Before March 2011, if you heard the words “Fukushima Daiichi,” you might wonder if someone had concocted a new sushi roll. Now most of us know about the nuclear accident cascade following Japan’s massive Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on that day.
But what we don’t know much about is that the electric plant’s failure raises the neck hairs on close observers. Utility owners, nuclear scientists, and politicians, including both government regulators and officials up to the nation’s Prime Minister, are feeling various degrees of skepticism, according to Bloomberg News.
They view the forthcoming attempt to start the cleanup at a dangerous open upper-story containment pool with trepidation, to say the least. Many people of Japan, and other world citizens in the know, anticipate it with dread.
A nuclear accident reprise
On the eastern Honshu coast of Japan sprawls the expanse of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Station at Futaba. Its formerly tidy white and light robin’s egg blue campus abuts the Pacific coast. Nearby Naraha contains a later TEPCO complex, Fukushima 2.
Three rivers crisscross the Fukushima prefecture, home to about a quarter million people. A major landmark is a 850-foot-high monadnock, Mt. Shinobu, which rises from the coastal plain. To the west and beyond the city, the Ōu Mountains indigo the far horizon. About 150 miles beyond is Tokyo, the capital city of Japan and the most populous and economically active metropolis in the world, with well over 35 million inhabitants.
March brings spring rain and temps of 50-60 degrees F. to humid Fukushima, with average nighttime lows finally rising above freezing. In 2011, the 11th was a partly sunny day. Just before 3:00 in the afternoon, a record force 9 earthquake from the seafloor 100 miles away reached Fukushima, concussing the entire prefecture, blacking out power, and filling the air with what chronicler Evan Osnos of The New Yorker described as “a chalky haze of dust and concrete.”
The earthquake triggered the standard SCRAM protocol at Fukushima 1, which contained six GE-designed Mark I and Mark II uranium dioxide boiling water reactors that had come online in the 1970s. Control rods within the primary reactor containments automatically tripped off the hot online Reactor Units 1-3. Units 5 and 6 were fueled but in cold shutdown before servicing. Unit 4 had already been defueled for its maintenance. With no power coming from the reactors, secondary and backup emergency generators below ground level kicked in to supply electricity to continue running the complex.
Less than an hour later, the first wave of a colossal tsunami caused by the earthquake struck the shore. The second wave overtopped the power plant’s 33-foot seawall easily. It slammed into the concrete reactor containments, flooding and extinguishing all the generators and stopping the regulated flow of water through reactors and cooling ponds. Steam at around 1500 degrees C. reached the zirconium blanketing the nuclear fuel, releasing up to 1000 kg of hydrogen gas in each building. The ample hydrogen eventually mixed with oxygen in the ambient air and ignited, causing three explosions within four days.
All three hot reactors partly melted down. They released radiation into the air, soil, groundwater, and Pacific Ocean. The roof and part of the wall of Unit 4 blew up in the explosions. The blast weakened the building significantly, causing fears of collapse and further disaster. Units 5 and 6 apparently escaped damage. To date the Fukushima disaster is the second “major [nuclear] accident” the world has ever experienced. It currently rates a 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Event Scale–the worst case, same as the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, Ukraine.
Ironically, Unit 4, where workers had moved the nuclear fuel to an upper-floor secondary containment pool, posed the most immediate threat because of physical damage to the structure, uncertainty about its stability, and exposure of the top-story containment and its potentially toxic fuel rods. Fortunately, the water covering them did not evaporate, as originally feared. However, the explosion destroyed the reactor’s original transport crane.
TEPCO has since reinforced the building and claims it is stable. The company has also rebuilt the fuel transfer apparatus in a version large enough to accommodate 100-ton casks needed to encase and transport the hot fuel racks. (For more on ths operation, see U.S. To Aid TEPCO In Moving Hot Fukushima Fuel.)
TEPCO spokespeople have publicly stated the operator’s intention to empty the Unit 4 pool by end of 2014 and remove fuel rods from the other wrecked reactors over several years, before digging into their melted cores, which contain plutonium, around 2020.
Power utility reputation tumbles
TEPCO’s poor credibility makes a lot of people nervous. It goes all the way back to the days of plant construction planning.
• In 1967, as the plans for Fukushima Daiichi were being finalized by the Japanese government, TEPCO changed the layout of emergency cooling pipes without notice.
• Nine years later, the company falsified safety records at Unit 1. It did not admit doing so until 2002. The resulting inspections were incomplete. Some senior personnel left the company or were fired.
• Investigation of the former incident unveiled previous efforts by plant employees to warn General Electric about major design flaws. Several of the plant’s design engineers resigned over these issues.
• In 1991, one of two backup generators of Unit 1 failed. Its emergency power system flooded. The unit was restarted a day later. When an engineer raised the possibility of similar damage during a tsunami, TEPCO merely installed doors to prevent water from leaking into the secondary generator rooms. It did not commit to moving backup power to higher ground. The Unit 1 failure was not reported for 20 years.
• In 2009, an in-house study by TEPCO noted the danger of high tsunami waves. (It referenced a wave height 10 feet lower than what hit the plant two years later). The study flagged an immediate need to improve protection against seawater intrusion. Officials reportedly considered even the lower the risk unrealistic and dismissed the warning.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government awoke to the possibility that it has been lax with regulation. It fired several top energy officials.
After March 11, the nation and the world staggered with shock. TEPCO issued reassurances–less and less convincing because many of them proved false or overly ambitious, one after another after another. The government dismantled its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Nuclear Safety Commission and established a new nuclear watchdog agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, to bring regulations up to more stringent global standards and put power plant operators on a shorter leash.
Here’s what has happened at TEPCO since the catastrophe:
• During and after the Fukushima disaster, the company did not realize or downplayed the seriousness of the situation. Early reports were often supplanted by growing evidence of something worse.
• It took more than a year after the meltdowns for the company to finally “abolish… the units 1-4 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on April 19, 2012 in accordance with the Electric Utility Industry Law article 9.”
• Late in October 2012, Science magazine published news of continuing radiation leaks from the Fukushima 1 complex into the ocean. The company did not acknowledge continuing radiation leaks until this time.
• Also in the fall, Mitsuhei Murata, the former Japanese Ambassador to both Switzerland and Senegal, stated publicly that the ground under Fukushima Unit 4 was sinking, and that the structure might soon collapse.
• A panel commissioned by then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, previously a nuclear admirer, proposed shutting down all Japanese reactors completely by 2040.
• Nine months later, on July 22, 2013, the plant was officially found to be leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Local fishermen and independent investigators had long suspected this might be the situation, but the Nuclear Regulation Authority thought it only “an anomaly” until this point. TEPCO had previously denied it.
• August 20 saw the revelation of further leakage and the elevation of the accident’s severity level. Three hundred tons of highly radioactive water had escaped from temporary storage tanks. The resulting inspection found this water hazardous to nearby staff, many of whom were relocated.
• The NRA found that TEPCO had not kept records of inspections of the tanks.
• NRA inspectors assessed these leaks alone as “an accident with wider consequences,” meriting Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, just two notches below the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
• Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, a nationalist conservative elected in December 2012, indicated he had lost confidence in TEPCO’s ability to deal with the hot water leaks.
• On September 19, more than two years after the colossal accident, Abe ordered TEPCO to scrap all six reactors at the site, instead of just the four already slated for decommissioning. TEPCO responded by taking the idea under advisement.
• BusinessWeek reported last month that TEPCO and other Japanese power companies have been forced to pay $37 billion more for imported fossil fuel than in 2010 because of the nuclear shutdowns. This is expected to put Japan’s annual trade in the red for the third year in a row in March 2014.
Skepticism of TEPCO’s ability to clean up
The English-language newsblog, JapanToday, may have put the situation lightly:
“The Fukushima plant has had a series of mishaps in recent months, including radioactive contaminated water leaks from storage tanks, adding to concerns about TEPCO’s ability to safely close down the plant.”
Recent problems have prompted Prime Minister Abe, ordinarily pro-business, to flounder in his reactions to the situation. Sometimes he has seemed naive or deceptive, as when he has claimed that radioactive water has not gone further than Fukushima harbor and not into the Pacific.
At other times, he has supported the nuclear industry: for example, he asserted to the International Olympic Committee that the situation was “under control,” anticipating the 2020 Summer Games. He recently ruled out Japan abandoning nuclear power absolutely. Yet he appears to be balancing continued optimism for the technology with distancing himself from TEPCO: he has several times flagged the company down and asserted government superiority. A case in point: on August 26, Abe decided Japanese officials should oversee the newly discovered storage tank radiation crisis.
Meanwhile, millions of Japanese have strongly protested Abe’s proposed return to nuclear energy, which had 30% of the power business before the accident, a share once expected to rise to 50% by 2030. With last week’s events and the Unit 4 efforts growing closer, the United States seems to be getting braver and more vocal about support to Japan.
But the legacy of Fukushima includes almost 16,000 dead and 3,000 missing, nearly half a million displaced, 25 tons of rubble, estimated reconstruction costs of $300 billion.
And nuclear regulatory chairman Shunichi Tanaka may have had the last word on the work starting at Unit 4: “I’m much more worried about this than contaminated water.”
UPCOMING: Why residents are leaving Japan this week.