by Akio Matsumura
“Thirty seconds into what may ultimately be regarded as one of the defining speeches of his career, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slowly raised his hands chest high, then spread them out sideways in a gesture of confidence.“Let me assure you,” he said, addressing members of the International Olympic Committee on Sept. 7. “The situation is under control.”The prime minister was attempting to convince his audience in Buenos Aires that the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, initiated by tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, should not be a cause of concern for Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 2020.The nuclear accident, he said, “has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.” (Jun Hongo, The Japan Times)
Prime Minister Abe’s brash confidence is not supported by the news of flagging cleanup efforts at reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4. In fact, the volume of stories of unanticipated but ongoing mechanical failures and worker mistakes can be hard to follow. What do we do with figures like “400,000 becquerels per liter” or 1,533 spent fuel assemblies? And any attempt at understanding is further complicated by the limited reliability of the information, an issue that could be resolved by true independent assessment on a wide range of technical issues, such as hydrology and mechanical and electrical engineering.
The fundamental question remains the same: what will be the outcome at Fukushima?
One issue has stood apart from the rest since the first reports emerged on March 11, 2011: the 400 tons of spent fuel atop the damaged structure of Reactor No. 4. In the next month, TEPCO will transfer the 1,533 assemblies — bundles of uranium, plutonium, and other radioactive materials created when the original uranium was irradiated in the reactor – to a common spent fuel pool still on site.
The transfer process is routine, but not without low-probability but high-consequence risk in normal circumstances. Worker or mechanical error could cause the robotic crane arm to drop a fuel assembly back into the pool, disrupting or damaging the still-submerged assemblies.
In this case, TEPCO’s transfer process is complicated by extreme circumstances:
- A lack of information of the state of the assemblies inside the pool creates several unknowns. (Are the assemblies damaged? Have they moved inside the pool?).
- A lack of a helpful computer system that normally automates the process, and thus necessitates manual control of custom equipment.
- Workers and operators are already beleaguered by the stressful and demanding environment.
According to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, there are 1,533 spent and unused fuel rod bundles in the cooling pool at the reactor unit 4 that contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945.
TEPCO claims they will finish the transfer of all 1,533 spent fuel assemblies by the end of 2014, but like that of Prime Minister Abe, the confident face put forth by TEPCO has a thin link to reality. We have and will continue to see dependence on technological solutions undermined by circumstance, error, and nature. A timeline of decades rather than months is more realistic. In the next forty years the region is due for another mega-earthquake and the eruption of Mt. Fuji is becoming more likely.
The cleanup of Fukushima has become almost irrevocably polarized, seen as a referendum on nuclear power or political leadership. Political strategy has replaced common sense. But it is not the political leaders who bear any real risk. Their term limits relieve them of any public accountability.
The nuclear accident at Fukushima will cost lives, now or in the future. Japan’s current solution pushes off the problem to our descendants. Their other option is immediate emergency action. Just as the Soviet Union used hundreds of thousands of its military — its “liquidators” — to encase Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 – resulting in an impossible-to-know number of deaths — Japan might send its military and engineering corps on a similar sacrificial mission. This is a unique and difficult moral issue. What does it mean to command your citizens into danger outside of a war?
For the last 2 ½ years I have convened a loose network of some 20 top physicists, engineers, medical doctors, diplomats, nuclear regulators, and political leaders from the United States, Japan, Canada, Germany, Russia, France, Switzerland, Australia, and other countries to discuss and try to understand the full potential of nuclear power plants in light of the accident at Fukushima. Now, for the first time, I turn to the world’s spiritual leaders. Their focus on eternal values has always been a way to transcend the political impasse blocking movement on issues of urgent concern to our survival.
I was encouraged to receive this message of support from Dr. David Hempton, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, on October 18:
Dear Akio, Thanks so much for reaching out and for your manifold efforts over many years to improve all aspects of life on our planet. I share your concern about the potential dangers of Fukushima, especially over the very long term. As you know better than I do, this issue has subsided from the front pages of American media, so most people are simply unaware of the lingering after effects and future dangers. They simply assume the situation is under control. It seems that you have already put together a formidable consortium of experts to help you think about this, but I guess the big problem you identify is the lack of political will in the Japanese government to think longterm about the remaining dangers. It may be that reaching out to the world's most influential spiritual leaders, most of whom have serious commitments to the ecological health of our planet, might be a way of adding some vital moral support for your mission of persuasion, especially if it is backed up by solid evidence of real dangers. Best wishes, David Hempton Dean of Harvard Divinity School
I challenge spiritual leaders from all faiths to consider what a further accident would mean not only to Japan, but to the world. From your traditions and teachings, how do you interpret the global crisis we face now and the legacy of our nuclear power and consequent contamination of our land and lives?