Frontline’s Fukushima “Meltdown” Perpetuates Industry Lie That Tsunami, Not Quake, Started Nuclear Crisis

Fukushima Daiichi as seen on March 16, 2011. (photo: Digital Globe via Wikipedia)

In all fairness, “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown,” the Frontline documentary that debuted on US public television stations last night (February 28), sets out to accomplish an almost impossible task: explain what has happened inside and around Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled reactors and safety systems on March 11, 2011–and do so in 53 minutes. The filmmakers had several challenges, not the least of which is that the Fukushima meltdowns are not a closed case, but an ever-evolving crisis. Add to that the technical nature of the information, the global impact of the disaster, the still-extant dangers in and around the crippled plant, the contentious politics around nuclear issues, and the refusal of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to let its employees talk either to reporters or independent investigative bodies, and it quickly becomes apparent that Frontline had a lot to tackle in order to practice good journalism.

But if the first rule of reporting is anything like medicine–”do no harm”–than Frontline’s Fukushima coverage is again guilty of malpractice. While “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown” is not the naked apologia for the nuclear industry that Frontline’s January offering, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” was, some of the errors and oversights of this week’s episode are just as injurious to the truth.

And none more so than the inherent contradiction that aired in the first minutes of Tuesday’s show.

“Inside’” opens on “March 11, 2011 – Day 1.” Over shaking weather camera shots of Fukushima’s four exhaust towers, the narrator explains:

The earthquake that shook the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was the most powerful to strike Japan since records began. The company that operates the plant, TEPCO, has forbidden its workers from speaking publicly about what followed.

But one year on, they are starting to tell their stories. Some have asked for their identities to be hidden for fear of being fired.

One such employee (called “Ono” in the transcript) speaks through an interpreter: “I saw all the pipes fixed to the wall shifting and ripping off.”

Then the power went out, but as Frontline’s narrator explains:

The workers stayed calm because they knew Japanese power plants are designed to withstand earthquakes. The reactors automatically shut down within seconds. But the high radioactivity of nuclear fuel rods means they generate intense heat even after a shutdown. So backup generators kicked in to power the cooling systems and stop the fuel rods from melting.

Frontline then tells of the massive tsunami that hit Fukushima about 49 minutes after the earthquake:

The biggest of the waves was more than 40 feet high and traveling at over 100 miles an hour.

. . . .

At 3:35 PM, the biggest of the waves struck. It was more than twice the height of the plant’s seawall.

. . . .

Most of the backup diesel generators needed to power the cooling systems were located in basements. They were destroyed by the tsunami waters, meaning the workers had no way of keeping the nuclear fuel from melting.

The impression left for viewers is that while the quake knocked out Fukushima’s primary power, the diesel backup generators were effectively cooling the reactors until the tsunami flooded the generators.

It’s a good story, as stories go, and one that TEPCO and their nuclear industry brethren are fond of telling to anyone and everyone within the sound of their profit-enhanced, lobbyist-aided voices. They have told it so often that it seems to be part of the whole Fukushima narrative that less-interested parties can recount without so much as glancing at their talking points. Indeed, even Frontline’s writers thought they could toss it out there without any debate and then move on. One problem with that story, though–it’s not true.

I personally saw pipes that had come apart and I assume that there were many more that had been broken throughout the plant. There’s no doubt that the earthquake did a lot of damage inside the plant… I also saw that part of the wall of the turbine building for reactor one had come away. That crack might have affected the reactor.

Those are the words of a Fukushima maintenance worker who requested anonymity when he told his story to reporters for Great Britain’s Independent last August. That worker recalled hissing, leaking pipes in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

Another TEPCO employee, a Fukushima technician, also spoke to the Independent:

It felt like the earthquake hit in two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking, the pipes buckling, and within minutes I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the wall…

Someone yelled that we all needed to evacuate. But I was severely alarmed because as I was leaving I was told and I could see that several pipes had cracked open, including what I believe were cold water supply pipes. That would mean that coolant couldn’t get to the reactor core. If you can’t sufficiently get the coolant to the core, it melts down. You don’t have to have to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.

Workers also describe seeing cracks and holes in reactor one’s containment building soon after the earthquake, and it has been reported that a radiation alarm went off a mile away from Fukushima Daiichi at 3:29 PM JST–43 minutes after the quake, but 6 minutes before the tsunami hit the plant’s seawall.

Indeed, much of the data available, as well as the behavior of Fukushima personnel, makes the case that something was going horribly wrong before the tsunami flooded the backup generators:

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear plant designer, describes what occurred on 11 March as a loss-of-coolant accident. “The data that Tepco has made public shows a huge loss of coolant within the first few hours of the earthquake. It can’t be accounted for by the loss of electrical power. There was already so much damage to the cooling system that a meltdown was inevitable long before the tsunami came.”

He says the released data shows that at 2.52pm, just after the quake, the emergency circulation equipment of both the A and B systems automatically started up. “This only happens when there is a loss of coolant.” Between 3.04 and 3.11pm, the water sprayer inside the containment vessel was turned on. Mr Tanaka says that it is an emergency measure only done when other cooling systems have failed. By the time the tsunami arrived and knocked out all the electrical systems, at about 3.37pm, the plant was already on its way to melting down.

In fact, these conclusions were actually corroborated by data buried in a TEPCO briefing last May–and they were of course corroborated by “Ono” in the opening minutes of Frontline’s report–but rather than use their documentary and their tremendous access to eyewitnesses as a way of starting a discussion about what really went wrong at Fukushima Daiichi, Frontline instead moved to end the debate by repeating the industry line as a kind of shorthand gospel.

This is not nitpicking. The implications of this point–the debate about whether the nuclear reactor, its cooling systems and containment (to say nothing yet of its spent fuel pools and their safety systems) were seriously damaged by the earthquake–are broad and have far-reaching consequences for nuclear facilities all over the globe.

To put it mildly, the pipes at Fukushima were a mess. Over the decade prior to the Tohoku quake, TEPCO was told repeatedly about the poor state of the plant’s pipes, ducts, and couplings. Fukushima was sighted numerous times for deteriorating joints, faked inspections and shoddy repairs. Technicians talk of how the systems didn’t match the blueprints, and that pipes had to be bent to match up and then welded together.

Fukushima was remarkably old, but it is not remarkable. Plants across Japan are of the same generations-old design. So are many nuclear reactors here in the United States. If the safety systems of a nuclear reactor can be dangerously compromised by seismic activity alone, then all of Japan’s reactors–and a dozen or more across the US–are one good shake away from a Fukushima-like catastrophe. And that means that those plants need to be shut down for extensive repairs and retrofits–if not decommissioned permanently.

The stakes for the nuclear industry are obviously very high. You can see how they would still be working overtime to drown out the evidence and push the “freak one-two punch” narrative. But it’s not the true story–indeed, it is dangerous lie–so it is hard to reconcile why the esteemed and resourceful journalists at Frontline would want to tell it.

* * *

That was not the only problem with Tuesday’s episode, but it is one of the most pernicious–and it presents itself so obviously right at the start of “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown.” Also problematic was the general impression left at the end of the program. While mention is made of the 100,000 displaced by the 12-mile Fukushima exclusion zone, nothing is said about the broader health implications for the entre country–and indeed for the rest of the world as radioactive isotopes from Fukushima spread well beyond Japan’s borders.

Alas, though Frontline tells of the massive amounts of seawater pumped into the damaged facility, nothing much is said about the contaminated water that is leaving the area, spreading into groundwater, rivers and the Pacific Ocean. The show talks of the efforts to open a valve to relieve pressure inside one reactor, but does not address growing evidence that the lid of the containment vessel likely lifted off at some point between the tsunami and the explosion in building one. And there is a short discussion of bringing the now-melted-down reactors to “cold shutdown,” but there is no mention of the recent “re-criticality“–the rising temperatures inside one of the damaged cores.

And to that point–and to a point often made in these columns–this disaster is not over. “Japan’s Meltdown” is not in the past–it is still a dangerous and evolving crisis. The “devil’s chain reaction” that could have required the evacuation of Tokyo is still very much a possibility should another earthquake jolt the region. . . which itself is considered likely.

Sadly–disturbingly–Frontline’s Fukushima tick-tock ends leaving the opposite impression. They acknowledge the years of work that lie ahead to clean up the mess, but the implication is that the path is clear. They acknowledge the tragedy, but treat it as does one of the film’s subjects, who is shown at Frontline’s end at a memorial for his lost family–it is something to be mourned, commemorated and honored.

But Fukushima’s crisis is not buried and gone, and though radioactive water has been swept out to sea and radioactive fallout has been blown around the world, the real danger of Fukushima Daiichi and nuclear plants worldwide is not gone with the wind.

As noted above, it is a difficult task to accurately and effectively tell this sweeping story in less than an hour–but the filmmakers should have acknowledged that and either refocused their one show, or committed to telling the story over a longer period of time. Choosing instead to use the frame of the nuclear industry and the governments that seek its largess is not good journalism because it has the potential to do much harm.