A year can be a long time in politics. But for the radioactive particles released from Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactor, a year is just a moment in their life of hundreds or thousands of years.
So, what is the radiological situation at Fukushima one year after the disaster?
Thankfully, despite more than 9,000 aftershocks since the disaster – including more than 10 rating above seven on the Richter scale – there have been no major fires or explosions since March 2011 that could cause further catastrophic releases of radioactivity.
But the extensively damaged plants are still unstable and highly radioactive. This has restricted access and clean-up efforts, which will need to go on for many decades.
Though Japanese authorities declared they’d achieved a “cold shutdown” in December, an arbitrary definition was used: coolant water temperature was less than boiling, pressure inside the reactors was not raised, and the release of radioactive materials from the first layer of containment was below a specified level. But it didn’t mean the nuclear reaction inside the reactors had been stably shut down.
A number of investigations (some of which are still ongoing) have highlighted inadequacies in the design, prevention and response measures to deal with such a disaster. There is also a high level of dysfunction, cover-up, collusion and corruption in the nuclear industry – including its regulation and oversight.
How, for example, could sea walls designed to withstand a tsunami of only 5.5 metres be acceptable on a coast battered by a 38 metre tsunami in 1896 and a 29 metre tsunami in 1933?
How could cooling pumps, back-up generators and control systems not be required to be located on high ground?
How could spent fuel ponds, filled with vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity, safely be placed right of top of reactors? And without any special containment structures?
Independent, peer-reviewed research provides strong evidence that radioactive emissions from the Fukushima plants began after the earthquake and well before the tsunami struck. This is contrary to claims by TEPCO, the power company involved, and the Japanese government that it was the tsunami and not the earthquake that irrevocably damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.
If leaks did begin as a result of the earthquake, as the evidence strongly indicates, this has profound implications for nuclear reactors everywhere – not only those located on coasts, within reach of tsunamis.
Serious gaps in measures to protect the population have also become evident.
One of the important protective health measures, which should be taken for those who have been or are likely to be exposed to significant reactor fallout, is the administration of stable iodine shortly before exposure, or within 24 hours. This blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine into the body, which causes thyroid cancer.
Yet the government admitted, in its June 2011 report to the IAEA, that because of dysfunctional decision-making, iodine was not administered to anyone in Fukushima, despite supplies reportedly being available.
Exposure to radiation
We now know the computer-based system designed to guide evacuations and sheltering (known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information or SPEEDI system) correctly predicted the initial path of the heaviest Fukushima fallout. The results were delivered to the government but not acted on, resulting in the people of some towns moving right into the path of the fallout.
Detailed mapping of the population’s radiation doses (from contaminants in the air, water and food) is still not publicly available. But hundreds of thousands of people still live in areas where they will receive doses higher – in some case several tens of times higher – than the world-wide recommended levels of no more than 1 milliSievert (mSv) of additional exposure per year.
The most contaminated areas were re-categorised by the Japanese government in December 2011. Residence is not precluded in areas where inhabitants would face radiation doses between 20 and 50 mSv per year.
Astonishingly, evacuation is not recommended from areas where residents are likely to be exposed to doses of up to 20 mSv per year. Even in the “bad old days” of the Soviet Union, those anticipated to receive more than 5 mSv annually after the Chernobyl disaster were resettled as a matter of priority. And those likely to receive more than 1 mSv annually had resettlement rights.
What happens next?
On January 26, 2012 the Japanese government released a roadmap of planned environmental remediation activities, to be completed over the following two years.
But the value of such measures has likely been oversold. Plans to remove the topsoil of farmland, for instance, will erode the viability of farming. And the problem of where to store, and how to isolate, vast amounts of contaminated material remains a major challenge.
One group particularly at risk of health harm is the large and growing number of workers required to help control, shut down and clean up the damaged nuclear plants.
By early December, more than 18,000 men had participated in clean-up work in Fukushima. These largely unskilled, inadequately trained, ill-equipped and poorly monitored day labourers performed the bulk of the dirty and dangerous work. Much of the contracting of these workers is dominated by criminal “yakuza” networks.
Even before the disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi complex was staffed by 1,108 regular employees and 9,195 day labourers. On average, the contracted day labourers receive two- to three-times the radiation dose of a regular worker but are not included in utility statistics. And there is no compulsory, centralised system for tracking cumulative radiation exposure or health outcomes of these workers.
Radiation levels are not always monitored. But when they are, and a labourer is known to be near the maximal permitted dose for workers, they may be sent away. The maximum dose is normally 20 mSv per year, but this was raised to 250 mSv after the Fukushima disaster. After the workers are despatched, there’s nothing stopping them from then going to work another nuclear plant.
On top of the many other health problems that the Fukushima disaster has caused, thousands of additional cancer cases will likely be diagnosed, but these will take some years to emerge.
This means, of course, that much of the radioactive fallout from Fukushima will continue to indiscriminately harm health for many generations to come.