Letter from Japan — From the March 2015 issue

Invisible and Insidious

Living at the edge of Fukushima’s nuclear disaster

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I was happy to see that dosimeter again. By the time I returned to Japan my interpreter had recalibrated it from millirems to millisieverts, the latter her country’s more customary unit of poisonousness. Why not? The thing was hers now; I had given it to her because she had to live here and I didn’t. It was the best I could do for her. To be sure, I had come to deplore its inability to detect anything but gamma rays, since plutonium emits alpha particles, and strontium emits beta particles (which present a danger if strontium is inhaled or swallowed); by July of 2013 these and certain other radioactive substances had been detected in a monitoring well at Plant No. 1. (The concentration of cesium was a hundred times greater than the legal maximum. But why be a pessimist? That well was a good six meters away from the ocean.) At least the dosimeter could keep itself occupied measuring gamma-ray emitters such as cesium-134 and cesium-137, which in that same joyful July kept making news. One Wednesday the Japan Times reported that the isotopes were “both about 90 times the levels found Friday.”

Meanwhile, the JDC Corporation, a construction company, discharged 340 tons of radioactive water into the Iizaka River — but not to worry: it happened, said the Japan Times, “during government-sponsored decontamination work.” (Well, we all make mistakes. You see, the company had not been aware that water from the river would be used for agricultural purposes.) Ten days later, said the same newspaper, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, which is the nuclear utility that operates the damaged plant, “now admits radioactive water entering the sea at Fukushima No. 1 . . . fueling fears that marine life is being poisoned.” The dangerous hydrogen isotope tritium had already been detected in the ocean back in June, and the amount was climbing. But TEPCO would fix things, no doubt.


A crumbling building in Odaka, inside the original twenty-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 2011 © Donald Weber/VII

In August 2013, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, which thus far had treated the leak as a level 1 “anomaly,” recategorized it at level 3, a “serious accident.” Meanwhile, the Japan Times was calling the situation “alarming” and speaking of trillions of becquerels of radioactivity, which is to say, “about 100 times more than what TEPCO had been allowing to enter the sea each year before the crisis.” A year later TEPCO estimated that tritium emitting 20 to 40 trillion becquerels of radiation per liter may have flowed into the Pacific Ocean since May 2011. To prevent No. 1 from exploding again, and maybe melting down, TEPCO cooled the reactor with water and more water, which then went into holding tanks, which, like all human aspirations, eventually leaked.

By September 2013, South Korea had banned the importation of fish from eight Japanese prefectures. And in February 2014, when I began my second visit to the hot zone, the cesium concentration in one sampling well was more than twice as high as the record set the summer before. A day after that was reported, the cesium figure had again more than doubled. As for strontium levels, TEPCO confessed that it had somehow underreported those; they were five and a half times worse than had been previously stated. Three hundred tons of radioactive water were now entering the ocean every day. (A spokesperson for TEPCO says that the situation has since improved: compared with the period before August 2013, levels of strontium-90 have been reduced by about one third, and levels of cesium-137 by one tenth.)

Meanwhile, there were still 150,000 nuclear refugees. Many remained on the hook for the mortgages on their abandoned homes.

Another hilarious little anecdote: Many poor souls had toiled for TEPCO in the hideous environs of No. 1, and some had been exposed to a dose of more than a hundred millisieverts of radiation. A maximum of one millisievert per year for ordinary citizens is the general standard prescribed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. According to The First Responder’s Guide to Radiation Incidents, first responders should content themselves with fifty millisieverts per incident, for although radiation sickness manifests itself at twenty times that dose, cancer might well show up after lower exposures. But the tale had a happy ending: The workers would be allowed to undergo annual ultrasonic thyroid examinations free of charge.

TEPCO projected the total cost of the disaster at 978 billion yen, or 8.4 billion U.S. dollars.

Nevertheless, as the Japanese government kept advising in the aftermath of the disaster, there was “no immediate danger.” And important plans were being drawn up to save the world. The idea was to build an electric-powered “wall of ice” around Plant No. 1 by inserting over 1,700 pipes ninety-eight feet underground for nearly a mile. Coolant flowing through them at -22 degrees Fahrenheit would then freeze the groundwater in the surrounding soil. Many doubted, however, that it would be possible to maintain the wall in a place where summer temperatures can top 100 degrees. In June 2013, only weeks after construction began, the company met new troubles freezing contaminated water for disposal. “We have yet to form the ice stopper,” it admitted, “because we can’t make the temperature low enough to freeze water.” In July, TEPCO announced that it was adding more pipes. The project would cost only 32 billion yen, and with any luck there wouldn’t be another tsunami in the area until the radioactivity subsided.

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

How long might that be? Take tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years. Only after ten half-lives will radiation levels fall to what some realists consider an approximation of pre-contamination. If the reactors somehow stopped polluting the ocean tomorrow, it would still be well over a century before their tritium became harmless. And tritium is one of the shorter-lived poisons in question.

To be sure, dilution works miracles. And on that bright side, Yamazaki Hisataka, a founder of an NGO called No Nukes Plaza, told me that “the radiation has traveled through the Pacific. As a result, it has reached the waters off of the American West Coast. Unless we stop it now, it’s going to get worse and worse.” When I asked whether the ice wall was practical, he laughed. “No,” he said. “Concrete or some permanent barrier would be better.” Did I mention that Japan’s reactor-studded islands are entering one of their cyclical periods of earthquake activity? This is why TEPCO’s wall of ice resembled the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, in which it is possible to wall off time with something permeable only to the brave.

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’s most recent book is Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Life as a Terrorist,” appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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