How Secure are the Spent Fuel Pools at Fukushima?

What if there is a M7.0+ earthquake offshore from Fukushima in the next 6-12 months?

The Achilles Heel of the nuclear facility is the spent fuel pools (SFP) which are located 100 ft. above the earth– in particular Reactor # 4 containing the highest monitored level of radiation. If an earthquake strikes and the SFP collapse– or even an explosion as occurred in March 2011– there will likely be a release of radioactive materials, including Strontium 90, Cesium 134/137, nano “hot” plutonium, and other lethal radioactive isotopes. A 3-dimensional topographical map will clearly show how near and exposed greater Tokyo is to Fukushima.

Three questions are essential:

  • Were the earthquake tolerance levels (safety standards) strengthened after the March 2011 M 9.0 earthquake and then again after the 2013 M7.1 quake?
  • If so, what is the present standard, especially for the SFP in Reactor # 4?
  • What actions if any have been taken to date to secure the SFP based on these revised standards and regulations?

Some reasonable measures:

  • Continue to fortify the SPF, especially # 4.
  • Confirm there is “match up water capability”—in other words, adequate cooling water if the SPF cracks.
  • Ensure that there is adequate back up power that will not be wiped out by a tsunami as happened during the March 11, 2011 M9.0 quake.
  • Construct a protective wall to withstand the impact of all historic tsunamis.
  • Prepare an emergency management plan and have trained personnel ready to protect the workers at the facility and the surrounding communities.

Prime Minister Abe has promised the Olympic Committee and the international community that the Fukushima plants are fully under control and the Olympics can be held in 2020 safely. By taking every possible precaution with the SFP he will be honoring his commitment. But how can we, the public, be certain that the SFP are safe when this critical information is being protected by Japan’s recently enacted State Secrets Law? This law imposes harsh criminal penalties upon journalists or other private citizens for even attempting to obtain the release of documents revealing the current status of the SFP. If the SFP explode, the contamination will likely be carried by the winds, ocean currents, and the Jet Stream to the U.S. and other parts of the world. Fukushima is now the world’s problem.

Can a nation refuse to provide such vital information on the grounds that it is a state secret? Under the specific and unique conditions presented by the vulnerable SFP at Fukushima, the sovereignty of nations must accede in this instance to a higher authority. In legal terms the world community’s right to know and the sovereign’s correlative fiduciary duty to inform are well established under international law and most national legal systems. These rights and obligations are implied in Articles 3, 19, and 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are clearly expressed in numerous UN environmental declarations since the Stockholm Conference of 1971. They are enshrined in several human rights and environmental treaties and conventions. They are recognized in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and by statutes and ordinances in Japan, the European Community, the U.S., and other countries. They are regularly cited by the courts in these jurisdictions. They are the customary law of nations.

Thus the question is stark: Prime Minister Abe, are the SFP secure?—Yes or No? The well-being of millions of people may depend upon your answer.

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Julian Gresser was twice Mitsubishi Visiting Professor of Japanese law at the Harvard Law School, and has been an advisor to the U.S. State Department and the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan. His most recent book, Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind (Bridge21 Publications), introduces a new strategy for innovation to address global challenges like Fukushima.