Genie in the bottle?

Print edition : April 22, 2011

Japan: The nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has worsened, with no definitive plan to control the situation.

in Singapore

A woman being tested for nuclear radiation at an evacuation centre in Fukushima, northern Japan, on March 28.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

JAPAN's famed spirit of scientific innovation and improvisation is being tested beyond known standards by the radiation crisis spawned by the March 11 temblor and tsunami. As this is written, the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant has worsened, with neither Japanese scientists and technologists nor their civilian political masters having come up with definitive plans to control the situation and ensure a scare-free future.

If someone had indeed drawn up such a workable plan, it had not been made public by March 28. Instead, high-tech Japan was still coming to terms with the magnitude of the crisis. In fact, confusion over the basic measurements of the unprecedented indices of the crisis led to an initially alarming announcement on March 27. It was that radioactivity 10 million times the norm inside the premises of a nuclear power plant as different from a reactor core was detected in a stagnant puddle of water at the turbine building of Unit 2 at the Fukushima Daiichi station. A talking point was that the gadget used to measure radiation on that occasion was simply inadequate. The density of radioactive substances was said to have been beyond the reach of the gadget!

There was serious concern following the announcement, but that did not lead to any panic among the people. The reason was simple but significant. The plant officials and Japan's nuclear safety regulators had underscored that there was no release of radioactivity of that magnitude outside the multi-reactor plant premises. In the event, the Japanese people, still reeling under the non-nuclear impact of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, were obviously too weary to imagine an apocalypse-like future. Officials, in any case, projected the presumed intensity of radiation at Unit 2 as a genie inside a closed bottle, as it were.

However, as international concern began mounting, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant and retains the overall responsibility for managing the radiation crisis there, sought to set the record straight. By nightfall on March 27, a TEPCO official said new samples would be taken at the Unit 2 premises. We are trying to determine [whether] the leaked material [is] iodine-134. But, as of now, it is not certain that it is iodine-134, said the official by way of reassuring an anxious public.

Between the initial announcement and its subsequent withdrawal on March 27, much water of suspicions and guesses flowed under the bridge of worldwide public confidence in civil nuclear energy. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said in Tokyo on that day that a certain amount of radioactive materials has melted at Unit 2 in the Fukushima Daiichi plant. I believe that fuel rods inside the reactor [at Unit 2] were exposed above water for some time, causing a high degree of radioactivity at the site.

It was apparent that Edano, a seasoned civilian leader, was not sketching any scenario of a potential or actual nuclear meltdown at the plant. However, his political perspective was in sync with the professional views already expressed by the officials of the power company and Japan's regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), a few hours earlier.

While NISA was of the view that there is a continuous leakage of radioactive substances at the plant site, TEPCO even indicated that there is a breach in the reactor at Unit 2. Ahead of such statements, obviously in line with the democratic spirit of transparency, Japan's civilian officials were trying to downplay the professional concerns of its own science-and-technology fraternity that the highly radioactive water detected in the turbine room of Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi site might have come from the core of the relevant reactor there. The self-evident thesis was that the reactor core of Unit 3 had been damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Ominous proportions

As a matter of more than just statistical importance, the Japanese authorities were, until March 27, going by the general assessment that Unit 3 was in a very precarious and unpredictable situation. Far from such an assessment being eclipsed by the flurry of statements on March 27, it became obvious that the radiation crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was now acquiring more ominous proportions than what the operators as also the regulators and the political leaders had presumed in the immediate wake of the March 11 disaster.

In a sense, it was serendipity that alerted the plant officials to the radiation hazards that the natural disasters had spawned almost surreptitiously. On March 24, three workers engaged in the task of connecting Unit 3 to an external source of electricity were found to have been exposed to a high degree of radiation when they accidentally stepped on water that had seeped on to the floor of the turbine room of the damaged nuclear reactor there. They were rushed to hospital, even as the plant management felt unhappy that they had continued to work by ignoring the alarm bells that had gone off on their dosimeters.

By March 27, however, there were some smiles on this front, with Edano saying that it would be a welcome sign if those workers were to be discharged from hospital as was now thought possible. They responded well to medical attention and it transpired that their condition was not as serious as feared. On a different but related front, Edano said it would take some time for workers to resume duty at Unit 2 after they were withdrawn following the detection of a 10-million fold above-normal radiation there.

A COMBINATION PHOTOGRAPH of No.1, No. 2 No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, taken by the Self Defence Forces on March 27. Confusion over the basic measurements of the unprecedented indices of the crisis led to an initially alarming announcement on March 27, which was withdrawn later.-REUTERS/JAPAN GROUND SELF-DEFENCE FORCE VIA KYODO

Throughout the initial stages of this civil nuclear crisis, far from being controlled by March 28, the authorities were frequently reassuring the public that the levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere, which could be directly traced to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, were not really alarming at any stage.

Also routinely announced was the radioactive contamination of tap water at different locations, including almost all places in the Tokyo megalopolis, as also the rainwater and the seawater near the plant site. Acknowledged, too, was the presence of harmful radioactive substances in some food products and dairy produce in several prefectures around the plant. Most of the time during that period, these announcements were invariably labelled as precautionary notes.

Precautionary steps

A relevant official refrain was that very conservative or low thresholds of unsafe limits for human exposure to radiation were set in Japan because of its collective national experience of having suffered nuclear-weapon attacks towards the end of the Second World War. In this light, the Chief Cabinet Secretary took yet another precautionary step on March 27 by suggesting to TEPCO and NISA that the soil in and around the Fukushima Daiichi station be examined carefully for signs of any unacceptable levels of radiation.

An integrated picture emerging from that announcement was that Japan was now blanketing itself under precaution against the civil nuclear radioactive fallout of the two natural disasters that occurred earlier in the same month. The totally justifiable humanitarian dimension of this cover of precaution completely overshadowed the political paradox that pacifist Japan was (and continues to be) the beneficiary of America's nuclear umbrella in the defence domain.

Unsurprisingly, such a subtle nicety, which would not at all discount or devalue the humanitarian rights of the Japanese people, seemed to have influenced the thinking of some critics of Japan's policy option of generating electricity through civil nuclear means. On the whole, the concerns articulated by the several hundred Tokyo protesters on March 27 were less specific but no less intense.

One protester said he was always opposed to atomic energy as a source of electricity but he could raise his voice louder now than at any time earlier. Significantly, a public opinion survey, conducted a few days earlier, showed that slightly fewer than 50 per cent of the respondents expressed disenchantment with the option of civil nuclear power for the energy needs of Japan.

International initiatives

On Japan's external front, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decided to step in with humanitarian help. At the same time, the IAEA made it clear that civil nuclear safety, as different from safeguards aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, was not a founding mandate of the organisation. It was stated that the IAEA should not be mistaken for a civil nuclear safety watchdog. Significantly, in this broad context, nearly two weeks after the March 11 quake and tsunami, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) associated itself with the IAEA in rushing experts to help Japan face the escalating radiation crisis. The IAEA, on its own, had of course begun monitoring the Fukushima Daiichi crisis from the very beginning, taking care all the time to act in concert with the Japanese authorities.

The IAEA's additional humanitarian effort translated into the despatch of experts well-versed in protecting workers from radiation at civil nuclear reactors.

A PROTEST IN front of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's headquarters in Tokyo on March 27.-YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP

Officials from the IAEA's Safeguards Department also travelled to Japan, with no explicit mandate spelt out publicly. The international community has never suspected any kind of Japanese role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world. It stands to reason, therefore, that the IAEA's safeguards officials had no mandate whatsoever to assess the safety of nuclear materials at the quake-and-tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi plant in any kind of proliferation scenario. Unrelated to this significant political aside, an IAEA-FAO food-safety assessment team was also sent to Japan.

A number of countries, including India, tried to help Japan in one way or another, most of the time in consultation with Tokyo. Above all, the United States, with its long-time military presence in and off Japan as its closest ally, agreed to share its expertise in handling a civil nuclear crisis. Japan appeared to overcome its initial, but unexplained, reservations about a conspicuous and larger-than-life role by the U.S. in this regard.

Besides Edano as the interpreter of government's crisis-management efforts, a top NISA official, Hidehiko Nishiyama, emerged on the scene as an authoritative commentator, or a whistle-blower, on the crisis. This is not to suggest that the Japanese authorities were trying to suppress facts or information. It was simply an unprecedented situation, with the Japanese authorities taking time to come to terms with the huge magnitude of the radiation crisis.

At one stage, Nishiyama said it was more likely that the highly radioactive water in the turbine room of Unit 3 emanated from the reactor core rather than from the spent fuel pool there. Later, he was no less emphatic in tracing Unit 2's similar but more-intense woes to radioactive substances associated with nuclear fission in the power reactor.

Interesting, indeed, was a comment by Edano on the Facebook page of the Prime Minister's Office. Noting that higher-than-normal levels of radioactive cesium in fallout were detected in some food products, Edano said: Even if a person is exposed to the levels in question for one month, it would be as much as about only 60 per cent of radiation in a round-trip [by air] between Tokyo and New York. It would be as much as about one-fifth of one-time CT scan.

The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant took several forms and caused several disruptions of work aimed at controlling, not fixing or restoring, the problems. A litany until March 28 ran as follows: intermittent emissions of smoke of varying colours from the damaged reactor buildings, with the causes unknown; periodic detection of high-to-extremely-high degrees of radioactivity; growing suspicions about radioactive leakages from the rector cores; periodic suspension of the work aimed at restoring the dysfunctional cooling systems by connecting them to external sources of electricity; and physical damage to the overall plant infrastructure itself.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, speaking in Tokyo exactly two weeks after the temblor and the tsunami devastated parts of Japan and damaged the nuclear power plant, said: We are trying to prevent a deterioration of the situation and we are still not in a position where we can be optimistic. He said we must remain vigilant and treat every development with utmost care.

It was almost a quarter century ago that the world witnessed the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. Amateurish comparisons are being made between that disaster and the quake-and-tsunami-caused troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. However, the nuclear radiation crisis in Japan at this time is largely seen by experts as a unique occurrence, mainly because of Tokyo's generally high standards of precautions and preparedness on nuclear matters. With nature having clearly tipped the scales against Japan on this occasion, this crisis can serve as a wake-up call for advocates of nuclear power all over the world.

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