Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster an Unpleasant Reminder of Nuclear Power’s Inherent Dangers
North-Western Pacific Ocean
Friday, March 11 2011 2:46pm
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster did not come unannounced. Fore-shocks hailed it’s coming and many souls braced for it’s arrival. An undersea earthquake of magnitude 9.0 shook the north-western Pacific Ocean. The Tohuku earthquake as it would be later named was the most powerful Japan had ever experienced in living memory.
Like an invisible titan it made it’s presence felt on land slamming and toppling buildings. Then it summoned and unleashed a terror of the seas. Powerful tsunami waves as high as 40 meters made their way to land wreaking havoc and traveling as far as 10km inland in Sendai, Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture. Their hunger for destruction and mayham was not to be denied.
There were no doubt some at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant who had an anxious eye on the sea as they scurried about to make sure that the plant was stable.
The three boiling water reactors in use just before the earthquake had their sustained fission reactions automatically shutdown. They were dependent on 13 on-site emergency generators to power crucial electronics and coolant systems.
Eyes and mouths must have opened wide as they witnessed waves as high as 14 meters rising up and dwarfing the pitiful 5.7 meter seawall. The tsunami effortlessly made it’s way into the power plant despite the fact that it was on much higher ground. Within moments the plant was overwhelmed and chaos ensued.
The avalanche of water quickly flooded the rooms housing the emergency diesel generators most of which were underground causing them to fail. Most of the plant’s emergency core cooling systems stopped working. The secondary emergency system operated by batteries kicked in but were in no position to thwart the oncoming nuclear reactor meltdowns.
Workers did their best to contain the situation. A tall task considering they had to simultaneously cope with three reactor core meltdowns and exposed fuel rods.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster: Alarming Glimpses Bring Us in Touch with Nuclear Reality
Mere glimpses alone of what transpired over the next eight days are alarming enough.
In a desperate bid to release some of the pressure inside reactors 1 and 2, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) decided to vent some of the radioactive steam into the air.
The Japanese government orders residents to evacuate the immediate area. This results in the departure of 300,000 people. The marching orders are too much for some though and 1,600 are said to have died due to conditions at evacuation centers, exhaustion in relocating, illness not treated due to hospital closures and suicides.
The core of reactor 1 has a complete meltdown and falls to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel.
A succession of hydrogen-air chemical explosions rock the plant. One of these was a massive explosion that occurred in the outer concrete structure of reactor one causing it to collapse. Another one ripped through the third reactor building injuring six workers. Workers used remote-controlled bulldozers and power shovels to remove the radioactive rubble.
TEPCO personnel temporarily evacuated due to a belief that the fuel rod storage pool of reactor 4 located outside the containment area might have begun to boil. Radiation rising to dangerous levels and abnormal noises coming from one of the reactor pressure supression chambers were also instrumental in their departure.
Self-Defense Force helicopters hover above the plant dropping water on the spent fuel pools of reactors 3 and 4.
Almost 300 brave firefighters from Tokyo and Osaka storm the plant erecting a 22 meter water tower to cool spent nuclear fuel in the storage pool inside reactor 3.
The NAIIC Investigate the Causes and Handling of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster and Find Plenty to Criticize
The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) learned that the nuclear disaster was due to negligence and that all the events that unfolded were foreseeable.
It wasn’t just TEPCO at fault. The NISA and NSC regulatory bodies and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI) all came up short when it came to handling such a situation. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda admitted that the government shared the blame for the Fukushima disaster.
There have been many criticisms leveled at the nuclear power station, it’s preparedness and how the containment measures were being handled. These included the following.
* The power plant should not have been built so close to the ocean on a tsunami-prone coast. So obvious but …
* Plant workers had no clear instructions on how to respond to such a disaster. This resulted in miscommunication.
* That a 2008 in-house study highlighted an immediate need to do something about possible flooding but was ignored.
* That a national program to develop robots that could be used in nuclear emergencies was scrapped because it underscored the danger of nuclear power.
* That while a special report complete with maps measuring the radiation within a 45 km radius of the reactors was given to two government departments Japanese government officials did not utilize them. Some of the people evacuated were sent into one of the areas that the report said would have a higher proportion of radioactive materials.
* The committee set up to investigate the disaster was scathing in it’s criticism of government and TEPCO officials. It painted a picture of officials incapable of handling the disaster effectively and in a timely manner. That they had grossly underestimated the risks that they had exposed the population to.
In October 2012, TEPCO admitted it didn’t implement better measures due to the possibility of lawsuits or protests against it’s nuclear plants.
Image by kawamoto takuo (Flickr: Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant) / CC-BY-2.0
The amount of contaminated water that has flowed into the Pacific since the incident is disturbing.
During the calamity TEPCO reportedly pumped 3 million gallons of contaminated water with low levels of radiation into the Pacific. This was to make room for the heavily contaminated water that needed to be pumped out of the damaged reactors.
In July 2013 it was made public that the plant is leaking 300 tons of radioactive water a day into the Pacific ocean despite the fact that an underground barrier had been built to prevent it from happening.
Then in August it was announced that 300 metric tons of heavily contaminated water had leaked from a storage tank and was radioactive enough to be harmful to staff at the site.
One of the biggest challenges facing TEPCO is finding a way to stop the estimated 400 tons of groundwater that streams into the basements of the damaged reactors from making it’s way to the Pacific.
TEPCO is employing multiple strategies to deal with the issue of contaminated water but it continues to be a great struggle. These measures include a groundwater bypass system, an underground barrier and a massive tank farm that is continually being adding to.
They have been working on a special filtering system designed to remove the radioactive materials from the water. To build it to scale so it can filter all the water is a huge challenge in and of itself.
They are also working on constructing a shielding wall along the waterline.
Finally, on August 26 the government took charge of emergency measures no doubt finding TEPCO’s handling of the incident less than satisfactory. The Japanese government has pledged $473 million. Their latest plan calls for building an ice wall. A system of pipes carrying a coolant that will freeze the ground to a depth of 100 feet.
Industry Minister Toshimitsue Motegi has said that contaminated water that has leaked into the sea is only a concern to the harbor around the nuclear plant. That the sea will dilute it and therefore it’s not a threat to other countries.
In April 2012, however, it was reported that fish caught more than 120 miles from Fukushima showed extremely high levels of contamination with radioactive cesium which is traceable to the Fukushima plant. Another report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic institution showed cesium-137 in ocean eddies 180 miles from Fukushima at levels hundreds to thousands of times higher than expected to occur naturally.
As for local fish in the Fukushima area they showed high enough levels of radiation and thus considered unfit for human consumption.
Amazingly, there has been no record of health effects among the public or workers at the plant as of early 2013. It’s effects though may be years in the making. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in 2013 that explained what could possibly happen to those who live in the most contaminated places in Fukushima Prefecture. These include a 70% higher relative risk of developing thyroid cancer and a 6% increase to females exposed as infants. A 7% increase in leukaemia is possible for males exposed as infants.
Worst Case Scenario
It appears our worst fears of an explosion spewing radiation and the fallout affecting other countries in the vicinity are a tad overblown.
Mere hours after the initial incident a team of scientists 40 strong assembled at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States to assess the possible dangers arising from it. They were specialists in major airborne hazards including radioactive emissions.
Their conclusion was that radiation levels in Tokyo would get no where near the amount that would warrant an evacuation. Not even a combination of the worst plausible meltdown, strong winds and chaotic weather would push it up to dangerous levels for the residents there.
When considering worst case scenarios though there are naturally other concerns besides radiation fallout. Such incidents, for example, can have a devastating psychological impact on people. The original 20 kilometer exclusion zone is still a no man’s land. While residents can return to certain parts of the outer exclusion zone they can only do so during the day. The government doesn’t want to risk accumulative radiation exposure.
As of early 2013, it’s estimated that 156,000 people have been displaced because of the incident. For some it will be a great disruption in their life. Their work, studies and lifestyle.
After the Chernobyl disaster it was noted that patients with negligible radioactive exposure had become extremely anxious about having been exposed to low levels of radiation. Some of them displayed psychosomatic problems and fell into depression and alcoholism. Some even committed suicide.
An advanced economy that stumbles and drops the nuclear ball is a sobering reminder of our limits and ability to master nuclear safety. It will take Japan decades to completely deal with this mess and initially they will be relying on unproven technology. The incident highlights one particular thing. While humanity can come up with amazing technology and compliment them with safeguards our achilles’ heal threatens to undermine them with potentially catastrophic consequences. Negligence, inadequacy, oversight, ignorance, at times a lack of transparency and poor handling have been with us from the beginning. Even if every nuclear power plant was managed competently it seems unlikely we can keep it up indefinitely. Best humanity continues to devote it’s attention to safer forms of energy.
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Image by kawamoto takuo (Flickr: Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant_27) / CC-BY-2.0
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