Three weeks on from the massive earthquake damage and tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima No.1 power plant, the true scale of this nuclear disaster is becoming clear.
The Japanese Government is under pressure to extend the existing 12-mile evacuation zone after radiation levels exceeding the internationally recognised limit for evacuation were found in the village of Iitate, 25 miles from the plant. Worrying levels of radioactive isotopes have been found in soil, water, milk and vegetables from the Fukushima region.
As radiation levels in surrounding sea water continue to rise, engineers have discovered a 20cm crack in a storage pit that is leaking highly radioactive water. Courageous workers – risking a swift death from cancer and radiation sickness – are trying to plug the breach with concrete.
Radiation levels from the leaking water are at over 1 sievert (1000 millisieverts) per hour. Such a dangerously high measurement - as well as being a very serious health risk – also suggests that water must be leaking directly from the reactor – probably the damaged No.2 unit.
Even if all leaks are detected and stopped, the radioactive cooling water being pumped in will still need to be stored – and TEPCO are struggling to find sufficient storage space. UK papers also quote nuclear engineers as saying that it might be 50 to 100 years from now before it is finally possible to safely remove the nuclear fuel stored in the plant.
It is worth remembering how, in the days immediately after the earthquake, nuclear ‘experts’ all insisted that the situation was under control. However some critics – including this blog – realised very quickly that this would prove to be the world’s second most serious nuclear disaster - after Chernobyl.
What’s also emerging is the shameful way that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) ignored the obvious risks of a tsunami knocking out the vital back-up systems that could maintain cooling to its reactors and spent fuel pools.
TEPCO has consistently tried to hide behind the excuse that the March 11 tsunami was “beyond the scope of the assumption”. Yet Japanese media report that seismologist Yukinobu Okamura had warned TEPCO in 2009 that the Fukushima plant was situated in an area where a major tsunami had previously struck ten centuries ago.
Worse, in 2007, TEPCO’s own senior safety engineer, Toshiaki Sakai, estimated that there was a 10% chance that in the next 50 years a tsunami could strike that would overwhelm the plant. TEPCO did nothing. The station’s defences were only built to withstand a maximum 6-metre high wave. On March 11 a 14-metre wave struck the plant.
Particular concerns had also been raised about the design of the ageing General Electric designed Mark I reactors used at Fukushima. U.S. researchers pointed to the particular dangers from loss of power and the risk of hydrogen explosions when venting the reactors to relieve pressure. That’s exactly what happened in reactors No.1 and No.3.
Warnings had also been given about the need to have access to key gauges and instruments to be able to monitor reactors in the middle of a crisis. Again, the concerns went unheeded.
Unfortunately, none of this is really any surprise. Big business always looks to short-term profits first and puts the long-term future of the environment a very long way down its list of concerns. Having ignored the dangers of global warming, many capitalist leaders have turned to nuclear power as a solution. But the risk of catastrophic failures and design flaws - even in technologically advanced Japan – is unavoidable. Nor has any safe method for the long-term storage of spent fuel ever been devised.
The pursuit of profit bears further responsibility for today’s crisis. It has proved difficult to supply power from the West of Japan to the ravaged East, partly because the power grids are run on different ac frequencies (50Hz in the East and 60Hz in Western Japan). This stems directly from the post-war US administration’s break-up and privatisation of the Japan Electric Generation and Transmission Company- in order to undermine the strong All Japan Electric Workers’ Union. See Immediate and longer-term effects of disaster
As that article from a Japanese socialist explains, as the immediate shock at the aftermath of the earthquake subsides, there will be growing anger at the way big business profiteers have put Japanese workers at risk – and how they continue to try and profiteer out of the misery facing those whose lives have been ruined by the consequences of the Sendai earthquake.
Internationally too, the Fukushima disaster has spurred growing protests against nuclear power, particularly in Germany. It is only international co-operation that can provide a way out of the failed energy and environmental policies of the world’s major powers. Only international planning – based on a socialist future – can provide that solution.