In a frightening development that has received appallingly little coverage in English, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) released the results of a study Nov. 30 finding that melted fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor has nearly reached the bottom steel wall under the concrete at the base of the containment structure. TEPCO estimates the fuel rods have already melted through the concrete base of the reactor container by up to 65 centimeters. If the melt-through continues another 37 centimeters, it will reach the steel wall. If it melts through that, it will be released into the soil, and likely the groundwater.
However, TEPCO’s analysis is rough at best—it is a prediction of the current situation inside the reactor based on its temperature change and injection of cooling water. Said one technician: “TEPCO’s analysis says we have 30 centimeters of the concrete base left to prevent the melted fuel to hit the bottom. But I am not confident that we have that much space left. We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario.”
The only reasonably detailed accounts we could find on the study were from the technical trade website IEEE Spectrum (Dec. 1), Korea’s Arirang TV (Dec. 2), and, in much vaguer terms, The Guardian and The Australian (both Dec. 2).
The New York Times, which evidently finds this news not fit to “print” (merely citing The Australian’s account on its “Green” blog), runs an opinion piece, “After Fukushima: Now, More Than Ever” by Microsoft veteran and nuclear booster Nathan Myhrvold, who finds:
The primary lesson from Japan’s recent trauma, however, is that a tsunami is dangerous to everything in its path, nuclear plants included. Consider the growing needs for reliable energy, the fact that nuclear is probably the safest form of power that can meet those needs, and the unfortunate truth that fossil-fueled alternatives emit so much pollution that they arguably pose a much greater threat than the darkest nuclear accident scenario.
A logician would see no reason for ambivalence, but most people are not logical when it comes to scary events. That’s why people worry about dying in a plane crash while driving to the airport, even though the drive is more dangerous than the flight.
It is Myhrvold who needs a lesson in logic. If tsunamis, earthquakes and human error are inevitable, this is an argument against nuclear power, not for it. The juxtaposing of nuclear power and fossil fuels as an either/or is a false dilemma. And dismissing fears of nuclear power as “illogical” when elevated radiation has been found in topsoil at schools and playgrounds in Fukushima prefecture is itself illogical. Not to mention morally depraved.
Ironically, on Dec. 4, two days after Myhrvold’s piece ran, the NY Times reported another grim TEPCO revelation—that at least 45 tons of highly radioactive water have leaked from a purification facility at the Fukushima complex, and some of it may have reached the Pacific Ocean. (This new leak being but a fraction of the radioactive water that has reached the sea since the start of the disaster.)
On May 27, two months and change after the Fukushima disaster began, Germany’s Der Speigel ran an exposé by Cordula Meyer on the proverbial revolving door between the nuclear industry and supposed government “regulators” in Japan. The opening paragraphs:
Both the nuclear industry and its government regulators are also closely intertwined with the political sphere. TEPCO’s management is among the key campaign donors to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Meanwhile, the union that represents workers in the electricity industry supports Prime Minister Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). So far neither of the two parties has taken a position critical of the nuclear industry.
It’s as if Austrian writer Robert Jungk’s horrific vision of the “nuclear state” had become reality. In his book “The Nuclear State,” once required reading for Germany’s protest generation, Jungk describes how a high-risk technology can erode a democracy, even without a nuclear disaster. Many of the protesters who faced water cannons, batons and concertina wire during demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s at German sites like the Brokdorf nuclear power plant near Hamburg, already felt as if they were living in the dreaded surveillance state.
Germany was ultimately spared Jungk’s vision, but in Japan it has proven to be prophetic. In a consensus-based society, the nuclear industry, electric utilities, political parties and scientists have created a sacrosanct refuge for themselves that has become a threat to Japan’s democracy.
After a generation of propaganda about how nuclear power is the “clean” (sic!) alternative to fossil fuels, the world desperately needs to hear Robert Jungk‘s warning again. Let’s not allow such voices to be relegated to Orwell’s Memory Hole before the Fukushima disaster is even over. It could be just beginning.