Every month or two, I feel that it’s important to check in on the meltdown-ravaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima. It’s been nearly six years since a near “perfect storm” of bad events — a major earthquake, followed by a tsunami making a direct hit on the four-reactor power plant on the Japanese coast — caused the worst nuclear accident of the 21st Century. That’s a long time, and yet it’s stunning how little we still know about the full extent of the damage or what the utility, TEPCO, and the Japanese government plan to do to clean up the mess.
This week, amid reports that radiation levels inside the damaged areas have spiked to the highest levels since the 2011 accident, the Japanese authorities sent a robot into one of the damaged reactors to see what is happening inside, since conditions remain way too unsafe for humans. What the expedition discovered was alarming:
The radiation levels in Fukushima‘s unit two reactor are so high they could kill a human in two minutes, according to data collected by a robot.
Tokyo Electric Power, the company which operates the nuclear plant in Fukushima, carried out a robotic survey of the area around the core that melted six years ago, following the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the nuclear accident.
But the scorpion robot Sasori got stuck inside the reactor after its crawling functions failed while climbing over highly radioactive debris and had to be abandoned inside the reactor.
It recorded radiation measures in the area of 210 sieverts per hour, which are lethal enough to kill a human within two minutes.
This is not the first time a robot has become inoperable after entering the reactor.
During a previous survey, another robot designed to clean the debris for Sasori’s passage had to return halfway through when two of its cameras failed after being exposed for two hours to radiation and reaching its maximum tolerance of 1,000 sievert. Such an exposure to radiation can kill a human within seconds.
Despite the dangerously high levels of radiation, company officials said it was not leaking outside the reactor.
It’s hard to overstate how bleak this latest news out of Fukushima is. Under the most optimistic scenario, TEPCO and its contractors wouldn’t even begin serious cleanup operations that would remove the radioactive material until 2021. That’s four long years from now (indeed, after Donald Trump’s current term as U.S. president is over, to give you some idea) or, framed another way, an entire decade after the meltdown occurred. But given the difficulties in simply sending a robot into the damaged reactors — and the impossibility of sending human workers for some time, if ever — it’s difficult to imagine that the 2021 target will even be met. Meanwhile, the once-thriving region of northern Japan surrounding the plant remains a kind of dead zone, with everyday people unable to return to their family homes.
Why keep re-visiting the Fukushima saga, when there are so few signs of improvement in a grim situation that never seems to change? Because the story has great relevance for the future of nuclear power around the United States and around the world. Just a few short years ago, the American nuclear industry seemed poised for a revival, thanks in part to concerns about global warming and burning fossil fuels. Today, that rebirth is not happening for a variety of reasons, including soaring costs as well as the surging use of alternative energy. But Fukushima may have been the tipping point. Nearly six years after the catastrophe, the Japanese site remains a monument to the folly of humankind’s faith in controlling the power of the atom.
Read more about the recent robot probe of Fukushima from the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/radiation-fukushima-nuclear-plant-high-enough-kill-human-two-minutes-a7587646.html
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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