Tag Archives: Earthquake

10/25/2011 Fallout forensics hike radiation toll: Global data on Fukushima challenge Japanese estimates

The Fukushima accident led to mass evacuations from nearby towns such as Minamisoma. AP Photo/S. Ponomarev: 10/25/2011 Fallout forensics hike radiation toll Published online: Global data on Fukushima challenge Japanese estimates. The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study1 that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The study also suggests that, contrary to government claims, pools used to store spent nuclear fuel played a significant part in the release of the long-lived environmental contaminant caesium-137, which could have been prevented by prompt action. The analysis has been posted online for open peer review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Andreas Stohl, an atmospheric scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, who led the research, believes that the analysis is the most comprehensive effort yet to understand how much radiation was released from Fukushima Daiichi. “It’s a very valuable contribution,” says Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric modeller with the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm, who was not involved with the study.

The reconstruction relies on data from dozens of radiation monitoring stations in Japan and around the world. Many are part of a global network to watch for tests of nuclear weapons that is run by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The scientists added data from independent stations in Canada, Japan and Europe, and then combined those with large European and American caches of global meteorological data.

Stohl cautions that the resulting model is far from perfect. Measurements were scarce in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, and some monitoring posts were too contaminated by radioactivity to provide reliable data. More importantly, exactly what happened inside the reactors — a crucial part of understanding what they emitted — remains a mystery that may never be solved. “If you look at the estimates for Chernobyl, you still have a large uncertainty 25 years later,” says Stohl.

Nevertheless, the study provides a sweeping view of the accident. “They really took a global view and used all the data available,” says De Geer.

Challenging numbers

Japanese investigators had already developed a detailed timeline of events following the 11 March earthquake that precipitated the disaster. Hours after the quake rocked the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami arrived, knocking out crucial diesel back-up generators designed to cool the reactors in an emergency. Within days, the three reactors operating at the time of the accident overheated and released hydrogen gas, leading to massive explosions. Radioactive fuel recently removed from a fourth reactor was being held in a storage pool at the time of the quake, and on 14 March the pool overheated, possibly sparking fires in the building over the next few days.

But accounting for the radiation that came from the plants has proved much harder than reconstructing this chain of events. The latest report from the Japanese government, published in June, says that the plant released 1.5 × 1016 bequerels of caesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half-life that is responsible for most of the long-term contamination from the plant2. A far larger amount of xenon-133, 1.1 × 1019 Bq, was released, according to official government estimates.

The new study challenges those numbers. On the basis of its reconstructions, the team claims that the accident released around 1.7 × 1019 Bq of xenon-133, greater than the estimated total radioactive release of 1.4 × 1019 Bq from Chernobyl. The fact that three reactors exploded in the Fukushima accident accounts for the huge xenon tally, says De Geer.

Xenon-133 does not pose serious health risks because it is not absorbed by the body or the environment. Caesium-137 fallout, however, is a much greater concern because it will linger in the environment for decades. The new model shows that Fukushima released 3.5 × 1016 Bq caesium-137, roughly twice the official government figure, and half the release from Chernobyl. The higher number is obviously worrying, says De Geer, although ongoing ground surveys are the only way to truly establish the public-health risk.

Stohl believes that the discrepancy between the team’s results and those of the Japanese government can be partly explained by the larger data set used. Japanese estimates rely primarily on data from monitoring posts inside Japan3, which never recorded the large quantities of radioactivity that blew out over the Pacific Ocean, and eventually reached North America and Europe. “Taking account of the radiation that has drifted out to the Pacific is essential for getting a real picture of the size and character of the accident,” says Tomoya Yamauchi, a radiation physicist at Kobe University who has been measuring radioisotope contamination in soil around Fukushima.

Stohl adds that he is sympathetic to the Japanese teams responsible for the official estimate. “They wanted to get something out quickly,” he says. The differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.

The new analysis also claims that the spent fuel being stored in the unit 4 pool emitted copious quantities of caesium-137. Japanese officials have maintained that virtually no radioactivity leaked from the pool. Yet Stohl’s model clearly shows that dousing the pool with water caused the plant’s caesium-137 emissions to drop markedly (see ‘Radiation crisis’). The finding implies that much of the fallout could have been prevented by flooding the pool earlier.

The Japanese authorities continue to maintain that the spent fuel was not a significant source of contamination, because the pool itself did not seem to suffer major damage. “I think the release from unit 4 is not important,” says Masamichi Chino, a scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority in Ibaraki, who helped to develop the Japanese official estimate. But De Geer says the new analysis implicating the fuel pool “looks convincing”.

The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant.

The Japanese government’s report has already acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant’s design specifications. Anti-nuclear activists have long been concerned that the government has failed to adequately address geological hazards when licensing nuclear plants (see Nature 448, 392–393; 2007), and the whiff of xenon could prompt a major rethink of reactor safety assessments, says Yamauchi.

The model also shows that the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. “There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,” says Stohl. “It could have been much worse.”

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski and Rina Nozawa.

8/22/2011 Guardian UK: Fukushima disaster: residents may never return to radiation-hit homes

8/22/2011 Guardian UK: Fukushima disaster: residents may never return to radiation-hit homes: Japanese government will admit for first time that radiation levels will be too high to allow many evacuees to return home: Residents who lived close to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant are to be told their homes may be uninhabitable for decades, according to Japanese media reports. The Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, is expected to visit the area at the weekend to tell evacuees they will not be able to return to their homes, even if the operation to stabilise the plant’s stricken reactors by January is successful.

Kan’s announcement will be the first time officials have publicly recognised that radiation damage to areas near the plant could make them too dangerous to live in for at least a generation, effectively meaning that some residents will never return to them.

A Japanese government source is quoted in local media as saying the area could be off-limits for “several decades”. New data has revealed unsafe levels of radiation outside the 12-mile exclusion zone, increasing the likeliness that entire towns will remain unfit for habitation.

The exclusion zone was imposed after a series of hydrogen explosions at the plant following the earthquake and tsunami in March.

The government had planned to lift the evacuation order and allow 80,000 people back into their homes inside the exclusion zone once the reactors had been brought under control. Several thousand others living in random hotspots outside the zone have also had to relocate.

However, in a report issued over the weekend the science ministry projected that radiation accumulated over one year at 22 of 50 tested sites inside the exclusion zone would easily exceed 100 millisieverts, five times higher than the safe level advised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. “We can’t rule out the possibility that there will be some areas where it will be hard for residents to return to their homes for a long time,” said Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretaryand face of the government during the disaster. “We are very sorry.”

Edano refused to say which areas were on the no-go list or how long they would remain uninhabitable, adding that a decision would be made after more radiation tests have been conducted.

The government has yet to decide how to compensate the tens of thousands of residents and business owners who will be forced to start new lives elsewhere. The state has hinted that it may buy or rent land from residents in unsafe areas, although it has not ruled out trying to decontaminate them.

Futaba and Okuma, towns less than two miles from the Fukushima plant, are expected to be among those on the blacklist. The annual cumulative radiation dose in one district of Okuma was estimated at 508 millisieverts, which experts believe is high enough to increase the risk of cancer. More than 300 households from the two towns will be allowed to return briefly to their homes next week to collect belongings. It will be the first time residents have visited their homes since the meltdown.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, is working to bring the three crippled reactors and four overheating spent fuel pools to a safe state known as “cold shutdown” by mid-January.

Last week the company estimated that leaks from all three reactors had dropped significantly over the past month.

But signs of progress at the plant have been tempered by widespread contamination of soil, trees, roads and farmland.

Experts say that while health risks can be lowered by measures including the removal of layers of topsoil, vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and children should avoid even minimal exposure.

“Any exposure would pose a health risk, no matter how small,” Hiroaki Koide, a radiation specialist at Kyoto University, told Associated Press. “There is no dose that we should call safe.”

Any government admission that residents will not be able to return to their homes will be closely monitored in Japan.

Suspicions persist that the authorities privately acknowledged this situation several months ago. In April, Kenichi Matsumoto, a senior adviser to the cabinet, quoted Kan as saying that people would not be able to live near the plant for “10 to 20 years”. Matsumoto later claimed to have made the remark himself.

8/23/2011 NY Times: 5.8-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes East Coast

8/23/2011 NY Times: 5.8-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes East Coast By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE: A 5.8-magnitude earthquake based in Virginia sent tremors from the nation’s capital to New York City and New England Tuesday afternoon, officials said. Buildings throughout major metropolitan centers in the northeast were evacuated after the quake, and tremors were felt as far north as Bath, Me., and as far south as Hampstead, N.C., with some limited reports of damage reported near the quake’s epicenter in Virginia, where a nearby nuclear power plant was taken offline. Amtrak trains were temporarily halted, and cellphone service was disrupted as calls flooded cellular systems.

While there were only limited reports of damage, the breadth of the quake rattled nerves along the Northeast. The streets of downtown Washington filled with thousands of people on Tuesday afternoon as buildings from the Capitol to the White House were evacuated following the 1:51 p.m. quake, which lasted by varying accounts anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds.

Andre Smith-Pugh, a 25-year-old carpentry worker, was high above the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when he felt the shaking.

“It felt like the scaffolding was coming down,” he said in an interview. “It felt like a big truck slammed into the side of the building right here at the White House.”

He and his work crew climbed down and gathered outside the White House. None were injured, he said, but all were rattled. Reuters quoted Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the National Cathedral in Washington, as saying “at least three pinnacles on the central tower have broken off” because of the earthquake.

Several buildings in New York City were evacuated, with employees standing in the streets in midtown Manhattan. Rumbles were reported on Twitter from places as far-flung as Martha’s Vineyard, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

“Our townhouse started shaking a short time ago and branches started to fall off trees and hit our windows and hit our roof like crazy,” said Bill Parks of Hummelstown, Pa. “It lasted about 10 seconds and was as bad as the Northridge after shock I had experienced while visiting in California. I ran outdoors and found my neighbor calling a friend in Virginia who also felt the profound quake. This quake was like none I ever experienced in the East in my life and I am 76 years old.”

Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, head of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Division of Seismology, said the earthquake occurred in a part of Central Virginia that is known as an area of geologically old faults, created several hundred million years ago when the Appalachian Mountains were forming. The area has frequent small earthquakes; the largest previously recorded was one of magnitude 4.8 in 1875.

“We do expect earthquakes to occur here,” he said. “Not as frequently as in California, but this is not a surprise.” He described the Central Virginia earthquakes as “kind of a randomized reactivation of these geologically old structures” as opposed to the tremors that occur along an active fault such as the San Andreas in California.

In Mineral, Va., a town about of about 500 people located four miles from the quake’s center, residents reported extensive damage to items inside homes. China shattered and pictures fell off walls. The Virginia epicenter was just miles from a decades-old nuclear power plant, the North Anna, operated by Dominion Power in Richmond, where two reactors were taken offline, although there were no reports of damage there.

Sherry Gibson, 42, owner of Sherry’s Snip & Style in Mineral, had popped home for a few minutes when the earthquake hit.

“The whole ground just shook and shook and kept on shaking,” she said. The noise was so loud, she said, that it sounded like a plane falling out of the sky. China blew out of the cabinet, and her mantle pulled away from the wall.

Some of her neighbors have cracks in their walls, she said, but she had not heard of any injuries and she said the town had not lost electricity.

The tremors were even felt in Boston, where John D. Tuerck said he felt “a discernible swaying on the 18th floor” of his office tower. He added: “Not something one expects here, for sure.”

In downtown Manhattan, police officers ordered the evacuation of New York’s City’s Hall a few minutes before 2 p.m., sending Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his staff scurrying out of the building.

Mr. Bloomberg, standing in front of the grand Renaissance-style building, said he had felt the tremors but assumed they stemmed from extensive renovations underway inside City Hall. “I did feel a little bit of shake,” he said.”And then it got greater.” “So far,” Mr. Bloomberg said, “we have no reports of any damage.”

In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, calls of “did you feel that?” could be heard on nearly every street corner.

“I’m from California and I thought, ’that feels like an earthquake, but no, it can’t be an earthquake!’” said Matt Flammer, 23, who was standing in Bespoke Bicycles, the shop where he works on Lafayette Avenue, when the bikes on the wall began to sway.

In Washington, the tremor caused strong shaking in the Capitol, which was quickly evacuated for a structural evaluation. Chandeliers swayed and one short burst shook the centuries-old building. With a pro forma Senate session scheduled, Senate officials gathered across Constitution Avenue to determine how to proceed.

President Obama was in Martha’s Vineyard during the quake and Vice President Biden spent Tuesday in Japan, coincidentally touring areas that were devastated by the earthquake and attendant tsunami earlier this year.

But the biggest jolts occurred closer to the quake’s epicenter in Virginia.

Chuck Thies, 46, a political consultant who lives in Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C., was writing an email on his computer on the top floor of his four-story building when the shaking started. It lasted a harrowing 15 to 20 seconds, he recalled, and within 10 seconds or so of the temblor subsiding, Mr. Thies had folded up his laptop and was barefoot on the sidewalk — standing among dozens of other stunned neighbors.

But before Mr. Thies, who was home alone in his office, bolted his building, which is more than 100 years old, he suspected it was an earthquake or perhaps a major explosion.

“My five-year-old son’s Matchbox trucks started falling off the shelf in succession, and that’s when I realized it was an earthquake,” he said. “And in the kitchen, some dishes that were in the drying rack started rattling loudly against one and other. This place really shook.”

Jeff Zeleny, Carl Hulse and Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington; Elizabeth Harris, Henry Fountain and Serge Kovaleski contributed reporting from New York City, and Abby Goodnough contributed from Brattleboro, Vt..

France 24 International News 24/7: Protesters rally in Fukushima against nuclear power

France 24 International News 24/7: Protesters rally in Fukushima against nuclear power By News Wires: AFP – An estimated 1,700 people rallied in the capital of Japan’s Fukushima region, home to a crippled atomic power plant, on Sunday, calling for an end to nuclear energy, local media reported. “Abolish all the nuclear power plants!” and “Give radiation-free Fukushima back to us,” the demonstrators chanted as they marched in Fukushima City, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the nuclear plant. The rally, joined by residents evacuated from areas outside the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was organised by the Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs as part of its longtime campaign against nuclear weapons.

It was the first time that the leading anti-nuclear organisation staged a rally in Fukushima to observe the anniversaries of the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

“We have tended to focus on abolition of nuclear weapons while being weak in our campaign against nuclear power plants,” Koichi Kawano, a Nagasaki atomic-bomb survivor who heads the organising group, told the rally.

“Let there be no more nuclear plant accidents.”

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami ravaged the Fukushima plant on March 11, leading to radioactive leaks.

Hiromasa Yoshida, a 45-year-old school teacher evacuated from the town of Namie inside a 20-kilometre no-go zone outside the plant, told the rally: “Let us become the last victims of any nuclear plant accident.

“Now is the time to shift away from nuclear power generation.”

The organisation is due to hold similar rallies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the run-up to the 66th anniversaries of the bombings.

7/14/2011 Stock Market News: Japan PM Contender Says Ditch Nuclear Power

Japan PM Contender Says Ditch Nuclear Power by Stock Market News, July 4th, 2011: A leading contender to replace Naoto Kan as Japan’s prime minister has called for the country to phase out nuclear power over the next two decades. Seiji Maehara, one of the most popular figures in the ruling Democratic party, told the Financial Times in an interview that construction of new nuclear reactors should “basically be stopped” following the crisis at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant. Mr Maehara’s comments — seen as a strong candidate to succeed Mr Kan — will fuel expectations that the nuclear crisis will prompt sweeping changes in Japan’s energy policy.

The Mainichi newspaper reported that Yoshito Sengoku, chief cabinet secretary, was backing a confidential plan to separate the electricity generation and distribution arms of Tokyo Electric Power, Fukushima’s operator, and nationalise its nuclear assets.

The nuclear crisis that erupted after Japan was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in March has fuelled anti-nuclear sentiment around the world. The German parliament on Thursday voted to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

A Japanese retreat from atomic power would have far-reaching implications for domestic utilities and companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which are seeking to sell nuclear technology overseas.

“There is a need for a revolutionary shift in how electricity is generated and used,” said Mr Maehara, who served as transport minister and as foreign minister before stepping down from the cabinet in March over a minor funding scandal.

While Mr Kan has pledged to make renewable energy and conservation pillars of national energy policy alongside fossil fuels and nuclear power, he has been vague about the prospects for new reactors planned or under construction.

Opinion polls suggest a majority of voters support a gradual reduction in the use of atomic energy. Mr Maehara said Japan should aim to phase out nuclear power completely.

“That is what is going to happen and … what should happen, but given that we depend on nuclear power for 30 per cent of electricity generation, we can’t get rid of it right away,” he said. “While increasing the safety of nuclear power, we need to use preferential policies to reduce our dependence on it over 10 or 20 years.”

Mr Maehara’s relative popularity and status as a former leader of the DPJ mean his call for a nuclear phase-out could put the issue at the centre of any party election to replace Mr Kan. The DPJ and the former ruling Liberal Democratic party, the biggest opposition group, remain officially pro-nuclear despite the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, but both parties have long contained members who are against the use of atomic energy on safety or environmental grounds.

Speculation has been growing in recent weeks that the scale of the crisis will make nuclear policy a key battleground. Mr Maehara’s status as a possible successor to Mr Kan has been boosted by recent opinion polls. One survey by the Nikkei Shimbun suggested one-fifth of voters thought him the most suitable person to become DPJ leader and thus premier.

However, Mr Maehara said he was being “extremely cautious” about the possibility of replacing Mr Kan given his recent resignation over revelations that he received Y 250,000 ($ 3,100) in political donations from a long-time Korean resident. Japanese politicians are barred from taking funds from foreigners. Mr Maehara has said he was unaware of the donations, and the scandal is seen by analysts as a relatively minor affair.

Mr Maehara told the FT he had made an “accounting mistake”. He said staying in office might have complicated passage of important legislation, including a bill allowing continued financial support for US military bases in Japan.

The former transport minister also took aim at a troubled “fast-breeder” atomic power station, which he said was “very expensive”. The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in western Fukui Prefecture, was shut down in 1995 following a coolant leak.

The 280MW plant, which burns plutonium refined from the spent fuel of conventional reactors, was restarted last year but soon suffered a new setback when a 3.3 tonne piece of equipment fell into its reactor, taking months to remove.

“In my opinion we should abandon it,” Mr Maehara said.

———————————
Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center
Akebonobashi Co-op 2F-B, 8-5 Sumiyoshi-cho,
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162-0065, Japan
TEL.03-3357-3800
FAX.03-3357-3801
http://cnic.jp/english/

7/2/2011 The Atlantic Wire: Meltdown: What Really Happened at Fukushima?

The Atlantic Wire: Meltdown: What Really Happened at Fukushima? By Jake Edelstein and David McNeill: 7/2/2011 It’s been one of the mysteries of Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster: How much of the damage did the March 11 earthquake inflict on Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors in the 40 minutes before the devastating tsunami arrived? The stakes are high: If the quake alone structurally compromised the plant and the safety of its nuclear fuel, then every other similar reactor in Japan is at risk. Throughout the months of lies and misinformation, one story has stuck: “The earthquake knocked out the plant’s electric power, halting cooling to its reactors,” as the government spokesman Yukio Edano said at a March 15 press conference in Tokyo. The story, which has been repeated again and again, boils down to this: “after the earthquake, the tsunami — a unique, unforeseeable [the Japanese word is soteigai] event — then washed out the plant’s back-up generators, shutting down all cooling and starting the chain of events that would cause the world’s first triple meltdown to occur.”

But what if recirculation pipes and cooling pipes, burst, snapped, leaked, and broke completely after the earthquake — long before the tidal wave reached the facilities, long before the electricity went out? This would surprise few people familiar with the 40-year-old Unit 1, the grandfather of the nuclear reactors still operating in Japan. The authors have spoken to several workers at the plant who recite the same story: Serious damage to piping and at least one of the reactors before the tsunami hit. All have requested anonymity because they are still working at the plant or are connected with TEPCO. One worker, a 27-year-old maintenance engineer who was at the Fukushima complex on March 11, recalls hissing and leaking pipes. “I personally saw pipes that came apart and I assume that there were many more that had been broken throughout the plant. There’s no doubt that the earthquake did a lot of damage inside the plant,” he said. “There were definitely leaking pipes, but we don’t know which pipes — that has to be investigated. I also saw that part of the wall of the turbine building for Unit 1 had come away. That crack might have affected the reactor.”

The reactor walls of the reactor are quite fragile, he notes. “If the walls are too rigid, they can crack under the slightest pressure from inside so they have to be breakable because if the pressure is kept inside and there is a buildup of pressure, it can damage the equipment inside the walls so it needs to be allowed to escape. It’s designed to give during a crisis, if not it could be worse — that might be shocking to others, but to us it’s common sense.”

A second worker, a technician in his late 30s, who was also on site at the time of the earthquake, narrated what happened. “It felt like the earthquake hit in two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking, the pipes buckling, and within minutes, I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the wall. Others snapped. I was pretty sure that some of the oxygen tanks stored on site had exploded but I didn’t see for myself. Someone yelled that we all needed to evacuate and I was good with that. But I was severely alarmed because as I was leaving I was told and I could see that several pipes had cracked open, including what I believe were cold water supply pipes. That would mean that coolant couldn’t get to the reactor core. If you can’t sufficiently get the coolant to the core, it melts down. You don’t have to have to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.”

As he was heading to his car, he could see the walls of the reactor one building itself had already started to collapse. “There were holes in them. In the first few minutes, no one was thinking about a tsunami. We were thinking about survival.” A third worker was coming into work late when the earthquake hit. “I was in a building nearby when the earthquake shook. After the second shockwave hit, I heard a loud explosion that was almost deafening. I looked out the window and I could see white smoke coming from reactor one. I thought to myself, ‘this is the end.’”

When the worker got to the office five to 15 minutes later the supervisor ordered them all to evacuate, explaining, “there’s been an explosion of some gas tanks in reactor one, probably the oxygen tanks. In addition to this there has been some structural damage, pipes have burst, meltdown is possible. Please take shelter immediately.” (It should be noted that there have been several explosions at Daiichi even after the March 11 earthquake, one of which TEPCO stated, “was probably due to a gas tank left behind in the debris”.)

However, while the employees prepared to leave, the tsunami warning came. Many of them fled to the top floor of a building near the site and waited to be rescued. The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire (東京電力・暗黒の帝国), who sounded the alarm about the firm in his 2007 book explains it this way: “If TEPCO and the government of Japan admit an earthquake can do direct damage to the reactor, this raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.”

In a previous story, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese engineer who worked at the Unit 1 site, says that he wasn’t surprised that a meltdown took place after the earthquake. He sent the Japanese government a letter, dated June 28, 2000, warning them of the problems there. It took the Japanese government more than two years to act on that warning. Mr. Sugaoka has also said he saw yakuza tattoos on many of the cleanup crew staff. When interviewed on May 23 he stated, “The plant had problems galore and the approach taken with them was piecemeal. Most of the critical work: construction work, inspection work, and welding were entrusted to sub-contracted employees with little technical background or knowledge of nuclear radiation. I can’t remember there ever being a disaster drill. The TEPCO employees never got their hands dirty.”

Onda notes, “I’ve spent decades researching TEPCO and its nuclear power plants and what I’ve found, and what government reports confirm is that the nuclear reactors are only as strong as their weakest links, and those links are the pipes.”

During his research, Onda spoke with several engineers who worked at the TEPCO plants. One told him that often piping would not match up the way it should according to the blueprints. In that case, the only solution was to use heavy machinery to pull the pipes close enough together to weld them shut. Inspection of piping was often cursory and the backs of the pipes, which were hard to reach, were often ignored. Since the inspections themselves were generally cursory and done by visual checks, it was easy to ignore them. Repair jobs were rushed; no one wanted to be exposed to nuclear radiation longer than necessary.

Onda adds, “When I first visited the Fukushima power plant it was a web of pipes. Pipes on the wall, on the ceiling, on the ground. You’d have to walk over them, duck under them—sometimes you’d bump your head on them. It was like a maze of pipes inside.” Onda believes it’s not very difficult to explain what happened at Unit 1 and perhaps the other reactors as well. “The pipes, which regulate the heat of the reactor and carry coolant, are the veins and arteries of a nuclear power plant; the core is the heart. If the pipes burst, vital components don’t reach the heart and thus you have a heart attack, in nuclear terms: meltdown. In simpler terms, you can’t cool a reactor core if the pipes carrying the coolant and regulating the heat rupture—it doesn’t get to the core.”

Tooru Hasuike, a TEPCO employee from 1977 until 2009 and former general safety manager of the Fukushima plant, also notes: “The emergency plans for a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant had no mention of using sea-water to cool the core. To pump seawater into the core is to destroy the reactor. The only reason you’d do that is no other water or coolant was available.”

Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistle-blower allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them, including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Kei Sugaoka, a GE on-site inspector first notified Japan’s nuclear watch dog, Nuclear Industrial Safey Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. Not only did the government of Japan take more than two years to address the problem and collude on covering it up, they gave the name of the whistleblower to TEPCO.

In September of 2002, TEPCO admitted to covering up data concerning cracks in critical circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center writes: “The records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.” The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the simple wear and tear of long-term usage.

On March 2, nine days before the meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) gave TEPCO a warning on its failure to inspect critical pieces of equipment at the plant, which included the recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs if needed and give a report to the NISA on June 2. The report is not confirmed to have been filed as of this time.

The problems were not only with the piping. Gas tanks at the site also exploded after the earthquake. The outside of the reactor building suffered structural damage. There was some chaos. There was no one really qualified to assess the radioactive leakage because, as the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admits, after the accident all the on-site inspectors fled the site. And the quake and tsunami broke most of the monitoring equipment so there was little information available on radiation afterwards.

Before the dawn on March 12, the water levels at the reactor began to plummet and the radiation began rising. Meltdown was taking place. The TEPCO Press release issued on March 12 just past 4am stated, “the pressure within the containment vessel is high but stable.” There was a note buried in the release that many people missed. “The emergency water circulation system was cooling the steam within the core; it has ceased to function.”

According to The Chunichi Shinbun and other sources, a few hours after the earthquake extremely high levels of radiation were being measured within the reactor one building. The levels were so high that if you spent a full day exposed to them it would be fatal. The water levels of the reactor were already sinking. After the Japanese government forced TEPCO to release hundreds of pages of documents relating to the accident in May, Bloomberg reported on May 19 that a radiation alarm went off 1.5 kilometers from the number one reactor on March 11 at 3:29 p.m., minutes before the tsunami reached the plant.

TEPCO would not deny the possibility that there was significant radiation leakage before the power went out. They did assert that the alarm might have simply malfunctioned. On March 11, at 9:51 p.m., under the CEO’s orders, the inside of the reactor building was declared a no-entry zone. Around 11 p.m., radiation levels for the inside of the turbine building, which was next door to the reactor, reached hourly levels of 0.5 to 1.2 mSv. The meltdown was already underway. Oddly enough, while TEPCO later insisted that the cause of the meltdown was the tsunami knocking out emergency power systems, at the 7:47 p.m. TEPCO press conference the same day, the spokesman in response to questions from the press about the cooling systems stated that the emergency water circulation equipment and reactor core isolation time cooling systems would work even without electricity.

Sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. on March 12, Masao Yoshida, the plant manager decided it was time to pump seawater into the reactor core and notified TEPCO. Seawater was not pumped in until hours after a hydrogen explosion occurred, roughly 8:00 p.m. that day. By then, it was probably already too late.

On May 15, TEPCO went some way toward admitting at least some of these claims in a report called “Reactor Core Status of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Unit One.” The report said there might have been pre-tsunami damage to key facilities including pipes. “This means that assurances from the industry in Japan and overseas that the reactors were robust is now blown apart,” said Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear waste consultant. “It raises fundamental questions on all reactors in high seismic risk areas.”

As Burnie points out, TEPCO also admitted massive fuel melt — 16 hours after loss of coolant, and 7-8 hours before the explosion in unit 1. “Since they must have known all this — their decision to flood [the core] with massive water volumes would guarantee massive additional contamination — including leaks to the ocean.”

No one knows exactly how much damage was done to the plant by the quake, or if this damage alone would account for the meltdown. However, eyewitness testimony and TEPOC’S own data indicates that the damage was significant. All of this despite the fact that shaking experienced at the plant during the quake was within it’s approved design specifications. Says Hasuike: “What really happened at the Fukushima Daiicihi Nuclear Power Plant to cause a meltdown? TEPCO and the government of Japan have provided many explanations. They don’t make sense. The one thing they haven’t provided is the truth. It’s time that they did.”

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, consultant, and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat In Japan. He is also a board member of the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. David McNeill writes for The Irish Times, The Independent and other publications. He has taught courses on journalism at Sophia University and is a coordinator of Japan Focus. Stephanie Nakajima contributed to this article.

Photos via Reuters.

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5/17/2011 Science Magazine: Utility: Fukushima Cores More Damaged Than Thought

5/17/2011 Science Magazine: Utility: Fukushima Cores More Damaged Than Thought By Dennis Normile: TOKYOOver the last several days, evidence has emerged indicating that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was far more dire than previously recognized. The main evidence is extensive—rather than partial—melting of the nuclear fuel in three reactors in the hours after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Despite that bad news, however, today plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. pledged it would still meet the target set 17 April to stabilize the situation by January 2012 so 100,000 residents evacuated from around the plant can return to their homes and the decade-long process of demolishing the reactors can get started.

At first, analysts from Tokyo Electric and the government believed there was only limited damage to the fuel cores. But over the last week, a combination of robotic and human inspections has led to the conclusion that the fuel assemblies in units 1, 2, and 3 were completely exposed to the air for from over 6 hours to over 14 hours and that melting was extensive if not complete. Much of the fuel is now likely at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessels.

Despite extensive melting of the fuel, “we do not believe there is massive damage to the reactor pressure vessel,” Sakae Muto, Tokyo Electric’s chief nuclear officer told reporters this evening. Last week workers found that an estimated 3000 tons of water has leaked from the unit 1 containment vessel into a basement. In its 17 April roadmap, Tokyo Electric envisioned flooding the containment vessel and building a new cooling system to lower the temperature of the core. But the containment vessel now appears to be too leaky for that scheme to work. Instead they will collect water from the basement, purify it, and inject it back into the reactor pressure vessel, from where it will leak back into the basement. It is simpler than a new cooling system, but it will also require additional measures to watch for and counter leaks of contaminated water into the environment, Muto said. They may still build new cooling systems to supplement or replace the water injection scheme.

The 17 April roadmap for containing radiation also called for wrapping the wrecked buildings in tentlike structures of polyester sheets supported on a steel framework. That part of the work is proceeding as planned.

At the same press briefing, Goshi Hosono, a member of the Japanese parliament and a special advisor to the Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the crisis, said the government had decided to establish a mechanism to track the radiation doses and manage the long-term health care of the hundreds of workers battling to bring the crippled reactors under control. “This is not only in the interests of Tokyo Electric and the government but of all the people of Japan,” he said.

April 21, 2011 Request regarding the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Power Plant Disaster

April 21, 2011  Prime Minister Naoto Kan Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo), Sunao Tsuboi, Chair, Sumiteru Taniguchi, Chair, Terumi Tanaka, Secretary General:   Request regarding the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Power Plant Disaster As survivors of the atomic bombs which wreaked unprecedented devastation on humanity, we Hibakusha now expect much of the Japanese Government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) as they make efforts for recovery from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster and to aid those affected.  While a triple disaster on such a scale does indeed occur only rarely, from our experiences we are anxious that current efforts are focused on immediate measures, while comprehensive policies are being delayed and crucial aspects neglected.

We atomic bomb survivors continue to suffer in all parts of our bodies, hearts and lives from the effects of our experiences 66 years ago and since. We have accumulated achievements as a movement calling for assistance for Hibakusha. In this capacity, we call for necessary emergency measures to be taken for the survivors of the recent disaster.

Based on our own experiences, we make the following recommendations.

We call on the Japanese Government and TEPCO to accept these with sincerity and take steps for their implementation.

1. To issue all survivors and evacuees of the earthquake, tsunami and  radiation leaks with Disaster Victim Certificates.

At the time of the atomic bombings, authorities including the police made exhausting efforts to issue Disaster Victim Certificates. These were extremely effective afterwards in confirming that the holder was a survivor of the bombings.

As time passes and survivors become more dispersed, activities to confirm the victims become more difficult.

The certificates issued in this case should include a section for information about the situation of experiencing the disaster (including people whose whereabouts is unknown) and movements after the disaster.

We expect the Government to implement sufficient policies for relief and recovery, and call for all efforts to be made for initial measures, with an understanding of the overall damage and situation as a prerequisite.

2. To issue all victims of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident with a health monitoring book, and the state to take responsibility to conduct regular medical checks at least annually.

We Hibakusha are still suffering even after 66 years.

Radiation disease caused by nuclear fallout rarely occurs within the short-term; most cases occur after a considerable amount of time. The Government and TEPCO must take responsibility for long-term policies including life-long regular health checks and medical measures.

Furthermore, we call for health monitoring books to also be issued to all workers who are now risking their lives to work inside the nuclear power plant upon TEPCO’s orders.

The Government and TEPCO must bear the responsibility to take full measures for those people in the nearby areas who were issued with evacuation orders or voluntary evacuation advisories. Measures must be taken assuming the worst case scenario.

3. Until the lives and medical care of the survivors can be properly secured, the evacuation centres where survivors are sheltering must not be closed. Policies must also be made to care for children orphaned by the disaster.

Having seen many children orphaned by the atomic bombs and the war rendered homeless, we are deeply anxious that the recent disaster could also create more orphans. We call for particular consideration to be made for policies to care for children.

4. To provide accurate information regarding the damage caused by radiation, to ease anxiety of citizens and to eradicate harmful rumours and discrimination against survivors.

5. To make a major transformation of energy and electricity policy from reliance on nuclear energy to research, development and use of renewable energy.

In the immediate future, we call for maximum measures to be made to ensure the safety of existing nuclear power plants, while protecting the three principles of the peaceful use of nuclear energy (independent, democratic, made public) and assuming the worst case scenario.

6. To learn from the severity of this nuclear power plant disaster and make progress towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. To cease the concept of protecting Japan through military means, and change to a policy of peace and security that gives the highest priority to diplomacy, aiming for the co-existence of humanity and based on Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.

7. TEPCO to take full responsibility for the nuclear power plant accident, and give compensation for the damage it caused.

* This document was submitted to the Prime Minister, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).