The TEPCO Nuclear Disaster, Two Years Later


The Japanese national broadcaster, NHK recently aired two programs on their English Language service on the Nuclear disaster in Fukushima, which occurred two years ago last month.  

One program, “Fukushima Two Years Later”, updates the conditions under which the survivors are living in today.  “Meltdown Oversights in the Reactor Cooling System” discusses in detail the human folly that led to the nuclear diaspora’s current situation. The day of the Tsunami is not when this story begins.  Instead, the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami marked the end of a tale of unimaginably bad judgement on the part of TEPCO, the operator of Fukushima dai ichi nuclear power plant.  


Unit 1

Nuclear plants use power (electric power) to circulate water and cool the reactors as they produce energy.  This exposes them to dangers if power is lost to the plant.  Under normal circumstances, Fukushima was wired into the electric grid itself and used that electricity to operate the coolings systems even as it generates it’s own.  If power were to be lost at the plant, the plant had diesel generators and batteries as back-ups.

In addition to these conventional means, there is an another system, a fail safe if you will, called the isolation condensers.  These do not require electricity to function.  They’re like radiators in a house with a boiler.  Hot steam rises from the reactor chamber and condenses inside the system--which is located above it.  Once it condenses and becomes water, gravity brings it back into the reactor where it is turned to steam again and around and around it goes, cooling the reactor as it does so.  Once it’s turned on, it will continue to function indefinitely.  They are thus a critical component in any plan to keep the reactor from overheating in the event the plant loses power, which, as everyone knows is exactly what happens in the event of an earthquake or other natural calamity.

The NHK documentary revealed the following “oversight”:  The Isolation Condensers had not been activated in over forty years.  No one at the plant had ever seen them in operation.  How this became a critical component in this man-made calamity is made painfully clear in the program.

On that day, the earthquake hit first and then the tsunami.  The moment the earth shook, the operators in the control room for unit 1 and 2 immediately instituted an emergency shut down of the reactors, a process called a scram.  Since cooling the reactor too quickly can also cause damage to the core, the decision was made to alternatively activate and deactivate the isolation condenser system in order to cool down the reactor in an orderly fashion.

That was all fine and good, until the tsunami hit.  In an instant, the plant lost both their batteries and the diesel generators.  It is not clear whether or not there was confusion or a breach of protocol, but after the power was lost, no one in the control room could determine if the isolation condensers were operating or not.

Then someone saw “faint” steam coming out of a vent in the side of the reactor building.  Because no one had ever seen this system when it was working, they mistakenly thought this meant that it was, in fact, operating.  

In reality, it was a clear sign that the system was not operating.

In September of 2012, TEPCO launched an in-house investigation of the catastrophe.  NHK filmed a meeting that was part of this investigation:

First participant: Some witnesses said the steam looked faint and still.

Second participant: Doesn’t ‘faint’ suggest that they were working?

Third participant: Everyone sees things differently.  So, the questions of how much steam is enough to say that the isolation condensers were active will vary from person to person.

That’s because no one on site had ever seen it operate and had no clue what that operation would look like.  Had they ever done so--as a visit to an American plant that had tested its system would reveal--they would have known that the system was not functioning.  They operated under this false assumption until the subsequent hydrogen gas explosion 24 hours later.

Unit 3

In the nearby control room for units 3 and 4, a similarly desperate effort was underway to keep reactor 3 from melting down.  Without electricity and with water pressure in the cooling system falling dangerously low,  the decision was made to pump in water from outside.  This is called “substitute water injection”.  Fire trucks would be brought to the plant and their hoses connected to the water pipes feeding the reactor’s cooling system.

Yet another “oversight”:  They had never performed a drill of such a procedure.  As a result, they had to spend crucial time figuring out how and where to send the water through a vast and complex network of pipes and valves that fed the reactor.  They eventually managed to pump nearly 500 tons of water into the cooling system.  Unfortunately, 55% of the water inadvertently ended up in a secondary system because a pump, which would normally prevent that from happening, was not working due to the power failure.  None of that water ever made it to the reactor itself.  A subsequent internal examination by TEPCO came to the conclusion that IF they had been able to limit this leak to 25%, the meltdown would not have occurred.

TEPCO was running this plant, containing six fission reactors with an inexcusable disregard of the safety of the public.  That public is the focus of the other documentary.

The Fallout

TEPCO is worthy of our scorn.  Their cavalier attitude toward safety has ruined so many lives, wrecked whole communities and brought down upon this country--a country which struggles to maintain its population on a sliver of land between the sea and the mountains--a crisis that it has yet to fully reckon with and perhaps never will.

In the city--now a ghost town--where the plant is located, ambient radiation is 90 times higher than the level considered safe by the government.  85,000 people are still under mandatory evacuation from the so-called “red zone” with the highest levels of radiation.  Another 70,000 have been voluntarily evacuated from areas where the levels of radiation did not exceed the maximum annual dose of radiation (1 milisevert per year).  Whole towns are still off-limits to overnight visits.  

NHK obtained GPS information by tracking cell phones of evacuees to construct a graphic image of the actual migrations of the diaspora.  You can see the outflow of people from the immediately affected area, but more tragic is the constant back and forth, to and fro of the tiny dots--each one an evacuee--as they attempt to cobble together an existence in the shadow of their former, now lost lives and communities.

390,000 homes have now been identified as needing to be decontaminated.  In two years, only 12,000 of them actually have been.  A major problem is that there is nowhere to put the radioactive materials removed when a property is decontaminated.  Their current solution--on-site storage until longer-term storage sites can be secured and developed.

They are giving a new twist to the old adage: “Not in my backyard”.  They are literally storing the radioactive debris removed during decontamination in the backyards of the houses which are being decontaminated.  They dig a trench, line it with plastic, put the radioactive waste in the plastic and cover it over with dirt and gravel. .

One problem with this strategy is that in areas without storage potential, areas like streets and roads, clean-up cannot take place.  There is speculation that radiation from roads is re

-contaminating previously decontaminated areas.  NHK introduces us to a family that has not felt comfortable with their two children playing outside since they returned to their “decontaminated” home.

More than 4,000 groups around the prefecture have been started by communities to take matters into their own hands.  The 70,000 residents of Nihonmatsu city have begun surveying their own neighborhoods to find and report hot spots.  They then spend their daily lives trying to avoid them.  Those living in the Shidamyo district of Iwaki City--a mere 30 kilometers from the plant--have been busy hunting for hot spots and marking them on maps of their community, broken into 50-square-meter blocks in preparation for a future clean-up.  

They discovered that the trees of the area have become part of the problem.  

Once the radiation was in the soil, the roots took up particles of cesium along with water.  It then travelled through the trunk and became part of the leaves and needles.  Once they were shed, they created new hot spots on the forest floor and wherever else they accumulated.

The human story is painful to watch.  We see families forced to live apart by economics and fear for their children’s health.  Mothers are anguished.  Fathers are lonely.  Children are bullied in strange, new schools.  Grandparents die in a bewildering shuffle from one unfamiliar place to another.  

One small child evacuee, named Ai, shocked her mother one day by spontaneously telling her that “she wants to have normal and healthy children”.  We don’t know the extent of her understanding of their situation, what some fourth-grade bully at school might have said to her, what she might have overheard from a hushed conversation between her parents during one of Dad’s visits home.  

What we do know is that this corporation is responsible for the horrors brought down upon these people and the nation that trusted them with their safety and security.

Comments to Joe Hubris.