New readings show levels of radioisotopes found up to 30 kilometers offshore from the on-going crisis at Fukushima are ten times higher than those measured in the Baltic and Black Seas during Chernobyl.
"When it comes to the oceans, says Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceonographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "the impact of Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl."
The news comes amidst a tsunami of devastating revelations about the Fukushima disaster and the crumbling future of atomic power, along with a critical Senate funding vote today:
Fukushima's owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has confirmed that fuel at Unit One melted BEFORE the arrival of the March 11 tsunami.
This critical revelation confirms that the early stages of that melt-down were set in motion by the earthquake that sent tremors into Japan from a relatively far distance out to sea.
Virtually all of Japan's 55 reactors sit on or near earthquake faults. A 2007 earthquake forced seven reactors to shut at Kashiwazaki. Japan has ordered shut at least two more at Hamaoka because of their seismic vulnerability.
Numerous reactors in the United States sit on or near major earthquake faults. Two each at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, California, are within three miles of major fault lines. So is Indian Point, less than 40 miles from Manhattan. Millions of people live within 50 miles of both San Onofre and Indian Point.
On January 31, 1986, the Perry reactor, 35 miles east of Cleveland on Lake Erie, was damaged by an earthquake rated between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter Scale – orders of magnitude weaker than the one that struck Fukushima, and that could hit the sites in California, New York and elsewhere around the globe.
TEPCO has confirmed that at least three of the Fukushima reactors – Units One, Two and Three – have suffered at least partial fuel melts. In at least one case, the fuel has melted through part of the inner containment system, with molten radioactive metal melting through to the reactor floor. A wide range of sources confirm the likelihood that fission may still be proceeding in at least one Fukushima core. The danger level is disputed. But it clearly requires still more commitment to some kind of cooling regime that will send vast quantities of water into ocean.
At least one spent fuel pool – in Unit Four – may have been entirely exposed to air and caught fire. Reactor fuel cladding is made with a zirconium alloy that ignites when uncovered, emitting very large quantities of radiation. The high level radioactive waste pool in Unit Four may no longer be burning, though it may still be general. Some Fukushima fuel pools (like many in the United States) are perched high in the air, making their vulnerability remains a serious concern. But a new report by Robert Alvarez indicates the problem in the US may be more serious that generally believed.
Unit Four is tilting and may be sinking, with potentially devastating consequences. At least three explosions at the site have weakened critical structures there. Massive leakages may have softened the earth and undermined some of the buildings' foundations. Further explosions or aftershocks – or a fresh earthquake – could bring on structural collapses with catastrophic fallout.
TEPCO has now confirmed that there are numerous holes in the containment covering Unit Two, and at least one at Unit One. The global nuclear industry has long argued that containments are virtually impenetrable. The domes at Fukushima are of very similar design and strength as many in the US.
The health impacts on workers at Fukushima are certain to be devastating.
After Chernobyl, the Soviet government sent more than 800,000 draftees through the seething wreckage. Many stayed a matter of 90 seconds or less, running in to perform a menial task and then running out as quickly as possible.
Despite their brief exposure, these "liquidators" have suffered an epidemic of health effects, with an escalating death toll. Angry and embittered, they played a significant role in bringing down the Soviet Union that doomed them.
At Fukushima, a core of several hundred workers essentially sacrificed themselves in the early stages of the disaster. They courageously entered highly contaminated areas to perform tasks that almost certainly prevented an even worse catastrophe.
David Brenner, the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, said of the workers: "Those are pretty brave people. There are going to be some martyrs among them'."
"I don't know of any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," said University of Tokyo radiology professor Keiichi Nakaga.
Unfortunately, the toll among Fukushima's workers is certain to escalate. As few as two in five being sent into the Fukushima complex are being monitored for radiation exposure. According the Mainichi Shimbun, just 1,400 workers at Fukushima had been given thorough checkups, with just 40 getting their results confirmed.
Even at that, Japanese officials have raised the allowable dosages for nuclear workers from 100 millisieverts to 250, five times what's allowed for US workers, and 125 times what reactor workers typically receive in a year.
Some 88% of Japan's reactor work force are part-timers, sparsely trained and often paid extra money to race into highly radioactive areas and then run out.
But Nobuaki Terasaka, head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, May 16 confirmed some 4,956 cases of internal exposure to radiation among workers at reactors around the country. Of those, 4,766 were originally from Fukushima and had moved to other sites, but had re-visited the prefecture after the 3/11 disaster.
Some of the stricken workers believe they were contaminated when they returned home for their families, even though they may have stayed only briefly.
Workers at Fukushima itself report spotty testing and dangerous facilities, including a leaky earthquake-resistant building where they took their breaks. "We had our meals there, so I think radioactive substances came into our bodies," says one male worker. "We just drink beer and wash them down."
A "dead zone" around Fukushima similar to the one surrounding Chernobyl is likely in the making. According to a report published in the Japan Times, levels of contamination in areas around Fukushima are at least comparable to some around Chernobyl.
But people outside the official evacuation zone are also vulnerable. Radiation detected in Tokyo, nearly 200 miles away, at one point prompted the Japanese government to recommend mothers not use tap water to mix formula for their infants.
Nonetheless children have been observed attending schools while bulldozers were removing the radioactive soil from their playgrounds outside. Amidst global protests, the Japanese government has weakened the limits of allowable radiation exposures to children.
In the midst of the disaster, the owners of the Indian Point reactors have announced their refusal to upgrade fire protection systems which New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman says are "unacceptable."
More than 70% of the plant remains unprotected, he says, a "reckless" practice. Schneiderman accuses federal regulators as being too cozy with the plant's owners. Schneiderman and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo want the two IP reactors shut.
Over the weekend only four of Germany's seventeen reactors were operating, but the country suffered no apparent energy shortages. Prime Minister Angela Merkel has ordered seven older reactors shut, and the rest to be closed by 2011. But six of the newer ten closed for various technical reasons.
More than 20,000 Swiss citizens rallied to demand an end to plans to build new reactors there. The Swiss government has now confirmed it will not build new reactors, another major blow to the industry, this time resulting in the cancellation of plans for at least three projects.
Japan is standing by its decision to build no more reactors, while China has put some 28 proposed projects on hold. China's reaction to Fukushima will be crucial to the future of nuclear power, as it is by far the largest potential market for new reactors. Though prevailing winds head the other way, Fukushima is relatively close to China, and some fallout has been detected there.
The Obama Administration has still produced no comprehensive monitoring of radioactive fallout coming to the United States and has provided no guidance as to how American citizens can protect themselves, except to say not to worry. Polls now show more Americans opposing new reactors than favoring them, and grassroots opposition is fierce.
But the industry is pushing ahead with demands for $36 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors, with a preliminary vote expected soon in a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Nuclear opponents are asked to call the White House and Congress steadily through the 2012 budget process.
Also, today (May 26) may see a vote in a Senate committee on a CEDA plan that would provide still more money for new nukes. Safe energy advocates are urged to call their Senators asap.
The International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, has announced it sees no health effects at Fukushima. The pronouncement comes as no surprise from an agency whose mandate is focused on promoting atomic energy.
The IAEA has consistently low-balled death toll estimates at Chernobyl and regularly ignores industry critics. The pronouncement comes as the agency begins a long-term study of Fukushima's health effects. Meanwhile, a French watchdog agency has urged that 70,000 more people be evacuated from the Fukushima area. Coming from France, among the world's pro-nuclear nations, the warning is a grim reminded of how deadly the contamination surrounding Fukushima must be.
But for all the focus on land-based contamination, the continuing flood of radioactive materials into the ocean at Fukushima could have the most problematic long-term impacts. Long-term studies of radiological impacts on the seas are few and far between. Though some heavy isotopes may drop to the sea bottom, others could travel long distances through their lengthy half-lives. Some also worry that those contaminants that do fall to the bottom could be washed back on land by future tsunamis.
Tokyo Electric has now admitted that on May 10-11, at least 250 tons of radioactive liquid leaked into the sea from a pit near the intake at Unit 3, whose fuel was spiked with plutonium. According to the Japanese government, the leak contained about 100 times the annual allowable contamination.
About 500 tons leaked from Unit 2 from April 1 to April 6. Other leaks have been steady and virtually impossible to trace. "After Chernobyl, fallout was measured," says Buesseler, "from as far afield as the north Pacific Ocean."
A quarter-century later the international community is still trying to install a massive, hugely expensive containment structure to suppress further radiation releases in the wake of Chernobyl's explosion.
Such a containment would be extremely difficult to sustain at seaside Fukushima, which is still vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. To be of any real use, all six reactors and all seven spent fuel pools would have to be covered.
But avenues to the sea would also have to be contained. Fukushima is much closer to the ocean than Chernobyl, so more intense contamination might be expected. But the high radiation levels being measured indicate Fukushima's most important impacts may be on marine life.
The US has ceased measuring contamination in Pacific seafood. But for centuries to come, at least some radioactive materials dumped into the sea at Fukushima will find their way into the creatures of the sea and the humans that depend on them.