Investigations into Fukushima accident disagree on key points
Despite investigations by four special committees, key questions remain about the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The committees, each set up by the government, the Diet, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the private sector, have key differences in interpretations of events such as if TEPCO planned to abandon the facility at one point, if critical mistakes were made in cooling overheating reactors and what actually occurred in the No. 2 reactor.
So far, the first three committees have released reports but failed to paint a clear and definitive account of what actually transpired in the critical hours and days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 damaged and swamped the plant, as the nuclear crisis quickly spiraled out of control.
The first committee was set up by the central government last summer as TEPCO was still trying to bring the overheating reactors into a state of cold shutdown.
The Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations is chaired by Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo noted for his work on the "science of failure." The committee released its interim report in December.
The committee indicated as the cause of the accident the tremendous lack of preparation by TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for the possibility of a severe accident caused by the loss of all power sources due to tsunami.
The committee focused on cooling operations at the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors in examining the response to the accident. The report also focused on the process that led to the failure to utilize the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) to guide the evacuation of local residents as well as the problems in transmitting information between the prime minister's office and TEPCO headquarters. The final report is expected in July.
The Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, a private-sector panel, released its final report in late February.
It conducted detailed interviews with about 20 politicians and specialists, including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Banri Kaieda, the then industry minister, and Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan. The committee also gained the cooperation of about 300 other individuals, but its requests for interviews with TEPCO executives were rejected.
The committee described TEPCO's lack of preparation for a severe accident as "systematic negligence" and also said the utility did not implement measures to deal with a severe accident as outlined by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The committee described Japan's nuclear safety regulations as "Galapagosized," a concept in Japan referring to a perceived tendency for some Japanese industries to isolate themselves from international standards like the isolated wildlife on the Galapagos Islands.
TEPCO also established its own investigative committee, the Fukushima Nuclear Accidents Investigation Committee, which released an interim report in December.
Many of the interpretations it made appear to defend what the utility had done until the accident. The panel said safety measures taken before the accident had passed inspections by the central government. The main cause of the accident was said to be the lack of preparation against a tsunami that exceeded prior assumptions.
The panel also concluded that the March 11, 2011, earthquake had not damaged equipment important from a safety standpoint. The final report is expected in June.
The fourth committee, the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, has the authority to force individuals to testify. Its report is expected to be released in June.
TEPCO PLANNED TOTAL WITHDRAWAL?
One important point over which the three committees that have already released reports disagree is whether Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO president at the time of the nuclear accident, said that all workers would be evacuated from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
While many government officials, including Kan, felt Shimizu said he intended to pull out all workers, the three committees have differing interpretations as to if he indeed intended to abandon the plant.
In its interim report, TEPCO's investigative committee said, "The gist of what we asked the prime minister's office is 'Because the situation at the plant is difficult, we want consideration to be given to temporarily evacuating workers who are not directly involved in the work when that need arises.' We never thought about (total withdrawal) nor asked that all workers be allowed to leave."
In the government panel's interim report, Masao Yoshida, the head of the Fukushima plant at the time, considered having only those workers needed to control the various functions at the plant remain and evacuating all others outside the plant site. That point was discussed and shared with TEPCO headquarters.
The panel also said that early on March 15, Shimizu called the head of NISA and other officials and said, "The situation at the No. 2 reactor is very severe and if the situation should worsen, I feel pulling out the workers is also possible."
Shimizu never clearly said that the workers needed to control the plant would remain, as that was taken as a natural precondition, according to the government committee.
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers began considering from early on March 15 what to do in the event TEPCO pulled its workers out. While the government panel said Shimizu might not have been clear in his instructions, it never went to the extent of saying he asked to evacuate all workers.
On the other hand, the private-sector panel took the position that there was the possibility that Shimizu made the request to pull out all workers.
One point the panel used to back that view is the phone calls Shimizu made to Kaieda and Yukio Edano, the then chief Cabinet secretary.
Kaieda was asked about the possibility of evacuating workers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant because of the increased possibility for an explosion at the No. 2 reactor.
Kaieda rejected that request because he felt it was a proposal to pull out all workers.
Shimizu made a similar call to Edano and when he hesitated, the TEPCO president said, "The on-site situation cannot be maintained much longer."
The private-sector panel also pointed to the failure of TEPCO to clearly state how many workers would be needed to remain at the plant. It also referred to the government panel's report that stated that many government officials took the TEPCO request to mean it wanted all workers pulled out and stated that there was insufficient support for TEPCO's argument that its request was made on the precondition that necessary workers would remain at the plant.
The panel also said Kan's strong demand of TEPCO officials to keep workers at the plant was effective in pressing the utility to remain at the plant.
MISTAKES IN COOLING OPERATIONS?
The focus of the investigative committees when they examined the response to the nuclear accident was the cooling operations for the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors.
The government panel pointed out problems in what plant workers did as well as in the transmission of information.
The panel pointed to the delay among plant workers and officials as well as those at TEPCO headquarters in realizing that the isolation condensers (IC) in the No. 1 reactor had stopped functioning shortly after the plant was inundated by the tsunami. That oversight led to a delay in implementing alternative cooling measures and might have worsened the situation, according to the government panel.
An IC works by cooling steam from the reactor core by passing it through piping in a tank filled with water. The steam is reverted to water and pumped back into the core. When its power source is lost, separation valves in the piping automatically close to prevent radioactive materials from leaking into the atmosphere.
Although the ICs automatically began operating immediately after the earthquake struck, the valves shut when the mechanism lost all sources of power slightly past 3:30 p.m. on March 11 after the tsunami struck. Plant workers did not realize the valves were shut until about three hours after the ICs stopped working.
According to those individuals in the plant who responded to the accident, there was no one who had experience operating the ICs either during training exercises or inspections. Workers only had word-of-mouth information from those who had such experience.
The government panel's interim report pointed out, "That was extremely inappropriate for an operator of a nuclear power plant."
The TEPCO panel did not find any human error in the handling of the cooling mechanisms.
Regarding the ICs for the No. 1 reactor, they automatically began operating after pressure in the reactor core increased at 2:52 p.m. on March 11, soon after the quake struck. However, because the pressure then decreased rapidly, a worker closed the valves and stopped the ICs 10 minutes after they began operating to avoid damage to the core. The utility's panel said that response was according to company manuals.
The panel also concluded that even if the ICs had not been stopped it would not have led to a statistically significant difference in the resulting situation in the core.
The private-sector panel pointed to the failure of plant workers to quickly pass on their concerns about the shutting of the separation valves in the ICs to those in charge of dealing with the accident at the plant.
There were also differences among the three committees in their interpretations of the cooling of the No. 3 reactor.
Early on March 13, a plant worker manually stopped the high pressure coolant injection (HPCI) system to avoid damage to the core. However, a report of that stoppage to plant officials and TEPCO headquarters was delayed by more than an hour. Alternative methods to pump in water to the core were also unsuccessful. Because the HPCI was not restarted, no water was pumped in for about seven hours and that could have led to further damage to the core.
The government panel said preparations should have been started for alternative cooling measures since the HPCI was only a stopgap measure. That failure along with the delay in sharing information was criticized by the government panel.
The HPCI operates on batteries and can pump in a large volume of water in a short time. It could have been used in the No. 3 reactor since the batteries were not flooded by the tsunami.
Although the TEPCO panel did not initially cover the HPCI in its interim report, TEPCO later compiled the results of an additional investigation. The later report said a plant worker manually stopped the HPCI due to concerns about equipment malfunctions. It also said plant officials shared in the strategy for alternative cooling once the HPCI was stopped.
The government panel did not recognize such sharing of information. It pointed out that if alternative cooling measures had been implemented earlier there was the possibility that damage to the core could have been reduced and the volume of radioactive materials spewed into the atmosphere could have been decreased.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE NO. 2 REACTOR?
One point that none of the investigative committees has uncovered is the extent of damage to the No. 2 reactor.
At a little after 6 a.m. on March 15, a number of workers at the Fukushima No. 1 plant heard the sound of a large impact.
At 6:18 a.m., during a teleconference with TEPCO headquarters, a plant official said that the sound might have been caused by the bottom of the suppression chamber of the No. 2 reactor falling.
At 6:50 a.m., a radiation level of 583 microsieverts per hour was recorded at the main gate to the plant about one kilometer from the No. 2 reactor building. That reading was about eight times the level recorded an hour earlier. At 9 a.m., a radiation level of 11,930 microsieverts was recorded, the highest for the entire accident.
The government panel report said, "(Fukushima plant chief) Yoshida felt some sort of explosion occurred in the containment vessel based on information received that a large impact was heard as well as information that the pressure in the suppression chamber of the No. 2 reactor was zero."
However, the TEPCO panel included an analysis of readings from seismographs at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. There were no observations of shaking caused by an explosion between 6 a.m. and 6:10 a.m. when the sound of an impact was heard at the No. 2 reactor. Shaking was recorded at 6:12 a.m. when an explosion likely occurred at the No. 4 reactor, according to the TEPCO panel.
The government panel also said the impact sound was likely caused by the explosion at the No. 4 reactor. The private-sector panel also rejected the notion that an explosion occurred at the No. 2 reactor.
The panels also could not explain what caused the high radiation levels.
Although an explosion occurred at the No. 4 reactor, there were no fuel rods in the core because the reactor was undergoing periodic inspection. There was also no noticeable damage to the fuel in the storage pools.
The extent of damage to the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor is unknown. Once that becomes clear it could be possible to point to the No. 2 reactor as the cause of the high radiation levels.
TEPCO used an industrial endoscope on March 26 to check the interior of the reactor. The water level was only about 60 centimeters from the bottom of the containment vessel, much lower than estimated. Water pumped into the reactor more than likely has leaked from damaged parts of the core. However, none of the panels have yet explained how that damage occurred.http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201205020015
Japan writers' group gets eye-opener in Chernobyl
If the pen is mightier than the sword, then senior members of the Japan writers' P.E.N. Club, who visited the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant in mid-April, are now armed with some mighty ink.
"I thought I was going to learn lessons from Chernobyl, where 26 years have passed since the disaster, but what I discovered there is that the damage was still ongoing," said Eto Mori, a P.E.N. Club board member.
Eight senior members of the Japan P.E.N. Club, the Japanese affiliate of the International P.E.N. Club, visited the Ukraine in mid-April to gain hands-on knowledge of the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.
The objective of the trip was to "think about the future of Fukushima and the children," the participants said, referring to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March last year.
Jiro Asada, the president of the association of progressively minded writers, on April 25 reiterated his opposition to the use of nuclear power.
"There is no end to the cleanup work," Asada told a news conference. "The situation is hopeless. We adults have to bear a responsibility for the future."
The Japan P.E.N. Club held a meeting to think about a nuclear phaseout last autumn. It also sent a delegation to Fukushima in March and issued a statement in April against restarting reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.
Delegation members had to cross a checkpoint to enter a zone within a 30-kilometer radius of the Chernobyl plant. The radiation levels hovered around 5-6 microsieverts per hour when they visited the plant.
The visitors saw cracks in concrete members of a shelter that was designed to contain radioactive materials. About 3,000 people continue to work on the site to build a new shelter and to continue the decommissioning process.
According to reports, construction costs for the new shelter are estimated at 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion, or 162 billion yen). The process relies on funding by European nations, which--ironically enough--is creating jobs for the local communities.
"Some say that nuclear power benefits the economy," said Atsuo Nakamura, another P.E.N. Club board member. "That may be a joke in the opposite sense."
The names of more than 100 abandoned villages, which remain uninhabitable to this day, are engraved on a monument in a park 17 km from the nuclear plant.
"It has been demonstrated that it is impossible to decontaminate vast forested areas," Nakamura said. "And Japan is a country of forests and mountains."
At a hospital in Narodychi, 60 km from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, patients were taking radioactive iodine as a cancer treatment in an isolation ward with lead-embedded walls.
One man, who was 8 years old at the time of the disaster, developed cancer in his thyroid gland this year.The Institute of Endocrinology and Metabolism in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev told the delegation that only 2.5 percent of children, who had been exposed to radiation prenatally, were diagnosed as healthy at the age of 7.
Medical equipment in local facilities was old and shabby. Medical practitioners in the Ukraine told the P.E.N. Club delegates that modern Japanese medical technology must be reassuring.
"Japan may certainly have wonderful medical technologies, but do we have the software that allows us to make full use of them?" Asada asked. "Will we be able to do so under the leadership of politicians? Be it in science and technology or in medicine, Japan's prestige is in danger of falling to the ground. It's a very crucial moment for us."http://www.shimbun.denki.or.jp/en/news/20120427_02.html
US firm EnergySolutions ready to advance into reactor decommissioning business in Japan
TOKYO --Recently, executives of EnergySolutions, the global leader in the field of treatment and disposal of radioactive waste, accepted an interview with The Denki Shimbun and expressed their intention to expand their cooperative relationships with Japanese companies in the reactor decommissioning business in Japan. Having already established a business alliance with Toshiba for multi-nuclide removal equipment at the Fukushima I nuclear power station, they will similarly issue further proposals for other electric utilities and heavy electric machinery manufacturers. In addition, they are willing to handle the tasks of planning and costing the reactor decommissioning of Fukushima I units 1 to 4, and execute orders in connection with multiple projects, such as radioactive waste treatment and fuel extraction.
Mark Morant, President for Global Commercial Group, Colin Boardman, President for Asia Region and Colin Austin , Sr Vice President for Asia Region (in charge of Japan) at EnergySolutions accepted our interview request.
To date, EnergySolutions has successfully decommissioned more than 10 reactors. In connection with the Fukushima I accident, the company received an order for a multi-billion yen project through Toshiba to build multi-nuclide removal equipment, which will remove beta-emitting nuclides that cannot be completely eliminated by water treatment facilities. In response, the U.S. company provided all-round support by offering its expertise to Toshiba, sending experts and conducting trial runs.
At EnergySolutions, they surmise that the schedule for reactor decommissioning will be accelerated following the Fukushima I accident and plan to aggressively advance into reactor decommissioning businesses for other nuclear power plants. In view of the difficulty in making proposals in Japan unaided, they will expand the cooperative relationships with Japanese companies. "As with Toshiba, we would like to establish close relationships with electric utilities and heavy electric machinery manufacturers. We will find a way to cooperate with other companies such as Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.," said Morant.
In connection with the decommissioning of Fukushima I units 1-4, EnergySolutions aims to handle the planning of the entire decommissioning process, including cost calculation, and win orders for multiple projects, including the treatment and volume reduction of radioactive waste and the extraction and storage of spent fuel and fuel debris (damaged fuel).
Concerning the extraction of fuel debris, which is considered the most challenging process, "There is no technology which may be directly applied," said Morant. He added, however, that knowledge concerning the extraction of damaged fuel, which was obtained through the use of research reactors, and remote underwater cutting technology, as used for the Zion nuclear power station in the United States, may be applied to some extent.http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/eo20120502a1.html
Inviting economic suicide?
By KEVIN RAFFERTY
Special to The Japan Times
HONG KONG — The International Monetary Fund has just reported that India has overtaken Japan as the world's third biggest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) — the measure of the amount of money needed to purchase the same goods and services.
Now it is at least semi-official: Japan's economy is on the skids. A report just released by a think tank of the Nippon Keidanren, the country's most powerful business organization, says that by 2050, Japan will no longer be a developed country, predicting years of negative growth from 2030 onward.
"Unless something is done, we are afraid that Japan will fall out of the league of advanced nations and again become a tiny country in the Far East," says the report in Japanese by the 21st Century Public Policy Institute (21st CPPI), the research institute of Keidanren.
The report should serve as a wakeup call to Japan's economic and political establishment to take radical remedial reforms. The worry must be that there are few people inside Japan Inc. who have a clue about how to remedy the situation, still less the necessary political clout.
The 21st CPPI predicts that in the best-case scenario, Japan's gross domestic product in 2050 will be only one-sixth of China's and one third of India's, as the country struggles to stay ahead of Brazil as the world's fourth biggest economy. If Japan does not take remedial measures, it will drop to ninth place in the world, behind France and barely ahead of Indonesia.
According to the IMF, the European Union has the largest GDP, worth $15.8 trillion, followed by the United States with $15 trillion, China with $11.3 trillion, and India now narrowly ahead of Japan, with $4.458 trillion against $4.44 trillion. In per capita terms, of course, the U.S. and Japan are far ahead of the two Asian giants: U.S. (sixth in the world), $48,387; Japan (24th), $34,740; China (92nd), $8,382; India (129th), $3,694 (all in PPP).
The reasons why Japan's economy is faltering are predictable enough: a dwindling workforce caused by a chronic low birthrate together with low savings, slowing industrial productivity, and shriveling investment. Japan is the industrial world's trendsetter in aging population; its population fell by 0.2 percent to 127.8 million in October 2011.
By 2060, the country's population will drop to 86.74 million people, according to the health ministry. By 2050, almost 40 percent of Japanese will be aged 65 or over, compared to about 23 percent today, itself an unprecedentedly high burden for any country to bear. The working age population will fall from about 63 percent to 52 percent.
My criticism of the think-tank report is that it is too static. It almost looks as if the real damage will only occur after 2030 and 2040. The report forecasts that from 2030 onward Japan's GDP will fall by 0.17 percent a year, accelerating to 0.46 percent by 2041 and to 1.32 percent a year by 2050. In reality the damage has already started, and the risk is that if quick action is not taken between now and 2020, it may be too late to stop Japan's economy going into a tailspin.
Tackling the real issues is complicated by distracting immediate problems exacerbated by the last year's triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.
The need to take precautions to make sure that Japan's other nuclear reactors were safe against natural disaster led to popular panic and closing of nuclear plants for checks. Consequently, today only one of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors is working and the fuel import bill has soared. The impact was seen in the record trade deficit of ¥4.41 trillion in the fiscal year ended March 31. Imports of liquefied natural gas to make up the shortfall from nuclear energy are running 20 percent higher than a year ago.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has expressed his determination to get the nuclear plants operating again, warning that the alternative is electricity cuts of up to 20 percent in some areas during Japan's sweltering sticky summer. But the government's assertion that the nuclear plants at Oi are "more or less" safe to resume is an object lesson in political folly.
Noda is also playing with political and economic fire in his determination to double Japan's 5 percent consumption tax by 2015. Without economic reforms preceding it, the tax hike could damage the economy.
Even without the disasters, Japan's economy was facing problems, especially in its relationships with the rest of the world. The relentless rise of the yen, which hit 75 against the U.S. dollar last year, has damaged export prospects and the confidence of an economy, which has depended on exports for most of the small growth it has eked out recently.
The yen's fall this year to 81-82 against the U.S. dollar has offered small relief. Industrialists say that only 90-100 will offer them a competitive fighting chance. The yen has remained high against other key currencies, notably the South Korean won. All this has led to belated soul-searching within Japanese industry as to whether it should be trying to compete in the global mass marketplace or moving more aggressively to higher-quality production.
The early stages of a sclerotic aging society have seen Japan's social security spending absorb more and more of the budget, and are behind the government push to raise taxes. But the debate has been unimaginative with little talk of reform.
One possible saving grace that, according to 21st CPPI, would help rescue Japan from coming economic oblivion would be greater participation of women in the economy.
Japan comes a lowly 94th out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum's ranking for women in the economy. Women shave difficulty moving up in a male-dominated economic world. Just to take a tiny example, only this month did Japan's leading dental school at Osaka University appoint its first woman professor in 60 years, Mikako Hayashi, even though women comprise half the dental students.
The recent diverging fortunes of high-flying aggressive Samsung and loss-making Sony illustrate the plight of Japan's once unbeatable technological giants in a world where leading-edge electronics and shipbuilding have gone to South Korea, computing and semiconductors to Taiwan and mass manufacturing to China.
Consultants McKinsey and Co. recently produced a devastating series of reports on Japan's lagging high-technology companies, pointing out the irony that for an export-dependent sector: Most major companies are geared to an inefficient domestic market, have been slow to innovate, and are stuck with organization models that don't cut it in a modern globalizing world. McKinsey urged revising human relations and marketing functions and opening the door to women, foreigners and diversity to be better able to compete.
But as the Olympus Corp. soap opera demonstrated with the choice of new directors, Japan Inc. will close its doors to outsiders when cornered. Michael Woodford, the British president who exposed the dubious accounting and massive losses at the company, was voted down. Some Leading Japanese even welcome their isolation: The "Galapagos effect" is now a popular term for Japanese technology that only works in Japan.http://www.nzherald.co.nz/environment/news/article.cfm?c_id=39&objectid=10802442
Muttonbirds affected by Fukushima - researcher
The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may be responsible for a decline in New Zealand's muttonbird population.
A Department of Conservation study found only two-thirds of birds returned to an area near Auckland, after spending the northern summer in Japan - some only 20km from the plant, which was crippled in Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March last year.
The birds return to New Zealand in November to mate, but DOC seabird researcher Graeme Taylor told Radio New Zealand the ones that returned were in poor condition.
"We won't know if they've died up there in the north Pacific until another year goes by, because sometimes these birds skip a breeding season- where if they are in a poor condition they don't attempt to breed, and so they may turn up again and breed.
"But if the birds never turn up again then you have to start to wonder what's gone on with the population."
Mr Taylor said the research only looked at a small sub-sample of the breeding population, but it was the drop in numbers was the "most unusual event" in 20 years of studies of the birds' numbers.
He said many of the birds which arrived back had old feathers on their tails, wings and body.
"I've never seen birds in that poor of a condition come back to New Zealand."He said the condition of muttonbirds suggested they did not get the food in the north Pacific they usually do.
The Fukushima disaster may be responsible, he said, although the La Nino weather pattern which lay over New Zealand last year may have been a factor.
Meanwhile a second study, undertaken Ngai Tahu and Te Papa, found 30 muttonbird chicks from the Ti Ti Islands near Stewart Island had no radioactive traces and were safe to eat.