By Reginald Johnson
This week, an event will take place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan that could have grave consequences for the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Engineers from the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, which owns the plant, will attempt to remove more than 1500 highly-radioactive spent fuel rods from a damaged containment building at the plant’s reactor number 4. It is critical to remove the rods and put them in a safe building, given the possibility that another earthquake could strike the area of the plant and bring the existing building down, which could lead to a massive explosion and fire, setting off waves of lethal radiation.
A powerful earthquake and tsunami already struck the plant in March 2011, creating widespread damage to the complex.
The problem is that a number of nuclear experts and observers are skeptical of TEPCO’s technical capabilities to perform the removal operation safely. Many of the rods at the reactor 4 building are bent and in a brittle condition, and there is doubt that the company on its own will be able to extract each one (they’ll be using a 273-foot crane for the operation) without one or several rods breaking. The rods could explode or catch on fire, setting off large doses of radiation, depending on how many rods are involved.
The amount of radioactivity in the fuel rods at unit 4 is staggering. According to long-time anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman, the amount of cesium 137 in the fuel rods in reactor 4 is equal to 14,000 times the amount released by the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
Making the situation even more worrisome is that another 6,000 spent fuel rods sit in a cooling pool only 50 meters away from reactor 4. Should those rods somehow get involved during an accident, the consequences are unthinkable, say Wasserman and others.
“The potential radiation releases in this situation can only be described as apocalyptic,” Wasserman commented in an article in Common Dreams on October 24 (http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/10/24-3).
Despite the difficulty of the task and the dangers involved, TEPCO is planning on going ahead with the removal operation sometime later this week. The Japanese government has reportedly raised no objections to the plan
But Wasserman and others, such as nuclear engineer and activist Arnie Gundersen, are trying desperately to get the UN and leading countries like the U.S. to intervene and not allow the operation to go ahead until a team of the world’s best nuclear engineers are assembled and sent to Japan to assist in this project.
“The bring-down of the fuel rods from Fukushima Unit 4 may be the most dangerous engineering task ever undertaken. Every indication is that TEPCO is completely incapable of doing it safely, or of reliably informing the global community as to what’s actually happening,” said Wasserman. “This is a job that should only be undertaken by a dedicated team of the world’s very best scientists and engineers, with access to all the funding that could be needed.”
On Thursday, activists will go to UN headquarters in New York City to present a petition with the names of more than 100,000 people asking UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to initiate a global takeover of the Fukushima operation. Prior to the presentation, people will gather at 1 p.m. at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza outside the UN.
(Just as this blog was being written, TEPCO reportedly announced on its website that U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz had met with company officials about Fukushima and offered Washington’s assistance in the fuel rod removal operation and decommissioning of the plant. The nature of the assistance was not described.)
It is urgently important that the UN get involved in the Fukushima crisis, as this clearly has world-wide implications. A massive release of radiation into the air, in the event of an accident, affects not only Japan, but everywhere --- just as radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine in 1986 spread around the world. By all estimates, there is real danger of a radiation accident far worse than Chernobyl taking place at Fukushima.
The problems at Fukushima’s unit 4 are by no means the only serious issues at the plant. Some reactors at other units have apparently sunk into the earth, due to the earthquake, posing incalculable health and environmental dangers. Hundreds of tons of water contaminated with radioactive elements, are continuing to leak into the Pacific Ocean, affecting fish and seafood. Bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California have been found to contain radioactive elements, most likely picked up when the migratory fish were in waters close to Japan.
To Wasserman, the situation at Fukushima is beyond dire. “This is a question that transcends being anti-nuclear. The fate of the earth is at stake here and the whole world must be watching every move at that site from now on. With 11,000 fuel rods scattered around the place, as a ceaseless flow of contaminated water poisons our oceans, our very survival is at stake.”