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Less than transparent

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

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A view from a drone on April 21 showing the south side of the first reactor building of the nuclear plant.-AFP

A view from a drone on April 21 showing the south side of the first reactor building of the nuclear plant.-AFP

THE unresolved crisis at the Fukushima reactor and the continuing dangers from radioactive leaks are major sources of concern in Japan. The widespread view is that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) handled the crisis inefficiently and has been less than transparent in its crisis management. You must bring the nuclear disaster under control as soon as possible, Yuhei Sato, Governor of the Fukushima prefecture, told Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Our patience has already reached its limit.

The widespread fears of radioactive contamination were only exacerbated by the classification on April 8 by the Japanese government of the accident in the Fukushima plant as a Level 7 event on a par with the Chernobyl accident. The government, however, sought to downplay its significance, arguing that the Fukushima accident released only 10 per cent of the radioactive substances that Chernobyl did.

The reclassification absolutely does not reflect any actual worsening of the situation in the power station, but rather reflects the application of international standards to the results of calculations based on the cumulative data on the total amount of released radioactive material, Hideki Minamikawa, Vice-Minister, Ministry of the Environment, explained in an email interview to Frontline: In the Chernobyl accident, the reactor itself exploded, whereas in Fukushima the reactor underwent an automatic shutdown, no large-scale fires occurred, and there was only a limited release of radioactive material. No individuals have died from the radiation from Fukushima, and no incidents of radiation-related ailments have been reported, even amongst the resident of the areas near the station.

For a country which depends on nuclear power for 30 per cent of its energy requirements, the possibility of a nuclear accident in the event of an earthquake or tsunami is always real. In fact, Hidekatsu Yoshii, member of the House of Representatives from the Japanese Communist Party, and a specialist on nuclear matters, had specifically raised questions in Parliament on nuclear safety in the event of a natural disaster, in 2005, after the Indian Ocean earthquake, and again last year, on May 26.

In 2005, I submitted to the government a written inquiry on the risks of loss of power or functional failures of cooling systems of nuclear reactors by a powerful earthquake or a tsunami. Since then, I followed up this matter in the Diet over again. On May 26 last year, I asked those issues to the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry and to the Chairman of the Atomic Safety Committee. While they said that they would try to make our assurance doubly sure', they just ignored the warning, Yoshii told Frontline. I asked if they have a safety plan in case we lost power both from the outside and from the inside by an earthquake or tsunami. But they responded without any serious consideration of those risks, he said.

In the Fukushima plant, a severe accident happened exactly as warned. After the earthquake and tsunami, we could not get electricity from the outside to work the pumps. The tsunami flooded two sets of diesel generators and batteries in the plant, and swept away a fuel tank for the diesel generator and the lines between fuel generator and fuel tank, he said. As a result, there was no circulation of water to cool the fuel rods in the reactor. It started to heat up. A vicious circle started. Water evaporated, the fuel rods got exposed, and it generated much heat and decreased the cooling water further, he said.

According to Yoshii, TEPCO did not do the obvious thing in the given situation, that is, use seawater to cool the exposed rods, a course that may have resulted in only a minimum amount of radioactive emissions through water . Accusing TEPCO of having put profits first and neglected the safety, health and property of the people around the area, Yoshii added: Nuclear scientists know how serious such a situation is. Water was urgently needed to cool the nuclear fuel rod. However, top leaders of TEPCO were afraid to use seawater because it could damage the reactors and they would be forced to decommission them. If they did so, they would lose profits and face lawsuits by their shareholders. Consequently, emergency measures to respond to this severe accident were delayed, he said. By the time they responded, extensive damage had taken place.

According to Yoshii, TEPCO and the government chose to believe in the myth of nuclear safety. He pointed to a serious institutional flaw that he argued was a breach of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, an international treaty that addresses the safety of nuclear power plants. The treaty requires all signatory countries to separate regulatory organisations for safety from administrative bodies which promote nuclear plants. Japan is a signatory to it, and its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which should be the Japanese regulatory body, is a part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which promotes nuclear power plants. Another independent body, the Nuclear Safety Commission, has limited powers and an auxiliary role, he said.

Confirming the view that the problem of radioactive release was far from over, TEPCO on April 17 announced a road map towards restoration. Step 1 of the road map, to be achieved in around three months, is to achieve a steady trend in reduction in radiation levels. Step 2, to be achieved within three to six months after Step 1 is completed, is to manage the release of radioactive materials, greatly reducing radiation levels.

Concerns remain over the threat from radioactivity. According to Yoshiaki Oka, a professor from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University, writing for Daily Yomiuri, a strategy to deal with the impact of radioactive exposure once the plant is fully decommissioned is to remove the topsoil in the hotspots of high radiation to meet the national standard of 20 millisieverts (mSv).

Parvathi Menon

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 03, 2011.)

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