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.

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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.

Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Doc a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry

There is much to say about this week’s Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and some of it would even be good. For the casual follower of nuclear news in the ten months since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive and ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is illuminating to see the wreckage that once was a trio of active nuclear reactors, and the devastation and desolation that has replaced town after town inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. And it is eye-opening to experience at ground level the inadequacy of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. It is also helpful to learn that citizens in Japan and Germany have seen enough and are demanding their countries phase out nuclear energy.

But if you are only a casual observer of this particular segment of the news, then the Frontline broadcast also left you with a mountain of misinformation and big bowl-full of unquestioned bias.

Take, for example, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien’s cavalier treatment of the potential increase in Japanese cancer deaths, courtesy of the former property of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO):

MILES O’BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That’s the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.

[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.

MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?

GEN SUZUKI: Yeah.

MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?

GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?

GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.

MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.

GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.

There was no countervailing opinion offered after this segment–which is kind of disgraceful because there is a myriad of informed, countervailing opinions out there.

Is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year a conservative limit on exposure? Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the average annual dose for those living in the United States is 6.2 mSv, half of which is background, with the other half expected to come from diagnostic medical procedures. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the maximum additional dose for an adult before it is considered an “unacceptable risk” is one millisievert per year.

Then, to assess the cancer risk, O’Brien, practically in the same breath, changes exposure over a single year to “over the course of a long period of time”–an inexcusable muddying of the facts. One year for those who must live out their lives in northern Japan might wind up seeming like a long period of time, but it would actually be a small fraction of their lifetimes, and so would present them with only a fraction of their exposure.

So, is Dr. Gen Suzuki assessing the increased cancer risk for 20 mSv over a lifetime, a long time, or just one year? It is hard to say for sure, though, based on his estimates, it seems more like he is using a much longer timeframe than a single year. But even if his estimate really is the total expected increase in cancer deaths from the Fukushima disaster, what is he talking about? Miles O’Brien seems almost incredulous that anyone would be showing concern over a .2 percent increase, but in Japan, a .2 percent increase in cancer deaths means 2,000 more deaths. How many modern nations would find any disaster–natural or manmade–that resulted in 2,000 deaths to be negligible? For that matter, how many of the reporters, producers or crew of Frontline would feel good about rolling the dice and moving their family into an area that expects 2,000 additional fatalities?

Further, the exchange doesn’t say anything about the person who is supposed to casually endure the equivalent of three abdominal CAT scans a year (something no respectable professional would recommend without some very serious cause). The effects of radiation exposure on children are quite a bit different from the effects of the same exposure on adults–and quite a bit more troubling. And young girls are more at risk than young boys. Though the Frontline episode features many pictures of children–for instance, playing little league baseball–it never mentions their higher risks.

Also missing here, any mention that in a country now blanketed north to south in varying levels of radioactive fallout, radiation exposure is not purely external. The estimates discussed above are based on an increase in background radiation, but radioactive isotopes are inhaled with fallout-laden dust and dirt, and consumed with food from contaminated farmlands and fisheries. Outcomes will depend on the isotopes and who consumes them–radioactive Iodine concentrates in the Thyroid and has a half life of a couple of weeks; Cesium 137 tends to gravitate toward muscle and has a half-life of about 30 years. Strontium 90, which concentrates in bones, lasts almost as long. The affect of all of this needs to be factored in to any estimates of post-Fukushima morbidity.

So, as one might imagine, Dr. Suzuki’s cancer estimate, be it from his own deliberate downplay or O’Brien’s sloppy framing, is widely disputed. In fact, a quick survey of the literature might call the estimate in Frontline an absurdly low outlier.

By way of example, take findings compiled by Fairwinds Associates, an engineering and environmental consulting firm often critical of the nuclear industry. Using data from the National Academy of Science’s report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), Fairwinds explains that one in every 100 girls will develop cancer for every year they are exposed to that “conservative” 20 mSv of radiation. But Fairwinds believes the BEIR also underestimates the risk. Fairwinds introduces additional analysis to show that “at least one out of every 20 young girls (5%) living in an area where the radiological exposure is 20 millisieverts for five years will develop cancer in their lifetime.”

It should be noted here that five years of 20 mSv per year would equal 100 mSv lifetime exposure–the newly revised lifetime maximum set by Japan after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And some cities in northern Japan, uncomfortable with this blanket prescription, have set limits for children at one millisievert per year.

None of this information was hard to find, and all of it stems from data provided by large, respected institutions, yet, for some reason, O’Brien and Frontline felt content to let their single source set a tone of “no big deal.” Worried Japanese residents featured just after the interview with Dr. Suzuki are portrayed as broadly irrational, if not borderline hysterical.

The dismissive tenor of the medical segment carries over to several other parts of “Nuclear Aftershocks.” Take Frontline’s assessment of the German reaction to the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged to entirely phase out their reliance on nuclear power within the next decade. O’Brien call this decision “rash” and “hasty,” and he doesn’t qualify those adjectives as the viewpoint of one expert or another; instead, he uses them matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows that Germany is a nation of jittery, irresponsible children. The political reality–that the German government is actually pursuing a policy that is the will of the people–is treated as some sort of abomination.

Japanese anti-nuclear protestors get similar treatment from Frontline. That large demonstrations like those seen over the last ten months are a rare and special occurrence in Japan is not considered. Instead, the documentary, time and again, hints at a shadowy doomsday somewhere in the near future, a sort of end-of-civilization scenario caused by an almost instant cessation of nuclear power generation. Indeed, as the program ends, O’Brien declares that every nuclear plant in Japan will be shut down by May–and as he says this, the camera peers out the window of a slow-moving elevated train. The view is a darkened Japanese city, and as O’Brien finishes his monologue, the train grinds to a halt.

Ooh, skeddy. Was this Frontline, or Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

Yes, the end seemed that absurd. “Nuclear Aftershocks” paints a picture many members of both the nuclear and fossil fuels lobbies would love to have you believe: a sort of zero-sum, vaguely binary, cake-or-death world where every possible future holds only the oldest, dirtiest and most dangerous options for electrical power generation. You get coal, you get gas, or you get nuclear–make up your mind!

But the show, like the handmaidens of those out-dated technologies, perverts the argument by glossing over the present and omitting choices for the future. As much as many concerned citizens would like to see nuclear power disappear overnight, it will not. Germany is giving itself a decade, the US is looking to run its aging reactors for another twenty years, and even Japan, dream though they might, will likely not decommission every reactor in the next four months. There is a window–big or small depending on your point of view–but a decided period of time to shift energy priorities.

Even the nuclear advocates who appear on Frontline call nuclear power “a bridge”–but if their lobby and their fossil fuel-loving brethren have their way, it will likely be a bridge to nowhere.

“Nuclear Aftershocks” does mention Germany’s increased investment in a wind- and solar-powered future, but the show calls that shift “a bold bet” and “a risk.”

Likely the producers will argue they did not have time for a deeper exploration, but by allowing fissile and fossil fuel advocates to argue that renewables cannot meet “base load” requirements, while failing to discuss recent leaps forward in solar and wind technology, or how well Japan’s wind turbines weathered the Tohoku quake and tsunami–or, for that matter, how much Japanese citizens have been able to reduce their electrical consumption since then through basic conservation–Frontline’s creators are guilty of flat-earth-inspired editing.

Indeed, missing from almost every discussion of the future of power generation is how much we could slow the growth in demand through what is called efficiencies–conservation, passive design, changes in construction techniques, and the replacement and upgrading of an aging electric infrastructure. The Frontline documentary highlights some of the potential risks of an accident at New York’s Indian Point nuclear generating station, but it contrasts that concern with nearby New York City’s unquenchable thirst for electricity. Missing entirely from the discussion: that New York could make up for all of Indian Point’s actual output by conserving a modest amount and replacing the transmission lines that bring hydroelectric power from the north with newer, more efficient cable.

No single solution is a panacea for every region of the globe, but many alternatives need to be on the table, and they certainly ought to be in any discussion about the “aftershocks” of nuclear’s annus horribilis. It should be seen as impossible to evaluate nuclear energy without considering the alternatives–and not just the CO2-creating, hydrofracking alternatives that are the standby bugbear of those infatuated with atomic power. Coal, gas, and nuclear are our links to the past; renewables and increased efficiency are our real bridge to the future. Just as it is dishonest to evaluate the cost of any of the old-school energy technologies without also considering environmental impact and enormous government subsidies–and now, too, the costs of relocating hundreds of thousands or millions of people and treating untold numbers of future health problems–it is also misleading to treat energy funds as permanently allocated to entrenched fuels.

The billions pledged to the nuclear industry by the Obama administration dwarf the budgets and tax incentives for conservation, alternative fuels, and green technology innovation combined. Factor in the government-shouldered costs of cleanup and waste storage, not to mention the sweetheart deals granted to the hydrocarbon crowd, and you could put together a program for next-generation generation that would make the Manhattan Project look like an Our Gang play (“My dad has an old barn!” “My mom can sew curtains!”).

It is a grave disappointment that Frontline couldn’t take the same broad view. The producers will no doubt argue that they could only say so much in 50 minutes, but like Japan, Germany, and the United States, they had choices. For the governments of these industrialized nations, the choices involve their energy futures and the safety of their citizens; for the Frontline crew, their choices can either help or hinder those citizens when they need to make informed choices of their own. For all concerned, the time to make those choices is now.

It is a shame that “Nuclear Aftershocks” instead used its time to run interference for a dirty, dangerous and costly industry.