The bad news from Fukushima seems to keep coming.

New reports say a mysterious steam plume is emanating from the Japanese power plant crippled in the 2011 tsunami. While TEPCO, the utility that owns the plant, has confirmed the presence of a steam plume coming from what looks like the fifth floor of the building, the source of the plume is unknown.

What is being viewed seems to be a steam release coming from the hot rubble of the structure.

Fairewinds Energy Education, an organization that tracks nuclear energy issues, posted a statement on its website today saying the reactor is not going to explode. The statement noted that the plant is in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is winter, and the lower air temperature is making the steam more visible.

But there are three major issues with the Fukushima cleanup operation that are of concern:

  1. Three reactor cores are not visible and their disposition is unknown.
  2. Radioactive water has been leaking from the plant in larger quantities than has been reported.
  3. Eleven thousand spent nuclear fuel rods from all six reactors in the complex need to be removed for inspection and final disposition. A percentage of the fuel rods are located in the exposed reactors, and removing the rods, which are emanating lethal levels of radiation and are at tens of thousands of degrees in temperature, will be particularly dangerous.

The latest developments have added to the sense of urgency to not only stop the release of radiation into the environment, but also determine just how much damage is being done to the environment and what actions should be taken to reduce the impact of the disaster.

The worlds’ worst nuclear crisis in 25 years was  set off at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011 by a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people.

Immediately after the disaster hit, Japan implemented the first stage of its emergency response plan. The government ordered the immediate evacuation of all persons who were within a 12-mile radius of the complex. For those within a 12- to 18-mile radius, residents were requested to “shelter in place,” staying inside with all the doors and windows closed.

A controversy erupted shortly after the orders came down. U.S. Ambassador to Japan John V. Roos issued a recommendation based on Nuclear Regulatory Council (NRC) guidelines that people living within a 50-mile radius evacuate the area. The recommendation prompted Japan to complain that the U.S. was fear-mongering.

Since the incident, TEPCO implemented several mitigation strategies to clean up the mess.

The latest, controversial strategy is to employ the homeless to clear away the rubble to give inspectors a clearer view of the situation they are facing.

The cleanup, said to be the worst job in Japan, is falling behind schedule due to a lack of oversight and a shortage of workers. TEPCO is trying to make up for lost time by casting a large net for workers, now recruiting the homeless for the dangerous job. Men like Seiji Sasa are hunting the Sendai Station in Northern Japan looking for people to work for minimum wage to go through the rubble. Sendai has emerged as an unofficial center for hiring the homeless for low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

The quality of the cleanup job has been called into question not only because of the quality of workforce but also because many of the subcontractors recruited for the job have alleged ties to Japan’s organized crime syndicate, the Yakusa.

Complaints have emerged from workers that they are not being paid and are essentially in a state of slavery to their employer. The workers are charged room and board during their stay on site, and their wages sometimes don’t cover the cost of their living expenses.

“I don’t ask questions; that’s not my job,” Sasa said in an interview with Reuters. “I just find people and send them to work. I send them and get money in exchange. That’s it. I don’t get involved in what happens after that.”

While the cleanup has had its problems, other countries are trying to determine the extent of the radiation coming from the plant and the effects it is having on their respective landscapes.

Following the disaster in Fukushima, most countries with nuclear power plants issued statements expressing the need for a complete review of safety procedures to prevent a similar meltdown.

For its part, the United States ordered a review of its nuclear plants. As a result, several plants have been shut down following determinations that it was too costly to implement the required design and operational improvements.

To date, five nuclear reactors are being built in the United States, in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. But in the past year, utilities have permanently shut down four others and plan to take a fifth out of service next year. Two other planned projects have been shelved. Part of the reason for the shutdowns and shelving new plants, however, is a combination of a weak demand due to a slowing economy and also to the increased gas production due to new production techniques.

Japan issued orders to shut down all 50 of its nuclear plants pending review, but the process of getting approval to restart the units is already under way. Authorities say the process is being done deliberately and is expected to take some years to complete.

Restarting the reactors is a critical strategic decision for Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s government as the country’s reactors had provided approximately 30 percent of its electricity and was expected to increase to at least 40 percent by 2017. Post-Fukushima, that figure is expected to be only 20 percent. It could have severe implications for a country that imports 84 percent of its energy.

The immediate replacement for nuclear power in Japan is oil. Some in the Abe government are particularly concerned, because of current tense relationship with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands (known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands). If relations worsen, a blockade of oil to the Home Islands would have a severe impact on Japan’s economy. Thus, Japan is pushing to get as many nuclear plants on line as possible.

Other countries have taken more radical steps than Japan.

Immediately following the explosions in Fukushima, Switzerland suspended the application for all new plants seeking construction permits. Two months later, in a move that was called “hasty and premature,” the Swiss government announced plans to phase out all five of its nuclear reactors by 2034 at a cost of $2.5 billion to $4.4 billion. The government also put a stop to any new construction and permitting of new plants.

Environmental organizations have judged that the 2034 closure date is far too long to operate the existing plants. The Mühleberg plant near the city Bern is an identical reactor type to Fukushima-1, and nearly all reactors are over 30 years old.

This decision will mean that Switzerland will have to find alternatives to make up for 40 percent of its energy usage. They are anticipating that the deficit can be made up with a combination of hydroelectric energy, natural gas, and biofuels. However, getting these alternative fuel sources to make up the 40 percent deficit is problematic.

Plans for more nuclear plants in Italy stalled when a plan put forward by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to generate a quarter of Italy’s electricity was defeated in referendum when over 90 percent of the voters opposed it.

More recently, Norwegian life insurance company KLP said it has sold its shares in TEPCO due to the latter’s handling of the Fukushima disaster.

“Fukushima is the reason. It is not the accident itself, but it is the evaluation of the whole situation, both with the risk assessment before the accident and due to the current situation. Almost three years have passed and the situation is still not under control. And there is a still a risk for further radioactive pollution at Fukushima,” said Heidi Finskas, a financial analyst for KLP.

Despite the halt to the use of nuclear power in several countries post-Fukushima, the global growth of nuclear power is predicted to continue, with 69 nuclear power reactors currently under construction around the world, particularly in hydrocarbon-poor Asia, where power demand continues to surge.

While among Asian nations, Japan in the 1960s was the first to adopt nuclear power, between 1980 and 2012 nuclear capacity in Asia rose nearly 250 percent, led primarily by South Korea, Japan and India, with China over the past decade also embracing nuclear power.

The trend is predicted to continue. According to the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), nuclear power is among the world’s fastest-growing energy source, increasing by 2.5 percent every year

While the U.S. has not put a halt to its nuclear power generation program, officials are very concerned about the clean-up efforts at Fukushima and its impact on the nuclear power industry.

After visiting the plant, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in a statement: “As Japan continues to chart its sovereign path forward on the cleanup at the Fukushima site and works to determine the future of their energy economy, the United States stands ready to continue assisting our partners in this daunting yet indispensable task. The United States and Japan created the Bilateral Commission to strengthen our strategic and practical engagement on civil nuclear R&D, Fukushima cleanup, emergency response, nuclear safety regulatory matters, and nuclear security and nonproliferation, and we look forward to the commission meeting next week in Washington, D.C.”

There are those who believe that the moves by the U.S. and Japan have not been enough.

Gregory Jaczko, a former nuclear safety chief with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has accused Japan of being too slow to respond to radioactive water leaks at the facility.

“After massive amounts of water were used to cool the plant’s molten reactors it became clear that leaks were only a matter of time,” Jaczko told reporters in September. “Both U.S. and Japanese officials knew that and it’s unclear why it has taken Japan so long to tackle the problem.”

Even while the U.S. is expressing confidence in the cleanup efforts, other government moves are afoot that seem to indicate that the government is not as confident as public statements would have one believe.

On Dec. 6, a request for quote was posted on the government’s Federal Business Opportunities website for “potassium iodide tablet, 65mg, unit dose package of 20s; 700,000 packages (of 20s).”

The tablets are to be delivered no later than Feb. 1.

Another item of interest in the quote is the fact that delivery of the tablets is destined for Perry Point, Md., a federal government medical supply and pharmaceutical center.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission states on its website: “Potassium iodide is a special kind of protective measure in that it offers very specialized protection. Potassium iodide protects the thyroid gland against internal uptake of radioiodines that may be released in the unlikely event of a nuclear reactor accident.”

The health Physics Society states on its website that potassium iodide [KI] can only provide protection for the thyroid gland from an intake of radioiodine. It goes on to state that “the only possible sources of large radioiodine releases are from a nuclear weapons denotation and a catastrophic accident in an operating nuclear reactor.”

“Therefore, KI has no protective value from a ‘dirty bomb’ or a dispersion of spent nuclear fuel.”

Potassium iodide only protects the thyroid in humans before they are exposed to radioactive iodine. The iodide ties up sites inside the organ and does not allow the irradiated iodine to accumulate. If the person is already exposed to radioactive iodine, the potassium salt is not effective.

KI would be of little help if the radiation released from Fukushima, consisting of radioactive cesium, would makes its way into the U.S. drinking water or food supply.

While potassium iodide will not protect against radioactive cesium, such as what is being found in the water coming off of Fukushima, a compound called “Prussian Blue” will.

Prussian Blue (Fe7(CN)18) is a dark blue pigment that is usually used for staining cells in medical research. It also is used as an antidote for heavy metal poisoning, in this case, for cesium and thallium poisoning.

There are questions as to why there is a call for potassium iodide at this time. Some think that it may be tied to the fact that 71 U.S. sailors who helped during the initial Fukushima relief efforts sued the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) after they returned with thyroid cancer, leukemia and brain tumors as a result of being exposed to radiation at 300 times the safe level. Their original lawsuit was dismissed, but the sailors are now refiling their petition.

There is the belief that the government may be stockpiling potassium iodide (KI) to give to U.S. military personnel and others in the Fukushima prefecture area in case there is another series of explosions in an operating reactor.

Whether the KI is being purchased to protect persons from a threat that has not been disclosed or is being bought just to replenish expired stock is hard to tell. Such is the case when the full story is not being given.

TEPCO has been caught repeatedly misrepresenting the facts about the extent of the damage to the reactor complex and the environment in general. The company’s continual misleading statements also makes some think that, despite public pronouncements, extra precautions need to be taken beyond what is being openly recommended.

The lack of candor being exhibited by TEPCO and the Japanese and other foreign governments prompts the question, “What else are they not telling us?”

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