Disturbing developments continue.
A full 17 days after the earthquake and tsunami shut-off power to the six reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and long after 3 reactor buildings blew up, the Japanese government finally announced they would test for plutonium around the plant.
Reactor number 3 was burning a type of plutonium-laced fuel called MOX. Those hyper-radioactive fuel rods were in both the reactor and in the spent fuel ponds. A leak in the fuel ponds caused water boil-off, and suspected uncovering of the spent nuclear fuel rods. And various government sources say the fuel rods within the reactor were also uncovered, and suffered a partial melt-down.
In the past few days, extremely high levels of radioactive water have been found in Reactor #3, and in soil in a trench outside the buildings. Reactor Number 3 has been steaming or burning for weeks. Despite the pronouncements of various experts, I always suspected plutonium was bound to be released into the
The government was under increased pressure to at least take a look, since independent measuring teams, including one from Greenpeace International, had reached the area.
The Greenpeace team led by radiological expert jan va de Putte found radiation levels up to ten micro Sieverts per hour in Iitate village, 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The is 20 kilometers outside the official evacuation zone. More about that in a minute.
Greenpeace has not so far reported finding plutonium, although their test results are still being processed.
Now Voice of America news reports on Monday March 28th, quote:
"Officials say evidence of highly radioactive plutonium has been detected in the soil in five locations around Japan's earthquake-disabled nuclear reactor."
The plant operators, Tepco, told the Japanese press service Kyodo they think plutonium was leaking from nuclear fuel rods in the damaged reactors.
Yesterday, an official from NISA, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency of Japan, Mr. Hidehiko Hishiyama told a morning news conference, quote:
"The level or radiation is greater than 1,000 millisieverts. It is certain that it comes from atomic fission."
So fission, an atomic reaction, may be going on at the site, despite the alleged shut down by fuel rods.
Of course, Tepco says the plutonium levels were not high enough to be a risk to human health.
They always say that... but we know tiny, tiny amounts of plutonium can cause cancer and death, if eaten or ingested.
This is also an alarming development for the international community. If a storm or common winds carry plutonium to North America, or throughout the Northern Hemisphere, water supplies and farms could be polluted for more than a hundred thousand years.
THAT IS NOT HAPPENING NOW! So far we have no reports of any plutonium leaving Japan, and no direct reason to suspect it has done so. However, we also don't know if officials in North America or Europe are testing for plutonium.
Repeatedly, Japanese officials say they do not know how radioactive water is escaping from the reactors, or from the spent fuel ponds.
According to Dr. David Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists, this is partly because the main reactor control rooms are not operational. The guages and computers are not working.
We all saw the video and announcements that power had been restored to reactors 1 through 4, and the lights were on in the control room. Japanese TV ran a picture of an operating control room - but you had to look fast to see the word "recorded" on those images.
At the Union of Concerned Scientists' web site, Lochbaum analyses a real photograph of the current control room. Yes some flourescent lights are working in the ceiling. But the clock is not working. The computer screens are all blank. Critical information systems are all dark. In fact, the "good news" of restored power announcement now seems more like a bit of Kabuki theatre, meant to reassure the nervous public and the world.
None of the built-in cooling systems of the four damaged reactors is working. They are still spraying things with fire-hoses. Extra pumps have been brought in to remove some of the highly radioactive water, that is preventing any further work on these plants. In some reactors, they can pump this dangerous water into a holding area called the condenser tank. In others, that tank is full, and Tepco doesn't know where to put it.
Meanwhile, even more tests, further away from the reactor, find a lot of highly radioactive water is showing up in the sea. This may be partly run-off from the constant spraying.
Or it may be cooling piples deep underground, connected to the sea. You have no doubt notices there are no cooling towers at the Fukushima reactors, as seen on American nuclear plants. The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant gets cooling by circulating water from pipes running out to sea. These may now be leaking, possibly directly
from a damaged reactor.
The New York Times reported one reactor had a crack in the containment vessel, according to an inside source. That story since disappeared. Various government officials have said at least two reactors have damaged containment vessels, and may have melted down. Then those statements are contradicted by other officials. Now they claim not to know.
We do know that highly radioactive materials, that could only come from recent atomic fission, or fuel rods melting in pods, are reaching the atmosphere, the plant buildings, the surrounding soil far and wide, and the sea.
Truthfully, I don't see evidence of progress to contain the deterioration of all four reactors. The passage of time should mean the nuclear fuel rods in the reactors are cooling. But that may not happen if the exposed rods have melted, or if a nuclear reaction has restarted. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the
Prime Minister of Japan have both stated this remains a grave and on-going situation.
There doesn't seem to be a way to make this stop in the short-term, or possibly even in the long-term. There are technical reasons why entombing the four reactors may not be possible. Even if such a giant sarcophagus, which would be larger than the pyramids of Egypt, is possible - trying to build it in a quake stricken Japan could take months or years. You can't just pour sand and cement over the spent fuel rods in the ponds. That might spread even further radiation.
THE GROWING EXCLUSION ZONE
Meanwhile, I am seeing the first signs of a permanent exclusion zone, similar to that around the Chernobyl nuclear melt-down in the Ukraine.
The Chief Cabinet Secretary has gone on national TV to forbid those residents returning into the zone. A reporter then says this has the force of national law, and talks about the military and the police.
As Japanese media goes, generally explaining the position of the government, I would read this as the first step of imposing a military protected no-go zone at the 20 kilometer mark around the plant. That piece of Japan will be lost to human use.
I envision the exclusion zone getting larger over time, depending on how bad the reactors go, and the amount of radiation. We may see a larger zone where highways or trains are allowed to pass through, but no one will be able to farm or live.
In a worse case scenario, Japan could be split in two: the northern islands, and the southern most tip of Honshu. The center would be perhaps a narrow isthmus of connecting rail and highways running along the West coast, as far as possible from the most contaminated East Coast. That would hardly be recognizable as Japan.
Here is are excepts from a transcript of NHK World Japanese TV on Sunday night in North America, March 27th.
Host: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has strongly urged residents within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to not enter the area or return to their homes.
Voice of live translator, as Edano speaks:
'Once again, that the area could be contaminated and there is a risk of going back to the area. So unless there is an instruction never to go back or enter the restricted areas.'
Host: We are now joined by reporter Yamasaki.
Voice of translator of Yamasaki:
'Now there was a melting of the nuclear reactor and also Mr. Edano talked about the 20 kilometers evacuation range from the nuclear power plant....
Yes, and this 20 kilometers range was under the evacuation instruction right after, immediately after the earthquake struck. And people living in this area had to leave this area with only things was what they were wearing at that time....'
[Yamaki says the Japan Self-Defence Force and the police have spotted some residents returning, to get things from their homes, despite the risk of radiation. He continues, as translated:]
'... and of course this instruction is based on the national law, so the residents must follow this instruction....'
This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith.
It seems likely that the cars, homes, and personal possessions of people inside that 20 kilometer zone may be too radioactive to be allowed out. That zone may remain empty for decades, if not generations. No one will be allowed to return. These Japanese nuclear evacuees may start with just the cloths on their backs.
Very, very sad.
As we have heard, with today's revelations about plutonium, and high radiation being detected in soil at least 40 kilometers from the plant, the final no-go zone may be much larger. Just how much of the small island of Japan will be lost for human use depends upon further developments at Fukushima.
If workers by some miracly manage to restore interior cooling to both the reactors and the fuel pools, while mopping up pools of high level waste, and stopping all the leaks, the exclusion zone may settle to the 50 miles, or 80 kilometers set by the United States government more than a week ago.
That would cut important road and rail transportation links between Tokyo and northern Japan. All that traffic would have to run up the West Coast, unless the government allows a transit corridor through the radioactive zone.
If there is a storm, a typhoon, a further earthquake, or just a failure to stop a complete melt-down of any one of these four reactors, we can picture a strange new remnant of Japan emerging. Most people would live in the extreme south of the country, connected to the far northern islands by a transit-only causway running like an ithmus up the West coast of the country. That is a worse case scenario.
There is a worst case scenario, the end of Japan, but that seems like a tiny possibility at this time. I wont' talk about that. I don't believe that will happen.
Of course, like you, I hope the evacuation zones are limited to the four Prefectures around the Fukushima plant, plus all fishing banned off the central Japanese east coast for a period of time. That would be a horrible loss, but bearable, for a people who have shown their ability to overcome terrible losses.
We don't have time in this bulletin to discuss the economic spin-offs around the world. The Tokyo Electric Company has lost 70 percent of it's stock value, a terrible blow to all the mainly Japanese investors and pension funds. Tepco is currently seeking 36 billion dollars in loans from private banks. The Japanese
government has already announced it will help cover the damage costs. Many analysts says that although the company is "too big to fail", powering so much of Japan - but nationalization is not out of the question.
As in places all over the world, car plants in the United Kingdom are preparing to shut down due to loss of parts from Japan. The ripples from this disaster, as other nuclear plants are scrapped, and power prices go up, are very big, and unknowable at this time.
This nuclear disaster may have begun a world-wide economic and political crisis, for all we know. I hope not.
I'm Alex Smith. Find our latest programs at http://www.ecoshock.org. Keep up with our blog at http://www.ecoshock.info - and be sure an hear our feature interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott.
Thank you for staying tuned.