Iran, nuclear waste, and Fukushima

Members of the IAEA fact-finding team in Japan visit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant May 27, 2011, to examine the devastation wrought by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Copyright: IAEA Imagebank, photo by Greg Webb IAEA

Members of the International Atomic Energy Agency fact-finding team in Japan visit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant May 27, 2011, to examine the devastation wrought by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Copyright: IAEA Imagebank, photo by Greg Webb

July 2015 

Of all President Obama’s achievements in office, the greatest may be that since 2008 he has consistently ducked hawkish pretexts to launch another shooting war in the Middle East, mostly recently through negotiating nuclear material restrictions for Iran. Unfortunately, one thing that two years of US+5 negotiations with Iran did not achieve is to remove the most urgent nuclear threat to the world, because only Iran was under the microscope. And was it ever! 

“The accord places long-term curbs on Iran’s nuclear progress, even rolling back its past progress in key areas like enrichment capabilities and fissile material stockpiles, and imposes the most stringent negotiated inspections regime in the history of the world,” according to Ali Gharib, writing in The Nation.1 Indeed, according to the NY Times “Simple Guide”2 to the Iran agreement, excess product from the Arak nuclear station – the only plant that produces weapons grade materials – “will be shipped out of the country.” What a deal! That’s like punishing a stable owner by trucking away their horse manure – however much they may prize that manure.

Seriously, the world still contends with every scrap of radioactive nuclear waste generated since Enrico Fermi’s first controlled chain reaction in 1942 – some 250,000 glowing toxic tons of used fuel alone. Less than 20 pounds would be enough to make a nuclear bomb. One single pound scattered in the wind, experts now seem to agree, would kill only 2,000,000 people and not the original prediction of 8,000,000. And like the proverbial acid so powerful that no container can hold it, radioactive material turns anything that touches it, radioactive too. Most power plants store spent fuel rods underwater, in cooling pools that require constant irrigation. If the pools dry up, the fuel rods heat up and can explode – a catastrophe that costs a fortune to avoid.3 

“Dealing with the waste stored at this one site at Sellafield – the largest of a dozen nuclear sites in Britain—already costs the UK taxpayer £2 billion a year, and it is expected to be at least as much as this every year for half a century,” according to Ecowatch UK.4  “Hundreds of people are employed to prevent the radioactivity leaking or overheating to cause a nuclear disaster, and the cost of dealing with the waste at this site alone has already risen to £70 billion….” Reactors across the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, France, Germany and Canada face escalating costs and risks tending spent fuel rods – not to mention eastern European countries with aging Russian reactors. Shutting down the reactor doesn’t ease the storage solution – the whole site has to be sealed off until it’s cleaned up, which may be never – but at least the plant stops producing more waste, which is some benefit. Meanwhile, the hunt for safe permanent storage continues. 

“Finland and Sweden hope to be the first countries in the world to be able to put the most dangerous high-level waste (HLW) into underground storage in the next decade, using a new technology to encase fuel rods and protect them from erosion,” says Japan Times.5  Finding secure, dry storage is the key to dealing with nuclear power plants, whether maintaining them or dismantling them. Both paths are hellishly expensive. 

Take the Hanford (Montana) Site Clean-up, a whole town that makes its living cleaning up a single regional radioactive site. Hanford processed the uranium that went into the Manhattan Project’s first A-bombs, and still has that waste – and much, much more. Fortunately for Canadians, mountains and prevailing westerly winds carry risk away from Calgary and Vancouver. But the Hanford Thyroid Disaese Project reached out to nearly 3500 people in seven counties downwind of Hanford, to check for “downwind” damage.6 

According to the Hanford Site Clean-up website,7 “The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for one of the largest nuclear cleanup efforts in the world, managing the legacy of five decades of nuclear weapons production. At its peak, this national weapons complex consisted of 16 major facilities, including vast reservations of land in the States of Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington. 

“Nowhere in the DOE Complex is cleanup more challenging than at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington. Hanford made more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel [fuel rods] for nine nuclear reactors along the Columbia River. Five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 450 billion gallons of liquids to soil disposal sites and 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks. Plutonium production ended in the late 1980s….”

The scoresheet attached to Hanford’s May 2015 report shows that, since 1989, active clean-up efforts have cleared contaminants from 504 square miles of land, leaving only 82 square miles to go. Of 15,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste buried or stored on site, 12,417 cubic meters of waste have been retrieved and there have been massive shipments to other sites. Remember, mammoth Hanford is only one of the critical US sites.

That’s only a sample of the nuclear waste already fouling US soil. So there’s a certain irony to the West relieving Iran of nuclear waste – truly a punishment that “hurts me more than it hurts you.” The greater irony is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty8  requires the International Atomic Energy Agency to *promote* nuclear energy – give every nation access to the “Peaceful Atom” – even as it supposedly monitors each nation’s potential for producing nuclear weapons. For example SIPRI, the Swedish Institute for Peace Research, in 2012 noted that India, China and South Korea are among the most likely future customers. Selling nuclear secrets and equipment to nations with mixed allegiances? I’d buy shares in the spy industry, if they were on offer.9 

For example, said SIPRI, “In June 2011 Saudi Arabia announced its plans to bring 16 nuclear power reactors online by 2030. The announcement came amid the ongoing international crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and was met with some reservation by the non-proliferation community. Concerns grew stronger a few weeks later, when former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency Prince Turki al-Faisal, while discussing the Iranian nuclear challenge, openly pondered a Saudi Arabian nuclear weapon option for the future.” Meanwhile, facing North Korea’s nuclear tests, South Korea is pursuing friendly relations with the Czech republic for their nuclear and defence expertise.10 

Of course, the supreme irony is that nuclear power plants themselves are at least as dangerous as nuclear weapons, because they’re operating near our most populated areas. An earthquake – or a misdirected airplane – at Indian Point Energy Center (nuclear power plant) 25 miles north of New York City would put 12 million lives at risk. Something similar already happened in Japan in 2011, at Fukushima Daichi.11 

At the 2012 End of the Nuclear Age conference in Chicago, attendees heard reports from Greenpeace Japan and other experts about the tsunami’s effects on the four nuclear power plants at Fukushima Daichi. Participants asked the question on many minds since the disastrous tidal wave flooded the power plants – why did Japan build nuclear plants at all, when the islands are criss-crossed by edges of tectonic plates? The answer, as far as I could make out, was that their good ally the United States had offered all kinds of inducements and applied a lot of pressure. 

This year, Greenpeace observed the fourth anniversary of the tsnunami with a blog post:12 

“Today, the 11th of March 2015, marks the fourth year since beginning of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters: the triple reactor core meltdowns and catastrophic containment building failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It’s a nuclear crisis that, unfortunately, continues to unfold. 

“The widespread environmental contamination largely remains. Decontamination efforts are, many times, missing the government’s targets. Massive amounts of highly radioactive water flow into the ocean from the reactor site every day. The location of molten reactor cores in Units 1-3 remains unknown – which is a problem that requires massive amounts of cooling water every day to minimize the risk of another major radiation release….”

Or as TIME magazine said,13  “The man in charge of cleaning up the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has admitted there is little cause for optimism while thousands of workers continue their battle to contain huge quantities of radioactive water. The water problem is so severe that the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco], and its myriad partner firms have enlisted almost all of their 6,000 workers in the 2tn yen (£11bn) mission to bring it under control, almost four years after a deadly tsunami sparked a triple meltdown at the plant….”

Physicians for Social Responsibility provides a very detailed account of the current situation, which otherwise can be hard to find:14 

“The destroyed Fukushima reactors and spent fuel ponds, which hold huge quantities of radioactive waste, are far from being stabilized. Reactors #1, #2 and #3 every day discharge radioactive gases that emit a billion becquerels of radiation. The uranium cores of reactors 1, 2 and 3, which completely melted down and then melted through the bottom of the steel reactor vessel,[viii] will continue to produce enormous amounts of radiation and heat for many years. Every day, ten tons of seawater is poured upon each of the melted cores; the water becomes intensely radioactive and then rapidly leaks out of the containment into the adjacent turbine building. It is then pumped through an expensive cooling system that traps the radioactivity in filters the size of small cars, which become highly radioactive and are being placed in a nearby field. Fifty million gallons of intensely radioactive water have already been collected and stored on site.[ix] Thousands of additional radioactive gallons continue to accumulate daily, and the jury-rigged pipe system connecting the storage tanks remains at risk, should another large quake strike the area.

“Other forms of maintenance are also required to avoid potentially catastrophic radiation-releasing events. The intense gamma radiation from the melted fuel causes the seawater to disassociate into hydrogen and oxygen gas. In order to prevent further hydrogen explosions, which have already destroyed the buildings housing reactors 1, 3 and 4, nitrogen gas must be continually pumped into the leaking containment vessel. This process must continue for another six or seven years. Reactor building #4 was severely damaged by the earthquake and a massive hydrogen explosion. It holds a spent fuel pool with 1,532 nuclear fuel assemblies, which contain about 10 times more radioactive cesium than was released by the Chernobyl disaster.[x]

“Should building 4 collapse, its fuel pool would lose its cooling water, and the gamma radiation from the exposed fuel assemblies would then be immediately lethal to anyone within 300 feet. It would be impossible to access the site, including the common pool that contains 6,000 fuel assemblies, which is located 50 feet from building 4. Thus the collapse of building 4 could lead to the release of many times more radiation than has already escaped from Fukushima. This would leave much of Japan uninhabitable and would constitute a global disaster….”

Much as I marvel at a US president smart enough to avoid a war that neither the world economy nor the global environment would survive, I for one don’t believe the news sources that say the Iran negotiations were the most pressing nuclear issue facing the world community, or that we’re all safe from unexpected big bangs now that Iran has signed an agreement. While the world media focus on who’s going to scoop up after Iran, they continue to ignore a much more urgent nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan. 

If the world wants security and freedom from fear of an imminent nuclear holocaust, the immediate next steps must be for the UN Security Council to step in and wrest away control of the devastated and deadly Fukushima Daichi power plants from the current team, which stumbles from unproven technology to unproven technology.

Last March, the head of Fukushima clean-up operations threw up his hands in despair, according to Richard Lloyd Parry’s report from The Times of London:15 

“The clean-up at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station will be impossible without a technological leap comparable with the invention of railways and mobile phones, according to the chief of the stricken plant. In a stark reminder of the challenge facing the Japanese authorities, Akira Ono admitted that the technology necessary to decommission the three melted down reactors in Fukushima Dai-ichi does not exist, and that he has no clear idea of how it will be achieved. He conceded that the stated goal of decommissioning the plant by 2051, may be impossible….”

That’s not an acceptable conclusion. The West picks up shovels and pitchforks at any sign of deliberate nuclear hazard. It’s about time we did the same for this careless, reckless, massively dangerous radioactive accumulation. And let’s follow Japan and Germany and go cold turkey on our addiction to nuclear power plants. Just because the stall is full of manure, doesn’t always mean there’s a pony in there somewhere.

Copyright Penney Kome 2015


  • 1. The Nation.
  • 2. NY Times “Simple Guide”2
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • 5.
  • 6.Hanford project, Oxford Journals
  • 7.
  • 8. Wikipedia page on non-proliferation treaty:
  • 9. Swedish Institute for Peace Research:
  • 10.
  • 11. Wikipedia:
  • 12. Greenpeace blog post:
  • 13. Time:
  • 14. Physicians for Social Responsibility account:
  • 15. Times of London:

Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions here.






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