Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster - a guide to the events of March 2011 and its aftermath

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster is simultaneously a terrifying and a disappointing read. The book sets out to deliver an in-depth explanation of the events at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor during and in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that disrupted the operation of the nuclear power station on 11 March 2011.

Even after numerous investigations and reports, there is still confusion about the exact chain of catastrophic events in Fukushima Daiichi’s four reactors and associated spent fuel pools. The inside of the damaged reactors are still off-limits to humans, water-level instrumentation was clearly inaccurate, and many of the computer models used to predict damage have proved ineffective.
  • However, it is clear that given the loss of AC (mains) and battery power, the absence of effective cooling systems led to the core of Unit 1 melting onto the bottom of the sealed reactor vessel and hours later through the floor of the vessel and onto the containment floor where it “violently reacted with the concrete”. Hydrogen seems to have made its way to the top of the reactor building and exploded.
  • Despite large amounts of water being pumped in, the core of Unit 3’s reactor is likely to have melted, but it is uncertain whether it breached the floor of the vessel. However there was an explosion. There was core damage in Unit 2, but uncertainty to the level of damage to containment. There was an explosion, though what initiated it and how much damage it caused are uncertain.

It is unfortunate that the illustration of a boiling water reactor early on in the book (page 6) was not larger and easier to read given that the next 250 pages would refer back to the elements that make up the reactor facility. However, there is a useful appendix towards the rear of the book.

The book mixes details of earthquake and tsunami with design defects, regulatory failure, government intervention, misinformation, poor decision making, population evacuations, competing analyses, human tragedy as well as heroic efforts by the Fukushima Daiichi staff.

The book is terrifying given that a colleague and blogger Destroy All Onions was 250m up on an observation deck of the Tokyo Tower when the earthquake hit on 11 March 2011 and stayed in the city until 21 March. [Norwin’s blog entries for the whole month of March 2011 are well worth a read.] Start at the end and work forwards.]

Having read the book, the information in the blog entry on 17 March 2011 now seems too optimistic, perhaps plain wrong.
Today we wake to more media scaremongering. If you haven’t seen it yet, this page [dead link] from the UK Embassy (not the Japanese government), from UK nuclear experts makes it clear that Tokyo is safe from radiation whatever happens.

The scale of the opportunity for venting of material from the reactor and difficulties with the spent fuel pools included fallout spreading far south to Tokyo and beyond.

Pumping water into the spent fuel pools was a priority to prevent further damage and release of nuclear material into the atmosphere.
… the Japanese had rejected two fire trucks offered by the U.S. Air Force because the vehicles were not registered in Japan and thus could not be legally driven on the roadways, an act of bureaucratic nitpicking that amazed the Americas.

As well as being slow and ill-calculated, the evacuation plans were at times chaotic and heartbreakingly tragic.
… preparations got under way to move the two hundred and nine ambulatory patients and staff out of Futaba Hospital, located about three miles from the plant. Left behind, however, were one hundred and thirty bedridden hospital residents at a nearby nursing home. The SDF [Japanese Self-Defense Force] were reportedly en route to transport them. Owing to a series of bureaucratic errors and communication mix-ups, the trips didn’t arrive for two days, during which time the facilities had no power or hear and caregivers had departed. By then, four patients were dead … Fourteen more died during the trip. But thirty-five patients were accidentally left behind, forgotten and not rescued until [two days later].

With no mains electricity or backup power, valves that could be used to vent the pressure building up in the reactor building had to be operated manually, in the dark, and in ‘hot’ areas. The lack of filters in some vents meant that radioactivity was emitted straight into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, over in the US, their Nuclear Regulatory Commission was piecing together media reports and scant information reluctantly provided by the reactor operating company (TEPCO) and the Japanese nuclear authorities. Deciding on an evacuation radius for US citizens proved difficult given the lack of accurate models and a likely conflict with Japanese government advice to their own citizens.

The book is let down by its constant drift away from Fukushima Daiichi to instead overly-critique the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is clear by half way through the book that the obsessive documenting of the ins and outs of relationships between the NRC’s five president-appointed commissioners is part of an agenda by the authors (David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The lessons and fire safety regulations imposed by the NRC in light of accidents at US nuclear reactor sites have reportedly not yet been fully actioned; in once case they have not been met at the site of the accident. It that the nuclear industry is addressing the few fresh regulations that the NRC do impose with cost-conscious shortcuts rather than structural solutions that think beyond the design-limits and react to possible catastrophes rather than theoretical models.

For example, portable pumping and safety (‘FLEX’) equipment is positioned around reactor sites and further backup equipment is kept within a few hours drive. However, this often overlooks any difficulty in road transport (it was very difficult to approach Fukushima by road) or the possibility that huge dams might flood landlocked reactor sites and render ground-level equipment unusable.

By chapter ten, Japan has all but vanished from the narrative and been replaced with a negative (though potentially quite fair) criticism of the NRC and the US nuclear industry. The fast-paced almost thriller-like page-turning of the opening chapters has by this stage has evaporated. The authors conclude that:
… severe reactor accidents will continue to happen as long as the nuclear establishment pretends they won’t happen … Until the NRC acknowledges the real possibility of sever accidents, and begins to take corrective actions, the public will be protected only to the extent that luck holds out.

Yet in their attempt to lobby US readers, the authors damage the tone of the book and dent the perception of having written a rigorous scientific analysis. Critics of the work question the sense of balance in the book, noting the odd omission of any mention of the coastal Onagawa nuclear power plant which was closer (half the distance) to the epicentre of the March 2011 earthquake than Fukushima Daiichi plant (and proves the authors’ point about the necessity of safety systems that exceed the minimum expected abnormal conditions).
The town of Onagawa to the northeast of the plant was largely destroyed by the tsunami which followed the earthquake, but the plant's 14 meter (46-foot) high seawall was tall and robust enough to prevent the power plant from experiencing severe flooding. All safety systems functioned as designed, the reactors automatically shut down without damage, and no reactor damage occurred … Following the tsunami two to three hundred homeless residents of the town who lost their homes to the tsunami took refuge in the Onagawa nuclear plant's gymnasium, as the reactor complex was the only safe area in the vicinity to evacuate to, with the reactor operators supplying food and blankets to the needy.

For anyone curious about the events in Japan in March 2011 and concerned that governments, regulators and industry may not always act decisively or transparently in the middle of disaster, Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster deserves a place on your shelves. Two thirds of the book describes a situation that was so nearly even more catastrophic than it ended up if it wasn’t for the actions of brave workers at Fukushima who at times ignored company HQ advice and did the right thing in unforeseen circumstances.

The book concludes by asking How safe is safe enough? and How much proof is enough? Questions that equally apply to Japan, the US, the UK and every other nuclear nation.

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster is available from Amazon for £15.43 (or less from other traders). James Mahaffey’s book Atomic Accidents - A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima also seems to be recommended for readers interested in Fukushima and other nuclear incidents.

1 comment:

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