What may we learn from Fukushima?

“11th March 2015 marks the fourth anniversary of Fukushima. Frank Boulton’s article, posted on Medact’s former website in April 2011, allows a fresh look at the immediate reaction felt throughout Medact and allied organisations at that time. Although certain aspects have ‘moved on’, a reminder of our feelings then is timely, not least because of the continuing leaks from the reactor site and general dissatisfaction with the post-Fukushima events, not least in Japan itself, where corporate corruption continues to blight the health and welfare of Japanese citizens, with implications that are global.”

Frank Boulton, Medact; 15th April 2011

Our heartfelt sympathies go to all the Japanese people in these most testing of times following the earthquakes and tsunami of March 11th. Indeed, were it not for the impact on their nuclear power industry we would be marvelling at the civilized nature of the way Japanese society has responded to the loss of billions of dollars’ investments and thousands of human lives. But the still-unfolding events at Fukushima Daiichi throw a different light, and the global implications from the nuclear disaster are very profound even though the death toll is, as yet, very low. Radioactive materials are still leaking and the calculated amount of released radiation has been revised drastically upwards to about a tenth that estimated from Chernobyl in1986, the biggest nuclear ‘accident’ yet.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), assembled in 1951 to help reconstruct Japan after WW2, is the largest electric power company in Asia and a major component of Japan’s very significant nuclear economy.1 About a third of Japan’s energy supply comes from nuclear power. Tepco does not have a sound reputation and questions have been raised about its democratic and societal accountability 2, 3 In 2002 safety reports from three nuclear power stations were apparently faked,3, 4 and in 2007 Tepco was forced to shut the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant (the biggest complex in Japan) after the Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki Earthquake on the western side of the country caused initially unreported radiation leaks.5 The plant was off-line until 2009 and Tepco posted losses of 150.11 billion yen in 2007/8 and expected a loss of 280 billion yen ($2.60 billion) for 2008/9.6

The video-clips of the blasts in Reactors Nos. 1 to 4 at Fukushima in mid-March this year give some indication of the scale of damage at these old-style 1970’s-built boiling water reactors. Nevertheless Tepco continued to issue falsely reassuring reports for several days until human error – in all likelihood brought on by exhaustion – caused them on March 28th to overestimate the radionuclide contamination of the water in the turbine halls by a hundred-fold.7 The detection of traces of I131 in the air over the UK reported the same day indicate, however slight these traces were, the degree of atmospheric contamination – enough to spread over 10,000 miles: and that Tepco’s control of the train of events was being tested to breaking point.

The leak of radioactive water into the trenches of Reactor No. 2 (and the surrounding sea) was only plugged on April 6th – after great difficulties8 and as yet uncertain permanence. The ‘Mark I’ container design for these reactors has been criticised as being ‘weak’9: these containment vessels deteriorate through continuous radiation exposure and careful monitoring is needed. Furthermore, the Local Authorities apparently ignored expert warning in 2005 about the dangers of allowing too much spent fuel to accumulate in the plants’ cooling ponds.2 Plutonium now detected in the soil near Reactor No. 3 indicates a melt-down from its fuel, which from September 2010 had been of the ‘MOX’ type9 (see comment on MOX below). All four reactors must be decommissioned and the fuel rods removed (and reprocessed): but they cannot be dismantled for at least 40 years as too much radioactivity would be released. They may well need to be entombed long-term and at great expense. The fuel rods in reactors 5 and 6 were shut down successfully but there are eventual plans to re-activate them.8

Yet advocates of civil nuclear power, who include Barack Obama and George Monbiot,10, 11 persist in promoting greater expansion with new ‘safer’ installations. How much Japanese society will continue to support nuclear energy remains to be seen but it will be very difficult for Japan to disentangle itself from a rampant addiction which its political system and societal structures seem impotent to control.3

In the UK, Sir David King – former governmental chief scientific advisor –advocates still expanding our civil nuclear industry and building a new plant at Sellafield (at £3bn) for re-processing nuclear waste into ‘MOX’ (mixed uranium/plutonium oxide).12 King proposes that the current but defective plant at Sellafield be replaced, and attributes its notorious failures to ‘faulty design’. Spent waste is very hot to handle while MOX is relatively safe and, from the viewpoint of nuclear power advocates, has the added virtue that MOX manufacture consumes spent waste from uranium-fuelled power plants thereby reducing hazardous stocks. King also states – with some, but limited, justification (in that coal mining and drilling for oil at sea are notoriously hazardous) – that nuclear power workers have a much lower accidental death rate than conventional power workers,12 but he ignores the uniquely silent start and horrifically irreversible nature of radiation poisoning and also the health hazards of uranium mining (which his reprocessing scheme would, at least in theory, reduce).

However, MOX is inherently more dangerous radio-actively than uranium, is readily converted to weapons-grade materials and accurate quantitative accounting for its production is impossible (Barnaby and Kemp, 2007 13). Thus, large scale MOX production from and for a global ‘nuclear renaissance’ would encourage nuclear weapons proliferation by making it much harder to control unauthorized access to weapons-grade materials. It doesn’t even need to be used in a fission explosion as it would make an effective ‘dirty bomb’. Barnaby and Kemp also point out – very tellingly – that MOX-based energy production systems are far from carbon-free.

A MOX-based nuclear renaissance will still produce waste – indeed in vastly increased amounts: to deal with this King advocates disposal through ‘geological storage’.12 This would be in vitrified blocks trapping the waste and hopefully making it inaccessible to the general environment. Although theoretically attractive, major technical problems have yet to be solved, and vast amounts of industrial energy would be required for the vitrification – either from carbon-intensive combustion or by high intensity (and power-consuming) electric arc furnaces which have other adverse environmental impacts.14 So any such approach to waste disposal would add great expense and still leave a poisoned legacy for hundreds of generations.

Observers such as Hamish McRae, less obsessed with scientific and technological fixes and taking a long-term financial outlook, offer a different strategy based on non-nuclear renewables and more efficient conservation.15


Revisiting Chernobyl

The Chernobyl reactor had no containment facility16 so its burning graphite fuel-rods were exposed and ejected more radiation than that so far coming from Fukushima.

In reference 16 there are claims that earlier accounts of the numbers of casualties from Chernobyl following April 1986 were exaggerated. However, two authoritative reports in April 2006 (Fairlie and Sumner17; and IPPNW Germany, updated 8th April 2011)18 challenge many of the conclusions of the UN/WHO report on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident19 which gives a total of 9,000 related cancer deaths compared with 900,000 expected cancer deaths in the affected region over the same period. Fairlie and Sumner predict up to 60,000 excess deaths from cancer, and the IPPNW reports describe many Chernobyl-related deaths and much morbidity not due to cancer. A Press Release from the International Agency on Research in Cancer (IARC, part of the WHO) of 20 April 2006, stated that “the cancer burden from Chernobyl cannot at present be directly measured” but referred to work on prediction models based on other studies, particularly the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Press Release went on to predict that by 2065 a mean of about 16,000 cancer deaths – with an ‘uncertainty interval’ of between 6,700 to 38,000 – may be expected due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, and a mean of 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer (most of which would respond to treatment) and of 25,000 for other cancers. It also noted that these figures would represent a very small proportion of the total cancer deaths.20

Fairlie and Sumner state that the UN/WHO report was conducted meticulously by respected experts, but they also point out inadequacies – for example restricting the study area to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and under-quoting the numbers of the “liquidators” who physically cleaned up the reactor site. ‘Only’ 9,000 excess cancer deaths still represent 9,000 avoidable tragedies even though being just 1% of the deaths expected. Bob Gale, the American transplant specialist sent to graft bone marrow to those receiving supra-lethal radiation, such as the helicopter crews dowsing the openly burning Chernobyl core (none survived), gives a valuably informative medical history.21

It should be noted that observations on non-human life currently around Chernobyl indicate profoundly adverse ecological effects associated with the excessive radiation.22


All these accounts should be considered afresh when deciding the future of nuclear power. This is even though the reactor at Chernobyl had no ‘containment’ and that lessons may be learnt from the vulnerable ‘Mark I’ container designs at Fukushima. Leaks appear to be continuing which makes it likely that upward revisions of the calculated total radiation exposure from Fukushima will continue. The abysmal reputation of Tepco and the way in which it became a virtually unaccountable independent hegemony to which Japanese society is so dependent is now very apparent, and a profound lesson to all societies of any political persuasion. However, massive and unaccountable irresponsibility is not confined to the nuclear industries – military or civil: banking and the arms trade also exemplify global fields of human endeavour where good regulatory intent has cracked under the pressure of ‘progressive’ instincts and the drive for ‘growth’.

Nuclear advocates will argue that their installations can be regulated into safety. Dr Mike Weightman, the highly respected Head of the UK’s independent safety regulator under the Health and Safety Executive, has been charged by the government to issue an interim and then a full report on the implications of Fukushima for the UK and has invited comments.23 This exercise is not meant to help decide whether the UK has a nuclear future but to define improved control, and as such is very important (see ref 24 for an informative response from a nuclear sceptic organisation). However, although it is perfectly feasible to design much improved systems for nuclear safety – and even putting the costs issue on one side – it is a common experience that no regulatory system can completely protect humankind from even well-established health hazards: oft-quoted [analogies in, for example, blood transfusion and the pharmaceutical and airline industries, support this attitude and hence the application of the ‘precautionary principle’.

Hence, while offering our most heart-felt consolations to the Japanese people and recognising that there are no major geological fault-lines in Britain, we need still to heed the lessons of human frailty and the unpredictability of major events affecting the integrity of nuclear power plants. The better appreciation of 1) the nature of unexpected life-threatening leaks and accidents at nuclear power stations, reinforced by Fukushima 2) the costs of dealing with all the sequelae of nuclear power including improved safety, build and waste disposal, and 3) the increased insecurity generated from vastly higher global stocks of MOX, provides the framework for a particularly potent case

against a global nuclear renaissance and

for a healthy non-nuclear world based on entirely different economies and life-styles.

Even though establishing such a world is probably the greatest challenge yet to face humankind and would entail significant suffering, this would be much preferred to nuclear annihilation.




1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_Electric_Power_Company). Accessed 7th April 2011

2 Mycle Schneider: 23 March 2011. http://fukushima.greenaction-japan.org/2011/03/23/mycle-schneider-nuclear-cloud-comes-with-aura-of-arrogance/   Accessed 14th April 2011

3 The Worden Report. http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/03/ethical-meltdown-in-japan-on-toxicity.html. Accessed 14th April 2011

4 http://business.highbeam.com/435557/article-1G1-102917548/lead-hiranuma-visits-niigata-apologize-tepco-scandal   Accessed 7th April 2011

5 http://www.grmcat.com/images/Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki-Japan-Report.pdf   accessed 7th April 2011

6 http://uk.reuters.com/article/2008/07/28/sppage023-t91589-oisbi-idUKT9158920080728 Accessed 7th April 2011

7 http://alienatedinvancouver.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-youve-got-to-understand-about.html   Accessed 7th April 2011

8 Japan’s nuclear reactor: radioactive leaks;   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12911190   accessed 7th April 2011

9 http://modernsurvivalblog.com/nuclear/fukushima-reactor-no-2-the-most-vulnerable-design/ Accessed 7th April 2011

10 http://www.marketwatch.com/story/text-of-obama-speech-on-energy-2011-03-30?siteid=rss&rss=1

11 George Monbiot; Guardian, 22 March 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar


12 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/mar/29/nuclear-power-safe-sir-david-king

13 Barnaby F and Kemp J, 2007. Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming. Oxford Research Group. ISBN 978-0-9552846-1-8

14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_arc_furnace#Environmental_issues accessed 14th April 2011

15 Hamish McRae. The Fukushima effect globally, will be colossal. Independent 30 March 2011.

16 http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/chernobyl.html   accessed 7 April 2011

17 Fairlie, I and Sumner D, 2006. The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH) pdf available on request

18 http://shop.ippnw.de and


19 Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”. Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes. Geneva 2006.

20 IARC Press Release No. 168. http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2006/pr168.html

21 RP Gale and T Hauser, 1988. Final Warning: The Legacy of Chemobyl. Warner Books; New York

22 AP Møler and TA Mousseau, 2011 Rigorous methodology for studies of effects of radiation from Chernobyl on animals… Biology Letters http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/5/3/356.abstract

23 http://www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/news/2011/mar-japan.htm accessed 14th April 2011. See also the attachments on this report

24 http://nuclearinfo.org/view/policy/government/a2132