Damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant #1 (13 March 2011). Image Source: Reuters via ABC.
The crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant in the wake of a 9.0 earthquake has brought questions about the safety of nuclear power to the front of everyone's mind. The March 11 quake was so massive that it accelerated Earth's spin, and shortened days on our planet by 1.8 microseconds. At first, authorities claimed that Japan's nuclear plants were intact and there was no danger of radiation leakage. But the devastation quickly became obvious:
A woman trapped in a secure building in downtown Sendai made a tearful plea to the world for help. Somehow, we can hang in there, I hope. We don't have any electric, water, gas... but please, help the people who lost their homes and the people on top of the buildings asking for help," Yasue Schumaker told CNN. "We need foreign countries' help," she said, choking back tears. "We're in an emergency, please help us."
Here is a summary of the disaster during its first month, from 11 March to 10 April. It shows how government, business and the media will struggle and fail to get a grasp on a rapidly changing nuclear disaster.
Over the weekend of 12-14 March, the Fukushima Nuclear plant manifested growing problems in the wake of the earthquake and direct tsunami hit. The Daiichi plant has six reactors, with two previously planned to be added in 2012. A general Wiki page on the Fukushima incidents is here; a timeline of the incidents is here. On 12 March, physicist Ken Bergeron stated: "we're in uncharted territory, we're in a land where probability says we shouldn't be." As the crisis unfolded, the HuffPo announced that there was no word in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's glossary for 'meltdown.' In a way, that lack of vocabulary has characterized the whole story, which is a miasma of confused information.
Initial tweets in Japan indicated that people were discussing the problems with nuclear energy in relation to a global problem with energy: "Among their concerns: the meta-connection between the unfolding Fukushima crisis and ever-increasing energy demands of big cities. Is smarter energy use part of what's needed to prevent nuclear disasters?"
On the weekend of 13-14 March, two reactors blew their surrounding buildings when steam releases triggered hydrogen explosions, but kept the containment shells about the reactors intact. Various news programs invited experts on to calm viewers down, with most explaining how this case in Japan was different from Chernobyl. The problem looked relatively tame, until there was a third explosion at the Fukushima Second Reactor on 15 March.
On 15 March, the US Military helped extinguish a fire at the Fukushima fourth reactor. Just over a week later, departing US Navy personnel were shown scrubbing down the decks, planes, and equipment on the USS George Washington to rid the ship of radiation.
(17 March 2011) © Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty. Image Source: Time.
Caption for the above photograph: Yoshikatsu Hiratsuka cries in front of his collapsed house where his missing mother is possibly buried at Onagawa town on the northeastern coast of Japan.
While TEPCO struggled to reconnect the nuclear plants to a power supply, on 23 March, reports of yellow rain falling in Tokyo circulated on the Web, prompting fearful online observers to assume that the rainwater contained yellow radioactive materials, not pollen, as Japanese Meteorological Agency authorities claimed. Rumours on the internet maintain that yellow rain fell after the Chernobyl accident and the pollen excuse was given then as well. Another incident was reported quite far away in Hebri, India on 27 March, which mentions that the yellow material may be honeybee excrement. These accounts have a touch of urban myth about them, having been circulated on speculative blogs without source links. The story has apparently not been covered by mainstream news outlets. Yellow rain was mentioned before during the Vietnam War, when it was feared associated with chemical warfare and also attributed to honeybees.
On 24 March, three workers were hospitalized after stepping in a radioactive puddle. A few days later, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was ordered to drain contaminated pools: "The origin of the water remains unknown, but readings by ... TEPCO have shown very significant radiation dose rates near the pools in the lower levels of the turbine buildings. In unit 2 doses from the water's surface are 1000 millisieverts per hour, in unit 3 this is 750 millisieverts per hour while unit 1 shows 60 millisieverts per hour." TEPCO also retracted a statement that radiation was ten million times above normal: "Media coverage of the pools has been complicated by a mistake in Tepco's reporting which put the level of radioactivity in the water at 'ten million times' the normal level for reactor coolant. The company has retracted this, explaining that the level it reported for iodine-134 was actually for another radionuclide with a longer half-life and therefore a lower activity rate." On 25 March, there was news of a container breach, with radioactive iodine levels 1250 times above legal limit in Pacific Ocean off the coast.
BBC television reported on 28 March that the extreme water contamination in Reactor #2 indicated that fuel rods in that reactor went into "partial meltdown at some point" and stressed the need to keep this radioactive water from escaping into the water table or into the ocean. In addition, TEPCO's mismeasurement of radiation levels contributed to "the growing level of unease and concern."NHK released information that the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency of Japan (NISA) were scolding TEPCO that they had improperly done radiological surveys before they asked workers to complete this work.
On 27 March, Massachusetts rainwater was found to contain low levels of radioiodine-131 from Japan. On 29 March, researchers at Case Western Reserve University detected the same isotope in Cleveland rainwater that was collected on 25 March. Also on 29 March, CNN reported that 13 states in the US found this isotope in rainwater; it was also discovered in Canada and Europe, although it was declared to be within safe levels.
This type of report prompted accusations of lies and cover-ups, especially in the United States. In Germany, Angela Merkel's leadership suffered a blow after her CDU party lost heavily in a state-level election to the Green Party in Baden-Württemberg over nuclear industry concerns.
By 28 March, the worry over radiation being spread via water increased; Japan's Health Ministry asked all water purification plants in the country to stop taking in rainwater after radioactive iodine-138 was found in Tokyo tap water at levels considered "unsafe for infants."
To make matters worse, after several severe aftershocks, there was news of a 6.5 earthquake in northeast Japan on 27 March. And on 28 March, another 6.1 level earthquake hit near Honshu, Japan. According to an NHK broadcast, Cabinet Secretary Edano urged residents within the 20-kilometre evacuation zone who left on 15 March not to return home to retrieve their belongings. People in a further 10-kilometre zone had been ordered to stay indoors; by 27 March, they were slated for voluntary evacuation.
Meanwhile, BBC television reported that TEPCO had organized rolling blackouts to maintain power flow and contain the disaster. TEPCO's shares fell 70 per cent in the fortnight following the earthquake, promising greater scrutiny of the electric company, which has previously forged documents. This came on top of one Russian nuclear accident expert, Iouli Andreev, who reviewed the situation on 15 March and concluded that the company had put profit before safety in the plants; he also criticized the IAEA:
According to Kyodo News on 29 March, Japanese minister Gemba remarked that nationalization of Tokyo Electric is an option. On the same day, authorities confirmed a leak in one containment vessel and the presence of plutonium outside the nuclear plant."Andreev said a fire which released radiation on Tuesday involving spent fuel rods stored close to reactors at Fukushima looked like an example of putting profit before safety: 'The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin,' Andreev said.The IAEA should share blame for standards, he said, arguing it was too close to corporations building and running plants. And he dismissed an emergency incident team set up by the Vienna-based agency as 'only a think-tank not a working force. ... This is only a fake organization because every organization which depends on the nuclear industry—and the IAEA depends on the nuclear industry—cannot perform properly.'"
NHK News Coverage 3:18 AM 3/29/11 Tokyo. Video Source: Youtube.
CNN reported on 29 March that the level of radioactive iodine around the Fukushima plant was 3,355 times the legal limit; the next night it was 4,385 times the legal limit and the IAEA found a radiation spike 25 miles away from the plant. The presence of plutonium in the soil near the plants raised concerns about these contaminants and radioactive pools of water reaching the ocean.
The next day, amid growing speculations that Tepco might release radioactive water, scientists and nuclear critics began to warn that Fukushima was on par with or worse than Chernobyl.
Critical Leak discovered 2 April. Image Source: Time.
Caption for the above photograph: On April 2, 2011, workers trying to repair the earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant discovered this enormous stream of highly radioactive water gushing into the ocean through a large crack in a deep pit next to seawater intake pipes of the second reactor building.
Over the weekend of 1-2 April, a leak was isolated about 30 centimetres long and was revealed to be pouring contaminated water into the Pacific. There were attempts to patch the leak, finally accomplished on 3-4 April. On 3 April the bodies of two missing workers found:
CNN: On 4 April, the plant officials decided to dump 3 million gallons to dispose of low-level radioactive water in order to store higher-level radioactive water. This prompted an almost unprecedented protest in Japan of 300 people. There were stories on social media that TEPCO had told family members of workers not to talk to the press.The men's remains were found in the basement of the turbine building at the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, an official with the Tokyo Electric Power Company told reporters Sunday.
The pair -- ages 21 and 24 -- were working there when the 9.0-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami hit. That disaster caused damage throughout northeast Japan including to the power plant, which is on the Asian nation's eastern coast about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
One of the workers was found floating in a pool of water in the basement, the utilty company official said. Both appeared to have suffered multiple traumatic injuries and severe blood loss.
It has been difficult to determine precisely how much radiation has been released or what exactly has happened at plants. The amount of cesium that was initially released at Fukushima in puffs of steam was apparently lower than that released at Chernobyl. On 5 April, officials defended their decision to dump radioactive water, while saying that the leak of highly radioactive water had stopped.
After all this confusion over the seriousness of radioactive leaks, the world took a dim view of news that TEPCO offered survivors evacuated from the radiated zone a contemptible USD $12 per person in compensation. The New York Times emphasized that Japanese survivors have been highly orderly and meticulously conscientious and brave.
A report from US officials was highly critical, claiming that the crisis will likely last for months if not years and is very serious. Finger-pointing began as fears rose over the world food supply becoming contaminated, with TEPCO and the Japanese government blamed for the nuclear disaster. This was not an act of God, according to the Japan Times, rather a result of human error.
On 5 April, NHK reported that the amount of radiation TEPCO workers had been exposed to can no longer be measured:
A radiation monitor at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant says workers there are exposed to immeasurable levels of radiation. The monitor told NHK that no one can enter the plant's No. 1 through 3 reactor buildings because radiation levels are so high that monitoring devices have been rendered useless. He said even levels outside the buildings exceed 100 millisieverts in some places.
Pools and streams of water contaminated by high-level radiation are being found throughout the facility. The monitor said he takes measurements as soon as he finds water, because he can't determine whether it's contaminated just by looking at it. He said he's very worried about the safety of workers there.
Contaminated water and efforts to remove it have been hampering much-needed work to cool the reactors. The monitor expressed frustration, likening the situation to looking up a mountain that one has to climb, without having taken a step up.
On 6 April, the New York Times reported that the core of the Fukushima reactor probably leaked from its steel pressure vessel into the containment structure below.In the first week of April, photographer Athit Perawongmetha captured images of the exclusion zone around the Fukushima reactor that are haunting and sadly reminiscent of Pripyat.
Exclusion Zone: Minamisoma (6 April 2011) © Athit Perawongmetha/Getty. Image Source: Time.
Caption for the above photograph: A thoroughfare sits deserted in Minamisoma, a town within the 'exclusion zone,' about 12 miles away from Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on April 6, 2011.
Exclusion Zone: Cat left behind inside a house in Odaka Town (6 April 2011) © Athit Perawongmetha/Getty. Image Source: Time.
On 7 April, the north-eastern part of the country suffered a 7.4 level aftershock earthquake (later downgraded to 7.1). Three people died. NHK reported that a water leak was found after the latest quake at Japan's Onagawa nuclear plant but there was no change in radiation levels. In Fukushima Daiichi reactor #1, staff began injecting nitrogen into the reactor containment vessel to reduce the risks of an explosion from hydrogen that might be building up in the reactor. On 11 April, NHK noted that TEPCO was using unmanned radio-operated equipment to clear rubble in the exclusion zone, and the G20 would meet to discuss Japan's situation.
Summaries of events in Japan
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