Situation at Japanese nuclear plant still “very serious”

Three weeks after the disaster struck, serious doubts continue to surround the precise situation inside the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant and the levels of contamination in the surrounding areas. From the outset, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s owner, has released conflicting, contradictory and incomplete information.

Yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) retained its daily warning that: “Overall at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the situation remains very serious.” Water is being pumped continuously into three of the six reactor cores and into spent fuel rod pools to prevent overheating.

At a March 31 briefing, members of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the temperatures inside the numbers 1 to 4 reactors had appeared to stabilise, but major problems were still being caused by the contaminated water that was being used to cool the reactor cores and spent fuel rods. It is still not clear where radioactive water found in the basements of the turbine buildings and in maintenance tunnels is leaking from.

Asked to comment on the reliability of TEPCO’s measurements, UCS spokesman Dr Edwin Lyman replied: “I think it’s clear that there are severe deficiencies in the ability of TEPCO to assess the current and ongoing situation in the reactors. They do have some instrumentation. They do report some values for pressure and temperature, but there are indicators that are repeatedly unreliable or out of service. So, you know, they’re flying partially blind, at least.”

Efforts to pump water out of the turbine building associated with reactor 1 into the turbine condensers have stalled as the condenser is full. The turbine condensers associated with reactors 2 and 3 were already full. The company said it was beginning to pump water from these condensers into suppression pool surge tanks, which can hold about 3,400 tonnes of water. As of Thursday, these tanks were about one-half to one-third full.

TEPCO said it was also studying how to pump water from a tunnel outside the turbine building to a large waste disposal facility on the Fukushima grounds. Workers were piling sandbags around the outlet of that tunnel to prevent overflow water from reaching the ocean, only about 100 metres away.

TEPCO has assured evacuated residents that they will be able to return to areas inside the present 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the plant. But the latest IAEA findings of high levels of cesium-137, including outside the exclusion zone, point to long-term consequences. The long half life for Cesium-137 could potentially make some areas uninhabitable for years to come.

UCS spokesman Lyman drew attention to the IAEA’s cesium-137 report, noting “that was considerably higher than any other number they had previously provided”. He added that some “hot spots” up to 40 kilometres from the Fukushima site exceeded those used by the Soviet Union as parameters for relocation after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, but “the Japanese authorities are still refusing to carry out or to execute any such order”.

The scientist warned: “[T]here may be areas that cannot be reinhabited without significant decontamination. Certainly it is going to affect agriculture in a wide region for a very long time.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano confirmed yesterday that the evacuation of nearby residents—originally said to be temporary only—would be “long-term”. More than 70,000 people living within 20 kilometres of the plant have been moved to makeshift shelters. Another 136,000 people who live within 20 to 30 kilometres have been urged by the authorities to leave or to stay indoors.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan delivered a televised address yesterday in which he warned of a “long-term battle” at the plant. “At the current stage, we cannot say that the plant has been sufficiently stabilised,” he said. “But we are preparing for all kinds of situations and I am convinced that the plant can be stabilised. We cannot say at this stage say by when this will happen, but we are trying our best.”

Kan’s address was an attempt to assure the public that the government was confident of ultimate victory, but it underscored concerns that it could take many years to make Fukushima safe, even if the current emergency operations succeed.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that it had obtained documents showing that TEPCO had inadequate plans in place to deal with disaster at the site, with only one satellite phone and a single stretcher in case of an accident. The company had considered the possibility of a severe accident “so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable”. The documents had no information on how to confront extensive damage. The disaster-preparedness plans had been approved by Japanese regulators.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) publicly criticised TEPCO on Friday for a shortage of radiation monitors for the workers still inside the plant. After many monitors were destroyed in the tsunami, TEPCO had assigned one per group of workers rather than per individual, the agency said. NISA’s rebuke amounted to a polite rap over the knuckles. “The agency warned TEPCO yesterday to do the utmost to manage workers’ exposure levels,” spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

NISA said that 21 workers had so far been exposed to radiation exceeding 100 millisieverts per hour, the former safety level, although tests had shown that no one had been exposed to radiation high enough to damage their health.

For the most dangerous jobs, TEPCO has resorted to looking for “jumpers”—workers who would rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible. “My company offered me 200,000 yen ($US2,500) per day,” one subcontractor told Japan’s Weekly Post magazine. “Ordinarily I’d consider that a dream job, but my wife was in tears and stopped me, so I declined.”

An internal email from a TEPCO employee inside the plant, published by the Wall Street Journal, gave a glimpse of the stress and trauma being experienced by the workers, many of whom have also lost their homes and loved ones.

“I myself have had to stay in the disaster measurement headquarters the entire time ever since the earthquake occurred, and have been fighting alongside my colleagues without any sleep or rest,” he wrote. “Personally, my entire hometown, Namie-machi, which is located along the coast, was washed away by the tsunami. My parents were washed away by the tsunami and I still don’t know where they are... I’m engaged in extremely tough work under this kind of mental condition…I can’t take this anymore!”

The email said the disaster may have been natural in its origin, but TEPCO was responsible for the resulting contamination. It continued: “We don’t know who to turn to and direct our concern and anger. This is the current reality.”

Similar distress and hostility toward the government and TEPCO has been reported elsewhere, including inside the government’s declared 20-30 kilometre “stay indoors” zone around Fukushima. Dai Saito, a resident of Haramachi-ku in Minamisouma, a town inside the zone, told the BBC:

“I don’t have confidence in the government’s actions especially because I am in the area that has been ambiguously designated the ‘Indoor Evacuation Zone’. Indoor evacuation makes no sense because you cannot stay at home all the time...

“My thoughts on the government haven’t changed... It angers me that that they are putting much effort into covering up and making deliberately ambiguous statements. We now know that some of the reports were at least a day old at the time of disclosure. The fact that our lives are in danger right at this minute is apparently less important than the number crunching they seem to do in a safe office far away.”

TEPCO has a long record of colluding with successive governments and regulatory agencies to falsify safety reports and cover up accidents (see: “Japan’s TEPCO: a history of nuclear disaster cover-ups”).

Despite this ongoing record, the government is considering financial aid to the company through an injection of public funds or debt guarantees. Trade minister Banri Kaieda said at a news conference on Friday that the government would set up a committee “soon” to consider financial support for TEPCO.

TEPCO, the world’s largest private electricity utility, is central to the Japanese ruling elite’s vision of expanding the nation’s nuclear energy capacity. Its future remains in doubt even after securing a $25 billion loan this week from a consortium of Japanese banks. On Thursday, Moody’s Investors Service cut the company’s debt rating for the second time in less than two weeks. At a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Kan said he would like to see TEPCO continue as a private company, apparently responding to recent speculation that it could be nationalised.

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[24 March 2011]