Category Archives: Nuclear

Fukushima residents unsure of return to no-go zone

Fukushima residents unsure of return to no-go zone


Fukushima residents unsure of return to no-go zone

By Yuri Kageyama, The Associated Press

TOMIOKA, Japan – Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.

Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.

Above all, radiation is everywhere.

Fukushima reactor 4
Fukushima’s badly damaged Reactor 4 building

It’s difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the former Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16,000 people to flee, Onuki can’t quite make the psychological break to start anew.

His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.

“They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.”

The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.

Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.

If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($1,000) they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant.

A survey last year found that 16 per cent of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40 per cent had decided never to return, and 43 per cent were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.

Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?

Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said. If he hadn’t evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.

“It is a ridiculous question,” Suzuki said. “We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.”

In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.

The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.

The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as “difficult to return.” They are still enclosed by a barricade.

Yellow designates a “restricted” area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.

The green zones are “in preparations to lift evacuation orders.” They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.

Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.

Fukushima radioactive water crisis returns
The plant faces ongoing issues with water leaks (Kyodo/Reuters)

The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20 millisieverts a year.

The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1 millisievert, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.

In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki’s and Onuki’s homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1 millisievert in a matter of a few hours.

During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.

The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighbourhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.

“The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute,” said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. “We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.”

Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn’t keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn’t bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.

Junji Oshida, 43, whose family ran an upscale restaurant in Tomioka that specialized in eel, was at first devastated that he lost the traditional sauce for the eel that had been passed down over generations.

He has since opened a new restaurant just outside the zone that caters to nuclear cleanup workers. He recreated the sauce and serves pork, which is cheaper than eel. He lives apart from his wife and sons, who are in a Tokyo suburb.

“There is no sense in looking back,” Oshida said, still wearing the eel restaurant’s emblem on his shirt.

Older residents can’t give up so easily, even those who will never be able to return — like Tomioka city assemblyman Seijun Ando, whose home lies in the most irradiated, pink zone.

Ando, 59, said that dividing Tomioka by radiation levels has pitted one group of residents against another, feeding resentment among some. One idea he has is to bring residents from various towns in the no-go zone together to start a new community in another, less radiated part of Fukushima — a place he described as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

“I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots,” said Ando, tears welling up in his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”


Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at

Will thorium save us from climate change?

Will thorium save us from climate change?


Will thorium save us from climate change?

As knowledge about climate change increases, so does demand for clean energy. Technologies like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal and biofuels, along with energy-grid designs that will help us take advantage of renewables, are part of the equation, as is conservation.

But many argue that, despite Fukushima and other disasters, nuclear is the best option to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. Because of problems with radioactive waste, meltdown risks and weapons proliferation, some say we must develop safer nuclear technologies.

Even eminent climate scientists like James Hansen claim we can’t avoid nuclear if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hansen, a former NASA scientist, with Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tom Wigley of Australia’s University of Adelaide, wrote an open letter last year stating, “the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems.”

“Safe” Nuclear: Is there such a thing

What are “safer nuclear power systems”? And are they the answer?

Proposed technologies include smaller modular reactors, reactors that shut down automatically after an accident and molten salt reactors. Some would use fuels and coolants deemed safer. (Industry proponents argue the low incidence of nuclear accidents means current technology is safe enough. But the costs and consequences of an accident, as well as problems such as containing highly radioactive wastes, provide strong arguments against building new reactors with current technology.)

The Thorium option

One idea is to use thorium instead of uranium for reactor fuel. Thorium is more abundant than uranium. Unlike uranium, it’s not fissile; that is, it can’t be split to create a nuclear chain reaction, so it must be bred through nuclear reactors to produce fissile uranium.

Thorium-fuelled reactors produce less waste, and while some trace elements in spent uranium fuels remain radioactive for many thousands of years, levels in spent thorium fuels drop off much faster. China and Canada are working on a modified Canadian design that includes thorium along with recycled uranium fuel. With the right type of reactor, such as this design or the integral fast reactor, meltdown risks are reduced or eliminated.

Thorium can be employed in a variety of reactor types, some of which currently use uranium – including heavy water reactors like Canada’s CANDU. But some experts say new technologies, such as molten salt reactors, including liquid fluoride thorium reactors, are much safer and more efficient than today’s conventional reactors.

So why aren’t we using them?

Thorium’s downsides

Although they may be better than today’s reactors, LFTRs still produce radioactive and corrosive materials, they can be used to produce weapons and we don’t know enough about the impacts of using fluoride salts. Fluoride will contain a nuclear reaction, but it can be highly toxic, and deadly as fluorine gas. And though the technology’s been around since the 1950s, it hasn’t been proven on a commercial scale. Countries including the U.S., China, France and Russia are pursuing it, but in 2010 the U.K.’s National Nuclear Laboratory reported that thorium claims are “overstated”.

It will also take a lot of time and money to get a large number of reactors on-stream – some say from 30 to 50 years. Given the urgent challenge of global warming, we don’t have that much time. Many argue that if renewables received the same level of government subsidies as the nuclear industry, we’d be ahead at lower costs. Thorium essentially just adds another fuel option to the nuclear mix and isn’t a significant departure from conventional nuclear. All nuclear power remains expensive, unwieldy and difficult to integrate with intermittent renewables – and carries risks for weapons proliferation.

Renewable energy still the best option

If the choice is between keeping nuclear power facilities running or shutting them down and replacing them with coal-fired power plants, the nuclear option is best for the climate. But, for now, investing in renewable energy and smart-grid technologies is a faster, more cost-effective and safer option than building new nuclear facilities, regardless of type.

That doesn’t mean we should curtail research into nuclear and other options, including thorium’s potential to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear facilities. But we must also build on the momentum of renewable energy development, which has been spurred by its safety, declining costs and proven effectiveness.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. 

David Suzuki-Citizens asked to help with Fukushima radiation research

David Suzuki: Citizens asked to help with Fukushima radiation research


David Suzuki-Citizens asked to help with Fukushima radiation research

An Internet search turns up an astounding number of pages about radiation from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown that followed an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. But it’s difficult to find credible information.

One reason is that government monitoring of radiation and its effects on fish stocks appears to be limited. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

[quote]No U.S. government or international agency is monitoring the spread of low levels of radiation from Fukushima along the West Coast of North America and around the Hawaiian Islands.[/quote]

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s most recent food testing, which includes seafood, appears to be from June 2012. Its website states, “FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern. This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States.”

Does Fukushima threaten our health through contaminated fish?
Are Tuna and other fish contaminated with radiation?

The non-profit Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation has been monitoring Pacific troll-caught albacore tuna off the B.C. coast. Its 2013 sampling found “no residues detected at the lowest detection limits achievable.” The B.C. Centre for Disease Control website assures us we have little cause for concern about radiation from Japan in our food and environment. Websites for Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency yield scant information.

Not out of the woods yet

Fukushima reactor 4
1,500 spent fuel rods are being removed  from Fukushima Reactor 4

But the disaster isn’t over. Despite the Japanese government’s claim that everything is under control, concerns have been raised about the delicate process of removing more than 1,500 nuclear fuel rod sets, each containing 60 to 80 fuel rods with a total of about 400 tonnes of uranium, from Reactor 4 to a safer location, which is expected to take a year. Some, including me, have speculated another major earthquake could spark a new disaster. And Reactors 1, 2 and 3 still have tonnes of molten radioactive fuel that must be cooled with a constant flow of water.

A radioactive plume is expected to reach the West Coast sometime this year, but experts say it will be diluted by currents off Japan’s east coast and, according to the Live Science website:

[quote]The majority of the cesium-137 will remain in the North Pacific gyre – a region of ocean that circulates slowly clockwise and has trapped debris in its center to form the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – and continue to be diluted for approximately a decade following the initial Fukushima release in 2011.[/quote]

Oceanographic Institution calls for public’s help

With the lack of data from government, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is asking the public for help. In January, Ken Buesseler, senior scientist and director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity at the U.S.-based non-profit, launched a fundraising campaign and citizen science website to collect and analyze seawater along North America’s West Coast.

“Whether you agree with predictions that levels of radiation along the Pacific Coast of North America will be too low to be of human health concern or to impact fisheries and marine life, we can all agree that radiation should be monitored, and we are asking for your help to make that happen,” Buesseler said in a news release.

British Columbians can submit coastal water samples

water samplingParticipants can help fund and propose new sites for seawater sampling, and collect seawater to ship to the lab for analysis. The David Suzuki Foundation is the point group for two sampling sites, on Haida Gwaii and at Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Data will be published at How Radioactive Is Our Ocean?, and will include an evolving map showing cesium concentrations with links to information about radioactivity in the ocean and what the levels mean.

The oceans contain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes and radiation from 1960s nuclear testing. Buesseler doesn’t think levels in the ocean or seafood will become dangerously high because of the Fukushima disaster, but he stresses the importance of monitoring.

The Fukushima disaster was a wake-up call for the potential dangers of nuclear power plants, especially in unstable areas. North Americans may have little cause for concern for now, but without good scientific information to determine whether or not it is affecting our food and environment we can’t know for sure. The Woods Hole initiative is a good start.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Researchers tackle fracking radiation

Researchers tackle fracking radiation

Researchers tackle fracking radiation
Wastewater from fracking can contain high levels of radiation (photo: J Henry Fair)

by Ramit Plushnick-Masti, The Associated Press

HOUSTON – Researchers believe they have found an unlikely way to decrease the radioactivity of some hydraulic fracturing wastewater: Mix it with the hazardous drainage from mining operations.

The wastewater is created when some of the chemical-laced water used to fracture thick underground rocks flows back out of the wellbore. The water is tainted with chemicals, toxins and in some parts of the country — such as Pennsylvania — naturally occurring radioactive materials, such as radium. Research has shown that even wastewater that had been treated with conventional means was changing the chemistry of rivers when discharged into waterways.

In 2011, Pennsylvania barred drillers from taking the wastewater to treatment facilities, forcing them to haul the fluid waste to be disposed in underground injection wells in Ohio. This, along with a lack of freshwater in other parts of the country needed to drill new wells, has scientists and the industry looking for creative solutions.

Mining waste and fracking radiation – an unlikely marriage

The discovery by Duke University researchers would allow oil and gas drillers to combine flowback waters from the fracking process with acid drainage from mining, or any other salty water. The solids that form, which include radioactive materials, are removed and dumped at a hazardous waste landfill, and then the now cleaner water is used to drill a new well, said Avner Vengosh, the Duke professor who oversaw the project, which included scientists from Dartmouth College and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

The metals and radium in the drilling wastewater automatically attract to sulfates — or salts, he explained.

“It’s a romance. It’s inevitable it will combine,” said Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality.

The research was primarily funded by Duke University, Vengosh said. One of the scientists had some funding from the National Science Foundation, he added.

Vengosh’s research was published in December in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, but still needs to be field tested, he said.

Finding solutions for safely dealing with contaminated water and having enough usable water to drill new wells is crucial for the oil and gas industry. It has booming in recent years due to new methods of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — a method that uses millions of gallons of chemical-laced water to crack thick layers of underground rock so fossil fuels can flow out.

But as drilling spreads to more areas the industry has faced obstacles. In the gas-rich Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania, wastewater disposal is problematic. In drought-prone areas, such as Texas and California, drillers face a shortage of freshwater. As a result, the industry is seeking to recycle wastewater.

Vengosh’s researchers blended fracking wastewater from the Marcellus shale with acid drainage from mines, materials collected in western Pennsylvania by the industry. The researchers had hypothesized that the salts, metals and radium would combine so they could be removed as solids, leaving behind water clean enough to be used in another fracking operation, though not quite pure enough to be potable.

After two days, they examined the chemical and radioactive levels of the 26 different mixtures they had created and found that within the first 10 hours the metals — including iron, barium and strontium — and most of the radium had combined to form a new solid. The salinity of the remaining fluid had reduced enough to be used in fracking, Vengosh said.

“I’m not sure it resolves all the problems, but it can have some improvement,” Vengosh said.

Texas facing its own water issues from fracking

Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which represents drillers in an oil-rich, desert-like area of West Texas, said maximizing water use is a top priority for the industry.

“Those of us who live, work and play near oil and gas activities place a premium on efficient water uses,” he said in an email.

But Tad Patzek, chairman and professor of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Texas in Austin, cautioned that the method could present problems in the field. The remaining water would still be jam-packed with chemicals and toxins, he noted.

“That water can get spilled,” Patzek said. “That water can get into a shallow aquifer. There are many other considerations.”

Still, freshwater and wastewater are such serious issues that Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of the University of Houston’s geosciences program, said researchers are seeking solutions on several fronts: by recycling flowback water, by creating ways to use less water to begin with or by using a liquid other than water to crack the rock.

Texas doesn’t have acid mine waste, an environmental threat to the Appalachian basin, to mix with the fracking fluids, but the method could be applied in the Lone Star state differently, Van Nieuwenhuise noted. The contaminated drilling water could be mixed with fluids from brine aquifers that are too salty to be used as drinking water, he said.

“This is novel. It’s a really neat idea,” he said, adding that solid waste is safer than liquid and the amount created in this process would be manageable.

Fracking, dead cows and radiation

Fracking, dead cows and…RADIATION?

Fracking, dead cows and radiation
Alberta cattle rancher Howard Hawkwood (photo courtesy of Green Planet Monitor)

Alberta cattle rancher Howard Hawkwood has a beef with the local fracking industry. He’s convinced the controversial technique for gas extraction is responsible for killing off 18 of his cows and large swaths of his property near Airdrie, Alberta.

An online radio program released today contains some shocking allegations of impacts of fracking on the ranch Hawkwood runs with his wife Nielle, a half hour drive northwest of Calgary. Nielle has recently lost some of her hair and the Hawkwoods have seen 10 percent of their cattle herd die from a mysterious illness they believe is connected to fracking and related radiation.

The revelation comes on the heels of evidence south of the border suggesting that the process of drilling deep underground and cracking open shale formations to extract gas is also dredging up  naturally occurring radiation and pulling it to the surface.

Dead spots, dead cows

Howard describes their experience to program host David Kattenberg of the Green Planet Monitor – including 1-2 acres of dead patches on their farm, which tests reveal contain alarming levels of radioactivity. (Listen to the full program here – Howard’s interview begins at the 19 min mark)

“Towards calving season, we noticed some cows weren’t doing that great…Then all the sudden these cows started to crash – they would go down and they wouldn’t get up,” Hawkwood explains. “We did blood testing on these cows and we found out the sodium and the chlorides were out of balance, so I asked the veterinarian, ‘So, what do we do?’. And the vet did some research and we don’t know. We don’t know how to handle this.”

Hawkwood goes on to describe the series of dead patches that have sprung up after fracking activities began near his ranch.

[quote]These are the dead spots in the field, where my cows have urinated. This all showed up last spring…We’ve actually taken soil samples of the dead spot and a sample from a foot and a half away and we’ve got high levels of radon, barium, uranium, strontium, and magnesium is extremely high.[/quote]

“This spot here has never changed,” Hawkwood explains. “It’s been here since June. It’s dead. And I estimate that on my entire ranch I’ve maybe lost 1-2 acres of land due to this. Really, nothing grows…Nothing will germinate in that soil.”

“And you think this has got to do with the fracking?” asks the show’s host.

“Oh, I think so. Definitely. Because the cows have been drinking out of my well water, and the chemicals or whatever’s in there – we don’t know what’s in there, they won’t tell us – and it’s killed this.”

Radioactive fracking in Pennsylvania

This is not the first time hydraulic fracturing has been tied to radiation. Just last month, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found radioactive water connected fracking operations in Pennsylvania. According to a Bloomberg story on the subject:

[quote]Naturally occurring radiation brought to the surface by gas drillers has been detected in a Pennsylvania creek that flows into the Allegheny River, illustrating the risks of wastewater disposal from the boom in hydraulic fracturing.[/quote]

Speak no evil

Mr. Hawkwood believes many other ranchers are experiencing similar issues, but are afraid to speak out – some because of non-disclosure agreements they’ve signed with the industry.

[quote]The other ranchers are experiencing the same thing but they don’t want to come forward, because they don’t want to create a problem. Or they have oil and gas on their property and they’ve had to sign non-disclosure agreements. One fellow told me that if he does a cow problem, he phones them and he’s got a cheque in the mail – as long as he doesn’t speak up.[/quote]

Hawkwood appears to be the exception to the rule. He’s reached his boiling point of late and has some strong words for government regulators he feels are letting down families like his.

Something has got to change

After showing host Kattenberg a 4-year-old cow  who died the previous night, Hawkwood declares, “I am totally – maybe I shouldn’t say this – pissed off with our government.” Hawkwood continues:

[quote]Governments are supposed to protect us…and when this cow dies, and the number of cows I’ve lost and  hear about other farmers and ranchers who’ve had the same experience and the same problem…now, if this keeps up and it’s going to create more problems, we’re not even going to have a cattle herd. It is a real nightmare in this province and in this country…and something has to change.[/quote]

Hawkwood is calling for a shale gas moratorium – such as was recently passed in Newfoundland – “until we can find a way to do this safely.”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring British Columbia, a leaked government memo sparked controversy yesterday for its discussion of gutting of the 40-year-old Agricultural Land Reserve in order to prioritize gas development.

Nuclear plant spills chemicals into Bay of Fundy

Nuclear plant spills chemicals into Bay of Fundy

Nuclear plant spills chemicals into Bay of Fundy
New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau nuclear plant

LEPREAU, N.B. – NB Power says the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant recently released water containing low levels of a chemical used in its steam generators into the Bay of Fundy.

The provincial Crown utility says the release of hydrazine occurred Sunday from a valve located on the non-nuclear side of the station.

NB Power says the release was contained and subsequent testing on Monday showed the chemical had dissipated to levels below detection.

The company says the release won’t harm marine life or ecological systems and nobody was injured.

Hydrazine is used to remove the oxygen from the water in the plant’s steam generators and helps protect tubes from corrosion.

Claire Harris, manager of health, safety and environment at Point Lepreau, said when the valve malfunctioned, the liquid containing hydrazine flowed into the Bay of Fundy rather than to a treatment system.

When employees conducted tests in the area of the spill, they found the concentration of hydrazine was less than one part per million of the water samples taken, she said.

Utility downplays risk

“The concentrations we’re talking about are not considered toxic,” said Harris. “It amounts in laymen’s terms to one drop of water in a 40-gallon drum.”

She said a team is still evaluating precisely how much of the liquid was released.

NB Power says it is continuing to monitor the spill area and has reported the incident to the Canadian Coast Guard and the provincial Environment Department. The company has repaired the broken valve.

“This was brought about by a small relief valve that failed as part of our startup processes,” said Harris.

[quote]From time to time we’re going to see equipment failure and we want to make sure we learn from this.[/quote]

It’s not the first time hydrazine has been released at the plant. In December 2011, water laced with hydrazine was released by accident into the Bay of Fundy.

Kathleen Duguay, a spokeswoman for NB Power, says that earlier incident was different and links should not be drawn between them. She said the first leak was caused by a drum that overflowed rather than by a piece of broken equipment.

Fukushima reactor 4

Japan to remove perilous Fukushima nuclear fuel rods

Fukushima reactor 4
1,500 spent fuel rods remain precariously perched atop the badly damaged Fukushima Reactor 4

TOKYO – Japanese regulators on Wednesday gave final approval for removing fuel rods from an uncontained cooling pool at a damaged reactor building considered the highest risk at a crippled nuclear plant.

Removal of fuel rods from the Unit 4 cooling pool is a first step in decommissioning the plant where three reactors melted down after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, a process expected to last decades.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said at its weekly meeting the proposal by the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., is appropriate and the removal can start in November as planned.

The Unit 4 reactor was offline when the Fukushima Daiichi plant was hit by the disasters, but the building was damaged by hydrogen explosions and fire.

TEPCO has reinforced the structure and says the building can survive a major quake, but the unit’s unenclosed pool containing 1,533 fuel rods has caused international concern.

The company has prepared a massive, steel structure that comes with a remote-controlled crane to remove fuel rods, which would be placed into a protective cask and transferred to a joint cooling pool inside a nearby building, which is much lower and considered safer.

The Fukushima plant has had a series of mishaps in recent months, including radioactive contaminated water leaks from storage tanks, adding to concerns about TEPCO’s ability to safely close down the plant.

Read The Common Sense Canadian story “Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about” for a comprehensive account of the risks of these 1,500 spent fuel rods pose.

Ex-Japanese PM speaks out on Fukushima, risks of nuclear power

Ex-Japanese PM calls for end to nuclear power following Fukushima

Ex-Japanese PM speaks out on Fukushima, risks of nuclear power
Naoto Kan testifying at a Japanese hearing to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2010-2011) addresses the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis which happened on his watch. While his decision to continue propping up the grossly negligent Tokyo Electric Power Company is disappointing, his bold vision for an end to nuclear power should be a clarion call for the world’s nuclear powers.

The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was the most severe accident in the history of mankind. At Unit 1, the fuel rods melted down in about five hours after the earthquake, and molten fuel breached and melted through the reactor pressure vessel. Meltdowns occurred in Units 2 and 3 within one hundred hours of the accident. At around the same time, hydrogen-air blasted in the reactor buildings of Units 1, 3 and 4.

Worst-case scenario: 50 million evacuated

Fukushima reactor 4
1,500 spent fuel rods remain precariously perched atop Reactor 4

Each reactor building contains a fuel pool to store spent fuel. At one point, there was a possibility of meltdowns in those fuel pools as well. If a meltdown occurs in a fuel pool, which sits outside a reactor, a tremendous amount of radioactive material would be released directly into the atmosphere.

The continuation of such a release could mean the realization of the worst-case scenario: a situation where 50 million people within a 250-kilometer radius of Fukushima, including Tokyo and its greater metropolitan area, would have to be evacuated.

[quote]The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was the most severe accident in the history of mankind.[/quote]

Fortunately, the situation was prevented from developing further thanks to the tireless self-sacrificing efforts of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the Self Defense Forces, the firefighters and the police force to supply cooling water into the reactors and the fuel pools. Indeed, we were so close to seeing the worst-case scenario unfold. Had it reached the worst-case scenario, Japan would have had to suffer from long-term chaos and the tremendous amount of radioactive material released would have impacted other nations as well.

Kan does 180 on nuclear power

Before the Fukushima accident, with the belief that no nuclear accident would happen as long as the safety measures were followed properly, I had pushed the policy of utilizing nuclear power. Having faced the real accident as Prime Minister, and having experienced the situation which came so close to requiring me to order the evacuation of 50 million people, my view is now changed 180 degrees. Although some airplane crashes may claim hundreds of casualties, there are no other events except for wars that would require the evacuation of tens of millions of people.

Avoiding accidents “technically impossible”

In spite of the various measures taken in order to prevent accidents, it is technically impossible to eliminate accidents, especially if human factors such as terrorism are taken into account. Actually, it is not all that difficult to eliminate nuclear power plant accidents. All we need to do is to eliminate nuclear power plants themselves. And that resolution lies in the hands of the citizens.

[quote]It is not all that difficult to eliminate nuclear power plant accidents. All we need to do is to eliminate nuclear power plants themselves.[/quote]

There is another issue. Operating nuclear power plants means creating spent nuclear fuel. It takes enormous amounts of money and time to deal with nuclear waste. What this means is that we are leaving the huge problem of nuclear waste for future generations to care for. There is no other way but to go down in the path toward achieving zero nuclear power, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

The ability to exterminate ourselves

We humans have created nuclear weapons that have the ability to exterminate ourselves – it’s a fundamental paradox of our existence. People have done many things to prevent nuclear wars. One of the examples is The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. On the other hand, rules governing nuclear power plants, except for the ones that prohibit the use of nuclear material for military purposes, are basically left to each nation.

If international rules govern nuclear war, why not power plants?

I believe that we need to have international rules regarding the construction of nuclear power plants, too. Nuclear accidents will happen sometime, somewhere, even though no one can predict when or where. Can we prevent the disastrous situation of forcing many people to evacuate when an accident happens? Is it possible to safely treat nuclear waste? We need international rules to address these concerns.

Healthy energy alternatives exist

Chinese solar
China leads the world in renewable energy investments

It is possible for mankind to get enough energy without relying on nuclear power – by using natural energy such as solar, wind, and biomass. To help curb global warming, we need to stop the use of not only nuclear power but also fossil fuels. If all nations make serious efforts to develop new technologies, I believe it’s more than possible that in fifty years we mankind will have all our energy needs met entirely by natural energy.

[quote]I believe it’s more than possible that in fifty years we mankind will have all our energy needs met entirely by natural energy.[/quote]

For the sake of the human race and of our planet earth, the desirable path is for the entire world to walk in the direction of zero nuclear reliance. I have become firmly convinced of that.

Translated by Junko Abe 

Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say eating West Coast fish is safe

Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say West Coast fish is safe


Despite Fukushima radiation, scientists say eating West Coast fish is safe

Following Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, fear spread about risks of leaked radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – for the health of those living in or near Fukushima or involved in cleanup efforts, and for the planet and the potential impacts on our complex marine food web.

Shunichi Tanaka, head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, told reporters radioactive water has likely been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster hit. It’s the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to one report. With 300 tonnes of contaminated water pouring into the sea every day, Japan’s government finally acknowledged the urgency of the situation in September.

[quote]I’m taking a precautionary approach: fish will stay part of my diet, as long as they’re caught locally and sustainably, and will remain so until new research gives me pause to reconsider.[/quote]

Social media is now abuzz with people swearing off fish from the Pacific Ocean. Given the lack of information around containment efforts, some may find this reasonable. But preliminary research shows fish caught off Canada’s Pacific Coast are safe to eat.

Fish testing shows low radiation levels so far

It will take about three years from the time of the incident for Fukushima’s radiation plume to reach the West Coast, which would be early next year. Recent testing of migratory fish, including tissue samples collected from Pacific bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, assessed radiation levels and potential effects on marine food webs far away from Japan. Trace amounts of radioisotopes from the Fukushima plant were found, although the best available science puts them at levels below those naturally occurring in the environment around us. Natural, or background radiation, is found in many sources, including food items, medical treatments and air travel.

The most comprehensive health assessment, by the World Health Organization, concludes radioactive particles that make their way to North America’s waters will have a limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels.

More reports are in the works. The UN agency charged with assessing global levels and consequences of ionizing radiation will present its findings to the UN General Assembly this month. This is where we may find answers about the amount of radioactive material released, how it was dispersed and any repercussions for the environment and food sources.

Fukushima radiation diluted by currents

The ocean is vast and dynamic with many complexities we don’t fully understand. It appears two currents off Japan’s coast — the Kuroshio Current and Kurushio Extension — diluted radioactive material to below WHO safety levels within the first four months of the disaster. Eddies and giant whirlpools, some tens of kilometres wide, continue the dilution and will direct radioactive particles to coastal areas for at least two decades.

Fish from the water near the crippled plant are not faring so well. High levels of cesium-134, a radioactive isotope that decays rapidly, were found in fish samples there. Radiation levels in the sea around Japan have been holding steady and not falling as expected, further demonstrating that radiation leakage is not under control. At least 42 fish species from the immediate area are considered unsafe for consumption, and fisheries there remain closed.

New concerns from continued leaks

New concerns continue to arise. While the initial leak contained cesium isotopes, water flowing into the ocean from the plant now appears to be higher in strontium-90, a radioactive substance that is absorbed differently. While cesium tends to go in and out of the body quickly, strontium heads for the bones.

A huge accumulation of radioactive water at the plant must be dealt with immediately. Determining the full effects of years of exposure to lower levels of radioactive contamination leaking into the ocean will take time and require continued monitoring and assessment. While Health Canada monitors radionuclide levels in food sold in Canada, and one of its studies incorporates samples from Vancouver, we need to remain vigilant and demand timely monitoring results.

Any amount of leaked radiation is harmful to the planet and the health of all species, including humans. A major release of radioactivity, such as that from Fukushima, is a huge concern, with unknowns remaining around long-term health risks such as cancers.

That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat all fish caught on the Pacific West Coast. I’m taking a precautionary approach: fish will stay part of my diet, as long as they’re caught locally and sustainably, and will remain so until new research gives me pause to reconsider.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Theresa Beer.


Fukushima Crisis: At least the world is finally paying attention

Japan’s Fukushima radiation crisis: a Good News/Bad News story

Fukushima Crisis: At least the world is finally paying attention
Fukushima’s crippled Reactor 4, which contains 1,500 precariously-perched, radioactive fuel rods

Addiction experts say the first step toward recovery is recognizing you have a problem.

In that sense, perhaps we’re finally making some progress on what may be the greatest single threat humanity has ever faced: the nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

In recent months – partly driven by fresh concerns about radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean and drifting toward North America’s shores – the media and governments beyond Japan have started to pay attention.

Worst-case scenario concerns surrounding Fukushima have moved from the realm of tin foil hats to accepted reality. The trouble is the science is scarce and much of what little information we do have comes via TEPCO – the private company at the root of the disaster – whose data has been openly questioned by Japan’s nuclear regulator.

As a result of this increased scrutiny, I expect we’ll soon see a crisis management overhaul, with international agencies becoming more involved, while TEPCO receives greater oversight or cedes operational control to the Japanese Government (though there’s a running debate as to who has screwed up worse, TEPCO or the government).

Under the glare of the TV lights, we’re now seeing a heightened urgency in developing and implementing the long-term fixes needed to stem a potential nuclear armageddon.

All this is relatively good news.

The bad news: it’s still the greatest single threat humanity has ever faced. And we’re a long, long way from being out of the woods.

Chernobyl x 10

I first wrote about the crux of the problem 2 years ago in a story titled, “Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about”.

Yet, as was the point of my piece, the mainstream media and political establishment simply weren’t talking about it, leaving TEPCO – the inept, fraudulent private company that created this debacle – to manage and botch the emergency response. (These are the geniuses who put the back-up generators needed for cooling radioactive fuel on the ground floor of nuclear reactors in Tsunami Alley).

At the time, US Senator Ron Wyden and a pair of former Japanese diplomats were about the only political figures raising the spectre of Fukushima.

In a nutshell, they warned there are some 1,500 highly radioactive, spent fuel rods being stored atop the badly damaged Reactor 4 in cooling tanks that could easily crack, should another sizeable earthquake hit. The rods would quickly overheat, exploding gazillions of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, eventually coating the globe with more radiation than we could ever fathom.

A former top advisor at the US Department of Energy, Dr. Robert Alvarez, explained the nature of the threat after conducting his own review of the Fukushima situation: “If an earthquake or other event were to cause this [No. 4] pool to drain this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident.” (emphasis added)

Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland and Senegal, Mitsuhei Murata, wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

[quote]It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.[/quote]

So all that stands between us and an unimaginable cataclysm is an earthquake. In one of the world’s most seismically active regions.

Polluting the Pacific

Another, more immediate problem would emerge – radioactive water seeping (gushing of late) from the plant into the Pacific Ocean.

Fukushima radioactive water crisis returns
Radioactive water is leaking from these containment tanks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant (Kyodo/Reuters)

This issue is related with the seismic one in several ways. First, this radioactive water is likely flowing from one or a number of steel tanks holding water used to cool melted nuclear fuel. Another earthquake, should it cause any of the 1,060 metal tanks to burst, would lead to a significant infusion of contamination into the Pacific.

Of more immediate concern is the liquefaction occurring beneath the plant as a result of TEPCO’s crude efforts to bar the radioactive water from entering the ocean. The company has built a subsurface barrier – using chemicals to solidify the ground  and block the flow of groundwater – with the unintended consequence of saturating and destabilizing the ground upon which the hobbled Reactor 4 and others teeter.

It is largely this issue that has woken up the world’s media and political leaders in recent months. Suddenly, we’ve seen a torrent of investigative journalism on the subject – from National Geographic  to Japan’s national papers, The Washington PostGuardian, CNN and wire services like Bloomberg and Reuters. The Chinese Government has been weighing in, expressing shock at the inadequate response by its neighbour’s leaders.

Suddenly, everyone is paying attention.

The International Olympic Committee is rather an anomaly in not being phased by the the increasingly alarming situation at Fukushima – having just awarded 2020 Games to Tokyo.

Radioactive fish

Questions about the health of fish caught in the Pacific Ocean have begun to surface – while South Korea recently took the significant step of banning the import of fish from the Fukushima region of Japan.

These are hardly idle concerns. Last year, Stanford University researchers found 15 out of 15 bluefin tuna they caught off the coast of California tested positive for elevated levels of cesium-134 and cesium-137.


Both Tepco and Japan’s political leaders face intensifying scrutiny for their respective roles in the initial disaster and its aftermath.

Just last week, in response to heightened pressure around this issue, the Japanese Government stepped up, pledging to invest close to half a billion dollars to build a 27 meter-deep frozen wall to hold back contaminated water ,while maintaining (we hope) some structural integrity to the soil below the plant.

It may prove a harebrained scheme, reminiscent of BP’s increasingly comical tactics in an attempt to stem the flow of its Deepwater Horizon well blow-out (remember the golf balls?). But I’ll take the Japanese Government getting off its ass as a generally positive sign.

Heads rolling, things changing

Fukushima has already brought down one government and countless officials in Japan. The prime minister who presided over the initial disaster and recovery efforts, Naoto Kan, recently dodged criminal charges stemming from Fukushima, as did other senior politicians and TEPCO officials. That doesn’t mean they’ll evade the raft of civil suits headed their way.

Shinzo Abe
PM Shizo Abe is talking tough on Fukushima – will it translate into action? (photo: Tokyo Times)

It’s an ongoing debate as to which entity is more to blame for the disaster – TEPCO or the Japanese Government. Of late, the scales of public disapproval are tipping in the direction of the Abe administration. A recent poll by Asahi News found that 72% of Japanese people believe the government’s response to recent concerns of leaking water was “late”.

But, again, thanks to this heightened pressure, things seem to be changing – and quickly.

As of now, Tepco is still in charge of the clean-up and decomissioning operation (if you can call it that in their hands) – but just this week, the Japanese Government announced it is striking a special team to oversee these efforts going forward, a welcome development so long as it follows through in a meaningful way.

Prime Minster Abe is certainly signing a different tune from his predecessor, calling into question TEPCO’S future management of the situation:

[quote]Instead of the ad hoc approaches that have been taken in the past, we put together a basic policy today that will offer a fundamental solution to the problem of contaminated water. The world is closely watching to see whether the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, including the contaminated water problem, can be achieved.[/quote]

In June, the Abe government announced it was speeding up efforts to remove those scary spent fuel rods atop Reactor 4 – perhaps the best news yet on the Fukushima file.

Light at the end of a very long tunnel…if we’re lucky

Part of the problem underlying the slow response to this enormous threat may be that it’s just too awful to contemplate. Makes for bad cocktail conversation. Really, who wants to discuss the nut-and-bolts of a situation that could be 10 times worse than Chernobyl? And even if we do talk about it, what can we do?

On the other hand, perhaps talking about it is the most valuable thing us regular folks can do. It’s through this pressure – much of which has built through independent media, grassroots groups, and concerned citizens – that Japan is starting to look alive in their response.

Yet, despite Prime Minister Abe’s assurances that the crisis will be resolved by the 2020 Olympics, experts warn that a successful decomissioning of the site will likely take decadesif we can get over the intial danger posed by the water leaks and unstable fuel rods.

Complicating decommissioning efforts  is the high level of radiation around the plant (which recently spiked) – making it dangerous for workers to spend much time on site, even with state-of-the-art safety gear.

If we’re lucky, this will evolve into a long emergency that takes 40 years or more to resolve.

At Chernbobyl, they burried the problem – literally – in a massive concrete sarcophagus (which is now due for a rebuild, as it turns out). With Fukushima’s proximity to the ocean and strong movement of groundwater beneath, it’s like having a trap-door under the tomb – so Fukushima will be far more complicated.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – to some extent at least – with enough political will, technical and financial dedication.

Time for other leaders to step up

Given the global consequences if Fukushima continues to spin out of control – and the magnitude of the engineering feat required to prevent that from happening – we need proactive leadership from beyond Japan. What role did Fukushima play in the recent G20 talks compared to, say, Syria?

In Canada, we need to see some serious action from Prime Minister Stephen Harper – in terms of joining the chorus of international leaders pressuring Japan, but also offering support wherever possible.

On the homefront, it’s time to get serious about the possible health impacts for Canadians. Instead, we’re headed in the opposite direction, scaling back ocean pollution monitoring – one piece of a larger war on science being waged by Canada’s Conservative Government.

Even the BC public health officer overseeing concerns about Fukushima – who has warned that fears about fish contaminated by Fukushima are overblown – is now asking the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to conduct another round of testing.

The public needs to know that our governments are taking this issue seriously – and their “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to date is insufficient.

It’s a start

Even if Canada isn’t taking Fukushima seriously, others are starting to. The Olympics may be a positive motivator too, as they raise the stakes and international pressure on Japan to get the situation under control.

And compared to two years ago, the amount of media attention – from the world’s top outlets – is a welcome change.

In the end, our fate depends at least partly on luck. Can we move quickly enough to address the biggest single challenge in our history, before what would be the most devastating earthquake of all-time? (I say “we” because we all need to start thinking that way, as a global community facing a common threat).

At least, with this heightened sense of awareness, urgency and action, we can say our odds are improving.