Fukushima One Year On: Many Revelations, Few Surprises

Satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi showing damage on 3/14/11. (photo: digitalglobe)

One year on, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Fukushima crisis is that nothing is really that surprising. Almost every problem encountered was at some point foreseen, almost everything that went wrong was previously discussed, and almost every system that failed was predicted to fail, sometimes decades earlier. Not all by one person, obviously, not all at one time or in one place, but if there is anything to be gleaned from sorting through the multiple reports now being released to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–and the start of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi–it is that, while there is much still to be learned, we already know what is to be done. . . because we knew it all before the disaster began.

This is not to say that any one person–any plant manager, nuclear worker, TEPCO executive, or government official–had all that knowledge on hand or had all the guaranteed right answers when each moment of decision arose. We know that because the various timelines and reconstructions now make it clear that several individual mistakes were made in the minutes, hours and days following the dual natural disasters. Instead, the analysis a year out teaches us that any honest examination of the history of nuclear power, and any responsible engagement of the numerous red flags and warnings would have taken the Fukushima disasters (yes, plural) out of the realm of “if,” and placed it squarely into the category of “when.”

Following closely the release of findings by the Rebuild Japan Foundation and a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (both discussed here in recent weeks), a new paper, “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” written by two members of the Rebuild Japan Foundation for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, provides a detailed and disturbing window on a long list of failures that exacerbated the problems at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi facility. Among them, they include misinterpreting on-site observations, the lack of applicable protocols, inadequate industry guidelines, and the absence of both a definitive chain of command and the physical presence of the supposed commanders. But first and foremost, existing at the core of the crisis that has seen three reactor meltdowns, numerous explosions, radioactive contamination of land, air and sea, and the mass and perhaps permanent evacuation of tens of thousands of residents from a 20 kilometer exclusion zone, is what the Bulletin paper calls “The trap of the absolute safety myth”:

Why were preparations for a nuclear accident so inadequate? One factor was a twisted myth–a belief in the “absolute safety” of nuclear power. This myth has been propagated by interest groups seeking to gain broad acceptance for nuclear power: A public relations effort on behalf of the absolute safety of nuclear power was deemed necessary to overcome the strong anti-nuclear sentiments connected to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since the 1970s, disaster risk has been deliberately downplayed by what has been called Japan’s nuclear mura (“village” or “community”)–that is, nuclear advocates in industry, government, and academia, along with local leaders hoping to have nuclear power plants built in their municipalities. The mura has feared that if the risks related to nuclear energy were publicly acknowledged, citizens would demand that plants be shut down until the risks were removed. Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.

The power of this myth, according to the authors, is strong. It led the government to actively cancel safety drills in the wake of previous, smaller nuclear incidents–claiming that they would cause “unnecessary anxiety”–and it led to a convenient classification for the events of last March 11:

The word used then to describe risks that would cause unnecessary public anxiety and misunderstanding was “unanticipated.” Significantly, TEPCO has been using this very word to describe the height of the March 11 tsunami that cut off primary and backup power to Fukushima Daiichi.

Ignoring for this moment the debate about what cut off primary power, the idea that the massive size of the tsunami–not to mention what it would do to the nuclear plant–was unanticipated is, as this paper observes, absurd. Studies of a 9th Century tsunami, as well as an internal report by TEPCO’s own nuclear energy division, showed there was a definite risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima. TEPCO dismissed these warnings as “academic.” The Japanese government, too, while recommending nuclear facilities consider these findings, did not mandate any changes.

Instead, both the industry and the government chose to perpetuate the “safety myth,” fearing that any admission of a need to improve or retrofit safety systems would result in “undue anxiety”–and, more importantly, public pressure to make costly changes.

Any of that sound familiar?

“No one could have possibly anticipated. . .” is not just the infamous Bush administration take on the attacks of 9/11/2001, it has become the format for many of the current excuses on why a disaster like Fukushima could happen once, and why little need now be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In fact, reading the BAS Fukushima review, it is dishearteningly easy to imagine you are reading about the state of the American nuclear reactor fleet. Swapping in places like Three Mile Island, Palisades, Browns Ferry, Davis-Besse, San Onofre, Diablo Canyon, Vermont Yankee, and Indian Point for the assorted Japanese nuclear power plants is far too easy, and replacing the names of the much-maligned Japanese regulatory agencies with “Nuclear Regulatory Commission” and “Department of Energy” is easier still.

As observed a number of times over the last year, because of unusual events and full-on disasters at many of the aging nuclear plants in the US, American regulators have a pretty good idea of what can go wrong–and they have even made some attempts to suggest measures should be taken to prevent similar events in the future. But industry pressure has kept those suggestions to a minimum, and the cozy relationship between regulators and the regulated has diluted and dragged out many mandates to the point where they serve more as propaganda than prophylaxis.

Even with the Fukushima disaster still visible and metastasizing, requiring constant attention from every level of Japanese society and billions of Yen in emergency spending, even with isotopes from the Daiichi reactors still showing up in American food, air and water, and even with dozens of US reactors operating under circumstances eerily similar to pre-quake Fukushima, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has treated its own post-Fukushima taskforce recommendations with a pointed lack of urgency. And the pushback from the nuclear industry and their bought-and-paid-for benefactors in the government at the mere hint of new regulations or better enforcement indicates that America might have its own safety myth trap–though, in the US, it is propagated by the generations-old marketing mantra, “Clean, safe and too cheap to meter.”

Mythical, too, is the notion that the federal government has the regulatory infrastructure or political functionality to make any segment of that tripartite lie ring closer to true. From NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko’s bizarre faith in a body that has failed to act on his pre-Fukushima initiatives while actively conspiring to oust him, to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ assuming a regulatory “can opener,” the US may have a bigger problem than the absolute safety myth, and that would be the myth of a government with the will or ability to assure that safety.

Which, of course, is more than a shame–it’s a crime. With so many obvious flaws in the technology–from the costs of mining, importing and refining fuel to the costs of building an maintaining reactors, from the crisis in spent fuel storage to the “near misses” and looming disasters at aging facilities–with so many other industrialized nations now choosing to phase out nuclear and ramp up renewables, and with the lessons of Fukushima now so loud and clear, the path forward for the US should not be difficult to delineate.

Nuclear power is too dirty, too dangerous and too expensive to justify any longer. No one in America should assume that the willpower or wherewithal to manage these problems would magically appear when nothing sufficient has materialized in the last fifty years. Leaders should not mistake luck for efficacy, nor should they pretend birds of a feather are unrelated black swans. They know better, and they knew all they needed to know long before last year’s triple meltdown.

Nuclear is not in a “renaissance,” it is in its death throes. Now is the time to cut financial losses and guard against more precious ones. The federal government should take the $54.5 billion it pledged to the nuclear industry and use it instead to increase efficiency, conservation, and non-fissile/non-fossil energy innovation.

But you already knew that.

* * *

Extra Credit:

Compare and contrast this 25-minute video from Al Jazeera and the Center for Investigative Reporting with what you read in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report mentioned above. For that matter, contrast it with the two longer but somehow less rigorous videos from Frontline, which were discussed here and here.

Also, there are events all over the globe this weekend to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and the nuclear crisis it triggered. To find an event in your area, see this list from Beyond Nuclear and the Freeze our Fukushimas Campaign.

Advertisements

New Fukushima Report: “Devil’s Chain Reaction” Could Wipe Out Tokyo

Map of the east coast of Japan showing the distance between Tokyo and Fukushima Daiichi, 150 miles to the north.

A new independent report on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster reveals that Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan feared events following the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would require the evacuation of Tokyo. The report, conducted by the Rebuild Japan Foundation, a new policy organization comprised of college professors, journalists and lawyers, sheds new light on just how in-the-dark many were in the wake of natural disasters that left the Fukushima nuclear facility with damaged safety systems and without internal or external power.

The investigation underscores the conflicting interests of the Japanese government, the directors of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO–Fukushima’s owner and operator), and those on the scene at the crippled nuclear plant. Masataka Shimizu, president of TEPCO, is said to have ordered all of Fukushima Daiichi’s employees to evacuate the facility in the days after March 11, but Daiichi’s plant manager, Massao Yoshida, argued that he could get the damaged reactors under control if he and nuclear workers remained. PM Kan eventually ordered a skeleton crew to stay at the plant, fearing that Fukushima Daiichi, the nearby Fukushima Daini and a third nuclear facility could spiral out of control and start what has been translated as a “devil’s chain reaction” or a “demonic chain reaction” that would necessitate evacuation of the nation’s capital, a city of 13 million people, 150 miles south of Fukushima prefecture.

Given this new window on internal deliberations (far too nice a word–these were likely frantic, heated arguments) in Japan, the decision made by US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko within days of the quake to recommend evacuating American citizens from an area 50 miles around Fukushima seems downright conservative. In recent days, nuclear power proponents have used this action as their latest volley in their ongoing push to oust Jaczko and replace him with a more servile chief regulator.

Interesting, too, the objections of TEPCO’s president to the plan to pour seawater on the melting Fukushima reactors and boiling spent fuel storage pools. This last-gasp measure, apparently the idea of Yoshida, the Daiichi manager, is believed to have somewhat cooled the reactors and at least kept the fuel pools from completely emptying–which would have resulted in a much more serious outcome (hard to believe, but true)–though it should be noted that the radioactive runoff is now contaminating the ground, groundwater, rivers and the ocean around Fukushima. TEPCO brass no doubt did not want to use seawater because its corrosive effects would make it impossible to ever restart any of the Daiichi reactors (again, ridiculous in hindsight, but not hard to imagine inside the profit-above-people distortion bubble that exists at companies like TEPCO). (UPDATE: Japan Times reports Kan was reticent to use anything but fresh water, but Yoshida ignored him and went ahead with the use of seawater.)

Other recent revelations–about how close Fukushima Daini came to a meltdown of its own, about how the Fukushima region is now more seismically unstable, and that the government had dire assessments of the disaster that it worked hard to keep secret–serve to buttress Naoto Kan’s fears that a string of nuclear disasters was a distinct possibility. And it should also serve as a warning that those fears are still a possibility if the region’s nuclear plants–whether or not they are still functioning–are not decommissioned and contained.

And all this information, and the new details on the lack of trust between the Japanese government and TEPCO, also paints a more nuanced–and, honestly, disturbing–picture of the environment in which US officials had to make decisions.

But, perhaps most importantly, this latest report is yet another data point against the absurd assertion that Fukushima Daiichi somehow proves nuclear power’s “defense in depth” safety systems work. The assertion that Fukushima isn’t a massive disaster, just as it stands today, is ridiculous, but reading about the lack of good information in the early days of the crisis, the internal fights and the government’s fears makes it clear that things could have easily been much, much worse. While there are still real concerns about just how much radiation residents throughout Japan will be expected to absorb, and there are still many technical questions that remain unanswered, it now appears that it was only a combination of an occasionally assertive PM, the heroism of about fifty Daiichi workers and maybe some dumb luck that gave the world the relative luxury of calling Fukushima an ever-metastasizing disaster, rather than an almost-instant hell on earth.