Greenpeace radiation expert Rianne Teule checks an urban area of Koriyama contamination. Photo: Greenpeace/Christian Aslund

In the latest in its ongoing series of late-night announcements, TEPCO this week finally admitted that the core of Fukushima’s reactor 1 started melting a mere five hours after the March 11 earthquake, and reached full meltdown within 16 hours.

The power company also confirmed that it was the earthquake, and not just the tsunami that initiated the series of failures leading to the reactor core meltdown. Molten fuel then pooled at the bottom of the reactor vessel and with the container consequently breached, radioactive material was able to leak out with the cooling water and find its way into the ground and ocean where it is now accumulating in the soil, sediment and food chain. 

While this new knowledge - that a full meltdown happened rapidly in the first 24 hours of the disaster - doesn’t necessarily mean the current situation is riskier than it already was, it confirms the severity of the damage to the reactor and containment, and makes it impossible to implement TEPCO’s original plan to fill it with water and seal it. Things are clearly not under control and it will be a long battle to stabilise the reactors.

The new information also highlight the government’s reluctance to speak plainly and frankly about the risks to public health and the environment, and underscores its remarkable foot dragging in its response to these threats. For example:

- It wasn’t until three weeks after Greenpeace’s demands - based on pure facts and figures - that the government raised the international rating of Fukushima accident to level 7 (the highest level for the UN INES system) despite such early step would ensure proper response efforts during a nuclear crisis of this scale.

- It did not expand the evacuation zone until after our radiation monitoring field teams highlighted radiation hotspots in populated areas far beyond the initial 20 km zone, and additional evacuation started only two months after the radiation fallout. Even now, in many cases, authorities chose to increase “safe” radiation exposure limits for everyone – even children - in the Fukushima area instead of ensuring they are taken out of harm’s way.

-It only considered sediment testing (in areas along the Fukushima coast we identified in our research proposal) after denying us permission to do it.

-It only began testing seaweed - despite it being a significant part of the Japanese diet – after we announced preliminary research showing it contained very high amounts of radioactivity.

This is not to say the authorities are doing nothing. Some residents have finally been moved away from the crippled nuclear plant, the no-go zone extended and marine life testing is slowly being expanded. However, as the first results from our marine radiation monitoring have shown, the problem is spreading farther and faster than the government has been willing or able to react. 

It has been more than two months, but this is still an unfolding crisis situation and the authorities should be doing everything they can to protect the people and environment of Japan – including welcoming efforts to provide independent research and analysis of the impacts of this nuclear disaster. Yet at every turn the authorities continue to do the absolute bare minimum, underplay the results, and insist that the situation is under control and back to normal when it clearly isn’t.

Last week, we announced that several types of seaweed that fishermen are planning to harvest shows radiation levels over 10,000 Becquerel per kilogram – the upper limit of what our equipment can detect, and well above safety limits for consumption. This was just one small set of the samples collected by our teams on the Rainbow Warrior and along the Fukushima coast. We are currently putting samples of fish, shellfish, seawater and sediment, through detailed analysis at professional labs in France and Belgium, and while we expect to announce results next week, the government has not yet started setting up a marine life monitoring programme. Again the people of Japan are being forced to wait for the government to do what it should have been doing all along.

The authorities and the nuclear industry should have been prepared for this worst-case scenario, but they weren’t. The government should be prioritising the health and safety of the Japanese people, but instead it’s playing “whack a mole” with its policies, as its former nuclear adviser Prof. Kosako said during his resignation.

The Japanese people need clear information, decisive action and leadership, and Japan needs a true Energy [R]evolution – a plan that follows the example announced by Germany to transform its economy from dependency on dangerous and dirty energy sources to a sustainable supply based on renewable technologies. Last week, Prime Minister Kan said that he wanted to redesign Japan's energy policy "from scratch" by dropping plans for new nuclear power stations and relying more on renewables. Will he keep his word?

Greg, in Tokyo.

Photo:Greenpeace radiation expert Rianne Teule checks an urban area of Koriyama contamination, April 2011. Photo: Greenpeace/Christian Aslund