Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

(photo: Steve Snodgrass)

Since the release of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Committee’s official report last week, much has been made of how it implicates Japanese culture as one of the root causes of the crisis. The committee’s chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, makes the accusation quite plainly in the opening paragraphs of the executive summary [PDF]:

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

That this apparently critical self-examination was seized upon by much of the western media’s coverage of the report probably does not come as a surprise–especially when you consider that this revelation falls within the first 300 words of an 88-page document. Cultural stereotypes and incomplete reads are hardly new to establishment reportage. What might come as a shock, however, is that this painful admission is only made in the English-language version of the document, and only in the chairman’s introduction is the “made in Japan” conclusion drawn so specifically.

What replaces the cultural critique in the Japanese edition and in the body of the English summary is a ringing indictment of the cozy relationship between the Japanese nuclear industry and the government agencies that were supposed to regulate it. This “regulatory capture,” as the report details, is certainly central to the committee’s findings and crucial to understanding how the Fukushima disaster is a manmade catastrophe, but it is not unique to the culture of Japan.

Indeed, observers of the United States will recognize this lax regulatory construct as part-and-parcel of problems that threaten the safety and health of its citizenry, be it in the nuclear sector, the energy sector as a whole, or across a wide variety of officially regulated industries.

No protection

The Japanese Diet’s Fukushima report includes a healthy dose of displeasure with the close ties between government regulators and the nuclear industry they were supposed to monitor. The closed, insular nature of nuclear oversight that might be attributed to Japanese culture by a superficial read is, in fact, a product of the universally familiar “revolving door” that sees industry insiders taking turns as government bureaucrats, and regulatory staff “graduating” to well-compensated positions in the private sector.

Mariko Oi, a reporter at the BBC’s Tokyo bureau, described the situation this way when discussing the Fukushima report on the World Service:

When there was a whistleblower, the first call that the government or the ministry made was to TEPCO, saying, “Hey, you’ve got a whistleblower,” instead of “Hey, you’ve got a problem at the nuclear reactor.”

A disturbing betrayal of accountability in any context, it is especially troubling with the ominous repercussions of the Fukushima disaster still metastasizing. And it is also ominously familiar.

Look, for example, just across the Pacific:

[San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station] was chastised two years ago by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for creating an atmosphere in which employees fear retaliation if they report safety concerns.

. . . .

Edward Bussey, a former health physics technician at the plant, sued Edison in state court after he was fired in 2006 under what he said were trumped-up charges that he had falsified initials on logs documenting that certain materials had been checked for radiation. Bussey contended that he was really fired in retaliation for complaining about safety concerns to his supervisors and the NRC.

San Onofre–SONGS, if you will–has been offline since January when a radioactive steam leak led to the discovery of severely degraded copper tubing in both of the plant’s existing reactors. But here’s the real kicker: whistleblower suits at SONGS, like the one from Mr. Bussey, have routinely been summarily dismissed thanks to a little known legal loophole:

San Onofre is majority owned and operated by Southern California Edison, a private company, but it sits on land leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.

That puts the plant in a so-called federal enclave, where courts have held that many California laws, including labor laws intended to protect whistle-blowers, do not apply.

Lawsuits filed in state court by San Onofre workers who claimed that they were fired or retaliated against for reporting safety concerns, sexual harassment and other issues have been tossed out because of the plant’s location.

The Los Angeles Times cites examples dating back to the construction of San Onofre where personnel who complained about safety or work conditions were terminated and left without many of the legal options normally afforded most California citizens. The history of SONGS is liberally peppered with accidents and safety breaches–and the lies and cover-ups from its owner-operators that go with them. Considering that San Onofre employees are regularly punished for exposing problems and have fewer whistleblower protections, is it at all surprising that SONGS is reported to have the worst safety record of all US nuclear plants?

If San Onofre’s track record isn’t evidence enough of the dangers of weak regulation, the findings and conclusions of the latest Fukushima report make it crystal clear: “safety culture” is not undermined by Japanese culture so much as it is by the more international culture of corruption born of the incestuous relationship between industry and regulators.

It’s a nuclear thing…

But the corrupt culture–be it national or universal–is itself a bit of a dodge. As noted by the Financial Times, the Japanese and their regulatory structure have managed to operate the technologically complex Shinkansen bullet trains since 1964 without a single derailment or fatal collision.

As the Diet’s report makes abundantly clear–far more clear than any talk about Japanese culture–the multiple failures at and around Fukushima Daiichi were directly related to the design of the reactors and to fatal flaws inherent in nuclear power generation.

Return for a moment to something discussed here last summer, The Light Water Paradox: “In order to safely generate a steady stream of electricity, a light water reactor needs a steady stream of electricity.” As previously noted, this is not some perpetual motion riddle–all but one of Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors and every operating reactor in the United States is of a design that requires water to be actively pumped though the reactor containment in order to keep the radioactive fuel cool enough to prevent a string of catastrophes, from hydrogen explosions and cladding fires, to core meltdowns and melt-throughs.

Most of the multiple calamities to befall Fukushima Daiichi have their roots in the paradox. As many have observed and the latest Japanese report reiterates, the Tohoku earthquake caused breaches in reactor containment and cooling structures, and damaged all of Fukushima’s electrical systems, save the diesel backup generators, which were in turn taken out by the tsunami that followed the quake. Meeting the demands of the paradox–circulating coolant in a contained system–was severely compromised after the quake, and was rendered completely impossible after the tsunami. Given Japan’s seismic history, and the need of any light water reactor for massive amounts of water, Fukushima wouldn’t really have been a surprise even if scientists hadn’t been telling plant operators and Japanese regulators about these very problems for the last two decades.

Back at San Onofre, US regulators disclosed Thursday that the damage to the metal tubes that circulate radioactive water between the reactor and the steam turbines (in other words, part of the system that takes heat away from the core) was far more extensive than had previously been disclosed by plant operators:

[Each of San Onofre’s steam generators has] 9,727 U-shaped tubes inside, each three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

The alloy tubes represent a critical safety barrier — if one breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity could escape into the atmosphere. Also, serious leaks can drain protective cooling water from a reactor.

Gradual wear is common in such tubing, but the rate of erosion at San Onofre startled officials since the equipment is relatively new. The generators were replaced in a $670 million overhaul and began operating in April 2010 in Unit 2 and February 2011 in Unit 3.

Tubes have to be taken out of service if 35 percent — roughly a third — of the wall wears away, and each of the four generators at the plant is designed to operate with a maximum of 778 retired tubes.

In one troubled generator in Unit 3, 420 tubes have been retired. The records show another 197 tubes in that generator have between 20 percent and 34 percent wear, meaning they are close to reaching the point when they would be at risk of breaking.

More than 500 others in that generator have between 10 percent and 19 percent wear in the tube wall.

“The new data reveal that there are thousands of damaged tubes in both Units 2 and 3, raising serious questions whether either unit should ever be restarted,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is a critic of the industry. “The problem is vastly larger than has been disclosed to date.”

And if anything, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is underplaying the problem. A report from Fairewinds Associates, also released this week, unfavorably compared San Onofre’s situation with similar problems at other facilities:

[SONGS] has plugged 3.7 times as many steam generator tubes than the combined total of the entire number of plugged replacement steam generator tubes at all the other nuclear power plants in the US.

The report also explains that eight of the tubes failed a “pressure test” at San Onofre, while the same test at other facilities had never triggered any more than one tube breach. Fairewinds goes on to note that both units at San Onofre are equally precarious, and that neither can be restarted with any real promise of safe operation.

And while the rapid degeneration of the tubing might be peculiar to San Onofre, the dangers inherent in a system that requires constant power for constant cooling–lest a long list of possible problems triggers a toxic crisis–are evident across the entire US nuclear fleet. Cracked containment buildings, coolant leaks, transformer fires, power outages, and a vast catalogue of human errors fill the NRC’s event reports practically every month of every year for the past 40 years. To put it simply, with nuclear power, too much can go wrong when everything has to go right.

And this is to say nothing of the dangers that come with nuclear waste storage. Like with the reactors, the spent fuel pools that dot the grounds of almost every nuclear plant in America and Japan require a consistent and constantly circulating water supply to keep them from overheating (which would result in many of the same disastrous outcomes seen with damaged reactors). At Fukushima, one of the spent fuel pools is, at any given point, as much of a concern as the severely damaged reactor cores.

Ions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Even with the latest findings, however, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed ahead with the restart of the precariously situated and similarly flawed nuclear reactor complex at Oi. It is as if the PM and the nuclear industry feared Japan surviving another summer without nuclear-generated electricity would demonstrate once and for all that the country had no reason to trade so much of its health and safety for an unnecessary return.

But the people of Japan seem to see it differently. Tens of thousands have turned out to demonstrate against their nation’s slide back into this dangerous culture of corruption. (Remember, the Oi restart comes without any safety upgrades made in response to the Fukushima disaster.)

And maybe there’s where cultural distinctions can be drawn. In Japan, the citizenry–especially women–are not demonstrating “reflexive obedience,” instead, they are demonstrating. In the United States, where 23 nuclear reactors are of the same design as Fukushima Daiichi, and 184 million people within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, when the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested requiring some modest upgrades as a response to the Fukushima disaster, the nuclear industry got its henchmen on the NRC and in Congress to push him out. . . with little public outcry.

Still, the BBC’s Mariko Oi lamented on the day the Fukushima report was released that Japanese media was paying more attention to the birth of a giant panda at a Tokyo zoo. That sort of response would seem all too familiar to any consumer of American media.

That baby panda, it should be noted, has since died. The radioactive fallout from Fukushima, however, lingers, and the crisis at Daiichi is far from over. The threat to global heath and safety that is unique to nuclear power lives on.

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Fukushima Nuclear Disaster “Man-Made” Reports Japanese Panel; Quake Damaged Plant Before Tsunami

Aerial view of the Oi Nuclear Power Plant, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. (photo: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport via Wikipedia)

The massive disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility that began with the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami could have been prevented and was likely made worse by the response of government officials and plant owners, so says a lengthy report released today by the Japanese Diet (their parliament).

The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee [PDF] harshly criticizes the Japanese nuclear industry for avoiding safety upgrades and disaster plans that could have mitigated much of what went wrong after a massive quake struck the northeast of Japan last year. The account also includes direct evidence that Japanese regulatory agencies conspired with TEPCO (Fukushima’s owner-operator) to help them forestall improvements and evade scrutiny:

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.

. . . .

We found evidence that the regulatory agencies would explicitly ask about the operators’ intentions whenever a new regulation was to be implemented. For example, NISA informed the operators that they did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. It then asked the operators to write a report that would give the appropriate rationale for why this consideration was unnecessary.

The report also pointed to Japanese cultural conventions, namely the reluctance to question authority–a common refrain in many post-Fukushima analyses.

But perhaps most damning, and most important to the future of Japan and to the future of nuclear power worldwide, is the Investigation’s finding that parts of the containment and cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi were almost certainly damaged by the earthquake before the mammoth tsunami caused additional destruction:

We conclude that TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident and deny that the earthquake caused any damage.

. . . .

[I]t is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The Commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami), as they wrote in their midterm report, and not on the more foreseeable earthquake.

Through our investigation, we have verified that the people involved were aware of the risk from both earthquakes and tsunami. Further, the damage to Unit 1 was caused not only by the tsunami but also by the earthquake, a conclusion made after considering the facts that: 1) the largest tremor hit after the automatic shutdown (SCRAM); 2) JNES confirmed the possibility of a small-scale LOCA (loss of coolant accident); 3) the Unit 1 operators were concerned about leakage of coolant from the valve, and 4) the safety relief valve (SR) was not operating.

Additionally, there were two causes for the loss of external power, both earthquake-related: there was no diversity or independence in the earthquake-resistant external power systems, and the Shin-Fukushima transformer station was not earthquake resistant.

As has been discussed here many times, the nuclear industry and its boosters in government like to point to the “who could have possibly imagined,” “one-two punch” scenario of quake and tsunami to both vouch for the safety of other nuclear facilities and counter any call for reexamination and upgrades of existing safety systems. Fukushima, however, has always proved the catastrophic case study that actually countered this argument–and now there is an exhaustive study to buttress the point.

First, both the quake and the tsunami were far from unpredictable. The chances of each–as well as the magnitude–were very much part of predictions made by scientists and government bureaucrats. There is documentation that Japanese regulators knew and informed their nuclear industry of these potential disasters, but then looked the other way or actively aided the cause as plant operators consistently avoided improving structures, safety systems and accident protocols.

Second, even if there had not been a tsunami, Fukushima Daiichi would have still been a disaster. While the crisis was no doubt exacerbated by the loss of the diesel generators and the influx of seawater, the evidence continues to mount that reactor containment was breached and cooling systems were damaged by the earthquake first. Further, it was the earthquake that damaged all the electrical systems and backups aside from the diesel generators, and there is no guarantee that all generators would have worked flawlessly for their projected life-spans, that the other external and internal power systems could have been restored quickly, or that enough additional portable power could have been trucked in to the facility in time to prevent further damage. In fact, much points to less than optimal resolution of all of these problems.

To repeat, there was loss of external power, loss of coolant, containment breach, and release of radiation after the quake, but before the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear plant.

And now for the bad news. . . .

And yet, as harsh as this new report is (and it is even more critical than was expected, which is actually saying something), on first reading, it still appears to pull a punch.

Though the failure of the nuclear reactors and their safety systems is now even further documented in this report, its focus on industry obstruction and government collusion continues in some ways to perpetuate the “culture of safety” myth. By labeling the Fukushima disaster as “Made in Japan,” “manmade” and “preventable,” the panel–as we are fond of saying here–assumes a can opener. By talking up all that government and industry did wrong in advance of March 11, 2011, by critiquing all the lies and crossed signals after the earthquake and tsunami, and by recommending new protocols and upgrades, the Japanese report fiats a best-case scenario for a technology that has consistently proven that no such perfect plan exists.

The facts were all there before 3/11/11, and all the revelations since just add to the atomic pile. Nuclear fission is a process that has to go flawlessly to consistently provide safe and economical electrical power–but the process is too complex, and relies on too many parts, too many people and too volatile a fuel for that to ever really happen. Add in the costs and hazards of uranium mining, transport, fuel milling, and waste storage, and nuclear again proves itself to be dirty, dangerous, and disgustingly expensive.

* * *

And, as if to put an exclamation point at the end of the Diet’s report (and this column), the Japanese government moved this week to restart the nuclear plant at Oi, bringing the No. 3 reactor online just hours before the release of the new Fukushima findings. The Oi facility rests on a fault line, and seismologists, nuclear experts and activists have warned that this facility is at risk much in the way Fukushima Daiichi proved to be.

Most of Japan’s reactors were taken offline following the Tohoku quake, with the last of them–the Oi plant–shut down earlier this year. In the wake of the disaster, Japan’s then-Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, suggested that it might be time for his country to turn away from nuclear power. Demonstrators across Japan seemed to agree and urged Kansai Electric Power Company and current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to delay the restart of Oi. But the government seemed to be hurrying to get Oi back up, despite many questions and several technical glitches.

Noda insists the rush is because of the need for electricity during the hot summer months, but Japan managed surprisingly well last summer (when more of the country’s infrastructure was still damaged from the quake and tsunami) with better conservation and efficiency measures. Perhaps release of this new report provides a more plausible explanation for the apparent urgency.

Looking Back at Our Nuclear Future

nuclear reactor, rocketdyne, LAT

The Los Angeles Times heralds the nuclear age in January 1957. (photo via wikipedia)

On March 11, communities around the world commemorated the first year of the still-evolving Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster with rallies, marches, moments of silence, and numerous retrospective reports and essays (including one here). But 17 days later, another anniversary passed with much less fanfare.

It was in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, that a chain of events at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania caused what is known as a “loss of coolant accident,” resulting in a partial core meltdown, a likely hydrogen explosion, the venting of some amount of radioisotopes into the air and the dumping of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water into the Susquehanna River. TMI (as it is sometimes abbreviated) is often called America’s worst commercial nuclear accident, and though the nuclear industry and its acolytes have worked long and hard to downplay any adverse health effects stemming from the mishap, the fact is that what happened in Pennsylvania 33 years ago changed the face and future of nuclear power.

The construction of new nuclear power facilities in the US was already in decline by the mid 1970s, but the Three Mile Island disaster essentially brought all new projects to a halt. There were no construction licenses granted to new nuclear plants from the time of TMI until February of this year, when the NRC gave a hasty go-ahead to two reactors slated for the Vogtle facility in Georgia. And though health and safety concerns certainly played a part in this informal moratorium, cost had at least an equal role. The construction of new plants proved more and more expensive, never coming in on time or on budget, and the cleanup of the damaged unit at Three Mile Island took 14 years and cost over $1 billion. Even with the Price-Anderson Act limiting the industry’s liability, nuclear power plants are considered such bad risks that no financing can be secured without federal loan guarantees.

In spite of that–or because of that–the nuclear industry has pushed steadily over the last three decades to wring every penny out of America’s aging reactors, pumping goodly amounts of their hefty profits into lobbying efforts and campaign contributions designed to capture regulators and elected officials and propagate the age-old myth of an energy source that is clean, safe, and, if not exactly “too cheap to meter,” at least impressively competitive with other options. The result is a fleet of over 100 reactors nearing the end of their design lives–many with documented dangers and potential pitfalls that could rival TMI–now seeking and regularly getting license extensions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission while that same agency softens and delays requirements for safety upgrades.

And all of that cozy cooperation between government and big business goes on with the nuclear industry pushing the idea of a “nuclear renaissance.” In the wake of Fukushima, the industry has in fact increased its efforts, lobbying the US and British governments to downplay the disaster, and working with its mouthpieces in Congress and on the NRC to try to kill recommended new regulations and force out the slightly more safety-conscious NRC chair. And, just this month, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the chief nuclear trade group, moved to take their message to what might be considered a less friendly cohort, launching a splashy PR campaign by underwriting public radio broadcasts and buying time for a fun and funky 60-second animated ad on The Daily Show.

All of this is done with the kind of confidence that only comes from knowing you have the money to move political practice and, perhaps, public opinion. Three Mile Island is, to the industry, the exception that proves the rule–if not an out-and-out success. “No one died,” you will hear–environmental contamination and the latest surveys now showing increased rates of Leukemia some 30 years later be damned–and that TMI is the only major accident in over half a century of domestic nuclear power generation.

Of course, this is not even remotely true–names like Browns Ferry, Cooper, Millstone, Indian Point and Vermont Yankee come to mind–but even if you discount plant fires and tritium leaks, Three Mile Island is not even America’s only meltdown.

There is, of course, the 1966 accident at Michigan’s Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, chronicled in the John Grant Fuller book We Almost Lost Detroit, but atom-lovers will dismiss this because Fermi 1 was an experimental breeder reactor, so it is not technically a “commercial” nuclear accident.

But go back in time another seven years–a full 20 before TMI–and the annals of nuclear power contain the troubling tale of another criticality accident, one that coincidentally is again in the news this week, almost 53 years later.

The Sodium Reactor Experiment

On July 12, 1957, the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) at the Santa Susana Nuclear Field Laboratory near Simi Valley, California, became the first US nuclear reactor to produce electricity for a commercial power grid. SRE was a sodium-cooled reactor designed by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, a company more often known by the name of its other subsidiary, Rocketdyne. Southern California Edison used the electricity generated by SRE to light the nearby town of Moorpark.

Sometime during July 1959–the exact date is still not entirely clear–a lubricant used to cool the seals on the pump system seeped into the primary coolant, broke down in the heat and formed a compound that clogged cooling channels. Because of either curiosity or ignorance, operators continued to run the SRE despite wide fluctuations in core temperature and generating capacity.

Following a pattern that is now all too familiar, increased temperatures caused increased pressure, necessitating what was even then called a “controlled venting” of radioactive vapor. How much radioactivity was released into the environment is cause for some debate, for, in 1959, there was less monitoring and even less transparency. Current reconstructions, however, believe the release was possibly as high as 450 times greater than what was vented at Three Mile Island.

When the reactor was finally shut down and the fuel rods were removed (which was a trick in itself, as some were stuck and others broke), it was found that over a quarter showed signs of melting.

The SRE was eventually repaired and restarted in 1960, running on and off for another four years. Decommissioning began in 1976, and was finished in 1981, but the story doesn’t end there. Not even close.

Fifty-three years after a partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site in the Chatsworth Hills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just released data finding extensive radioactive contamination still remains at the accident site.

“This confirms what we were worried about,” said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park, a long-time leader in the fight for a complete and thorough cleanup of this former Rocketdyne rocket engine testing laboratory. “This begins to answer critical questions about what’s still up there, where, how much, and how bad?”

Well, it sort of begins to answer it.

New soil samples weigh in at up to 1,000 times the radiation trigger levels (RTLs) agreed to when the Department of Energy struck a cleanup deal with the California Department of Toxic Substances in 2010. What’s more, these measurements follow two previous cleanup efforts by the DOE and Boeing, the company that now owns Santa Susana.

In light of the new findings, Assemblywoman Brownley has called on the DOE to comply with the agreement and do a real and thorough cleanup of the site. That means taking radiation levels down to what are the established natural background readings for the area. But that, as is noted by local reporter Michael Collins, “may be easier said than done”:

This latest U.S. EPA information appears to redefine what cleaning up to background actually is. Publicly available documents show that the levels of radiation in this part of Area IV where the SRE once stood are actually many thousands of times more contaminated than previously thought.

Just as troubling, the EPA’s RTLs, which are supposed to mirror the extensively tested and reported-on backgrounds of the numerous radionuclides at the site, were many times over the background threshold values (BTVs). So instead of cleaning up to background, much more radiation would be left in the ground, saving the government and lab owner Boeing millions in cleanup.

It is a disturbing tale of what Collins calls a kind of environmental “bait and switch” (of which he provides even more detail in an earlier report), but after a year of documenting the mis- and malfeasance of the nuclear industry and its supposed regulators, it is, to us here, anyway, not a surprising one.

To the atom-enamored, it is as if facts have a half-life all their own. The pattern of swearing that an event is no big deal, only to come back with revision after revision, each admitting a little bit more in a seemingly never-ending regression to what might approximately describe a terrible reality. It would be reminiscent of the “mom’s on the roof” joke if anyone actually believed that nuclear operators and their chummy government minders ever intended to eventually relay the truth.

Fukushima’s latest surprise

Indeed, that unsettling pattern is again visible in the latest news from Japan. This week saw revelations that radiation inside Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor 2 containment vessel clocked in at levels seriously higher than previously thought, while water levels are seriously lower.

An endoscopic camera, thermometer, water gauge and dosimeter were inserted into the number 2 reactor containment, and it documented radiation levels of up to 70 sieverts per hour, which is not only seven times the previous highest measurement, but 10 times higher than what is called a fatal dose (7 Sv/hr would kill a human in minutes).

The water level inside the containment vessel, estimated to be at 10 meters when the Japanese government declared a “cold shutdown” in December, turns out to be no more than 60 centimeters (about two feet).

This is disquieting news for many reasons. First, the high radiation not only makes it impossible for humans to get near the reactor, it makes current robotic technology impractical, as well. The camera, for instance, would only last 14 hours in those conditions. If the molten core is to be removed, a new class of radiation-resistant robots will have to be developed.

The extremely low water levels signal more troubling scenarios. Though some experts believe that the fuel rods have melted down or melted through to such an extent that two feet of water can keep them covered, it likely indicates a breach or breaches of the containment vessel. Plant workers, after all, have been pumping water into the reactor constantly for months now (why no one noticed that they kept having to add water to the system, or why no one cared, is plenty disturbing, as is the question of where all that extra water has gone).

Arnie Gundersen of nuclear engineering consultancy Fairewinds Associates believes that the level of water roughly corresponds with the lower lip of the vessel’s suppression pool–further evidence that reactor 2 suffered a hydrogen explosion, as did two other units at Fukushima. Gundersen also believes that the combination of heat, radioactivity and seawater likely degraded the seals on points where tubes and wires penetrated the structure–so even if there were no additional cracks from an explosion or the earthquake, the system is now almost certainly riddled with holes.

The holes pose a couple of problems, not only does it mean more contaminated water leaking into the environment, it precludes filling the building with water to shield people and equipment from radiation. Combined with the elevated radiation readings, this will most certainly mean a considerably longer and more expensive cleanup.

And reactor 2 was considered the Fukushima unit in the best shape.

(Reactor 2 is also the unit that experienced a rapid rise in temperature and possible re-criticality in early February. TEPCO officials later attributed this finding to a faulty thermometer, but if one were skeptical of that explanation before, the new information about high radiation and low water levels should warrant a re-examination of February’s events.)

What does this all mean? Well, for Japan, it means injecting another $22 billion into Fukushima’s nominal owners, TEPCO–$12 billion just to stay solvent, and $10.2 billion to cover compensation for those injured or displaced by the nuclear crisis. That cash dump comes on top of the $18 billion already coughed up by the Japanese government, and is just a small down payment on what is estimated to be a $137 billion bailout of the power company.

It also means a further erosion of trust in an industry and a government already short on respect.

The same holds true in the US, where poor communication and misinformation left the residents of central Pennsylvania panicked and perturbed some 33 years ago, and the story is duplicated on varying scales almost weekly somewhere near one of America’s 104 aging and increasingly accident-prone nuclear reactors.

And, increasingly, residents and the state and local governments that represent them are saying “enough.” Whether it is the citizens and state officials from California’s Simi Valley demanding the real cleanup of a 53-year-old meltdown, or the people and legislature of Vermont facing off with the federal government on who has ultimate authority to assure that the next nuclear accident doesn’t happen in their backyard, Americans are looking at their future in the context of nuclear’s troubled past.

One year after Fukushima, 33 years after Three Mile Island, and 53 years after the Sodium Reactor Experiment, isn’t it time the US federal government did so, too?

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.

The Party Line – April 29, 2011: And the Band Played On

After pausing for a day to placate another bleating billionaire, President Obama stepped to the first microphone Thursday to announce that Leon Panetta would soon sit where Bob Gates now sits, and that David Patraeus would sit in Panetta’s old chair, and that John Allen would grab King David’s throne, and so on and so forth until someone pulled the needle off the record. At which point we were told that the president had re-tooled his national security team for the challenges that lie ahead.

But if that sounds less like re-tooling and more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, well, that’s because it should.

At a place in history where the administration’s much ballyhooed Afghanistan strategy has proven another stutter-step in a long, bloody line of failed tactics, at a time when the entire US intelligence establishment seems to have been caught flat-footed by the uprisings of this Arab Spring, bringing us to a moment where being militarily overextended and signally under-informed has quickly left the US knee-deep in a Libyan quagmire, one might think that Obama would use the force of history as the perfect excuse to really change course. One might think that, but Obama did not do that.

Instead, the architect of our misfortune in Afghanistan is given control of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the guy who forsook the CIA’s intelligence gathering responsibilities to further strengthen covert ops will now run the whole shebang (emphasis on “bang”) at the Pentagon.

While “failing upward” seems to be the 21st Century way America tries to win the future, perhaps the even more disturbing theme is the further blurring of the distinction between the US military and national intelligence. Marcy, David, and Jim have all touched on aspects of this, but, in short, what were once the independent and sometimes competitive interests of the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps and the military have, in the interest of post-9/11 “coordination” or post-imperial expedience, been mixed into the what now looks like the world’s largest paramilitary.

Which is actually a pretty dangerous place to steer the ship of state. While America’s giant military industrial complex, its ability to reach across the globe and “hit ‘em there” (and often do so with only the push of a button) may give us the sense that we are insulated from the conflicts abroad, we are, in fact, staying a course rife with icebergs.

To use a more recent (if you consider 30 years ago “recent”) analogy, the US is not unlike the space ship in a game of Asteroids. It has enough torpedoes to whip around and fire at will at the interplanetary rocks heading its way, but each hit breaks an asteroid into dozens of smaller ones, and eventually there are just too many to dodge.

OK, where was I? Oh, yes. Darting back in time again, I often talk about a theory I call “The Sick Man of the Americas.” It is a play on “The Sick Man of Europe,” a term used to describe a declining and dangerous Ottoman Empire at the turn of the last century. At that point, the Ottomans had been on the downward slope of history for a long time, but what they lacked in political influence, they tried to make up for with military might.

The American Empire stands at a similar precipice. Feeling its diplomatic might on the wane, its industrial prowess now being outstripped by several regional powers, its economy stagnant, its technological edge blunted by a decade of anti-science leadership, and even its cultural significance questioned, the US still has one thing it knows it can do better than any other place in the world, and that is blow things up.

The problem is, lots of other countries find that tiresome. It might suffice for now, given expectations, trade deals, and pre-existing commitments, but eventually all this bounderism gets in the way of things like commerce, and when you screw with other people’s money, they get touchy.

There may not be some great army ready to advance on our shores, not yet, but there will come a point where doing things the American way becomes more trouble than its worth. And in an interconnected world, that will make it very hard to even play in the future, forget about, uh, winning.

The sad part is it doesn’t have to be this way. Though the establishment that just played musical chairs is entrenched, it is not immortal. There are actually people well on their way to being part of the establishment who also worry about an overly militarized American century. Note, for example, Mr. Y.

Mr. Y, in reality two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the pseudonym is a play on a 64-year old essay by George Kennan), released a paper titled “A National Strategic Narrative” (PDF), and in it they spell out a part-primer, part-warning on the choices America is now making.

The paper is long, and I am still digesting it, but the takeaway relevant to this week’s events is the insistence that America needs to transition away, as they say, from a policy of “containment to sustainment,” and that the US needs to see that its security lies in its prosperity, as opposed to the other way around. The idea (and I am seriously shorthanding here) is that rather than using military might to keep perceived threats at arms’ length (pun intended), a focus on strong domestic institutions will serve American security much better.

It is not a surprising position from a generation of military leaders that have been put through the meat grinders of Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is a position that might seem consistent with what was promised by candidate Barack Obama back in 2008.

Yes, it is true that Obama did signal an escalation in Afghanistan during the campaign, but otherwise, the junior Senator from Illinois spoke of reclaiming America’s role in the world by investing in domestic industry and innovation, and leading by example rather than by ordinance.

Contrary to the Obama of April 2011, that future still seems winnable. The Mr. Ys of this world, bred of a professional military, tired of playing Pinky to the intel black-baggers’ Brain, provide a ready and powerful force on the inside. The Democratic base—the young new voters and the liberals of all ages that surged to the polls to give Obama his first term as president—would provide all the support Obama would need on the outside. But those dual constituencies, seemingly so perfectly primed to help the ’08 vintage Obama bring forth the change he once promised, find themselves alternately ignored or punched by the present president.

It is the macro-theme that played out in microcosm on Thursday. Obama, the captain on the bridge, promoted an intelligence director who turned a deaf ear to a global chorus of discontent, and a leader of military escalations—almost by definition a guy that shoots first and asks questions later—was given the responsibility of doing the required listening that lies ahead.

The band will play on, but will anyone on the promenade deck be able to recognize the tune?