Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | June 18, 2011

Nuclear Crisis With Japan’s Damaged Reactors Far From Over

Plutonium found near Fukushima shows nuclear “crisis is far from over”

Nuclear experts say new findings of highly toxic plutonium in the soil outside Japan’s beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant show the crisis unleashed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is far from over.

“Minute amounts of plutonium have been detected for the first time in soil outside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant,” Japanese broadcaster NHK reported today.

Japanese researchers who analyzed roadside soil samples taken some 1.7 kilometers from the power station’s front gate on April 21 “found minute amounts of three kinds of plutonium,” NHK reported. The Japanese researchers said the quantity of plutonium in the area’s soil is roughly similar to that which has been found at past nuclear bomb test sites.

Plutonium is highly toxic if ingested—by breathing it in or swallowing it—because it emits alpha radiation “that can easily penetrate membranes inside the body,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, told the Envoy.

The reports of this elevated health threat come as Japanese citizens and activists are urging the Japanese government to take over the complex cleanup operation of Fukushima from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO has been accused of downplaying the risk factors to plant workers and the public since the station’s nuclear reactors began to melt down after being taken off line following the earthquake and tsunami.

Former Sumitomo Metal Industries worker Yasuteru Yamada, 72, has assembled a band of 270 retired and older Japanese workers–who have offered themselves up as volunteers to the Japanese government for the Fukushima clean-up operation.

“I will be dead before cancer gets me,” Yamada told the Associated Press of what some have called the “suicide” brigade. “Because we don’t expect a fee we can speak to [TEPCO] as equals,” he added, saying his team would press the company to higher safety standards.

The Arms Control Association’s Kimball said the Fukushima crisis has shown Japan lacks a sufficiently independent or aggressive regulatory agency to oversee its nuclear power industry.

“They have the fox guarding the chicken coop in Japan” he told the Envoy, regarding nuclear supervision.

“What is also clear from the reports and the radiation readings…is that the early estimates of the cost and the health effects probably underplayed the problem,” Kimball said. “And this is a disaster that is going to cost Japan dearly for years and years to come.”

Plutonium is one of the byproducts of the process of burning nuclear fuel in the reactors, he said. “So the fact that plutonium has been detected suggests that the spent fuel rods were compromised and the steam explosions that took place early in the crisis spread some of the material from fuel rods…into the steam or water.”

There are several other ongoing concerns at Fukushima some three months after the natural disasters hit, according to arms control expert Joe Cirincione of the Plougshares Fund. Among them, he said: some 40,000 tons of highly radioactive water that threaten to overflow the holding tanks in the next few days. There is also, he added, the very serious possibility that the molten fuel now pooled at the bottom of the reactors could start nuclear reactions again.

“This crisis is far from over,” said Cirincione. “Recent readings show that the radiation levels are the highest they have ever been [and] the plutonium detected in the soil show radioactive particulates continue to spew from the reactors.”

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