A History of Cover-Ups and Ineptitude Leads to Catastrophe
One of the most costly, self-inflicted wounds engineered by techno-capitalist man is the never-ending Fukushima nuclear disaster. The groundwork for epic failure at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began in the 1960’s when TEPCO bulldozed 25 meters off of a 35-meter-high hill in order to facilitate the delivery and set up of the plant’s large equipment, which was delivered by boat, as well as to provide easier and cheaper access to seawater used as a coolant pumped through the reactors. TEPCO then dug even further downward another 14 feet to construct the basement where emergency diesel generators would be installed. Decades later a tsunami would easily flood this area, knocking out the emergency electrical back-up generator and making nuclear meltdown a certainty.
In the early 1970’s, several memos circulated within the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) expressing concern over design flaws of the Mark I nuclear reactors made by General Electric, the same type installed at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Recommendations were made to stop licensing reactors with these faulty designs and the top safety official at the AEC, Jospeh Hendrie, agreed with them but rejected their implementation on the grounds that it could do irreparable damage to the nuclear industry:
“..the acceptance of pressure suppression containment concepts by all elements in the nuclear field, including Regulatory and the ACRS, is firmly embedded in the conventional wisdom. Reversal of this beloved policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants, would make unlicensable the G.E. and Westinghouse ice condensor plants now in review, and would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.”
The last line of defense in preventing the ionizing alpha, beta and gamma radiation and radioisotopes inside melting fuel rods from spewing out into the environment is the containment vessel. The poor design of the now ruptured Mark 1 containment vessel in Fukushima is most certainly contributing to the ongoing disaster there. The U.S. apparently has 23 reactors just like the ones that melted down in Fukushima as well as the risky storage of spent fuel rods next to the reactor building itself.
When the Tōhoku tsunami struck at Fukushima, reports describe chaos and incompetency as workers had to bring protective gear and manuals from distant buildings as well as borrow equipment from contractors. The failure of the Japanese government and TEPCO to imagine such a catastrophic event and guard against it is highlighted by the fact that this exact scenario was predicted in a Japanese magna comic book.
Years went by with only a few lone voices questioning the safety of the Fukushima nuclear plant such as former engineer Toshio Kimura who worked there:
I asked my boss back in the late ’90s what would happen if a tsunami hit the Fukushima reactors. I said, “Surely a meltdown will happen.” He said, “Kimura, you are right,” but it was made clear that the issue of a big tsunami was taboo. A few years later I quit the company because of its culture of cover-ups…
…When officials from the nuclear safety agency or the ministry came to the plant for inspections, they were entertained with drinks the night before. Then they would inspect the plant and give it a hundred per cent pass mark. Then on the way home the inspectors were given beer and snacks and taxi vouchers.
Run by the Utility Gangs
Entire communities have been bought off by corporate interests to become ruled by what is known as the “nuclear village” in Japan:
Tokyo has been able to essentially buy the support, or at least the silent acquiescence, of communities by showering them with generous subsidies, payouts and jobs. In 2009 alone, Tokyo gave $1.15 billion for public works projects to communities that have electric plants, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Experts say the majority of that money goes to communities near nuclear plants.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg, experts say, as the communities also receive a host of subsidies, property and income tax revenues, compensation to individuals and even “anonymous” donations to local treasuries that are widely believed to come from plant operators.
Unquestionably, the aid has enriched rural communities that were rapidly losing jobs and people to the cities. With no substantial reserves of oil or coal, Japan relies on nuclear power for the energy needed to drive its economic machine. But critics contend that the largess has also made communities dependent on central government spending — and thus unwilling to rock the boat by pushing for robust safety measures.
In a process that critics have likened to drug addiction, the flow of easy money and higher-paying jobs quickly replaces the communities’ original economic basis, usually farming or fishing.
The Japanese news media, just as in the U.S., has also been corrupted and taken over by monied-interests:
The mainstream media has long been part of the press-club system, which funnels information from official Japan to the public. Critics say the system locks the country’s most influential journalists into a symbiotic relationship with their sources, and discourages them from investigation or independent lines of analysis…
…Japan’s power-supply industry, collectively, is Japan’s biggest advertiser, spending ¥88 billion (more than $1 billion) a year, according to the Nikkei Advertising Research Institute. Tepco’s ¥24.4 billion alone is roughly half what a global firm as large as Toyota spends in a year.
And just like in the U.S., corporations have used “donations” to capture Japan’s political system:
Members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan since 1955 except for a year in the 1990s and for a three-year period ending in 2012, have been rewarded for their pro-nuclear stance with campaign donations from the ten giant electrical utilities that control around 96 percent of the nation’s power supply.
The largest of these, the Tokyo Electric Power Company or Tepco, formally ended its direct corporate donations in 1974. But it systematically encouraged “voluntary” donations by company executives and managers to a fund-raising entity created by the ruling party, according to a 2011 investigation by Asahi. At least 448 Tepco executives donated roughly $777,000 in total to the entity between 1995 and 2009, according to documents obtained by Asahi and shared with the Center.
Roughly 60 percent of Tepco’s executives participated, a rate similar to that at other utilities. Together, they funded $2.5 million of the party’s expenses, based on today’s exchange rates. A Tepco spokesman told Asahi that the donations were “based on the judgment of the individual and the company is not involved. We do not encourage such donations.”
The culture of complicity between the Japanese nuclear industry and the government is firmly entrenched with generations of high level bureaucrats having landed jobs at Japan’s large utility companies. This revolving door between corporations and the Japanese government mirrors that of the U.S.:
Tepco’s influence has also been enhanced by its enthusiastic participation in revolving door-employment practices similar to those involving bureaucrats and companies in Washington, D.C.
A METI report in 2011, prepared at the insistence of nuclear opponents in Japan’s tiny Communist Party, said for example that between 1960 and 2011, Tepco hired 68 high-level government officials. From 1980 to late 2011, the report said, four former top-level bureaucrats from METI’s own Agency for Natural Resources and Energy became vice presidents at other electric utilities. The practice is known here by the amusing term, amakudari, for appointees who “descended from heaven.”
Tepco officials also regularly move into key regulatory positions, part of a migration known as ama-agari, or “ascent to heaven” that has involved dozens of top utility officials. More than 100 such utility executives between 2001 and 2011 were able to keep drawing an industry paycheck while also working part-time for the government, a practice that is legal here, according to a former member of the Japanese Diet Lower House Economy and Industry Committee, who spoke on background. An official working in the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s research division, in an interview, said on condition of anonymity that the ama-agari system is “like having cops and thieves working in the same police station.”
Perhaps the most significant instance of ama-agari was the Liberal Democratic Party’s appointment in 1998 of Tokio Kano, a longtime Tepco executive, as chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees METI and as the parliamentary secretary of science and technology. Both are posts crucial to the nuclear energy industry, and Kano used them to advance legislation enabling plutonium-based fuel to be burned in some standard reactors — not just breeders. He also pushed through a law requiring that all spent nuclear fuel be sent to Rokkasho or similar Japanese plants.
Corporate Fascism in Japan
Embarrassed by the constant revelations of regulatory and governmental capture by industry, the Japanese government recently passed a state secrets law meant to intimidate and jail those who cast a prying eye into Japan’s corrupt corporatocracy. After the Japanese government restarted its idled nuclear plants last year, those antagonistic towards the nuclear industry were secretly put on a watch list. The ominous experiences of independent investigative reporter Mako Oshidori with Japan’s nuclear industrial complex are reminiscent of the movie Silkwood. She discovered that she was on the government’s watch list and has now noticed an individual closely tracking her every move:
…The list included people with power in the opposition parties, such as the former prime minister Naoto Kan and the politician Ishiro Ozawa, and I was told that my name, Mako Oshidori, was listed alongside these names. A researcher who was given the list and told not to approach anybody on it was friendly with me and told me the list included my name. Soon after that a mysterious man began to follow me. This man appeared to be a member of Public Security Intelligence Agency in the Cabinet Office, which investigates various things. One of my hobbies is taking a candid shot, and I will show you the successful candid shot of this man.
Just as you see here, there was a time period when someone would always be near me, trying to eavesdrop on my conversation with people. As I am a professional entertainer, whoever I am talking to would ask me if the person was my manager. I would say that the person must be one of my groupies, as I have never met the person. Sometimes I would go to Fukushima Prefecture to interview different mothers. We would have meals together and talk somewhere, and when the mothers are leaving the premise to go home, an agent from the Public Security Intelligence Agency would take a photo of each mother and make a note of the license plate number of each car. Afraid of having their photos taken or the license plate numbers recorded, some Fukushima mothers would refused to be interviewed, or they would even refuse to have their stories published. An ex-agent who is knowledgeable about the work of the Public Security Intelligence Agency said that when you are visibly followed, that was meant to intimidate you. If there was one person visible, then there would be ten more. I think that is analogous to cockroaches. So, when you do a little serious investigation about the nuclear accident, you are under various pressure and it makes it more difficult to interview people. There are actually other journalists from major newspapers and television stations, other than me, who have done a lot of investigation about the nuclear accident, but the information doesn’t readily come out. That’s because the pressure is placed on them not to release the information. What I am going to tell you now might surprise you, but the Japanese people are just as surprised when I tell them the same information as it’s something they have never heard of, read in the newspaper, or seen on TV…
Despite the great tragedies with nuclear weaponry and technology that Japan has experienced with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and now Fukushima, these instruments of mayhem and death are ironically becoming a key centerpiece in the Japanese economy with the current right-wing government banking on it as an export cash cow:
Exports of nuclear components and technology, as well as conventional arms, are potentially key elements of “Abenomics” and much is riding on the outcome. In 2013, Abe concluded Japan’s first nuclear reactor export agreement with Turkey for $22 billion and others are pending with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while the prime minister has also lobbied governments in Central Europe, Vietnam and Indonesia. This is a remarkable turnaround from 2011 when the prospects for post-Fukushima Japan relying on nuclear energy, let alone exporting it, looked unlikely.
The seeds for Japan’s nuclear hara-kiri were planted back in the early 1950’s when the American government hatched a propaganda campaign of developing an “atoms for peace” mission in Japan to foster pro-nuclear sentiment and help rebuild their economy using such technology.
The Center for Public Integrity reports that Japan is leading the charge for a new nuclear industry of plutonium-based nuclear fuel with grave implications for spreading this technology and material all over the world. By October of this year, Japan will have finished a $22-billion plutonium factory in Rokkasho which will be able to produce enough plutonium per year to make 2,600 bombs. It appears Japan is lurching towards militarism in an age of end-stage capitalism:
The US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960 stipulates that an attack on Japan will be regarded as an attack on the United States. Prime Minister Abe is seeking to transform Japan’s constitution to permit engagement of the Japanese armed forces in aggressive wars. But it is difficult to imagine a resurgent military posture by Japan without tacit encouragement from Washington.
The highest stage of monopoly capitalism is fascism. The 2008 global economic crisis of capitalism, still unresolved, is forcing ill-advised and counterproductive “austerity measures” on decaying capitalist societies throughout Europe and in Japan, where Prime Minister Abe is restructuring the economy into the very pro-market system which is producing riots throughout Western Europe, as living standards deteriorate drastically, and the income inequality gap becomes an abyss.
A Nuclear Bomb Explosion Versus A Nuclear Meltdown
Some ask why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were rebuilt and repopulated so soon after a nuclear bomb blast, yet Fukushima and Chernobyl remain unsafe to inhabit into the indefinite future. The answer lies in the vast difference of irradiating potential between a nuclear bomb and a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear bombs are designed to cause maximum concussive damage within the shortest amount of time by creating as much energy as possible from a runaway nuclear fission reaction. Nuclear reactors on the other hand are designed to create a low-level of energy from a very controlled and sustained nuclear fission reaction. The radioactive isotopes from the fission product mixture of a nuclear bomb are relatively short-lived (<50 years) whereas those from the meltdown of a nuclear reactor are long-lived and must be stored away safely for tens of thousands of years (essentially forever). Approximate half-lives of some of the isotopes in the spent nuclear fuel are:
The nuclear bombs used in World War II were detonated roughly 2,000 feet above ground and their radioisotopes were carried by the wind and dispersed over a very large area. The nuclear bomb called “Little Boy” used over Hiroshima contained only 140 pounds of fissionable material (Uranium-235) and “Fat Man” used over Nagasaki contained just 14 pounds of Plutonium-239. These are minute amounts of radioisotopes when compared to the 180 tons of nuclear fuel at Chernobyl and the staggering 1,600 tons at Fukushima. Explosions and meltdowns at nuclear reactors occur at ground level, creating more radioactive isotopes due to neutron activation with the soils while spreading their radiation across the planet, year after year after year. Today the background radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is said to be the same as the global average anywhere on Earth. Ground zero at Chernobyl and Fukushima won’t be habitable for 20,000 years or longer. Nuclear bombs kill hundreds of thousands of people instantly while a nuclear reactor meltdown kills people over years, decades, and generations.
Not Enough Thumbs to Plug the Nuclear Dyke
The too-big-to-fail TEPCO is now building the Great Ice Wall of Japan to stem the flow of tons of contaminated water that they have been hastily storing in hundreds of haphazardly constructed containers.
“I must say our tank assembly was slipshod work.” ~ TEPCO worker
The “experts” estimate that it will take 40 years to clean up the Fukushima mess. That would put us at the year 2054, a date that many estimate humans may well be extinct or nearly extinct. By then, ocean acidification will have doubled and the global average temperature will have risen by at least 4 to 6.5°C. The world’s oceans will have swelled 2 feet higher. I’m glad to know that the “experts” are taking into account our radically changing planet:
Nuclear plants were originally given a license to operate for 40 years, and in the late 1990s, the NRC began accepting applications to extend those licenses for an additional 20 years. While it’s not clear how many current plants will still be operating in 2100, most facilities store their nuclear waste on-site, where it can continue to emit radiation for thousands of years. There is currently no long-term national storage site for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S., as Congress cut the funding to build such a facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2011. While there are no near-term plans to remove nuclear waste from the coastal plants threatened by rising seas, “the expectation is that [waste] won’t remain on-site,” said NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer Roger Hannah.
Despite the increased risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, some plant operators have not factored this into their long-term plans. In 2010, when Florida Power and Light Company applied for a license to build two additional reactors at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, Florida, the NRC asked the plant’s owners to explain “how potential sea-level rise due to potential future climate change is accounted for” in their plans, NRC documents show. The company declined to discuss climate change in its analysis, and used a projection that assumed a constant sea level rise of just 1 foot per century, which is 5.6 feet lower than NOAA’s worst-case projection for 2100.
Boy, I hope that ice wall works…
The risks to the ocean, in particular, are unprecedented because there is good reason to believe that melted fuel residing in, or below, the reactor basements is in direct contact with an underground river running through the site (Nagata, 2013).
A German study modelling the effects of an uncontained core meltdown suggests the Pacific Ocean is imperiled. The “German Risk Study, Phase B” found that a core meltdown accident could result in complete failures of all structural containment, causing melted fuel to exit the reactor foundation within five days (cited in Bayer, Tromm, & Al-Omari 1989). Moreover, the study found that even in the event of an intact building foundation, passing groundwater would be in direct contact with fuel, causing leaching of fission products. Strontium leaches slower than cesium. A follow-up German study, “Dispersion of Radionuclides and Radiation Exposure after Leaching by Groundwater of a Solidified Core-Concrete Melt,” predicted that strontium contamination levels would rise exponentially years after a full melt-through located adjacent to a river (Bayer, Tromm, & Al-Omari, 1989).
The study predicted concentrations of Strontium-90 in river water would spike relatively suddenly, but maintain extraordinarily high levels of contamination for years. Strontium bio-accumulates in the human body, including the brain, and is a known genotoxin. The study’s experimental conditions are roughly similar to Daiichi’s site conditions and strontium levels have been spiking there since the summer of 2013. TEPCO just reported that strontium levels in reactor basement water ranged from 40 million to 500 million becquerels per liter (“TEPCO to Improve,” 2014).