Growing worse by the hour

Nicole Colson reports on the spiraling crisis at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi plant.

Steam escapes from a damaged reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (Digital Globe)Steam escapes from a damaged reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (Digital Globe)

DAYS AFTER an earthquake and subsequent tsunami unleashed the beginnings of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the situation was deteriorating rapidly, with comparisons to Chernobyl--the worst nuclear accident in history--becoming unavoidable.

The nightmare is taking place at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan, south of the city of Sendai and several hours' drive from Tokyo.

An explosion on Tuesday--the largest in a series--at the plant's Number 3 reactor was a dramatic sign that the crisis was escalating, and there have been reports that a fire at the Number 4 reactor had been burning for at least 24 hours. Photos showed a 26-foot-wide hole in the wall of the building holding the Number 4 reactor.

It is suspected that partial meltdowns have already occurred at three of the four operational reactors.

The International Atomic Energy Agency rates "nuclear and radiological events" according to a seven-point scale--Level 1 is an "anomaly" that poses little safety risk, and Level 7 is a "major accident" in which there is a large release of radioactive material, with subsequent widespread health and environmental effects.

"It's clear we are at Level 6--that's to say, we're at a level in between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl," Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of France's nuclear safety authority, told reporters after the Tuesday explosion.

Of particular concern is that spent fuel rods on the roof of reactor Number 4--which must, because of ongoing nuclear decay, be kept underwater for years to keep them cool--are now thought to be exposed to air, with disastrous consequences, as left-wing author Christian Parenti described:

The storage pools are packed with radioactive uranium, rise several stories above ground and are always close to the reactor, thus facilitating easy transfer of the fuel rods. Their name--especially "spent" and "pool"--conveys calm dissipation. But spent fuel rod pools are actually highly radioactive, very unstable, extremely dangerous and, compared with reactors, not well supported, contained or looked over.

The spent rods give off considerable amounts of "decay heat" and thus must be submerged in constantly circulating water. Expose them to air for a day or two, and they begin to combust, giving off large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of 30 years. When cesium-137 enters the environment, it essentially acts like potassium and is taken up by plants and animals that use potassium.

That includes, Parenti notes, human beings--like the 180 workers who reportedly remain at Fukushima, in shifts of 50 at a time (after most of the plant's 800 workers were evacuated). These workers are taking desperate measures to halt a full meltdown of multiple reactors, at grave risk to their own lives.

Initially, just 50 workers had been allowed to remain on site. But the Japanese government later raised the maximum allowable radiation exposure for workers per year by two-and-a-half times--which it said was "unavoidable due to the circumstances"--in order to allow more workers back to the site.

Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former official with the Department of Energy, said these workers may end up paying the ultimate price. According to CNN, "Asked to be more specific, he said, 'This is a situation where people may be called in to sacrifice their lives...It's very difficult for me to contemplate that, but it may have reached that point.'"

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SPEAKING IN front of Congress on Wednesday, Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), offered a much more dire appraisal of the situation at Fukushima than has come so far from the Japanese government. According to Jaczko:

What we believe at this time is that there has been a hydrogen explosion in [the Number 4] unit due to an uncovering of the fuel in the fuel pool. We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed, and there is no water in the spent fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.

According to the New York Times, "If his analysis is accurate and Japanese workers have been unable to keep the spent fuel at that inoperative reactor properly cooled--covered with water at all times--radiation could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor Number 4, but to keep workers at the Daiichi complex from servicing any of the other crippled reactors at the plant."

Indeed, a plan to use helicopters to douse the rods with water had to be called off after the explosion at the Number 3 reactor on Tuesday, which resulted in a release of radioactive steam. Meanwhile, spent fuel pools at two of the other Fukushima reactors--the non-operating Number 5 and 6 units--were also rising in temperature, according to reports.

So as the situation spirals further out of control, it may be impossible to contain the disaster because rising radiation levels make it impossible for workers to remain on site.

A full meltdown and chain reaction in the nuclear material at the plant could reportedly threaten an area up to 200 miles from the complex. Tokyo, with a population of more than 12.9 million, is located 140 miles south of the Fukushima plant.

Thierry Charles, a safety official at France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), told Britain's Daily Telegraph, "The next 48 hours will be decisive. I am pessimistic because, since Sunday, I have seen that almost none of the solutions has worked."

Asked about the maximum possible amount of radioactive release, he said, "It would be in the same range as Chernobyl."

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THE ESCALATING nuclear crisis comes as Japan struggles to deal with the aftermath of the quake and tsunami--devastating in and of themselves. The official death toll had risen to 4,314 people as of Wednesday, but another 8,606 people are missing, according to the government.

Japan's major industries have been disrupted, and Sendai, the largest port in the country's northeast, has been virtually destroyed. Overshadowed by the nuclear crisis is the fact that six of the country's oil refineries--representing one-third of Japan's oil refining capacity-- have been shut down, two because of fires, including one that has been burning for six days.

The disaster has also led to an enormous humanitarian crisis, with more than 450,000 people displaced by both the natural disasters and the resulting nuclear crisis. Thousands of people in remote areas of the country are without food, and a late winter storm has blanketed much of the northern part of the country with snow. For the most part, according to NPR, these people "remained crammed in makeshift evacuation centers, many with few basic necessities and even less information."

So far, approximately 200,000 people living within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushimi plant have been evacuated, and those living between 12 and 19 miles from the site have been told to remain indoors. Jaczko and other U.S. officials have stated that the evacuation zone should be much wider--at least 50 miles.

"The anxiety and anger being felt by people in Fukushima have reached a boiling point," Gov. Yuhei Sato told Japan's NHK public television, adding that shelters do not have enough hot meals and basic necessities for those near the Fukishima plant who have been relocated.

At one shelter in Koriyama city, 40 miles southwest of Fukushima, NPR reporter Doualy Xaykaothao described how 400 people were huddled in near-freezing temperatures in a school gymnasium:

In one corner, a 69-year-old grandmother wearing a face mask sat on a small blanket, with bags and a box stacked next to her. She read a newspaper featuring a front-page photo of the crippled reactors at Fukushima, one burning and smoking. The woman said she was alone at the shelter and had been unable to contact family members in the hardest-hit city of Sendai. In tears as she spoke, she said she has long been against nuclear power, especially in a region prone to earthquakes.

As Xaykaothao reported:

People are now starting to get angry...A couple of days ago, people were still in shock, just trying to figure out what was next for them or how to reach safety. Now, they are starting to realize that something's just not right--this could be done faster, the information could be more accurate. And, of course, the big question now is what is really happening at this nuclear plant.

Some, of course, are managing to get by--by getting out. In a disgusting footnote to the crisis, Reuters reported that an exodus of foreign bankers from Japan has led to private jet companies reporting "a surge in demand for evacuation flights." The demand "sent prices surging as much as a quarter. One jet operator said the cost of flying 14 people to Hong Kong from Tokyo was more than $160,000."

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ONE SIGNIFICANT problem is that Japanese officials have not been willing to say how bad the breach is at the different reactors, how much radiation has escaped, or where it might threaten--but they continue to downplay the risks to humans.

There is also no answer to what is being done with huge amounts of seawater used in an attempt to cool the reactors. If that now-contaminated water has been dumped back into the ocean, it will pose a contamination risk that could certainly effect another hemisphere. If it's being stored on site, that is another nuclear waste hazard for residents, given the possibility of more explosions and a larger breach.

Indeed, there are mounting concerns that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima plant, has badly mismanaged the situation from the beginning, and tried to downplay the severity of the crisis. According to the Financial Times:

TEPCO's attempt to impart information has left the public mostly confused and incredulous. At press conferences, anxious-looking junior executives hang their heads like naughty schoolboys, and apologize for "causing inconvenience," a stock Japanese phrase. In matters of substance, they appear to know little...

Michael Cucek, a political analyst living in Tokyo, was more damning still about the nuclear agency and TEPCO. "They have no crisis management because they were never ready for a crisis," he said. "The fear is TEPCO is not telling the whole truth. They are not in the habit of telling everything they know."

Despite having been touted as "safe and effective" by none other than Barack Obama in 2009 and generally being held up as a model, the track record of Japan's nuclear industry is hardly stellar.

In 1995, an accident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor was downplayed after a pipe broke, leaking vast amounts of sodium coolant. Later, it was discovered the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation, the agency then in charge of Monju, attempted to cover up the extent of the accident and resulting damage.

In 1999, three workers at a uranium reprocessing facility in Tokaimura were exposed to high doses of radiation while preparing fuel for a reactor. It was later found that the workers had not been trained properly. Dozens of workers and nearby residents were ultimately hospitalized. Hundreds of thousands of residents were required to stay indoors for a period of time as a safety measure.

In 2002, TEPCO admitted to having falsified safety data and inspection reports--including some at the Fukushima plant, over a 10-year period after being caught by whistleblowers. According to an Australian newspaper, TEPCO admitted to having injected air into the containment vessel of Fukushima reactor Number 1 to artificially "lower the leak rate. When caught, the company expressed its 'sincere apologies for conducting dishonest practices.'"

After a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in 2007, TEPCO admitted that another plant had not been designed to withstand a quake that large. Two of the reactors at Fukushima were reportedly tested for a 7.9-magnitude quake--which the company considered the worst possible seismic magnitude. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake which struck last week was more than 10 times more severe.

Nor is the crisis at Fukushima unanticipated. There have been decades of warnings about the specific reactor design used at the plant, the Mark I containment system.

According to the New York Times, as far back as 1972, officials with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, discussed banning the Mark 1 because it presented unacceptable safety risks--including the likelihood that the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactors would burst because of overheated fuel rods inside if the cooling systems ever failed.

But as one official wrote at the time, the technology had been so widely accepted by the industry and regulatory officials that "reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power."

In other words, the profit of the industry came ahead of the risk to human life--and the citizens of Japan are now paying a terrible price as a result.

One of the worst natural disasters in recent history is being compounded by an entirely manmade threat of a nuclear meltdown. That this should happen in a country decimated by atomic weapons in 1945--when the U.S. dropped its atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki--only adds to the horror of this crisis.