Worse than Chernobyl: The inner threat of Fukushima crisis
by Christopher Busby
There is a curious and bizarre reversal of the natural at Fukushima: a looking-glass world inversion. Unlike the standard marine catastrophe, for example the Titanic, where the need is to manically pump water out of the ship to stop it sinking, at Fukushima the game is to madly pump water in, in order to stop it melting down and exploding.
Probably because it is now clear that the saturation of the ground from all the pumping water for cooling the several reactors and spent fuel pools has destabilized the foundations of the buildings, TEPCO is bringing forward its operation to try and deal with what is perhaps the most dangerous of the four sites, the spent fuel pond of Reactor 4. For this pond contains a truly enormous amount of radioactive material: 1,331 spent fuel grids amounting to 228.3 tons of Uranium and Plutonium buried inside a swimming pool which has already dried out once and exploded. That explosion blasted a significant, but unknown, quantity of lethally radioactive bits and pieces of fuel element around the site (where I heard they were bulldozed into the ground – who knows?), but it also blew the top off the building, covered the fuel elements under the water with rubble and pieces of crane machinery, and no doubt twisted and melted a large proportion of the remaining spent fuel.
Workers wearing protective suits and masks are seen near tanks of radiation contaminated water at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (Reuters / Issei Kato)
The operation involves the kind of game that we are all familiar with in those machines in penny arcades. You know the ones. You stick in some coins. You have levers which manipulate a claw which you position over a teddy bear or a doll and then you let this down, pick the item up and drop it down a chute to win it. In the TEPCO version of this game, you build a crane over the spent fuel tank (or what’s left of it) and manoeuver a grab down into the rubble to deftly pick out a spent fuel assembly, like a 4.5meter long and 24cm square birdcage containing the zirconium metal clad fuel elements, each unit weighing about one third of a ton.
Of course, to make the game more interesting, they are not just sitting there like they were when the tank was being used. They are under water (sea water), covered in debris, corroded, busted, twisted, intertwined and generally impossible to deal with. And here is the really scary thing: if you manage to bust a fuel element, the best outcome is that huge amounts of radioactivity escape into the air and blow over Japan, just like before. The worst outcome is when two of these things get too close, perhaps because in pulling one out it breaks and falls against another one in the tank. Because then you suddenly have lots of fission, a lot of heat, a meltdown, possibly a big blast like before, and the destruction of the entire cooling pond. Or else the water boils off and the whole thing catches fire.
This photo taken on August 6, 2013 shows local government officials and nuclear experts inspecting a monitoring well where high levels of radioactive materials were detected at Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant (Japan out AFP Photo / Japan Pool via JIJI Press)
Then what happens? Not quite Armageddon, but as far as Japan is concerned, almost. I bet they have contingency plans to evacuate the northern island to Korea, China, anywhere. A lot of this radiation will end up in the USA, a long way downwind, admittedly, but then there is an awful lot of radioactivity involved.
Another tank with highly radioactive water at the devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant has leaked, operator TEPCO reported on Tuesday. The contaminated water contains an unprecedented 80 million Becquerels of radiation per liter. The norm is a mere 150 Bq.
Let me lead you through what the spent fuel pond of Reactor 4 contains in the way of radionuclides. I was taken to task after my last article for not listing enough of the radionuclide contaminants. So for the record, though some may find it boring, let me remedy that. It is an impressive list of lethal material:
Strontium-89, Strontium-90, Yttrium-90, Zirconium-95, Niobium-95, Ruthenium-106, Rhodium-106, Antimony-125, Iodine-131, Xenon-133, Caesium-137, Caesium-134, Cerium-144 (loads of this), Protoactinium-147, Europium-154, Plutonium-238, 239, 240, 241, Americium (Yes)-241 and 243, Curium-242,243,244, and of course Uranium 238,235 and 234.
These are the main ones. There are a lot more, and decay daughters of these also. It is a scary amount of invisible death. The total quantity of all these in the spent fuel pool of reactor 4 is about 1021 Becquerels, if we leave out the noble gases and iodines maybe 1020 (that is, 1 with 20 zeroes). Maybe 50 to 100 Chernobyl accidents worth, or more depending on what you believe came out of Chernobyl.
I list these because it should be made quite clear that the concentration of the media on the radio-caesiums and plutoniums and iodines is a very partial story. More discourse manipulation.
What lies within
Which brings me to another aspect of this grim piece of contemporary history. My expertise is in the health effects of internal radionuclides: what happens when these substances I list above get into human beings. Just after the Fukushima catastrophe I made a calculation and a prediction based on the scientific model of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR). I presented it at the German Society for Radioprotection/ ECRR conference in Berlinin May 2011.
This showed that there would be some 200,000 extra cancers in roughly 10 million population in the 200km radius of the site in the next 10 years, and 400,000 over 50 years. The current risk model adhered to and employed by the Japanese government is that of the International Commission of Radiological Protection, the ICRP. This predicts that no detectable cancers will be seen as a result of the “very low doses” received by the population.
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