24.06.2014 Author: Ulson Gunnar

Entombing Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare

3453453Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the unprecedented undertaking of constructing a 1.5 kilometer long ice wall to contain four reactors at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history. Several of the six reactors at Daiichi were damaged or melted down after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast coast.

Kyodo News reported in its article, “Construction work for ice wall begins at Fukushima plant” that, “under the government-funded project, 1,550 pipes will be inserted deep into the ground to circulate coolant and freeze the nearby soil. The measure is aimed at preventing groundwater from seeping into the buildings and mixing with heavily contaminated water.” After the barrier is constructed, waste water must somehow be treated and then the process of decommissioning the power plant can begin, a process expected to take up to 40 years.

The ice wall project itself must be maintained for well over a century and faces many potential risks. The project will cost 314 million USD and TEPCO estimates that to maintain the ice walls, electricity enough to power 13,000 homes must be diverted to cooling systems. The scale of the project in both temporal and logistical terms helps put into focus the true scale of the disaster itself that unfolded at Daiichi 3 years ago. That such drastic measures are being taken to contain the reactors at Daiichi begs one to wonder just how much damage has been caused up until now.

Full Impact Still Unknown

Reports from earlier this year indicated scientists as far as in the United States were awaiting the arrival of waterborne radiation from the Fukushima disaster. Closer to home, radiation in Tokyo’s drinking water was already exceeding safe limits as early as 2011. Radiation had also contaminated milk and vegetables. By 2013, the ongoing disaster was still affecting local fisheries and as described in a National Geographic article titled, “Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know,” the nature of the radiation had changed, presenting longer-term effects on the safety of seafood, an essential industry for local populations. Earlier this year, CNN would report of an additional leak of 100s of tons of radioactive water into the surrounding environment.

Experts warn that the full effect of the ongoing disaster will be difficult to predict and measure. Increases in cancer rates are almost guaranteed, but because of the time frame cancer takes to develop, tying them directly to the Fukushima disaster will be complicated at best. Beyond Japan’s borders, technical and political obstacles may also hamper efforts to determine potential risks from the radiation and potential means to protect against them.

And as impressive as Japan’s ice tomb is, it will only help reduce the amount of radiation escaping into the surrounding environment, including the ocean. RT’s article, “Japan’s Great Wall of Ice: TEPCO starts work on Fukushima underground barrier,” states, “while the frozen wall may indeed help to at least reduce the escape of contaminated liquid into the groundwater, it will still take decades – if not hundreds of years – for record-high radiation levels to clear away in the area, including in the ocean.”

In the meantime, the surrounding ocean and coastlines will remain affected, with seafood harboring potentially dangerous levels of radiation and the risk of further contamination in groundwater. With a time frame of decades to centuries for the full effects of the disaster to subside, the Japanese people generations to come will continue to pay the price for the ill-conceived planning and poorly implemented safety procedures that led up to the disaster. And despite all the challenges facing the people affected by the Fukushima disaster today and tomorrow, Japan’s current government under Prime Minster Shinzō Abe plans to resume nuclear power generation throughout the rest of the country, against growing public outcry.

Despite Ongoing Nuclear Disaster, Government Seeks to Restart Nuclear Power 

With the human and technical factors that contributed to the Fukushima disaster still being added up, it is understandable as to why the Japanese people oppose their government’s decision to press on with nuclear power. The Japanese had been willing to look the other way in exchange for reduced energy costs nationwide and subsidies given to communities that hosted nuclear power plants. But with the dangers of nuclear disaster no longer a possible future scenario, and instead a hard, daily reality, particularly for the 270,000 still displaced by the disaster, the people appear no longer willing to take the risks required for nuclear power.

What follows will be a three-way race between a search for viable alternatives suitable for corporate and government sectors unwilling to pay extra for non-nuclear power, the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan, and the current government determined to put nuclear power back online. For the Abe government, between its pursuit of nuclear power and its plans to re-militarization the nation, much of the madness that led up to the Fukushima disaster in the first place appears to be once again on display. It would seem both for Japan, and the world, that this new race be won by someone other than the current government.

Ulson Gunnar, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.