered, are questions being addressed by the Royal Commission.

          1. Atucha 3 (with canmox) in Argentina is expected to take 8 years to build with Chinese help based on their Quinshan knowhow. Loewen says PRISM could be 20 years away. I say start replacing coal and gas baseload (most of our electricity) with off-the-shelf technology then later on see if a first or second of a kind project can be taken on. I also think every country with nuclear must be prepared to keep the material indefinitely. If they can get someone else to take it that’s a bonus but don’t depend on it.

  8. Twin AP-1000s for $17.5 bn
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/global-energy-giant-westinghouse-says-an-australian-nuclear-power-plant-would-cost-175bn/story-fni6uo1m-1227597902654?sv=d0587a1f0d7cef73b03e366ff4eff7b7
    If built in SA the planned 460 MW to 650 MW capacity upgrade of the 275 kv SA-Vic Heywood Interconnector wouldn’t be enough, probably needs replacing by an HVDC cable. Turns out Westinghouse have already cased the joint, Adelaide that is, a town that uses 0.5-3.2 GW.

    If 2000+ MW seems excessive note Engie the owners of the 1600 MW Hazelwood lignite plant say they want to retire it by 2026. In SA Northern coal plant 540 MW will close next year followed by partial gas baseload retirements 100 MW for Pelican Point and 400 MW for Torrens Island. In Vic Yallourn 1480 MW could be the next to go followed by Liddell NSW 2000 MW. Twin AP-1000s could fill that NEM generation gap.

    1. If $17.5 bn seems like heavy lettuce the talk was of $89 bn in defence contracting to mainly benefit Adelaide. Note also the feds (ARENA) have given over $100m free (no repayments) to each of at least two solar projects. If a project is on the favourites list like subs and solar the money can be found.

      1. Although, that appears to be a simple currency conversion from the Westinghouse testimony. They have already been through Australia, stating that the majority of materials/construction could be localised. If Adelaide firms can secure a big slice of that, so much the better. But yes, AP1000s would only really be applicable to eastern states.

        1. 2234 MWe is kinda big unless it is synced to a large coal station retirement in the Hunter or Latrobe valleys plus a transmission replacement to the east. To the west BZE propose a trans-Nullarbor HVDC cable with wind farms and solar thermal enroute. Dunno bout that but I’m sure WA will still have gas for peaking plant long after eastern Australia has run out, sooner than we think. Hence the talk of an Alice Springs-Moomba gas pipe. Apart from other issues a single EC6 is about the right size for SA medium term, costing maybe $6 bn not $17 bn.

  9. Hi guys,
    is there a rough estimate of *how* much more storing all that tritium water is costing the clean up? Do you have a few pointers that would break down the costs involved and show whether you could, say for example, halve it by releasing the tritium, quarter it by doing XYZ and maybe cut it to 10% of the costs by just letting everyone else move back home? Just wondering if any numbers like this are even being released on the actual costs and what alternative strategies might save.
    Regards to all your great work!

    1. That’s an excellent question and no, I don’t have an answer. I can only make an educated guess from my observations which is this: the management of water was, quite obviously, the single biggest issue at the site during my visit.

      I would love to have the information and access to give your question a clear answer. If anyone can have a try, I would be interested.

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