Redefining “Cold shutdown” doesn’t hide the truth about Fukushima

by Justin McKeating

December 20, 2011

A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant In Fukushima Prefecture after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami ( DigitalGlobe)

A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant In Fukushima Prefecture after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami ( DigitalGlobe)

The Japanese authorities stated last Friday that Fukushima is in a state of “cold shutdown. This is not true. At first glance, the announcement that the stricken nuclear reactors are now “stable”sounds like some rare good news from the disaster zone. Not at all. As we all know, first impressions can be deceptive.

The industry definition of “cold shutdown” means that the temperature inside a nuclear reactor has stabilized below 95 from the hellish temperatures of the nuclear fission process. In the case of Fukushima, this suggests the crisis is over. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the Japanese authorities have cheated by redefining  “cold shutdown” to suit the situation at Fukushima. Only operating nuclear reactors can be put into a state of “cold shutdown”. Reactors that have suffered meltdowns like those at Fukushima cannot be. The 260 tons of nuclear fuel inside the Fukushima reactors melted and burned through the steel floors of the containment vessels and into the thick concrete under pads. The melted fuel is far from under control. This means the temperature inside the reactor can’t be regulated by conventional means. Nobody at Fukushima actually knows what state this highly radioactive molten fuel is in or what temperature it is at because it’s obviously far too dangerous to go in and find out.

Also, tens of thousands of tons of water that was pumped into the reactors in the attempt to cool them remains inside and is highly radioactive. The authorities have no idea what to do with it. It’s leaking into the environment with some of it reaching the Pacific Ocean. Last week, Fukushima’s operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) had to abandon plans to dump it in the ocean after protests by local fishermen. Right now, there’s nowhere for it to go, other than to leak into the sea and groundwater.

So, we don’t have a “cold shutdown” at Fukushima.

If we dig a bit deeper, we find that the disaster at Fukushima is an ongoing nightmare that shows no sign of ending soon.

The government chose the inadequate, 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant because it didn’t want to evacuate highly populated areas like Fukushima City, about 60 kilometres from the disaster site. A much larger zone should have been declared to ensure public safety. Nine months after the disaster people are still waiting for proper support and compensation from the TEPCO and the government. Greenpeace’s latest analysis continued to find radioactive hotspots in the city, even at places that were supposed to have been decontaminated. Of the thousands of contaminated houses in Fukushima City, only a few have been decontaminated.

On the eve of the “cold shutdown” announcement last week, undercover reporter Tomohiko Suzuki told a chilling story of conditions for workers at the Fukushima plant. It reads like a dispatch from Hell. Suzuki says workers are manipulating the readings of their radiation detectors or not using detectors so they can spend longer on the site. The radiation screening of workers isn’t being carried out properly and work is apparently “purely cosmetic” and “shoddy.” Corners are being cut and there’s no money to try new solutions that might help solve the crisis. “Absolutely no progress is being made,” he says. To make matters worse, Suzuki claims that that organized crime Japan’s Yakuza is playing a big part in recruiting workers.

News of a “cold shutdown” sounds like a PR smokescreen.

Where is the leadership from TEPCO and the Japanese government? They certainly are working hard on their public relations and spin. If only they were putting as much energy into bringing the Fukushima reactors under control and looking after the wellbeing of the Japanese people.

The priority for the Japanese Government should also be to ensure that all remaining nuclear reactors across the country are shutdown permanently while providing resources for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. It’s the least they can do.

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