Radiation Crisis


I HAD read a great deal about the gravity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster which began in March last year – the world's first-ever multi-reactor core meltdown accident, which spewed out 770,000 trillion becquerels of radiation, estimated to be equivalent to releases from the detonation of 60 Hiroshima-class nuclear bombs. I was aware of the contamination of thousands of square kilometres of land in Japan with caesium-137, which remains hazardous for decades.

I must have compiled dozens of reports on Japan's media blackout from the early days of the accident, and on collusion between the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government, and the Daiichi operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). I had read moving descriptions of the devastated livelihoods of the 100,000 people evacuated from the 20-km-radius “exclusion zone”, and the continuing exposure of many, many more to harmful radiation.

But none of this, including all the numbers, had prepared me for what I saw and heard during a visit to the Fukushima prefecture and nearby areas in mid-January. Ten months after the accident began, the levels of airborne radiation have dropped, but soil levels remain high, and food chain contamination is growing in many locations. The accident has not ended. It will take many years, if not a few decades, before the reactors are fully decommissioned and rendered safe.

Contrary to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) announcement in December that the stricken reactors have achieved a “cold shutdown condition”, and the release of radioactivity is “under control”, the station authorities do not even know the precise location of the melted cores, and how deep they have sunk through their containments. Their belated efforts to assess the internal damage by inserting endoscope-like devices and remote cameras into the cores have only succeeded partially.

The reactors, many independent experts say, are unlikely to be brought under control by damming radioactive leaks from the sides: “They're going to have to build a huge trench underneath the plant to contain the radiation – a giant diaper.” This will take many years and cost a fortune.

The Daiichi plant is badly damaged and contaminated, and continues to leak radiation. Large seismic aftershocks, which are expected to continue for many months, periodically cause further damage to already unstable and crumbling structures, releasing harmful radionuclides. The bases of the affected reactors contain about 120,000 tonnes of extremely radioactive water, which intermittently leaks into the ocean and the air.

Even more shockingly, the authorities are not even monitoring airborne radiation levels or contamination of the soil, vegetation and water in a systematic fashion. Nobody, certainly no official agency or Tepco, has a vaguely credible estimate of the amount of radiation to which people were, and continue to be, exposed both from atmospheric fallout and from the contaminated food and water they are compelled to consume.

Radiation levels are dangerously high even far away from the “exclusion zone”, at distances such as 60 or even 200 kilometres. For instance, high levels of caesium-137 have been detected in breast milk and children's urine 200 km away from the plant, which are of the same order as those found in the “exclusion zone”.

Thousands of ordinary citizens, deprived of reliable information from the authorities, carry handheld dosimeters, Geiger counters and other radiation-measuring devices. These show readings as high as 1 or even 3 microsieverts an hour even in Fukushima City, 60 km away from the plant, which would deliver a dose of 9 millisieverts (mSv, which equals 100 millirem) or even 25-plus mSv, many multiples of the 1 mSv maximum annual dose limit which is the international norm and also recommended by the United States Environment Protection Agency for the general public.

The Japanese government has tried to get around this by arbitrarily raising the permissible annual exposure dose to 20 mSv, well above the norm. Yet, even this cannot prevent the overexposure of the lay public in many parts of northern Japan beyond the official permissible limit.

Meanwhile, a report of a Japanese government-appointed committee to investigate the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, released at the end of December, has indicted Tepco, NISA, and the government for being unprepared to handle the crisis, saying that “people who have been involved in nuclear disaster response and those in charge of … operating nuclear power plants have lacked the whole-picture viewpoint ….” It paints a picture of nuclear industry executives abandoning the plant and confused government officials scrambling to deal with the crisis.

RISKS UNDERESTIMATED

The 507-page “interim report”, compiled after interviewing more than 400 people, found that the authorities had grossly underestimated tsunami risks – and the waves' maximum height by 50 per cent-plus. Tepco workers were not trained to handle emergencies such as the power blackout that struck when the tsunami destroyed backup generators, leading to the overheating of reactor cores and their eventual meltdown. They followed no manual.

Finding alternative ways to transport water to the reactors was delayed for hours because of the mishandling of an emergency cooling system. Workers assumed the system was working, despite growing signs that it had failed. A better response might have reduced the core damage, radiation leaks and the disastrous hydrogen explosions that occurred in four reactors on March 12, 14 and 15, which sent out huge plumes of radiation. The radiation was not even properly measured.

The report says NISA failed to impose tough safety standards on Tepco, which was too slow to gather information on radiation leaks and relay it to the authorities. It documents Tepco's misjudgment of the reactors' operational situation, its poor handling of alternative water injection, its response to the hydrogen explosions, and its failure to prevent the “expansion of damage”.

Even more appalling was the evacuation procedure followed by the government. It failed to use data produced by Japan's special radiation warning and fallout prediction system called SPEEDI. The evacuation in near-panic of over 100,000 residents from the arbitrarily designated “exclusion zone” resulted in people leaving polluted areas only to find themselves in areas with even higher radioactive contamination. The evacuation order was so vague, says the report, that it “sounded almost the same as telling residents to ‘just run'.”

Kenichi Hasegawa, a dairy farmer from Iitate village, told the visiting group of which I was a part, at a village called Date: “The government told me last April that we were all safe and well protected from radiation. But by June, the same government ordered me to flee the area and slaughter all my cows because their meat was dangerously contaminated.” Added Hasegawa: “I later discovered that even in April the radiation level was more than 100 times normal. Today, thousands of people here live amidst radiation fields so high that they would exceed the annual dose limit within weeks.”

Little wonder the people in Fukushima and nearby prefectures such as Miyagi, Yamagate and Iwate have lost all trust in the government. They are particularly appalled at reports that the Japanese government's public health and emergency evacuation response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis was much worse than that of relatively poor and backward Ukraine to the Chernobyl disaster – despite Japan's greater technological sophistication, financial capacity, and familiarity with evacuation because of its long experience with earthquakes and tsunamis, and despite its claims to being more democratic and paternalistic.

Had the Japanese authorities followed the same norm for triggering evacuation as used in Chernobyl (5 mSv a year), they would have had to evacuate an area five times greater and impose restrictions on food grown in a region covering more than 11,000 sq km, or 30 times the size of the Fukushima evacuation zone. By contrast, Japan's performance in rebuilding the infrastructure devastated by the earthquake and the tsunami was relatively good.

Clearly, things work differently in matters nuclear, levelling disparities of income, wealth, technological sophistication and responsive governance, which count for far more when handling natural disasters. The consequences of nuclear disasters are in many ways beyond rational or scientific comprehension.

As the late Japanese nuclear critic Jinzaburo Takagi said: “Nuclear technology is the equivalent of acquiring on earth the technology of the heavens…. The deployment here on earth of nuclear reactions, a phenomenon occurring naturally only in heavenly bodies and completely unknown to the natural world here on the earth's surface, is… a matter of deep significance. For all forms of life, radiation is a threat against which they possess no defence; it is an alien intruder disrupting the principles of life on earth…. Nuclear civilisation always harbours in its womb a moment of destruction, like a ticking time bomb. The danger it presents… is of a kind completely unlike those we have faced before. And now isn't it the case that the ticking of its timer is growing louder and louder in our ears?”

REPORT KEPT UNDER WRAPS

Japan's record of suppressing and censoring nuclear information vital to public safety is even more deplorable. Recent media disclosures show that its government deliberately blacked out a report by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission on a “worst-case scenario” at the height of the Fukushima crisis, which would have led to the evacuation of tens of millions of people. The 15-page report was submitted to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on March 25 last after the Daiichi reactors started to melt down and hydrogen explosions occurred which blew away protective structures. It was unclear at the time whether and when emergency measures to cool down the reactors would succeed. The report was kept under wraps until this past December.

After the document was shown to a small, select group of senior officials, the government decided to quietly bury it. “The content was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn't exist,” a senior official has been quoted as saying.

The document forecast that in a worst-case scenario, the crippled reactors would continue to release massive quantities of radioactive materials for about a year. The projection was based on the premise that a hydrogen explosion would tear through the first reactor's containment vessel, forcing all the station workers to evacuate because of the ensuing lethal radiation levels.

In such an event, some 40 million residents within a radius of 170 km of the station, and possibly even further away, would be forced to evacuate. Those living within a radius of between 170 km and 250 km, including Tokyo and other major cities including Sendai and Fukushima, could choose to evacuate voluntarily. The report further warned that contaminated areas would not be safe for “several decades”: “We cannot rule out further developments that may lead to an unpredictable situation… and this report outlines a summary of that unpredictable situation.”

It is not fully established that this scenario did not materialise at least partially. After all, hydrogen explosions ripped through not one but four reactors. Their effects have not been studied thoroughly or understood fully. It is unclear if the government was sufficiently prepared to cope with an evacuation on such a massive scale.

Goshi Hosono, Cabinet Minister in charge of the nuclear crisis, has acknowledged the report's existence but said the government felt no need to make it public: “It was a scenario based on hypothesis, and even in the event of such a development, we were told that residents would have enough time to evacuate.”

This strengthens the charge that the government has been more interested in protecting industry interests than in investigating how three reactors melted down and what the consequences will be.

INQUIRY COMMISSION

The Japanese Diet has just set up an independent bipartisan inquiry commission to investigate this and other matters related to the handling of the Fukushima crisis. Many people expect yet more damaging disclosures to come from the commission, which has powers to summon witnesses. The commission is headed by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, formerly of Tokyo University's medical department and a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and includes Nobel laureate Koichi Tanaka and independent experts.

It is likely to investigate growing evidence that the Daiichi plant was seriously damaged by the earthquake even before the tsunami hit – although it was supposedly designed to withstand a magnitude 9 quake. If this is established, it would cast new doubt on the safety of other Japanese reactors. Said Kurokawa: “For Japan to regain global credibility, we need an investigation into the disaster that is completely independent”; the committee would “vigorously” investigate the issue of earthquake damage.

Japan's pre-Fukushima claims about the “inherent safety” of its reactors follows a global pattern, evident in India too. Its gross and persistent mishandling of the crisis, the industry-government collusion, the refusal to shed secrecy, and share the truth with the public in matters of life-and-death importance to it, all serious questions about the wisdom of embracing an ultra-hazardous technology like nuclear power anywhere.

If highly developed Japan, with all its resources, social discipline and evolved industrial safety culture, messed up things following the accident, we in India have even more reason to worry given our disaster-proneness, natural (including seismic) vulnerability, lack of a culture of safety, and the monumental hubris of our nuclear establishment.  

Leave a comment