The nuclear fiasco playing out relentlessly in Japan since March 2011 has shaken the previously omniscient and omnipotent nuclear industry – and the government agencies that aided and abetted it. Yet they still obfuscate and minimize the consequences of the triple melt-down of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Latest revelation: the number of workers at the plant who had cancer-inducing radiation doses in thyroid glands from inhaling radioactive substances during the early stages of the crisis was eleven times higher than disclosed last December.
Not 178 workers, as TEPCO, the bailed out and now partially state-controlled owner of the nuke had said, but 1,973 workers, as the Asahi Shimbun has “learned.”
Despite its erstwhile omniscience and omnipotence, TEPCO has been publically baffled by an endless series of mishaps, surprises, and occurrences that left it mostly helpless. For example, in mid-March, it disclosed that a month earlier (!), a greenling with 740,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram had been caught near the plant. That’s 7,400 times the government’s food safety limit, highest ever measured by TEPCO’s testing program. The prior record-breaking TEPCO fish had 510,000 becquerels. And they’re all part of the food chain.
Then, early last week, researchers determined that several Japanese sea bass caught off the coast of Hitachi, a city about 60 miles south of the plant – halfway toward Tokyo – had radioactive cesium levels of 1,037 becquerels per kilogram, over ten times the government’s food safety limit. It was the first time since April 2011 that such high levels of contamination had been found in that region. The researchers claimed they had no clue why this mega-dose was now showing up again, over two years after the accident.
Alas, cesium-134 and cesium-137 in groundwater at the plant suddenly started soaring in early July. When measured on July 8, levels were 90 times higher than those found on July 5 and reached 200 times the legal limit for groundwater. TEPCO was baffled. “It is unclear whether the radioactive water is leaking into the sea,” a company official said.
On June 19, TEPCO had already admitted that groundwater contamination of highly toxic, radioactive strontium-90, a by-product of the fission of uranium and plutonium, had increased by more than 100 times between December and May; and that the level of radioactive tritium, a somewhat less harmful substance, had increased by 17 times. And when the cesium levels were spiking in early July, it admitted in the same breath that tritium levels in seawater had soared to 2,300 becquerels per liter, the highest ever detected, and more than double the contamination measured two weeks earlier.
All this came at a very inconvenient time: TEPCO is cooling the reactors and spent fuel rods with a constant flow of water – 400 metric tons per day – and then stores that contaminated water in tanks on site. But some of them have been leaking due to sloppy workmanship. Plus, it cannot indefinitely build new tanks for that endless flow of water. So, it is trying to get approval to just dump that contaminated water into the Pacific. Whatever isn’t already leaking into it.
This is the backdrop to the revelation that TEPCO’s admission in December of radiation doses having exceeded the “safe” level of 100 millisieverts – and going as high as 11,800 millisieverts – in only 178 workers was a lie.
TEPCO might not even have studied the issue at all. Despite warnings from international health experts about the risks of radiation exposure, it didn’t launch an investigation into thyroid gland doses until it was essentially forced to by international pressure. So it finally collected thyroid data on 522 workers – of the 19,592 workers who worked at the plant over time, of whom 16,302 were employed by often shady contractors and subcontractors. It submitted the results to the World Health Organization last year but still refused to release the results until it learned that the WHO would publish them. Hence, the disclosure last December.
But no one believed the results. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation questioned the reliability of the data; and Japan’s Ministry of Health pressured TEPCO to give the data another look. Which it finally did. The Asahi Shimbun reported:
TEPCO and its partner companies not only re-evaluated the readings from thyroid gland dose tests, but they also estimated doses when the amount of radioactive iodine that entered the body was unavailable. These estimates were based on cesium intake amounts, the airborne iodine-to-cesium ratio on the days they worked, and other data. The latest study showed that doses topped the 100-millisievert mark in 1,973 workers.
For how long had TEPCO been dragging its feet? Since most of the exposure occurred during the early stages of the disaster, TEPCO had taken 28 months to admit that nearly 2,000 of its workers had cancer-inducing radiation doses in their thyroid glands. The workers themselves told the Asahi Shimbun that TEPCO “provided little or no information” about it.
So when push came to shove, TEPCO leaned over backwards to help these workers. “We will provide and pay for annual, ultrasound thyroid gland tests to all workers with thyroid gland doses in excess of 100 millisieverts over their lifetimes,” a PR person explained. “We have already notified those who are eligible for the checkups.”
True to its formerly omniscient manner, TEPCO didn’t know how many of those workers had actually taken the tests. And what if abnormalities were detected during the tests? TEPCO didn’t say. Hand in glove with TEPCO, the Health Ministry itself hasn’t examined the thyroid gland doses of the workers; it would be up to TEPCO on a “voluntary” basis.
Some workers complained that TEPCO hadn’t carefully explained the risks of radiation exposure in thyroid glands; and some employees of subcontractors complained that they’d never been informed about the radiation doses or the thyroid gland tests.
In July, Masao Yoshida, the plant manager, died of esophageal cancer. He was 58. He’d stayed at the plant for nine months after the accident, struggling to contain the accident and keep the reactors from overheating. He’d prevented a much larger fiasco. He resigned in December 2011, after having been hospitalized for what turned out to be cancer. TEPCO, suddenly omniscient again, and true to the manner of the nuclear industry, announced that his death was unrelated to radiation exposure. As in all such cases, no one could prove the opposite; it’s impossible to determine what exactly caused each individual cancer – the mantle the nuclear industry hides behind.
“Who could trust such a company?” said an exasperated Hirohiko Izumida, governor of Niigata Prefecture, after TEPCO’s board had decided on July 2 to restart two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in his prefecture, despite a survey that showed that only 27% of the residents in his prefecture supported it. “There is no greater disregard for local people than this,” the governor said.
Researchers of Tokyo Woman’s Christian University presented a survey to the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission on July 17. Among other results, it showed that 87% of the Japanese thought that Japan should get out of nuclear energy, either abandoning it as soon as possible (33%) or phasing it out over time (54%). And a full third thought that information propagated by the central government about nuclear issues was the most untrustworthy.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a staunch supporter of the nuclear industry. Reestablishing the glory of the nuclear industry is high on the Abenomics wish list – even as the true cost of nuclear power will gnaw away at Japan for generations.
Such catastrophic nuclear accidents are very rare, we’re told incessantly. But when they occur, they’re costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with estimates, kept them secret. But the report was leaked: the total cost over time of an accident in a thinly populated area could exceed three times France’s GDP. Read…. Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!