Nuclear Meltdown in Fukushima, Political Meltdown in US, No End in Sight for Either
William Boardman / Reader Supported News
(October 18, 2020) — Once again the people in charge of the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant are talking about flushing 1.2 million tons of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. That’s more than 265 million gallons of water so toxic that it currently has to be stored on-site to keep it safe.
This is not a new problem. Radioactively toxic water has accumulated constantly since three of Fukushima Daiichi’s four nuclear reactors melted down in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The present situation, as reported by Reuters on October 16, suggests some uncertainty about the actual release of radioactive wastewater:
Nearly a decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s government has decided to release over one million tonnes of contaminated water into the sea, media reports said on Friday, with a formal announcement expected to be made later this month.
This is a “decision” that authorities at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the plant, and the Japanese government, which is responsible for it, have wanted to make for a long time as a safety shortcut and money-saving stopgap solution to a problem that’s not going away for decades to come.
TEPCO and the government have been floating the Pacific dump for more than a year without ever carrying it out. No one knows what impact such a massive amount of radiation will have on the Pacific Ocean. Neighboring countries object to being guinea pigs in an experiment that has no fail-safe. The Japanese fishing industry in the Fukushima region, already battered by the after-effects of the meltdowns, adamantly opposes further release of radioactive water into the ocean.
TEPCO and the government have been trying to shed responsibility for the Fukushima disaster for years. A report in 2002 predicted the possibility of an earthquake and tsunami. The power company took no precautions. Government regulators failed to compel the company to take precautions.
On September 30, ruling in a suit filed seven years earlier, the Sendai High Court found that TEPCO and the government are responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This is the first time a High Court has ruled on a Fukushima case, and the first time a High Court has sought to hold TEPCO and the government accountable for their actions and inactions. TEPCO and the government have appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
As matters now stand, radioactive water seeps continuously into the Pacific at a presumably low but unmeasured rate. This is uncontrolled groundwater that enters the melted cores clean but becomes irradiated by the cores that remain highly radioactive and all but unapproachable even by robots. The cores, inherently more dangerous than the original accident, are kept in check by cooling water pumped into the containment vessels. This water also becomes highly irradiated and is stored in huge tanks on site, which is running out of storage space.
Dumping radioactive water into the ocean won’t solve the problem. It will only free up storage space that will slowly fill until it needs to be dumped again – depending on whether the presently proposed dumping results in a new disaster. TEPCO has promised to treat the wastewater, removing all radioactive elements except Tritium.
Nuclear wastewater with low levels of Tritium is routinely dumped by nuclear operations around the world. This dumpage is from normal nuclear operations, not plants in meltdown crisis. TEPCO’s treatment of Fukushima wastewater is expected to take another two years. Whether the treatment is effective remains uncertain.
Uncertainty is the key word when it comes to Fukushima. Reuters, having reported the dumping decision had been made (above), later in the same story quotes the Japanese industry minister as saying that no decision had been made, but that a decision needed to be made quickly to “prevent any delays in the decommissioning process.”
That is nonsense, if not sheer dishonesty. The “decommissioning process” has no effective timetable, the melted cores are years, if not decades, from being brought under control, and the buildup of radioactive wastewater is only a visible sideshow to the largely invisible ongoing nuclear calamity at the bottom of the destroyed reactors.
By way of analogy, imperfect as all analogies are, the current state of American politics is all too much like Fukushima: a long-term crisis for which no foreseeable solution is available. And the American crisis seems, if anything, of longer standing and much greater intractability. Fukushima is at least subject to the laws of physics. American politics are increasingly unsusceptible to any laws at all.
The analogy goes something like this:
- In 2000, an electoral earthquake struck the United States. The election failed to produce a clear winner.
- This was followed by a tsunami of litigators and Republican intimidators swamping Florida and drowning the vote count under a flood of litigation.
- The partisan tide overwhelmed the Supreme Court, and American democracy melted down, votes went uncounted, and the people were denied their choice, whatever it might have been.
- The initial burst of deadly fallout was an illegitimate president and thuggish administration that soon lied us into war, committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and escaped impeachment and prosecution by virtue of the broken system they had created.
- For years, the two parties responsible for the multi-meltdown of American institutions worked hard at denying the core crisis while blaming the other party for its effects. No one was called to account. Republicans went on behaving as if the melted-down one-party state was not only natural but preferable to any system centered on the common good.
- The continuing fallout crippled the next President, already weakened by his exposure to the withered state. Minor treatments of some of the symptoms failed to slow the national exposure to ever higher levels of vitriol, greed and criminality, until many Americans came to see those as the problem, not the rot of the melted core institutions that went untended and unrepaired.
- So here we are in 2020, our politically radioactive wastewater storage near capacity. Dumping vast amounts of Trump-waste into the ocean, as it were, is no solution, although it might buy time for the beginning of a solution to emerge.
Electing Joe Biden might improve the situation, but the underlying reality would remain the same on January 20, 2021: the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidency have all melted down. They won’t be fixed by a mere change of leadership, least of all by leadership that emerged from one of the guilty parties. Although America’s political meltdown was led by Republicans, the crisis of a democratic state is a bipartisan achievement of profound dimensions.
Neither Fukushima nuclear power plants nor American government institutions have any easy fix. Both require, first and foremost, honest and clear assessment. That won’t be easy for those most responsible, and there’s little sign that it’s about to happen on either front. And once reality is clearly illuminated in either case, it gets harder, because someone has to figure out how to fix it.
With Fukushima, at least, the framework is clear, applying nuclear physics to make a dangerous situation safe. At its cores, it’s not all that subjective. And it will still take decades.
Fixing or reinventing America’s system of self-government is much trickier, with no applicable laws. It took us decades to get here. We need to be prepared to invest decades to achieve a desirable future.
William Boardman has been writing for Reader Supported News since 2012. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll, was published in September 2019 and is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. He is a former Vermont assistant judge.
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