Q&A on Fukushima

Background - February 27, 2012
Here's a living document with questions and answers from our nuclear communications team. Check back for updates as the situation continues to develop.

Fukushima Memorial Q and A


Q: What happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant?
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, followed by a tsunami triggering the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. The earthquake and tsunami caused a complete black out at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant leading to a failure of the cooling systems. As a result, although the reactors were stopped, it only took several hours for the fuel to overheat and melt in reactors #1, #2, #3.  Glowing fuel formed hydrogen gas that exploded and damaged four reactor buildings (units #1 to #4), opening a pathway for a massive radiation release from both the reactors and ponds storing spent fuel next to the reactors. The accident was finally rated with the highest rating 7, on an international scale (INES), the same rating as Chernobyl.

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Q: What are the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident?
The atmospheric releases of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster are estimated to be in the range of 10% to 40% of the quantity released by the Chernobyl disaster. Fortunately for the Japanese people, most of the fallout did not hit the land but ended up in the ocean, resulting in the largest ever discharge of radioelements into the Pacific Ocean. Marine life and sediments continue to be contaminated over large distances. 

Although only 20% of the radioactive release fell on land, large portions of affected areas will remain highly contaminated for decades. Approximately 13,000 km2 of land is contaminated so heavily that the radiation doses there exceed the international limit of 1 millisievert per year.

It has been almost one year since the earthquake and tsunami claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, however the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster still continue to unfold for over 150 thousand people who had to evacuate their homes, and many more others who continue to live in contaminated areas. They have not been taken care of or compensated adequately. Japan is one of the most well-prepared countries in disaster management. However, the authorities have failed at every step in their response to the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, demonstrating that no country can be effectively prepared to mitigate a large nuclear accident and a major release of radiation.

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Q: What is happening at the site now?
The government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, declared they had achieved a “cold-shutdown” like status in December 2011 even though they still cannot even determine the exact location or temperature of the melted reactor fuel.  The declaration was made for political reasons to fulfil an earlier promise to achieve cold shutdown before the end of 2011. The reality is the four reactors in Fukushima are not in a stable state, and the release of radioactive materials continues to contaminate the ocean as well as ground water. Radiation levels remain too high for workers to enter the reactors. Workers continue to inject nitrogen into the reactors to prevent another hydrogen explosion.

Even today, the Fukushima nuclear power plant is still releasing radioactive materials to the air. In January 2012, the releases were at a rate of 70 million Becquerel (Bq) per hour. Furthermore, TEPCO has faced several small leaks, and a major leak to the ocean is still a possibility.

Currently, over 100,000 tonnes of contaminated water – used to cool the reactors - is stored at the plant, as the efforts to decontaminate highly radioactive water have failed.  It may take 40 years, and billions of dollars, to fully decommission the Fukushima reactors.

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Q: Why does Greenpeace claim that the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was not caused by the tsunami and earthquake that hit the area?
The Fukushima nuclear disaster happened first of all because the Japanese authorities failed to make protection of people their highest priority; instead they were more concerned about protecting the nuclear industry and its profits. The tsunami and earthquake only played the role of a trigger. Due to the wrong system established by the government and regulators, an accident was inevitable: if it were not a tsunami and an earthquake, another factor, such as a different natural disaster, human error or technical failure, could have initiated a similar disaster.

The government, the regulators as well as TEPCO — the operator of the Fukushima reactors — knew of the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis beyond what the plant was design to withstand for years before the March 11, 2011 event. It is evident in numerous recorded warnings from university and independent experts since 1990, as well as evident in an internal study by TEPCO in 2007, and a report by Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) in 2008. Yet, the government, regulators and TEPCO did not act on this information and did not put in place the protective measures that could have avoided or limited the damage from the tsunami.

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Q: Greenpeace says no reactor is safe, all are inherently unsafe. What are these inherent risks of nuclear reactors?
All commercial nuclear reactors contain massive amounts of radioactivity in their cores: if even a fraction of it is released to the environment, it is enough to cause a long-term, heavy contamination of vast geographical areas. This is not only a problem of peculiar reactor designs, such as the Chernobyl type, but a problem that applies to every reactor.  The newest generation III reactor designs, such as the French EPR, are larger and contain even more radioactivity than existing reactor models.

Fukushima illustrates this risk pretty well: we have been lucky this time as only a small fraction of radiation escaped from the reactors, and most of it was blown out to the ocean. Yet, it seriously contaminated areas up to 80 kilometres from the Fukushima plant. The official worst-case scenario models, released to the public only later, show that even the Tokyo megapolis, 250 km away, would have to be evacuated.

In Fukushima, the multiple barriers that were supposed to keep radiation away from the environment and people quickly failed and it took only 24 hours for the first hydrogen explosion to blow open the last remaining barrier between radiation and atmosphere.

Fukushima is a reminder that "nuclear safety" does not exist in reality. There are only nuclear risks, inherent to every reactor, and these risks are unpredictable. At any time, an unforeseen combination of technological failures, human errors or natural disasters at any one of the world's reactors, could lead to a reactor quickly getting out of control.

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Q: The nuclear industry says that the risk of a serious accident at a nuclear reactor is small, on the order of one in a million years. That's a pretty small risk.
The Fukushima disaster again proves that the claims from the nuclear industry that the probability of a major accident is very low are simply wrong.

More than 400 reactors operate worldwide now, so assuming the claimed one million years chance of heavy accident,  the probability of a reactor core meltdown would be on the order of one in 2,500 years. But, an observed average frequency, since we have already seen five reactors suffering meltdowns in the last 50 years, is one in a decade. So while the nuclear industry makes wishful assumptions about extremely low probabilities, the empirical data show meltdowns are in fact happening 100 times more frequently than what we are asked to believe.

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Q: But isn't the Fukushima situation just bad luck? Surely no one can expect an earthquake and a tsunami?
Fukushima is not bad luck, it happened because of the failure of the authorities to make the safety of the public a priority. As early as 1997, seismologists were warning TEPCO about tsunami risks, however TEPCO chose to ignore these risks [1]. In an ironic twist of history, after several reports and warnings by in-house and independent experts, TEPCO informed the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) just four days before the accident happened that the power plant could be hit by a tsunami exceeding 10 meters, while the plant was designed to withstand a tsunami of up to 5.7 meters [2].

The nuclear industry cannot claim that nuclear power is safe, and then put a major crisis down to "bad luck." Not only should the Japanese industry have been prepared for a major earthquake followed by a tsunami, but this again shows the inherent risks of reactor technology.

All reactor designs also have their inherent vulnerabilities. The root problem causing the meltdown and hydrogen explosion in Fukushima was the fatal dependency of light water reactors (the most common type of reactor in the world, representing 80 % of the global fleet) on the active cooling that is required for many weeks even after the reactor is stopped. This cooling system in Fukushima reactors was knocked out by tsunami, but another event — or a combination of events — could also lead to a loss of cooling, reactor overheating and meltdown.

We have seen near misses in the past, for example, the 2006 nuclear accident at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden. There was no tsunami and no earthquake, yet the power plant suffered a station-wide blackout and its backup diesel generators failed to start. The Fukushima meltdown scenario was luckily avoided then by a narrow margin.

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Q: But nobody has died of radiation yet in Fukushima. So why does Greenpeace talk about a disaster?
First, Fukushima already has its victims. As of February 2012, Japanese authorities have certified 573 deaths as related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, with another 29 cases pending. Although these people were not directly killed by radiation, they would not have died if the reactor accident had not happened. This also doesn't take into account a major impact on the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens who were evacuated or who continue to live in areas contaminated with radiation.

The exposure to radiation at the levels that we observe in Fukushima prefecture is too low to have immediate impacts, but is sufficient to increase the risk of health problems and cancers in the future. Similar to smoking, lower doses of radiation do not kill you immediately, but have long-term impacts. Cancer and other diseases take several years or even decades to appear.

If you hand out cigarettes to children, you certainly would not be able to conclude after several months that no one had died yet, and therefore smoking is harmless. Yet, this is exactly what the nuclear power proponents try to suggest in the case of the Fukushima disaster and the radiation it released.

The radiation levels to which hundreds of thousands of people outside of the evacuation zone continue to be exposed are highly elevated, exceeding by many times the natural background level. The internationally accepted maximum dose from artificial radiation, set for members of the public, is one millisievert per year. Yet, Japanese authorities now permit citizens to receive 20 millisieverts per year, and that includes children and pregnant women who are much more vulnerable to radiation. Science says that both fatal and non-fatal health impacts can be expected in future.

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Q: Greenpeace conducted radiation testing in Japan a number of times, what did you find?
Shortly after the disaster began, Greenpeace's extensive monitoring of radiation levels and food contamination in the area outside the 20km exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear complex showed that further evacuation measures were necessary, including at radiation hotspots in several towns and the evacuation of pregnant women and children from high risk areas in Fukushima City and Koriyama. Significantly elevated levels of radiation were found as far as 60 or 70 kilometres away from the reactors.

Radiation levels above official limits were found in vegetables collected from gardens tested by the experts. It took more than one month for the government to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and evacuate people in several radiation hotspots.

Later, in May, Greenpeace brought its flagship Rainbow Warrior II to the Fukushima coastline and urged the Japanese authorities to undertake comprehensive radiation testing of seaweed along the Fukushima coast after our initial tests of seaweed samples showed significantly high levels of radioactive contamination, far beyond allowable limits for food consumption. Seaweed is a staple of the Japanese diet. Yet, the government's monitoring of marine radiation remained very limited and insufficient to protect public health.

In August 2011, more than five months after the disaster, Greenpeace found radiation dose rates exceeding international safety standards at several schools and many public areas in Fukushima City and called on the Prime Minister to delay the opening of schools in the city after the summer break.

More than seven months after the disaster, Greenpeace found radioactive contamination in more than half the samples it tested of fish and shellfish from five supermarket chains in seven Japanese cities. The levels were below the official limit in Japan but close to the limit set in Ukraine following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This contaminated seafood still represented a health risk, particularly for pregnant women and children.

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Q: What are the qualifications of the people doing Greenpeace's radiation tests in Japan?
Greenpeace has a team of radiation specialists who successfully passed university courses and have their certificates. They also undergo regular practical trainings. Many of them have previous experience from field work in the Chernobyl region and from numerous other missions, including Iraq, to independently investigate radioactive contamination.

We have been using a wide range of radiation monitoring equipment during field trips, such as contamination monitors, Becquerel monitors and portable gammaspectrometers – that is of course apart from personal dosimeters. In cases where we have taken samples, they were sent for analysis to independent laboratories.

Measured results have been regularly published on the Greenpeace International website http://www.greenpeace.org/fukushima-data

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Q: There may be risks from nuclear reactors, but the world needs the electricity from nuclear to keep our economies going and to fight climate change, don't we?
Nuclear power, which covers only few percent of the world’s total energy consumption, was in decline even before Fukushima, and it is feasible that it can be replaced with energy efficiency and renewable energy generation within a decade or two.

During the last five years, 22-times more new, power-generating capacity based on wind and solar was built (230,000 MW) compared to nuclear (10,600 MW). Even when we factor in their lower utilization rate, renewable power plants built in 2011 alone are capable of generating as much electricity as 16 large nuclear reactors.

We have also seen in the last year the examples of Japan and Germany where even a rapid nuclear phase out has not led to blackouts or economic collapse. Germany has permanently closed eight reactors — half of its fleet — yet, it even continues to export electricity. During a cold snap in February, solar-generated electricity from Germany helped nuclear France meet an extreme electricity demand.

Similarly, Japan is currently running only two reactors compared to 54 reactors a year ago, and it functions normally thanks to energy savings and better usage of other types  of existing power plants. Available figures show that the country‘s greenhouse gas emissions did not increase in 2011, as higher thermal power generation was offset by efficiency measures in other parts of the energy sector.  Japan can still meet its Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reductions even if it does not restart any of its reactors.

Greenpeace has commissioned an Energy [R]evolution scenario that shows how the world can gradually phase out nuclear power by 2035, and avoid building any new reactors, by making smart investments in better efficiency and renewable power generation. These measures would not only help us avoid nuclear hazards, but would also meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, as well as improve energy security, keep energy costs under control, and generate millions of sustainable and quality jobs.

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Q: Does Greenpeace think we should just turn off all of the nuclear stations right now?
We would love to but that would not be practical. In the Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution, a scenario describes a nuclear phase-out, where existing reactors would be closed at the end of their operational lifetime of 35 years and no new reactors would be built.

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Q: What is the problem with the liability rules for nuclear reactors?
In almost every country with nuclear reactors, the government protects the owners of nuclear plants from paying the full costs of a disaster by putting a cap on the operator’s liability. Economic analysts have frequently said that putting significant limits on the liability of nuclear operators can be seen as a subsidy to the nuclear industry.

The system that's in place protects the profits of the nuclear industry and forces the public to pay the costs of disasters. As soon as something goes wrong, the nuclear industry throws the responsibility for dealing with losses and the costs of damages to the citizens affected by a nuclear disaster.

Instead of protecting nuclear industry profits, governments should make the industry, the suppliers of its equipment and the investors who bankroll new reactors liable for all the costs of a nuclear disaster. The industry also needs to arrange full insurance so that sufficient compensation funds are available even if a company goes bankrupt.

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Q: Nuclear reactors generate baseload, wind and solar are intermittent - so how can you use them to replace nuclear reactors?
The national demand of countries fluctuates between day and night, and between seasons. Renewable energy sources are actually better suited to follow the demand with a mix of different technologies, management of the demand for electricity, and some storage of renewable energy, for example in hydro power stations. In contrast, nuclear reactors have to operate 24/7 both because they are not sufficiently flexible, and also to achieve low generation costs.

Most renewable energy sources are easy to turn on and off; they are flexible and can be used to meet varying energy demand. Solar photovoltaic and wind depend of course on how much sun and wind are available but they often balance each other over time and across larger geographical areas; also bio energy, hydro, geothermal (Japan has a large potential for geothermal) and concentrated solar power stations can be turned up or down depending on need.

Numerous expert studies have already shown that when properly planned and smartly integrated into the electricity grid, the supply of renewable electricity can be as reliable as conventional power. Detailed modelling and simulations of an energy system based on a mix of renewable energy supply have been performed for example for Europe, and confirm that the grid can function reliably 24/7 even under various weather extremes.

Renewable energies are the cheapest and technically best options for achieving a secure energy supply and for gaining energy independence for a country like Japan.

Q: How is Japan dealing with the gap in electricity production as it permanently lost some reactors and most of the rest of its nuclear fleet are currently not running? What are the implications to its energy security and carbon emissions?
Japan managed to avoid blackouts during last summer’s peak, when although consumers were encouraged to reduce energy consumption by 10%, mandatory restrictions on power usage for businesses, corporations and other large users of electricity were lifted in September 9, 2011, two weeks earlier than planned.

Much more interestingly, the country has not suffered from electricity shortages during this record cold and snowy winter when much of the economy has already recovered from the earthquake and tsunami while only three reactors were running, compared to the 54 operational reactors in the winter of 2010. Japan covered the gap of lost nuclear power supply roughly equally by energy savings and better efficiency, as well as by increased operation of its existing thermal power plants, without a need to build new power plants. This was done without increasing the country’s overall carbon emissions: CO₂ emissions from the energy sector in Japan remained the same in fiscal year 2011 compared to 2010, and for the period April to December 2011 were even slightly lower.

Electricity consumption dropped 5 %, down to 892 terrawatt hours (TWh), in 2011. Fossil fueled power generation for April to November 2011 increased by 57 TWh (16.5 %), but the additional emissions were offset by energy savings elsewhere in the economy. Fossil fuel imports to Japan have also remained about the same by volume, though their costs increased by 3 trillion Japanese yen due to higher commodity prices.

The next challenge will be during the electricity consumption peak in the summer of 2012, if none of the country’s reactors is allowed to be restarted, meaning Japan will be a nuclear-free country at that time. While the nuclear industry and its proponents have been trying to suggest that there is a risk of blackouts, previously  concealed documents were leaked this January showing that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) predicts that even without any reactors running, there will be no energy shortages in the summer of 2012. Instead, METI projects a 6 % surplus in generation, including production from renewable energy sources equivalent to seven reactors.

The longer term dynamics, of course, depend very much on new policy decisions by the government. Should it go for nuclear phase out in 2012, it has realistic pathways to achieve it, while meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions commitments.

One possible scenario for achieving a nuclear phase out was published by Greenpeace in its Energy [R]evolution country scenario last year. The scenario combines efficiency gains and up scaled power generation from renewable energy to enable Japan to meet its target of a 25% GHG cut in 2020 compared to 1990 reference year entirely with domestic measures, without the use of offsets. This is a more ambitious domestic emission reduction than the government's plan before the disaster.

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[1] Clenfield, J. 2011. Vindicated Seismologist Says Japan Still Underestimates Threat to Reactors, Bloomberg, 21 November 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-21/nuclear-regulator-dismissed-seismologist-on-japan-quake-threat.html

[2] Nishikawa, J., Sasaki, E. 2011. TEPCO warned of big tsunami 4 days prior to March 11, The Asahi Shimbun, 25 August 2011. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/quake_tsunami/AJ201108257639