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Boardman writes: "Fukushima is a continuing disaster, and the Japanese haven't done that great a job keeping it from getting worse, but that's not the bad news. The bad news is that nobody else in the world has a much better idea about what to do, and even less of an idea of how to do it ..."

Workers in protective suits and masks wait to enter the emergency operation center at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. (photo: AP)
Workers in protective suits and masks wait to enter the emergency operation center at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. (photo: AP)

Fukushima Funhouse Tests Technique, Predictions, Nerves

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

16 November 13


If the end of the world hasn’t started yet, maybe it will start soon

oon enough, if it hasn’t started already, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will begin removing the first of more than 1,500 fuel assemblies from the Fukushima Unit 4 fuel pool that sits about 100 feet above the ground. Each assembly contains 50-70 radioactive fuel rods. If this removal procedure goes seriously awry or the plant is hit by another major earthquake, some scientists say, “It’s bye-bye Japan and everyone on the west coast of North America should evacuate.”

Fukushima is a continuing disaster, and the Japanese haven’t done that great a job keeping it from getting worse, but that’s not the bad news. The bad news is that nobody else in the world has a much better idea about what to do, and even less of an idea of how to do it, and that’s why the stampede of global rescue workers rushing to Japan isn’t happening now and isn’t likely to happen soon.

Fulminating over Fukushima is fun for the whole family, and lord knows there’s plenty to fulminate about, but when all the fulminating and fear-mongering and freak-out fomenting is done, the deteriorating disaster that is Fukushima continues to deteriorate unaffected. The only likely effect of the fussing is further deterioration of the ability to think clearly about a situation in which the future is even more unknowable and uncontrollable than the future usually is.

And now it’s turning out that nuclear power will also contribute to climate change, indirectly, at least in the short run, because Japan has announced that it can’t afford to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as promised, because taking care of Fukushima is too expensive and has led to a shutdown of all the rest of Japan’s nuclear power plants. In the short term at least, Japan will rely more on electricity produced by coal, oil, and gas-burning power plants.

As a metaphor, Fukushima now has familiar apocalyptic and terrifying implications, but the reality of the place itself is more complicated. After all, if the sky really is falling, what are you going to do about it anyway?

Fukushima will definitely get worse before it gets better, or worse still.

When it was hit by an earthquake followed by a tsunami on March 11, 2011, Fukushima was a six-reactor nuclear power station. Units 1, 2, and 3 all melted down; at least 1 and 3 exploded, and an explosion tore off the roof of Unit 4, leaving its fuel pool precariously exposed. Units 5 and 6, although undamaged, have been shut down and pose no immediate threat.

Continuously since 2011, Fukushima has been releasing radioactivity into the air, although that seems now to be minimized. The release of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean continues at varying intensities that appear to be still increasing, with little possible control in the near future. Groundwater flows into the plant and leaves contaminated. Water used as coolant is contaminated and flows out. And contaminated water that TEPCO collects in huge holding tanks leaks out.

There is broad agreement that the Unit 4 fuel pool is the highest priority for making Fukushima safer, not that it will be actually safe for a long, long time. Even if the fuel removal goes smoothly, it is expected to take more than a year to complete.

In 1982, TEPCO damaged one of the fuel assemblies now in the Unit 4 fuel pool, and a reference to that damage – the assembly is bent almost at a right angle – was included in an August 2013 report. On November 12, Japan Times and Reuters reported this news, along with news from an April 2010 TEPCO report that: “it found two other spent fuel racks in the reactor’s cooling pool had what appeared to be wire trapped in them. Rods in those assemblies have pin-hole cracks and are leaking low-level radioactive gases…."

TEPCO has the only plan in town.

TEPCO knows what it wants to do with the 1500 assemblies in Unit 4. The procedure, as described by Reuters, is straightforward in concept: “The assemblies must first be lifted from their storage frames in the pool and individually placed in a steel cask – kept all the while under water to prevent overheating. The cask, weighing around 90 tonnes when filled, will then be hoisted by crane from the pool, lowered to ground level and transported by trailer to a common storage pool about 100 metres away.”

No one’s criticizing the TEPCO plan, and no one has come forward claiming to have a better plan. What TEPCO doesn’t know, and no one else knows, is whether they will be able to execute the plan according to plan. And what else TEPCO and everyone else doesn’t know is what will happen if and when the plan hits a glitch. And that’s where the panic-laden extreme scenarios come in: “If something goes wrong this could be a global catastrophe that dwarfs what has happened in Fukushima Daiichi thus far,” says nuclear waste specialist Kevin Kamps with Beyond Nuclear, without suggesting a different approach.

Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education told radio station KZYX in September: “Tokyo Electric has admitted that the boron between these fuel cells – there’s a boron wafer in between the fuel to prevent something called an inadvertent criticality, you can have a nuclear chain reaction in the fuel pool, and that’s not a good thing — but they’ve admitted that all the boron has disintegrated. So the only thing preventing a chain reaction from occurring … in the fuel racks themselves, is the fact they put all sorts of boron in the water. But if the rods get too close to each other, they can still fire up again and create a chain reaction in the nuclear fuel pool.”

TEPCO has confidence, is that reassuring?

TEPCO has produced a reassuring short video describing how the fuel removal process is supposed to go, mixing animation and documentary footage to soothe away any viewer’s worries. Arnie Gunderson calls it a “fantasy cartoon” and provides a 17-minute podcast showing excerpts from the TEPCO production followed by his own explanations of how TEPCO is misleading.

Not surprisingly, TEPCO is counter-alarmist, as Japan Times reported: “Asked if it’s possible for the spent fuel to achieve recriticality, Zengo Aizawa, vice president of Tepco overseeing the Fukushima crisis, said this is highly improbable since the removal process basically deals with one assembly at a time, and the utility has confirmed that one assembly alone cannot cause a nuclear chain reaction.”

The company’s confidence was shared by one of their consultants, Lake Barrett, an American whose four decades of experience in nuclear energy included overseeing much of the clean-up after the accident at Three Mile Island. Barrett visited the Fukushima site on November 13, and told Japan Times he was impressed with TEPCO’s preparations, including the reinforcement and cover at Unit 4 protecting the fuel pool: “Now I feel confident that they can complete this job properly,”

Meanwhile, at nearby Units 1, 2, and 3 – all of which melted down – the status of the molten cores has remained uncertain since 2011. Talking about this on Art Bell’s Dark Matter program in October, Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter said:

“We’ve got 3 reactors, the cores have left the vessel. They’ve burned through the bottom of the vessel. We don’t really know where they are, because the radioactive environment even fries robots that TEPCO’s been trying to send in there. They have been sending very innovative robotic machinery and sensors in there to get a picture, to get a reading, and these things don’t return. We have opened a door to hell that cannot be easily closed – if ever. We’ve got those 3 cores that are melting, they could be somewhere in the concrete base mat burning their way through, they could have already burned through and entered into the ground. They hopefully have formed a huge solid ‘elephant’s foot’ of highly radioactive material.”

Think it’s bad on the outside? Inside it’s instant death.

On November 14, Japanese media reported that, for the first time, a remote-controlled robot had found the locations in Unit 1 where radioactive water was leaking out of the reactor. TEPCO acknowledged that it was unable to do anything about these leaks any time soon, and they suspected there were similar leaks in Units 2 and 3. As long as TEPCO can keep the molten cores cooled, they will remain stable – and the flow of contaminated water into the environment will continue.

According to “The radiation levels in the inspected area were reported at 0.9 to 1.8 sieverts an hour, while a typical release of radiation is generally accepted to be 1 millisievert a year.” In less technical language, a sievert is a unit of measurement for a radiation dose to humans – a dose of more than one sievert in a brief period will likely cause radiation sickness and possibly death. A millisievert is one one-thousandth of a sievert. In other words, roughly calculated, the radiation level the robot found is about 9 million times greater than the so-called “safe” annual human exposure.

Beyond the confines of the Fukushima plant, in the partly evacuated Fukushima Prefecture, local officials are confirming an increase in thyroid cancer in children. The rate is more than 7 times higher than for the general population and reflects a similar pattern experienced around Chernobyl after the accident there.

The Indian government is meanwhile pressing ahead to complete a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan that would clear the way for Japaneses nuclear energy companies to do business building nuclear power plants in India.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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+18 # jwb110 2013-11-16 12:57
TEPCO is holding out, hoping for a bailout by other countries. They have been rather lax and certainly less than truthful about the situation.
Just a suggestion, don't eat anymore fish or shellfish from Pacific waters. No canned fish unless you know where it came from. If you live on or near the west coast of the US start using iodized salt to protect your thyroid gland.
+5 # soularddave 2013-11-16 16:17
Quoting jwb110:
If you live on or near the west coast of the US start using iodized salt to protect your thyroid gland.

The bleached table salt to which you refer, no longer is able to protctect one grom thyroid problems, much less as a profalaxis against the effects of radiation on the thyroid.

Besides, 1/2 ofAmericans AVOID the stuff for very good reasons. One needs to find other sources of (important) iodine, just to be healthy. Countering the effects of radiation is an entirely different matter.

Google it, and you'll see how much misinformation is out there.
+9 # tomslockett 2013-11-16 18:12
Quoting jwb110:
TEPCO is holding out, hoping for a bailout by other countries. They have been rather lax and certainly less than truthful about the situation.
Just a suggestion, don't eat anymore fish or shellfish from Pacific waters. No canned fish unless you know where it came from. If you live on or near the west coast of the US start using iodized salt to protect your thyroid gland.

The question of safety of food is important. What about migratory fish such as tuna and salmon. Numerous health experts have advised to eat only salmon labeled "Alaska" to avoid chemicals used in salmon farmed products. Is Alaska Salmon now irradiated? Where can we get information about radiation contamination in our food? Is seaweed salad now a danger? This kind of information should be made available. Thank you, William Boardman for drawing attention to this important topic.
+12 # Helen 2013-11-16 13:46
This situation should be a lesson for us all. Politics are the last thing we need in the NRC.
+4 # Skeptical1247 2013-11-17 16:52
For-profit corporations are the very damn last things we need in the realm of generating energy. It has allowed a lot of stupidity to flourish. I am always amazed at how some highly trained and intelligent scientists and engineers would allow themselves to be used in such a half-assed and irresponsible manner. Seriously, the goddam questions were asked... "What you going to do with the radioactive waste? Dunno... we'll figure something out later." " How are you going to deal with multiple concurrent system breakdowns? You know... like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, fires and good ol' terrorism.. etc.?" "Duh? Oh, hell, that'll NEVER happen..."

There is no shortage of money-grubbing assholes who contributed to a condition of "mass stupidity". They should be lined up and shoved into the core of a journey to the center of the earth. That would not only be fun, but an object lesson for the other assholes, like the jerks from Monsanto maybe?
+2 # JJS 2013-11-17 17:46
We should try to re-enact the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935
or similar legislation to get these money grubbers and energy hostage takers under control.
+14 # songtale 2013-11-16 13:52
The simple but horrifying fact is that planet earth will no longer be able to support plant and animal life because the nuclear monster has been unleashed. But not to worry - it may take a few decades or so. The trip, unfortunately will be horrifying. Einsteins words on two separate occasions:

1)"With the splitting of the atom, everything has changed except our way of thinking."

2) "It's a hell of a way to boil water!"
(The latter with reference to nuclear power.)
+21 # Old Man 2013-11-16 14:52
Their killing the world. GE need to get involved, they sold the product to Japan then laughed all the way to the bank. GE should have not allow this to be built on a fault line in the first place and surely not on the coast line.
They've been using the same technology for 50 yrs. now w/o any improvements.
It's time to shut them all down.
+4 # RickMaart 2013-11-17 15:09
Isn't San Onofre in Southern California on a fault? Isn't that a GE job?
-4 # Merschrod 2013-11-16 14:59
Conclusion - what we knew all along - the disaster is not going away. Not really a well written article - entertining dark humor though.
+11 # JJS 2013-11-16 18:40
This really is an artistic article you write, Mr. Boardman. Thank you for trying to spread the word in a way that avoids panic but conveys the truth. I have said this before, the disaster has already happened and we are toast. The world is dead for the mass of human/mammalian and other forms of life. Genie out of bottle and no getting it back in. There may be some human survivors, but that is being VERY optimistic. Be as kind to your neighbor as you can given the circumstances. Don't give in but it is past time to give up. Moving the rods is doing something, but not a real solution. The world could convene and there would be NO resolution. Get it? Got it!
0 # WBoardman 2013-11-17 13:44
Hard to argue with such despair,
so I won't, but I still have some hope,
out of contrariness as much as anything, and
given that the scale needed for a global wipe-out
does not seem inherent in Fukushima.

That is not to say that the worst outcome
wouldn't be bad enough.
0 # JJS 2013-11-17 17:50
Where there is life there is hope.
0 # Nominae 2013-11-18 14:52
Quoting WBoardman:
Hard to argue with such despair,
so I won't, but I still have some hope.....

That is not to say that the worst outcome
wouldn't be bad enough.

Fukushima is actually a back-handed blessing. It really dulls the roar of those still defending nukes as a way to boil water. Especially when we now have solar-thermal to do the same thing.

For those unfamiliar with the term, solar-thermal (as distinguished from solar-photo voltaic [PV] ) involves simply redirecting sunlight with a mirror directly onto the "actionable" surface of a steam turbine to produce exactly the same effect as *any* kind of nuke, with zero fuel input cost other than the expense of the mirror assembly, and zero danger.

*WAY* off the subject, and personal to Mr. Boardman: As a long time Vermonter, how is it that you seem to subscribe in this article to the British spelling for so many words ? I thought you might be writing for The Guardian.

It would appear that Anglophilia in spelling and the peppering of one's speech with preciously endearing "Britishisms" is the new "Beatlemania" of the NorthEast.

I don't mind waiting out fads such as the hula hoop, but I now find the RSN spell checker "busting me" for using the standard *American* spelling of words and attempting to "correct me" TO the British Spellings. (Not going to happen),

Simply a request for information that I have no idea how to research for myself.

Thanks for any personal insight.
0 # WBoardman 2013-11-18 19:18
personal to Nominae

I see "tonnes" and "metres" in a quote from Reuters,
because that was what Reuters said.

Are there others?

If it's an affectation, it's an unconscious one
(I believe).
0 # Nominae 2013-11-20 05:26
Quoting WBoardman:
personal to Nominae

I see "tonnes" and "metres" in a quote from Reuters,
because that was what Reuters said.

Are there others?

If it's an affectation, it's an unconscious one
(I believe).

Personal to Mr. Boardman

That's about all I noticed as well. I really did not suspect you of using them as an affectation, but since I have seen that happening in other publications with such frequency in the past couple of years, I began to wonder whether or not that had become "a thing".

That and the fact that the RSN spell checker wants to bust me for the use of the American spelling of words, such as "advertizing" telling me to correct them to the British spelling "advertising".

I greatly admire both your writing, your courage, and your willingness to broach extremely complicated subjects in an effort to make them comprehensible to a non-techie readership.

Beyond that, I am simply in awe of the patience you manifest in your response to some of the comments on your articles. :))

I had heard about the recent "rage" for verbal Britishisms in NYC awhile back, and decided that if *you* were using them in your own writing, perhaps there really was some kind of a "King's English" movement going on out there.

Thank you for taking the time out of what must be a busy schedule to address my extremely off-subject question.
0 # Hacienda View 2013-12-18 10:14
In spite of the fact that Great Britain is in the European Union, we don't use 'tonnes' or 'metres' (Eng spelling) we are still in the stone age and, like yourself use 'ton' and 'feet and inches' whatever they are.
+8 # janie1893 2013-11-17 02:24
Fukushima is the beginning of the long slow death of the human species as we know it. There will be other catalysts to add to the devastation, but this is the initial causal factor. I weep for my grandchildren. They will never know the pristine country we were left by our forebears.
+7 # RickMaart 2013-11-17 06:37
Seems that with all our (USA) technical experience from Oak Ridge, GE, Hanford, New Mexico, Amarillo, Texas (Pantex), Savannah River, Neutron Devices, we would have some ideas on how to handle nuclear material. If we don't, we have a seriously flawed technical cadre and should not have anything to do with nuclear material. Isn't there a professional team that could be made up from these resources and over 80 years of nuclear production operations, both military and civilian to help TEPCO? It seems like everyone is saying "Well it's their problem and let them solve it." This is everyone's problem.
+4 # WBoardman 2013-11-17 13:56
Fukushima is a unique set of circumstances
that no one anywhere is trained to handle effectively.

The Unit 4 fuel pool is only one unique element
of the whole, and it has to be addressed before
nature addresses it and makes it worse.

The Americans and others with nuclear expertise
have never tried to pull deformed (some) fuel assemblies
from a deformed (partly) fuel pool at the top of
a deformed building of uncertain stability.

They all know how to do it in pristine conditions,
but then so does TEPCO, having done it safely before
hundreds(?) of times.

After the fuel pool, then there's the three molten cores
somewhere beneath Units 1, 2, and 3 -- one each --
in unknown but presumably highly deformed condition.

Reportedly, one scientist said we'd all be better off
if those cores just kept going to the molten core
of the Earth where they'd hardly make a ripple.
At the moment, it seems uncertain whether any one
of them has left the building.
+6 # BlowingintheWind 2013-11-17 20:34
This region of Japan may be damned for all time (at least on the human scale), but the situation could get a whole lot worse if they botch the fuel rod transfer, or if the "China syndrome" comes to pass. The whole point of the latter scenario isn't that the molten core will magically disappear into the earth, but that it will eventually hit groundwater, possibly resulting in a huge steam explosion (which is what actually destroyed the Chernobyl plant).

If any of this bothers you - and if you haven't done so already - please go to and sign the petitions calling for an international team to take over from the corrupt and incompetent officials now in charge. Others may not have the perfect solution either, but at least they won't have as much financial/polit ical conflict clouding their judgement.

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