Five Years Later Nuclear Crisis at Fukushima Continues

Posted March 16, 2016

MP3 Interview with Tim Judson, executive director with Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), conducted by Scott Harris


Millions of Japanese citizens observed a moment of silence as their nation marked the fifth anniversary of the devastation wrought by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. The monster quake, centered off Japan’s northeast coast, killed more than 19,000 and left some 2,500 missing and unaccounted for.

The most serious damage resulting from the earthquake occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, where three nuclear reactors lost their coolant and melted down. The disaster, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, caused hydrogen explosions in containment buildings and the release of massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, ground water and the Pacific Ocean. The plant’s operator, Tepco estimates that it will take 30 to 40 years to safely decommission the now dangerously radioactive reactors. The nuclear plant is still releasing thousands of tons of radioactive water and over 1,000 tanks filled with contaminated water surround the destroyed reactors.

The Japanese government has opened two of the nation’s other nuclear plants that were shut down after the earthquake, and plans to reactivate more of the nation’s 42 commercial reactors in the months ahead. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tim Judson, executive director with the group, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who assesses the status of the Fukushima nuclear disaster cleanup operation the post-Fukushima condition of the nuclear power industry in the U.S. and around the world. [Rush transcript below.]

TIM JUDSON: About a 160,000 people were evacuated from the area of Fukushima which is a fairly rural area for Japan. But there were also mistakes in the course of the evacuation, where because the utility company that operated the plant was providing incomplete information about the direction in which the radiation plume was being blown. There were people that became exposed to high levels of radiation along the roads because they were directed to evacuate using the wrong routes. So those people have suffered very high levels of exposure to radiation.

I think there's an idea that the accident happened during March and April of 2011. The reality is that this accident is not under control. They have not been able to even identify where the melted nuclear fuel is in the plants because the radiation levels inside are too high. And you know, for the last five years, there's been, because this is a coastal nuclear plant next to mountains, there's a lot of rain and groundwater.

There's been 300 tons of radioactively contaminated water washing through the site and out into the ocean for the last five years. And the government and TEPCO have not been able to stop that constant leaching of radioactivity into the ocean for this entire time. So you have essentially the whole sort of coastal area off of Fukushima is awash in radioactive contamination. The fishing industry around there has been decimated by this. It's just not legal or safe to fish and to sell fish for consumption. There is some notion that actually Japan got lucky to some extent, for most of the first few days in which the meltdowns were occurring, the wind was actually blowing from Fukushima out to the sea, and so a lot of the radiation that was released from the meltdowns actually was pushed out over the water. And only for a couple of days during that time was the wind blowing toward communities that were on the land. That essentially saved the capital city of Tokyo of 20 million people from having to be evacuated. If the wind had been blowing in another direction, the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the capital city might have needed to be evacuated and there could have been many, many, many, more deaths in the short term from radiation exposure than there were.

So, in addition to the fact that there's clear public health issues, there's been a significant uptick in the amount of thyroid disease among children who were exposed to the radiation plumes and living in the area, you have the immense amount of social stress that comes from the dislocation that all these hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I have read that in the past few months, the number of nuclear reactors under construction across the world has hit a 25-year high with around 60 to 70 reactors now being built, and this of course in spite of Fukushima and the justified concern that citizens all around the world have about the safety of nuclear power. Please comment, if you would.

TIM JUDSON: Sure. Well, I think that the notion that nuclear construction is increasing is a complicated one. I mean, there's only really nuclear plants being built in a very small handful of countries, and that includes China and South Korea, somewhat in India. But there, I think what you're probably seeing is, as far as an increase in construction, is that actually the construction of nuclear plants is constantly behind schedule. They're constantly not meeting deadlines. So you're noticing essentially, sort of a backlog of reactors that should have been completed by now, being met with reactors that are starting to be built and that might look like there's more reactors under construction. What we really expect to see is that this industry globally is fading. We'e got reactors that are closing in the U.S., Germany is planning to phase out nuclear power, even France, which is the most nuclear country in the world, is planning to reduce its reliance on nuclear power pretty extensively in the next ten years. This industry is really at a plateau, or declining. And I think more likely, the latter.

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