Another look at Fukushima's legacy

Recently, I linked you to a report on the World Health Organization's estimates of the long-term risk of cancer and cancer-related deaths among people who lived nearest to the Fukushima nuclear plant when it went into meltdown and the people who worked to get the plant under control and into a cold shutdown. The good news was that those risks seem to be lower than the general public might have guessed, partly because the Japanese government did a good job of quickly getting people away from the area and not allowing potentially contaminated milk and meat to be consumed. The bad news: That one aspect isn't the whole story on Fukushima's legacy or the government's competency. Although the plant is in cold shutdown today, it still needs to be fully decommissioned and the site and surrounding countryside are in desperate need of cleanup and decontamination. That task, unfortunately, is likely to be far more difficult than anybody thought, with initial estimates of a 40-year cleanup now described as "a pipe dream". One key problem: The government cut funding to research that could have produced the kind of robots needed for this work, because it assumed that nobody would ever need them.


  1. more than 40 years?  We should have strong AI within 20 – I think they’re assuming 40 years of 2013 technology.

      1. Nothing blind about it – it’s an open question whether microtubules are involved in cognition, but if not, Moore’s law carries microprocessor complexity beyond the human brain in the late 2020’s.   Watson is proving that the semantic knowledge map is becoming sufficient for AI already.
        In 20 years’ time there’s no doubt that we’ll have sufficient AI to move dirt and rubble around.

  2. Cold Shutdown?  I don’t believe that spin for a second.
    What I do believe is that there are three missing reactor cores, and a whole mess of hot fuel not in cold storage.  Tepco cannot say where the cores are (because the truth is so horrible).  It makes sense to me that the cores are somewhere under the plant, happily spewing everything into the Pacific.
    We can speculate about what’s left of SFP3 and SFP4, but those cores are gone.  


      Based on Mr. Munroe’s fabulous work explaining this sort of thing, even if your twelfth-hand speculation was somehow accurate and we had cores under the plant exposed to sea water, they’d be pretty much harmless.

      There would be some degree of fission products in the water, but according to the above link, you could swim around in the that very sea water with no concern whatsoever, just so long as you didn’t get too close to the actual fuel itself.

      Remember, the fuel isn’t reacting at this point, and hasn’t been this whole time. It’s still radioactive, but it’s not undergoing fission.

      1.  Apples to oranges. The sea at Fuku is not shielding nuclear fuel rods. Rather you have constant streams of runoff and releases of contaminated water going into the ocean.The fish in the area are getting more and more contaminated, and they recently found the highest-level one yet. If you swam there, you’d suffer both external and internal exposure to radioactive particles of all types seen in cartoons and science fiction stories…alpha, beta, gamma. And you’d be taking the internal exposure home with you. Now you’re into the “what’s a safe level” story. Good luck with that. I used to smoke cigarettes while drinking, but I think I’ll be OK.

  3. The WHO report should be taken with a grain of salt. It used environmental radiation readings to create very uniform generic exposure estimates. The reality is that exposures were very different among the population. Some more exposed than others. What exactly one was exposed to and how matters too. WHO’s report is a very generic on paper exercise that won’t match reality now or in the future. What is really needed is a very comprehensive health screening capability so doctors in Japan can catch health problems as early as possible and where patients health decisions are not the domain of the government. 

    Decommissioning the plants, the people who actually work there think 40 years is way too optimistic. There is a rough idea where the fuel is at #1. They still don’t know where 2 and 3’s fuel is for sure. The technical problems will be solved by creative thinking and better robotics. The human health problems need the ability for people to be in charge of their monitoring and care without the current government interference. Doctor training is more useful than more PR to “calm people”. 

  4.  “Cold shutdown” is a misnomer. It refers to taking an operating plant offline and implies being in control. That’s not really the case when you have meltdowns/melt-throughs. As for whether fission continues, periodically iodine shows up in sewer sludge and incinerator ash as if fission is occasionally happening here and there.

    To say that the Japanese government did a good job of moving people out beggers belief. They did nothing and let a huge radioactive cloud float through towns and cities. It is that huge initial release that caused elevated readings in neighboring prefectures, in Tokyo and Chiba, Nagano and other places. While we watched black-smoke explosions at the plants on internet news, for 12 hours or more the Japanese government caused NHK to broadcast only distant shots of no activity announcing “while some people have reported seeing a puff of white smoke, this has not been confirmed…there is no danger of immediate harm…” They gave themselves iodine pills but not the general population. They disregarded and even actively concealed SPEEDI data on radiation spread and withheld other data to avoid “public confusion”…seems radiation exposure is preferable to confusion. Note that they immediately released SPEEDI data after the recent N. Korean nuclear test. Within weeks of the accident they passed a law allowing the government to censor media of “harmful rumors” and hired Dentsu to scour the web for that. There is no comprehensive testing regime for foods, only spot-checks, and implementation was unreliable, with farmers and country people basically self-reporting. They ceased monitoring and data collection for a time, then installed official monitors some of which were designed with the battery pack blocking the sensor which gave lower readings, and decontaminated only around official monitors which gave deceptively low reading levels. They and TEPCO have turned a blind eye to the use of corrupt and shady contractors who dump radioactive waste into rivers, don’t follow protocols, employ homeless or criminal elements, use name fraud so workers can go around again on the lifetime limits. They actively and openly promote nationwide distribution and incineration of radioactive waste from Fukushima in major metropolitan areas including Tokyo and Osaka. And as for decontamination itself, it doesn’t seem to work or last, and the job looks practically impossible. In addition to cleaning all the dirt (how?) in a thousand square miles of fields, mountains, rivers, bark, leaves, rooftops and pavement, what about all the plants and animals that have already taken up radioactive particles? And as for de-comissioning and cleanup of the plants, nobody has any plan or idea for how to do it. Maybe the Makers can come to the rescue. All of this is in the official record, not from crackpot or paranoia sites.

    As for the WHO report, it’s a nice read and we all hope they are right. But remember that by law any WHO statement about nuclear requires full approval of the IAEA, which in cases like this functions as a kind of PR arm of the nuclear village.

    The actual state and location of the fuel is unknown and may never be established. The amount of radiation leaking into the air and water will not be clearly established, and certainly not transparently reported.

    The best thing we can hope for is that radiation really isn’t as bad for you as some suspect. Although if you dig around, the jury is still out. Data is irregular, people move around, and the ill effects only come years or decades after some level of exposure which itself cannot be determined accurately.

    1. The WHO is lying.

      Linking to a couple of blogs doesn’t lend much credence to that assertion.

      1. Yes, extreme or strident statements like that don’t help anybody much. In fact you don’t need to go that far.

        It’s enough to point out that the IAEA has veto power over any WHO statement about nuclear:

        Since the express charter of the IAEA is to “promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy”, there is a conflict of interest there.

        For example, how about a WHO study on health effects of cigarette smoke where an “International Association for the Promotion of Tobacco Smoking” had veto rights over it.

        1. It’s enough to point out that the IAEA has veto power over any WHO statement about nuclear

          Possibly true, but certainly not the language of the original agreements.  And the article that you linked is an opinion piece.

    1. REAL and HONEST

      You do realize that there’s some irony in using those words when referring to an event sponsored by an anti-nuclear organization? The caps really make the real seem realer and the honest seem honester, too.

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