Five years of Fukushima — a living monument to human folly


Today marks the 5-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. In today’s distracted world — where the worst cases of attention-deficit disorder belong to the mainstream news media — it feels as if these annual anniversaries are the only way to bring attention to any ongoing environmental crisis, from the our own Gulf of Mexico to the faraway shores of the Japanese island. Remembering the nuclear catastrophe that started with a natural disaster on March 11, 2011, helps to remind the public — especially here in the United States — that the crisis for the people who live and work in the Fukushima region is far from over, even if it’s rarely reflected in the daily headlines any more.

This morning’s New York Times had an excellent update on of how precarious the future remains on the edge of a nuclear disaster, and how much further that clean-up effort needs to go:

Five years after powerful earthquake and tsunami struck, causing three reactors at Fukushima to melt down, that goal is the focus of a colossal effort at once precarious and routine. A veneer of stability at the plant masks a grueling, day-to-day battle to contain hazardous radiation, which involves a small army of workers, complex technical challenges and vexing safety trade-offs.

Fukushima has become a place where employees arrive on company shuttle buses and shop at their own on-site convenience store, but where they struggle to control radiation-contaminated water and must release it into the sea. Many of the most difficult and dangerous cleanup tasks still lie ahead, and crucial decisions remain unsettled.

To say that progress is slow would be an understatement:

The effort at Fukushima has reached a few milestones. About 1,500 spent fuel rods were successfully removed from a damaged storage tank in late 2014, a delicate and risky operation. Much of the contaminated rubble left by the tsunami and hydrogen explosions has been cleared, and overall radiation levels are down. Workers will soon be able to enter some areas of the plant without full-body protective gear.

But a full cleanup of the site — including the extraction of melted uranium fuel from the damaged reactor cores — is expected to take at least 40 years according to the government’s timetable and a century by other estimates. In the meantime, officials acknowledge, Fukushima remains vulnerable.

“The question is, Is there a Plan B to deal with another big quake or tsunami?” Professor Suzuki said.

The numbers are astounding. Some five years later, nearly 100,000 Fukushima-area residents remain displaced because of radiation, while another 75,000 have been unable to return because of tsunami-related damage. The fishing grounds in the Pacific near the damaged nuclear plant remain closed — largely because clean-up workers at the site continue to dump some 2,000 tons of radioactive water into the ocean every week. Officials hope to get the water problems at the plant solved by building a massive, mile-long “ice wall” — but that will not be online until 2020 and no one even knows if it will work. The plant to deal with the melted radioactive core by encasing it in thick concrete — a solution that was eventually implemented at the Chernobyl nuclear-meltdown site in the Ukraine — will take decades and is fraught with extreme risks of another radiation release.

In Japan, the political and social fallout from Fukushima has put the nuclear-power industry on hold for now. Some 40 nuclear reactors across the Asian island nation have been shuttered; only one remains open. Although Japan’s elected leaders would like to bring the closed plants back online, the nation’s courts and a wary electorate have held otherwise for now.

Of course, we should be having the same debate here in the United States. The risks from bad siting decisions, the ineptitude of nuclear-plant operators, and the inherent lack of safety of nuclear reactors are no different here than they are in Japan. Indeed. many of our nuclear plants are older and in worse shape. But nuclear safety remains a back-burner issue here. For example, the topic hasn’t even come up in the recent flurry of U.S. presidential debates. It seems that Americans won’t worry about the very real dangers of nuclear power until, heaven forbid, we have our own meltdown here at home. Until that happens, the U.S. media is likely to show up every March, to briefly remind us about Fukushima and what can go so terribly wrong.

Read more about the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the New York Times:

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on its radioactive pollution 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

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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