Fukushima danger ‘under control’ – Not!

By Steve Elwart

Much has been said about the Fukushima nuclear power-plant disaster, much of it true, some untrue.

The problem with the news coming out of the troubled complex is that the operating company TEPCO, the Japanese government and international agencies are not being completely forthcoming.

Some call it political spin, but others just say the world is being told lies.

The epitome of the falsehoods being told about Fukushima comes from no less than the Japanese prime minister himself.

At the final International Olympic Committee meeting in Buenos Aires, the one deciding who would host the 2020 Summer Olympics, Shinzo Abe assured the IOC the “situation is under control.”

Abe said there never was nor ever will be any damage to Tokyo as a result of the Fukushima disaster.

When pressed on the issue by Norwegian IOC Member Gerhard Heiberg, Abe doubled down and told the members, “It poses no problem whatsoever.”

Abe went on to say that the contamination was limited to a small area and had been “completely blocked.”

The prime minister also stated, “There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future, I make the statement to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way.”

According to the IOC, Abe’s assurances were the deciding factor in giving the 2020 Summer Games to Toky rather than Madrid.

But just six days after Abe’s statement, Kazuhiko Yamashita, an executive officer of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) contradicted the prime minister by saying, “We regard the current situation as not being under control.”

For its part, TEPCO hasn’t been a model of disclosure either. Last summer, it came to light that more than 300 tons of radioactive water has leaked out of a storage tank on the site.

The leak added another and possibly more dangerous dimension to the problems associated with the disaster. The water leaking from the tank into the ocean is heavily contaminated with strontium-90, cesium-137. The radiation was so high that a person standing less than two feet away would receive, in one hour, five times the acceptable annual dosage for nuclear workers. After 10 hours, the exposed person would develop radiation sickness, with symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to hair loss and fatigue.

TEPCO reported that the leak “somehow” went undetected for as long as a month. During this period 2,400 gallons of water a day leaked out of the tanks.

Even with the disclosure, many industry experts are concerned that the problem is a good deal worse than what TEPCO or the Japanese government is willing to admit.

When the tank leaks were first reported, Ken Buesseler, senior scientist of marine chemistry & geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, shared his concern.

“It is not over yet by a long shot, Chernobyl was in many ways a one-week, fire-explosive event, nothing with the potential of this right on the ocean.”

“We’ve been saying since 2011 that the reactor site is still leaking whether that’s the buildings and the ground water or these new tank releases. There’s no way to really contain all of this radioactive water on site,” Buesseler said. “Once it gets into the ground water, like a river flowing to the sea, you can’t really stop a ground water flow. You can pump out water, but how many tanks can you keep putting on site?”

(There was consideration given to use converted crude oil supertankers to store the radioactive water, but the idea has been rejected by TEPCO.

There is also concern that the committee originally formed to oversee the cleanup is comprised of individuals who have a vested interest in putting the situation at Fukushima in the best possible light. Members of the committee included officials with the Ministry of Trade, the agency charged with promoting nuclear energy, and nuclear reactor manufacturers like Toshiba and Hitachi.

From the start of the cleanup effort, outside experts predicted the water leakage problem, but TEPCO and government officials rejected pleas to include experts or companies with more cleanup experience.

TEPCO also rejected initial remediation proposals given by experts, such as building a concrete wall 60 feet into the ground to prevent groundwater leakage. They chose instead to build hurriedly constructed plastic- and clay-lined underground water storage pits that eventually developed leaks.

It was only after the discovery of leaks through the barrier that a member of Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency was added as a member of the clean-up committee.

TEPCO dumped contaminated water into the ocean in 2011 as a way of dealing with its “water problem,” which was not revealed to the public until after the fact.

While some experts argue that the water discharge was safe, the fact that it was done without public knowledge left the impression that TEPCO had something to hide. The lack of faith in the operating company over non-disclosures led to even greater outcry when plans were announced to release even more water into the sea.

Some believe that TEPCO’s actions during the cleanup show that officials are in “over their heads.” The critics are calling for the formation of a separate company that would have the sole purpose of cleaning up the site. It’s a job that could last “for generations.”

It is not just TEPCO and the Japanese prime minister who seem to be hiding the truth. The Japanese government apparently is making a concerted effort to hide the facts surrounding the nuclear plant disaster.

In March 2012 the Japan Times reported the government of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan sequestered a report that painted a bleak, worst-case scenario for the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The report was kept under wraps until the end of 2012.

“The content was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist,” a senior government official said.

The scenario was based on assumption that a hydrogen explosion would tear through the No. 1 reactor’s containment vessel, necessitating a complete evacuation of all plant personnel.

The scenario showed that if the worst case did happen, residents within a minimum of a 100-mile radius of the plant would be forced to evacuate. Those living between a 100- and 150-mile radius of the plant could chose to evacuate if they wished. Tokyo lies within the voluntary evacuation radius, 140 miles from Fukushima.

Making this scenario public could very well have ruined Tokyo’s chances of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics.

After the document was shown to a small group of government officials at the prime minister’s office, the administration decided to quietly bury it, the sources said.

“When the document was presented (in March), a discussion ensued about keeping its existence secret,” a government source said.

The National Diet, Japan’s legislature, recently passed the unpopular State Secrets Act that has been dubbed the “fuk ‘hush’ shima” act. Many in the media fear that the new law will hamper a journalist’s ability to investigate official misdeeds, including the complicity between the government, regulators and TEPCO that led to the 2011 Fukushima plant meltdown.

The new law greatly expands the definition of official secrets, and those convicted under the new law could be jailed for up to five years, or 10 years if the information divulged came from the U.S. military.

Under the act, there are four categories of “special secrets” that would be covered – defense, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage. Also, government branches other than the defense ministry can determine what is “secret.”

“Basically, this bill raises the possibility that the kind of information about which the public should be informed is kept secret eternally,” Tadaaki Muto, a lawyer and member of a task force on the bill at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, told Reuters.

“Under the bill, the administrative branch can set the range of information that is kept secret at its own discretion.

“This may very well be Abe’s true intention – coverup of mistaken state actions regarding the Fukushima disaste,” said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.

Like many such laws passed since 9/11, “terrorism” defined in the most sweeping terms is used to justify the law. Chapter 5, Article 12 refers to terrorism as “politically imposing differing ideologies on the country or the citizens.”

JFBA lawyer Tsutomu Shimizu told the Japan Times that “such activities as the anti-nuclear rallies in front of the prime minister’s office could hence be categorized as terrorist acts.”

The Abe government repeated the refrain that the State Secrets Act was necessary because Japan is a “spy heaven” where leakers have a license to divulge secrets without threat of reprisal. Proponents of the bill left the impression that the government cannot keep a secret and that foreign agents are running rampant in Tokyo.

Many believe that the cure for security leaks may be worse that the disease.

“It seems very clear that the law would have a chilling effect on journalism in Japan,” said Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University.

As an example, an in-house study by an independent government panel determined that a major factor in the plant meltdowns was the collusion between regulators and the nuclear power industry. If classified as “secret” by Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, divulging the information could put a journalist in prison.

It was the Japanese government’s penchant for secrecy that restricted access to U.S. contingency plans on how to respond to a total power failure resulting from a terrorist strike against a nuclear power plant even before disaster struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant nearly three years ago. As early as 2008, Washington shared the plan with the then-Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) in Japan. But the plan never reached the person most in need of it. The section chief in charge of developing such plans for NISA admitted that he was not given access to the information.

NISA limited access to the contingency plans known as B.5.b to only a handful of senior officials. The reasoning was because Washington passed on the information with the understanding it would remain classified. Experts believe procedures could have provided critical guidance in the first days of the crisis.

Apparently the section chief over contingency plans did not have a “need to know.”

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has expressed strong concern that the new law on state secrets may embolden the government’s propensity to hold back crucial information on nuclear safety.

Yutaka Saito, a member of Japan Federation of Bar Association’s task force on problems related to information, has stated, “We cannot fully engage in discussion about [nuclear] safety if information is withheld.”

B.5.b was finally declassified following the Fukushima disaster because the United States believed that declassifying it would improve safety of nuclear power plants.

The U.S. does not seem to be immune to underreporting the facts surrounding the disaster and its aftermath. As reported previously, the Nuclear Emergency Tracking Center has previously issued email alerts for Reno, Nev., and St. George, Utah. In Reno, “the current background radiation level has increased suddenly by more than 200 points from the typical average,” and St. George registered background radiation levels were twice the normal readings.

The information was not widely reported in the media.

Questions are still swirling around Fukushima specifically and around the nuclear industry in general. Strange events are occurring, massive die-offs of sea life in the Pacific Ocean and catches in the Pacific are found to have elevated levels of cesium. To date, there has been no explanation.

“The big picture is the shattering of public confidence, not just in the nuclear program, but also in the government itself,” said Sheila Smith, an expert in Asia-Pacific international relations and former member of the Department of International Relations at Boston University

“The Japanese public is deeply shattered both by the magnitude of the disaster and by past and present government’s management of these power plants, and larger questions about public safety. There’s a lot of ‘mea culpa’ … a sense that ‘we ought to have asked more questions, and pushed harder for more openness and accountability.'”

As long as the nuclear industry, governments and media are not forthcoming with the entire truth, the questions about nuclear safety will not only continue but grow louder.

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