The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown is now a worldwide disaster.
More than two years after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl and after more than two years of denial and cover-up, the Japanese government on Oct. 6, through Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has requested global aid. The request came as radioactive water leaks continued to contaminate the Pacific Ocean's ecosystem and therefore the world food supply chain.
The latest leaks of radioactive water into the already-contaminated Pacific Ocean result are coming from an overfilled storage tank.
The Japanese Communist Party is calling for a declaration of national emergency, while even the Institute of Energy Economics, which takes a pro-nuclear stance, is showing concern and calling for immediate action. Scientists, who suspected the persistent leakage even before it was made public on July 22, remained unsurprised by the news, as radiation levels in the sea near Japan had been holding steady, rather than declining, as they would if the situation had been resolved.
The leak began beneath the plant, when three of seven underground storage ponds holding toxic water overflowed. The company's monitoring system failed to spot the breach. The ponds are now - finally - being fixed and replaced. Prior to the breach, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was charged with continuous inspections of the ponds, as well as all of the storage tanks, but their efforts were considered by experts to be shoddy, with just one worker assigned to 500 tanks over a period of two hours.
Another contributing factor, according to experts, was the ordinary movement of groundwater, which often flows into the basements of the damaged reactors, becomes contaminated, and eventually drains back out into the ocean. This means that the leak will continue even in the midst of efforts to repair the ponds.
"Big surprise; water does flow downhill," said Janette Sherman, a radiation expert and former chemist with the now-defunct U.S. Atomic Energy Commission which was replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "If you've ever had a leak in your house during a storm, you know how hard it is to contain water. There's a lot of water going into the plant, and it's got to go someplace. It's very hard to stop this."
Though workers at the plant erected an underground barrier to try and prevent that water's movement into the sea, those efforts failed; the irradiated water was able to get past it. Although TEPCO is working on a sophisticated filtration system that will supposedly remove radioactive materials from water and purify it, initial testing of the system has reportedly "not accomplished the expected result." Successful filtration, then, is likely a long way off if at all possible. And anyway, said Sherman, its level of success would be negligible, given the scope of the disaster. "You can precipitate these things out in a laboratory," she remarked, "but you're talking about millions of gallons here."
TEPCO, moreover, is largely seen as a profiteering corporation that has misinformed the public about the disaster. The company's ability to carry out the cleanup and decommission of the Fukushima site is being called into question.
Japanese Communist Party parliamentarian Shiokawa Tetsuya said that TEPCO failed to grasp the full extent of the leak, and at this time does not have concrete data concerning just how much contamination has gotten into the ocean. Furthermore, party chair Shii Kazuo has asked that TEPCO and the Japanese government retract their false statements to the public that "the situation is under control," and their insistence that people should not "turn against nuclear energy."
As both the government and corporations seemingly seek to pacify the public through dishonesty, other aspects of the Fukushima fallout are seen as just as problematic as the water leak: deformities have been observed in insects and fish, and traces of radioactive cesium have been found in bluefin tuna as far from Japan as the coast of California. And the effects on people have not yet been ascertained. Meanwhile, radiation in the ocean is expected to reach the U.S. Pacific coast in five years - less, if current leakage amounts increase.
The Japanese Communist Party, meanwhile, has long maintained an adamant stance on the nuclear issue. As far back as 1976, party secretariat head Fuwa Tetsuzo remarked, "Nuclear power is a dangerous and unproven technology with great potential risks. It can bring about a very dangerous outcome." Such an outcome is now plainly evident in the waters near Fukushima. But people are waking up, even if corporations aren't.
Tokyo resident and office worker Hitoshi Iwata, who participated in a demonstration against nuclear power, remarked, "Never in my 39 years of life have I tried to voice my views out loud like this. I expected that the Fukushima case would turn society away from nuclear power." But when Big Business, including corporations like TEPCO that spread misinformation, felt differently, "my sense of disappointment was so strong that I felt a compelling need to voice my protest."
Miho Igarashi, another demonstrator, added, "After the disaster, I knew that the government and vested interests would tell us lies about nuclear power being safe. It's time to raise our voices against the danger of atomic power."
Photo: Tokyo police wear special suits to protect them from radiation as they search for victims during the tsunami in 2011. Takuya Yoshino/AP