The badly damaged reactor 4 building, with its exposed spent fuel ponds, at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about


“It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.”
-Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

It’s the most important story nobody’s talking about: the continued dire situation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, ravaged by a massive earthquake and Tsunami last March.

Judging by the official position of the Japanese Government – which maintains the worst of the catastrophe has passed, declaring the plant now “stable” – and drying up of mainstream media coverage, it’s easy to see how most of the world has been lulled into a false sense of security about Fukushima.

But in recent months, increasingly troubling reports from high-ranking Japanese and American politicians, diplomats and nuclear experts have been trickling into the blogosphere and alternate media like the irradiated water still seeping from the plant into the Pacific Ocean. They suggest, in a nutshell, that were another decent-sized earthquake to hit the stricken plant before thousands of highly radioactive spent fuel rods are properly secured, we could see the explosion and diffusion into the North Pacific’s winds and ocean currents of 10 times the radioactive material emitted by the Chernobyl disaster – rendering much of Asia, North America and many other corners of the globe uninhabitable for centuries.

No wonder no one wants to talk about this stuff! 

The force of such warnings has been muted by the fact that most of these alarms are being sounded by relatively fringe politicos and individuals associated with the anti-nuclear movement – albeit highly respected in their respective fields – and carried largely by alternate media sites.

But that has begun to change. This past week, one of Canada’s largest media outlets, CTV News, carried a story titled, “Fukushima Reactor 4 Poses Massive Global Risk”, which echoed many of the concerns being raised through other channels. If you read one depressing thing this week, make it this story.

Here’s how CTV describes the situation, citing renowned nuclear expert and activist Arnie Gundersen:

Reactor 4 – and to a lesser extent Reactor 3 – still hold large quantities of cooling waters surrounding spent nuclear fuel, all bound by a fragile concrete pool located 30 metres above the ground, and exposed to the elements. A magnitude 7 or 7.5 earthquake would likely fracture that pool, and disaster would ensue, says Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Energy Education who has visited the site.

The 1,535 spent fuel rods would become exposed to the air and would likely catch fire, with the most-recently added fuel rods igniting first.

The incredible heat generated from that blaze, Gundersen said, could then ignite the older fuel in the cooling pool, causing a massive oxygen-eating radiological fire that could not be extinguished with water.

“So the fear is the newest fuel could begin to burn and then we’d have a conflagration of the whole pool because it would become hotter and hotter. The health consequences of that are beyond where science has ever gone before,” Gundersen told in an interview from his home in Vermont…

…Highly radioactive cesium and strontium isotopes would likely go airborne and “volatilize” — turning into a vapour that could move with the wind, potentially travelling thousands of kilometres from the source.

The size of those particles would determine whether they remained in Japan, or made their way to the rest of Asia and other continents.

“And here’s where there’s no science because no one’s ever dared to attempt the experiment,” Gundersen said. “If it flies far enough it goes around the world, if the particles stay a little bigger, they settle in Japan. Either is awful.”

Essentially, he said, Japan is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Gundersen is far from the only nuclear expert or public figure who has been raising these concerns. A veteran US Senator from Oregon, Ron Wyden – who recently visited Fukushima – and a couple of Japanese diplomats have also been raising alarm bells.

Reuters reported last month on Wyden’s Fukushima tour:

Japan, with assistance from the U.S. government, needs to do more to move spent fuel rods out of harm’s way at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden on Monday.

Wyden, a senior Democratic senator on the Senate Energy committee, toured the ruined Fukushima plant on April 6, and said the damage was far worse than he expected.

“Seeing the extent of the disaster first-hand during my visit conveyed the magnitude of this tragedy and the continuing risks and challenges in a way that news accounts cannot,” said Wyden in a letter to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States…

…Wyden said he was most worried about spent fuel rods stored in damaged pools adjacent to the ocean, and urged the Japanese government to accept international help to prevent further release of the radioactive material if another earthquake should happen.

The senator expressed concern on his website that all that was standing between the spent fuel ponds and another Tsunami was “a small, makeshift sea wall erected out of bags of rock.” Wyden called for the spent fuel rods to be moved to safe storage sooner than the 10-year time frame laid out by the Japanese Government under its Fukushima remediation plan.

Dr. Robert Alvarez, a former top advisor at the US Department of Energy, confirmed the fears of Wyden and Gundersen when asked by Japanese diplomat Akio Matsumura to review the situation at Fukushima. Alvarez responded:

The No. 4 pool is about 100 feet above ground, is structurally damaged and is exposed to the open elements. If an earthquake or other event were to cause this 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)

Another Japanese diplomat, former Ambassador to Switzerland and Senegal Mitsuhei Murata has also joined the chorus of concern over reactor 4, writing in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.” (emphasis added)

Experts in communicating environmental themes to the broader public tend to stress the importance of providing people with hope and tangible actions they can take to help resolve the issue at hand. Perhaps that’s one reason I’ve resisted covering this story up until now. I confess, every time I read about the dire situation at Fukushima, I can’t help but feel depressed and powerless to affect a situation that threatens to destroy everything I hold dear: my wild salmon and marine ecosystems, my coastal home, the health and welfare of my family and community, my whole country and the very planet as I know it. If we take to heart the warnings of people like Senator Wyden, Dr. Alvarez, Ambassador Mistuhei – or even if at minimum we apply the Precautionary Principle to the situation, which seems well-warranted – then we have to acknowledge the very real possibility that nothing short of the fate of human civilization and the natural world hang on the teetering frame of Reactor 4.

Is that melodramatic? So what if these fears prove overblown in the end? This is one situation where I don’t mind being labelled a Chicken Little, for the chance that the danger was real and my actions helped in some way to mitigate it.

By all accounts, solving the problem is an extraordinary undertaking requiring enormous funding, highly specialized equipment and incomprehensible danger for the brave Japanese workers required to carry out the job. Which is why the International Community – and Ron Wyden’s own government, who have yet to act on his concerns – must heed these calls to get off their butts and start pitching in. Of course, that requires Japan’s acknowledgement of the problem and receptiveness to outside help, yet its leaders remain in full denial mode.

The combination of the scale of this looming disaster – which is beyond anything contemplated by humanity since the Cuban Missile crisis – the relative lack of profile and perceived collective credibility of the small number of messengers bearing these unwelcome tidings to date (though these are some highly credible people), and the lack of coverage by the mainstream media have all contributed to the paralysis currently afflicting the powers that be vis-a-vis Fukushima.

Yet, just today, the Wall Street Journal too chimed in on the emerging story. While the brief article, titled, “Fukushima Daiichi’s Unit 4 Spent-Fuel Pool: Safe or Not?”, presents the official line parroted by Japanese vice-minister for reconstruction, Ikko Nakatsuka – namely, that recent efforts to fortify reactor 4 have rendered it relatively safe – the paper retained some healthy skepticism, concluding: “But just how big an earthquake could Unit 4 withstand before it collapses? That’s one of many questions from reporters that Mr. Nakatsuka and the head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s seismic safety unit evaded or wouldn’t answer.”

Thanks to the efforts of the above politicians and nuclear experts, the story is beginning to break through in the mainstream media, forcing the Japanese at least to appear to step up their efforts. What is required now is for this issue to gain enough prominence in the mainstream media and, consequently, the public consciousness, to compel a unified political effort to move those bloody fuel rods to safety before another earthquake topples them and takes us all with them.

It is my hope, in talking about this thing no one wants to contemplate, that I’m doing my small part in inching the world closer to the action necessary to avert a crisis of unthinkable proportions. And perhaps if you take a moment to share this story and others you come across with your social media network, friends, colleagues and family – and write your political representatives and media – we can help build the movement required to keep our air and water clean, our children’s future preserved.

I’m all for prayer in these situations…but action’s preferable.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

27 thoughts on “Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about

    1. Among the buildings affected by the tsunami (but not the earthquake) was a nuclear reactor plant in Fukishima, which experienced problems due to a number of the back-up generators supplying the Residual Heat Removal systems of the reactors having been destroyed. This resulted in overheating in a few of the reactors, which required hundreds of workers to fix.

  1. While it is true that mainstream media are shying away from the subject of fukushima, I don’t think that it is due to anything sinister. Most people that I have tried to speak to about the situation have reacted in a “ho-hum” manner. This is probably due to the lack of coverage, which I suppose is due to a lack of interest ( like an insane version of a ‘vicious circle’). Reflecting on the hype surrounding the myth of man made climate change (note ‘man made’) it is shocking that no one is paying attention…present company excluded.

    Before you slam me for saying man made climate change is a myth (ok the whole “myth” part is going a bit too far…are you listening now?)let me explain why I believe this. The Earth’s climate is/has been constantly changing (1 volcanic eruption = 30 YEARS of man made carbon pollution), without any intervention. While we do have some influence on this, the idea has been used by powerful people to extend their wealth and influence. Strangely enough these people are among the biggest polluters in the world. i.e. energy companies…. That being said I am all for reducing our foot print, whether that be carbon or other forms of pollution.

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  4. Not a lot written about this so thank you Damien – Regular updates are essential.

    Janet – The ataomic bombs on Japan had 64kg of 80% enriched uranium of which about 600gms ( about 1 1/2lbs) at the inner core exploded as critical mass was exceeded. Taylor cleverly calculates there are about 76,600 rods in the Fukishima plant each weighing many kilos. So there is many thousands of times more material available for dispersion around the world.

    There is no doubt this poses a real disaster scenario which could be equivalent to a nuclear holocaust. Whether it could reach the ‘On the Beach’ scenario nobody knows. However the lack of press coverage is criminal. Without it governments are not under any pressure for urgent action and a rapid clean up.

    After filming, Ava Gardner, who starred in On the Beach said Sydney was ‘so awful that she wouldn’t go there if it was the last place on earth’ – But that is not a reason to let it succumb to a severely contaminated Pacific Ocean! (And he sang and he watched and waited till the reactor boiled – You’ll come a Waltzing Matida with me!)

  5. Is there someone who can explain how this potential release of nuclear radiation would be SO MUCH MORE damaging than the nuclear BOMBS that were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki?? Both highly destructive, deadly events HOWEVER, both areas were re-inhabited and are growing vegetation within a relatively short time and today are thriving metropolitan areas.
    A Nuclear energy plant meltdown is NOT the same as the detonation of a nuclear bomb and I would think would be far LESS destructive or deadly.
    Someone PLEASE explain the difference. Thank you.

  6. One data point there are 1532 assemblies with 50 to 70 fuel rods in each assembly. A conservative calculation put us at 76,600 rods!

  7. Now if only the Japanese could get past the “SHAME” thing and let the WORLD help. Their pride is a problem with this issue. News Flash. It’s NOT your fault and earth quake happened. It WILL be your fault if things go real bad and you COULD have done something about it.

  8. Excellent blog here! Also your website loads up very fast!
    What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host?

    I wish my site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

  9. Even if only Japan was made uninhabitable, the global consequences are horrific (aside from the tens of millions of dead Japanese).
    Japan is still the second largest (some say third, after China) economic power in the world — including foreign currency reserves — and its sudden destruction would, at minimum, throw the planet into the deepest and longest Depression ever known to mankind. That means your bank accounts, money in your pocket, home values, jobs, will be worth zero — just like your life.
    If that doesn’t tweak your interest, nothing will.

  10. Sorry folks, can’t pay attention. America’s Got Talent is on. You’ve seen it right? It’s got Howard Stern on it!

  11. Here is an action we can all take, NOW!

    1.) Please read and sign this petition.
    2.) Circulate this petition on Facebook and on any other social media sites.
    3.) CALL, CALL, CALL every single senator on the 2 energy committees that handle dealing with Japan and the Fukushima crisis. (see petition for call list) Tell senators’ offices: “The U.S. must get involved and expedite the decommissioning of Spent Fuel Pool 4 and place radioactive material in dry cask storage, ASAP.”
    4.) Send this petition to media outlets.

    Our goal is to reach 25,000 signatures. We plan to visit senators, deliver this petition and bring expert witnesses to support our case.

    Please get involved!

    Thank you.

  12. In reply to ron wilton: I remember that movie, too, and I still cry whenever I hear the tune ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (the movie’s theme song).

    Thank you, Damien, for a very informative article. It was brought to my attention by one of my favourite bloggers, Laila Yuile. Maybe now that the mainstream media has picked up this story, our Prime Minister and others will realize that Japan needs our help far more than Afghanistan does.

  13. Thanks Damien for this. I posted the letter signed by 72 organizations to the UN requesting help on my fb awhile back. It is beyond peculiar to me how the mainstream media has wilfully or negligently or their infotainment framing will not allow any info on this. Surprised that CTV did anything. Great links and had heard about reactor no 1 having some problems but didn’t understand it til I read your link.

  14. In 1973 the Dave Barrett government held public hearings on the use of nuclear plants in BC. Another reason Dave Barrett deserves the Order of BC. World renowned experts were consulted.

    While the Canadian government was promoting nuclear power BC rejected nuclear power plants. If only the rest of the world would have listened. Like oil spills from supertankers, contamination from storing nuclear waste for hundreds of years, or nuclear power plant breakdown is inevitable.

  15. Thank you again, Damien, for keeping us informed!

    I’ll just bet that a certain host of Quirks and Quarks does NOT believe what you have written. When I raised the issue of the very faulty design of these GE reactors, he was very defensive. So much for main stream concern!

    And NOVA had a wonderful program telling us how these reactors have been redesigned, now with a WHOLE 3 DAY SUPPLY OF WATER ready above the core! And how many WEEKS has it taken?

    I’m not a nuclear (fission) reactor supporter, but the CANDU reactor would have been much safer.

    Greg Shea (Lake Cowichan)

  16. I remember seeing a movie in the theatre about fifty odd years ago called “On The Beach’.

    As I recall there was a nuclear holocaust of sorts, caused by war, and the only place left that was seemingly unaffected was Australia.

    People there were living out their lives knowing that their end was only a matter of time.

    Some organization like the Salvation Army or such had erected a large banner at a motor racetrack (I think) that was intended to give some hope to the people.

    The banner said, “There Is Still Time Brother’, ostensibly to say that they could do something to prevent the impending disaster.

    At the end of the movie, there was no one left alive, but the sign was flapping in the nuclear wind as a message to the movie audience.

    “There is Still Time Brother”, but fifty odd years later, maybe not much.

  17. Thanks Damien – well written.

    I’m on Vancouver Island and probably more concerned than you are. It’s still the largest industrial disaster ever on earth – even without Spent Fuel Pool 4 (SFP4).

    I think we’re beyond the Precautionary Principle and into the Reality Principle now.

    Very high readings in the Rockies and Cascades and getting higher through constant accumulation. Readers should know that 90% of the ongoing fallout comes down in rain and snow. We’re also getting hot particles and – soon, when the ocean plume reaches us, buckyballs – to about 100km inland. Then bioaccumulation, biomagnification.

    Don’t eat the fish. Stay out of the rain.

    Cheers, and thanks for the great article!

    NB. I do think humanity can do better than this, but the prognosis to date is not good.

  18. The Indian Point reactor would be a good topic for a future article. If there’s a serious problem with that one, there’s no way that the entire New York area can be evacuated.

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