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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.