The operators of Japan's devastated Fukushima nuclear plant have announced plans to remove 400 tons of highly irradiated spent fuel from the site, in an unprecedented operation that began Monday November 18. Nuclear researcher Harvey Wasserman believes that the highly risky procedure, in fact, the entire plant needs to be taken out of the hands of the operators- Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).
In this interview with GRITtv, Wasserman explains how the fuel rods at Reactor Number Four have been stored since the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Plant in March of 2011. They can't heat up, be exposed to air or break without releasing deadly gas, but the cooling pool they've been resting in is leaky and potentially corroded by seawater and could never withstand another tremor or quake. The cooling pool is also 100 feet up.
"These rods have to be brought to the ground. It's never been done under these kinds of circumstances," says Wasserman. But as a 40-year activist in the field, Wasserman is especially concerned about the operators, TEPCO.
"I believe we got better information from the Soviet Union about Chernobyl than we're getting from TEPCO and the Japanese about Fukushima," he told GRITtv.
A petition with more than 150,000 signatures was delivered to the United Nations earlier this November, calling for the world to take action. But who? As he points out, the International Atomic Energy Agency" has a mandate to promote nuclear power."
What does all of this say about the prospect of safe nuclear power and the "new generation of plants" the Obama administration endorses? And what about the Tokyo Olympics? Wasserman's answers aren't reassuring.
Laura Flanders: We saw you there in a little clip of video [delivering your petition to the United Nations]. How long did that petition take to get together?
Harvey Wasserman: Just a matter of weeks. I put it up, and within less than a month we had 115,000 at MoveOn, 40,000 at Roots Action; the Green Shadow Cabinet pulled in a couple hundred organizations. It just flew.
LF: The exciting thing about your petition was, it got me at least, to start paying attention to what was happening at Fukushima! When I went back and looked, not at the US press but the international press, I was terrified.
HW: You should be terrified. It's a mind-boggling situation at Fukushima. This is my 40th year fighting nuclear power, I hate to say it, back when [we] coined the phrase "No Nukes" in 1973. All the years we've been dealing with nuclear power, no one ever talked about three simultaneous meltdowns and four explosions at a single reactor site.
This is not a Soviet reactor situation, these are General Electric reactors. There are two dozen in the United States virtually identical to Fukushima.
LF: What is the situation at Fukushima, and how is it affecting world waters and food?
HW: Part of the problem with the situation at Fukushima is that we don't know everything. The site is controlled by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which is a private corporation. The infamous TEPCO, and the government of Japan is on top of that, and the government of Japan is very unforthcoming about information from the Fukushima site.
LF: Well I'm sure they've been very busy applying for the Olympic.
HW: Yes, well they won that, unfortunately. They may have to rescind that at some point in time, but the Japanese government right now has a very pro-nuclear administration, and they're causing us a lot of problems. I believe we got better information from the Soviet Union about Chernobyl than we're getting from TEPCO and the Japanese about Fukushima.
LF: The information we were getting this summer included revelations that 300 tons of toxic water leaked in one week, and then in other news, the fact that 300 tons are leaking into the Pacific daily.
HW: Every day, and this is for two and half years now, and there is no end in sight. It could go on, as Dr. Helen Caldicott said, for 50 years. We've already detected radiation from Fukushima off of the coast of Alaska. There was a study of 15 tuna caught off the coast of California; out of the 15 tuna caught, 15 had radiation from Fukushima.
LF: Radiation enough to be dangerous?
HW: Yes, you wouldn't want to eat this tuna. This is really, really serious, Laura. I look through the internet everyday; I'm getting reports from the Pacific that I can only refer to as apocalyptic: Major dead zones, radiation being detected all over the place. Radiation in even small doses, cesium, strontium, iodine, will bio-accumulate. If you get a relatively small dose into some seaweed, fish will come; they will eat enough seaweed that it will be significant; they will be eaten up the food chain; we're at the top of the food chain: this is very, very serious.
LF: When I looked into it further, it turns out this month the government of Japan is responding to this crisis of the summer saying, we're going to take action. One of the actions that they seem to be taking is this complicated-looking spent fuel replacement procedure . . .
HW: Well, this is a major crisis. We finally got an article in The New York Times that has been blacked out in American major media ["Removing Fuel Rods Poses New Risks at Crippled Nuclear Plant"] Thank God for your show and for the internet.
There is a spent fuel pool 100 feet in the air, brilliant design. John King at CNN called it a "bathtub on the roof." It has no containment over it, and when the earthquake-tsunami hit, unit 4 had the fuel out. They were doing inspections in this pool, and a lot of it is very, very radioactive, and the stuff has been suspended 100 feet in the air since the accident. It actually caught on fire at one point, and they had to pour in seawater, which is corrosive. There is debris in the pool; we don't know the status of the fuel rods; and it has to come out of there because if, God forbid, [there's] another earthquake . . . If one is strong enough to knock these fuel rods to the ground, they are clad in zirconium alloy, which will catch fire if it's exposed to air, spontaneously. Zirconium is the stuff that was in flashcubes that burn very brightly very quickly. If there is a fire of this stuff, there has been shown to be enough radioactive cesium in these rods to exceed the releases at Hiroshima by a factor of 14,000. We're talking about huge radiation leaks. So these rods have to be brought to the ground. It's never been done under these kinds of circumstances.
LF: The TEPCO company released this video, of the operation. Are you really saying that the UN could do this better and should step in and do this instead?
HW: The problem is that we are not only between a rock and a hard place, a rock has fallen on us. You have more than 1,300 fuel rods that are radioactive in there. In order to get them out properly they have to be in decent shape because you have to pull them out of an array. If they're bent, if they're warped, if they're brittle, if they're swollen, we don't know if they're going to come out, and they have to come out.
LF: My question remains: is in the UN better equipped to do this than TEPCO?
HW: Yes. Well, TEPCO is a private corporation, they're still in it for the money. Arne Gunderson, a great nuclear engineer, wrote them and said you have got to dig a trench between the mountain where the water is rushing through at the rate of 300 tons a day, and the plant, so you can divert the water. They wrote him back and said you know what? We don't have enough money. So we have to have a situation where there is unlimited funds. That's not TEPCO, that's not even the Japanese government.
LF: So who is it?
HW: It has to be the world community, this vague entity. We have to have all of the best scientists, all of the best engineers and unlimited money to deal with this. This is an apocalyptic event.
LF: You gathered 150,000 signatories on a petition asking for exactly that, but concretely, what do you want in terms of action and by whom?
HW: We have to figure out how to get the fuel rods out of Unit 4; we have to decommission units 3, 2 and 1. I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but we have to find out where the melted cores from units 1, 2 and 3 actually are - we have three missing cores.
LF: But who's the "we" here?
HW: The world community. You know the Pacific Ocean is at stake here. I know that sounds - look, we've already lost the Gulf of Mexico. So we have little training in this. The Pacific Ocean is at risk. That radiation will be in California within a year.
LF: So who?
HW: There is an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the UN. This is the problem we have, if we petition the United Nations to take action, they're going to refer us to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but the IAEA has a mandate to promote nuclear power, and this is why all of the studies by the UN and the World Health Organization don't show the correct health impacts of atomic radiation. They're not an objective source.
LF: I am getting increasingly discouraged here, Harvey.
HW: We've been dealing with this for a long time, and we knew something like this was going to happen, and this isn't even the worst case scenario. If the earthquake that hit that caused the tsunami 120 km off the coast of Japan had been 20 miles or two miles [closer], the Fukushima site could have been turned to rubble.
LF: Like we've seen in the Philippines after the typhoon?
HW: I wrote an article in 1979 mocking the proposed nuclear plant that they were going to build. They didn't build it, but it would have been right in the path of this particular typhoon.
LF: This is all taking place against the continuing discussion around climate change, and it also has to be said that there are some very high-placed scientists - some of the people who have helped alert the world to the perils of climate change - I'm thinking of James Hansen of NASA and others from around the world - who recently petitioned environmental organizations to reconsider nuclear power because wind and solar just can't meet our needs.
HW: They have not done their homework. What I call Solartopia, the mix of green energies, can in fact meet our energy needs. They just haven't looked at Germany . . . The renewables' rise in efficiency and plummeting in costs. It's all right there.
They also have not assessed the true global-warming impacts of nuclear power, which are considerable. [There's plenty of] carbon emissions in the mining and milling, enrichment and waste management process, and the cost of the reactors is out of control; they cannot get insurance; it is not a viable option. I'd like to see an assessment of the global-warming impacts of Fukushima, those four explosions, the ongoing process of dealing with the situation, and I hate to say it, but the next accident. That's what's really terrifying to me.
LF: What about the next generation of nuclear power plants? Obama tells us there are two new ones in the works that will be better, safer, smaller, a whole different generation.
HW: It's a myth. They are saying the same stuff about those nuclear plants that they said about the original ones, 50 years ago. It's not going to happen. The money isn't there; we've seen those technologies; they've failed. You know Bill Gates and Paul Allen from Microsoft put in a few 100 million dollars, pocket change to them; they will write it off of their taxes; they'll spend and spend and spend public money; it'll fail, and we'll have to clean up the mess. The reality is that renewables do work; nuclear power is a disaster, and it will continue to be a disaster, and thankfully we have the Solartopian options in hand.
LF: Do you have a message to the athletes; should they go to Tokyo?
HW: I was in Japan in the mid-70s. I actually wrote an article about Fukushima in 1977 in the progressive magazine, and everyone in Japan was saying, why are you building a nuclear plant in an earthquake-tsunami zone? TEPCO and the Japanese said, don't worry it won't happen, we can handle it. Now they are saying the same thing about a new generation of reactors. There is every reason not to believe them. We do have the options. I won't go back to Japan; I loved Japan. I would not go there. If I had relatives there, I would tell them to leave. It's only going to get worse. This is two and half years in. The situation at Fukushima is worse than it was when the accident first started. We have a serious situation, Laura.
LF: Harvey, thanks for frightening me even more.
HW: There's always a solution: I am optimistic. This is a tough one.
Get more information about Wasserman's work at NukeFree.org. He is the author, most recently of Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth A.D. 2030.