News / USA

Confusion, Anxiety Abound Near Fukushima

VOA correspondent ponders the situation in Japan

Smoke billows from wrecked unit 3 at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, March 16, 2011
Smoke billows from wrecked unit 3 at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, March 16, 2011

The following is an account based on reports and experiences of VOA correspondent Steve Herman during his time covering the nuclear crisis in Japan.

KORIYAMA, JAPAN _ Confusion and anxiety abound in the communities closest to the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant. But even experts, in Tokyo and other world capitals, attempting to keep track of the situation at the crippled plant, say the information from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been sometimes contradictory, opaque and obtuse.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, speaking during a nationally broadcast news conference Friday evening, assured Japanese all information is being shared with them about a situation he acknowledged is "very grave." His only reassuring words, without providing specifics, were that "quite soon" the whole situation would be under control.

Mainstream domestic media, including on-set announcers on the quasi-official NHK, have criticized the widening credibility gap between officials and the public. However, the Japanese media themselves appear to have been overly restrained in their reporting, perhaps to avoid panic and a patina of sensationalism, by giving little attention to particular nuggets of data, such as the official twice-a-day radiation readings for cities and towns here in Fukushima Prefecture.

While these readings are not of a level to spark immediate health concerns (such as the figures showing 20 microsieverts per hour at Iitate village on Friday) they are significant. They demonstrate that radiation is drifting from the plant in measurable quantities to the northwest (Fukushima City also has been recording elevated readings).

By comparison, TEPCO says some of the workers at Fukushima-1 have already been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts (note that milli is 1000 times micro.)

Some of the international media, on the other hand, have hyped the overall story without providing much context. That has sparked near panic among those with access to these foreign language reports. Even in Tokyo there are numerous foreigners who have concluded it is prudent to quickly leave Japan.

The U.S. State Department, in its latest travel warning issued late Saturday in Washington "strongly urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Japan at this time and those in Japan should consider departing."  

While Japanese officials say there is no reason to flee the country because of the crippled nuclear plant, what is starkly evident north from Tokyo, based on information exchanged among various correspondents this week, is store shelves have emptied and most businesses, including restaurants, are closed.

In Koriyama on Saturday morning long lines snaked for more than a kilometer outside several gasoline stands where drivers were told they can only purchase a limited amount of fuel, usually 10 liters.

If there is re-criticality of exposed fuel rods, or, less likely, a reactor core meltdown, news of these events would only exacerbate panic buying and hoarding. It will also make truck drivers reluctant to pass through Fukushima to re-supply this prefecture, as well as Miyagi and Iwate, the two hardest hit by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

That will mean extended misery for hundreds of thousands of survivors living in paralyzed communities damaged by the natural disaster or who have moved to makeshift shelters.

So what is the situation at the nuclear power complex? It is not one that can be summarized in a paragraph.

Compared to the Three Mile Island 1979 partial core meltdown incident in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, this is evidently worse. But nearly all experts quoted by domestic and foreign media, in recent days, explain that the plant design and current circumstances at Fukushima mean we should not see a catastrophic meltdown on par with that in 1986 at Chernobyl, history's worst power plant accident.  

Fukushima-1 is 40 years old, although some of its six reactors are newer. During the March 11 quake, all the reactors did what they were designed to do in such a large seismic event - safely shut down. What failed in the entire design was adequate property protection to prevent a huge tsunami from destroying the power lines feeding the system to keep the fuel rods cooled.

Here is a more specific breakdown for each of the reactors at Fukushima-1 based on information from TEPCO, the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the Kyodo wire service and other sources, as noted:

-- Reactor No. 1 - Operations suspended after the quake, suffered a cooling failure, partial melting of core, vented vapor, building housing reactor damaged March 12 by apparent hydrogen explosion and the roof was blown off. Seawater was pumped in meaning the reactor can never again be used.

-- Reactor No. 2 - Operations suspended after the quake, cooling failure, seawater was pumped in (destroying the reactor), the fuel rods were fully exposed temporarily, vapor was vented and the building housing the reactor was damaged March 14 by blast at reactor No. 3. A blast was heard near the suppression pool of the containment vessel on March 15, raising fears that the containment vessel housing the reactor fuel has been cracked. Since the outer building has not blown off, water cannot be sprayed in from the outside. Reconnection of electrical power to the reactor to re-start the cooling process was expected Saturday.

-- Reactor No. 3 - This reactor, fueled by MOX (containing highly toxic plutonium) is getting the primary attention, at present. Its operation was suspended after the quake. But it also suffered a cooling failure, partial melting of the core is feared, vapor vented and seawater was initially pumped in, meaning that as is the case with Reactors 1 and 2 it will never be used again to produce electricity. Additionally the building housing the reactor was damaged March 14 by an apparent hydrogen explosion, high levels of radiation were recorded in its proximity the following day and a plume of smoke was observed March 16, presumably from the spent-fuel storage pool. Seawater was dumped over the pool by helicopters on March 17 but much of it appeared to be dispersed by the wind. On-site water spraying has been under way since Thursday. TEPCO says it hopes to have power restored for cooling to the reactor late Sunday.

-- Reactor No. 4 - This is the second most serious situation, at present. The reactor was under maintenance when the quake struck and its fresh fuel rods (much more dangerous than the spent rods in other reactor buildings) were all safely submerged at the time to keep them cool. However, the temperature in the storage pool reached 84 C on March 14. There was a fire the following day, possibly caused by a hydrogen explosion at the pool. A fire was observed Wednesday at the building housing the reactor. A renewed nuclear chain reaction was feared after the pool water level dropped. Only the skeleton of the building survived the fire. TEPCO says it hopes to have power restored for cooling to the reactor late Sunday. But The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times report the floor or sides of the spent fuel pool appear to be damaged, which would make it very challenging to refill the pool. The New York Times report, quoting an unnamed engineer, said that the stainless steel lining of the pool and the concrete base possibly were damaged by the quake. The pool's steel gates could also be leaking water if they no longer can close tightly.

-- Reactors No. 5, 6 - They were under maintenance when the quake struck. Water temperatures in the spent-fuel storage pools increased to about 64 C on Thursday. Plant operators said on Saturday that engineers were able to restart a diesel pump to cool reactor No. 5.

The top Japanese government spokesman on Thursday, before military helicopters made a futile attempt to cool the number 3 and 4 reactors with water drops and the initial spraying of water commenced from fire trucks, termed it the "last ditch effort." On Friday and Saturday, similar relays of trucks with powerful hoses targeting the number 3 reactor have been under way.

So far, no Japanese official is declaring these efforts a success. Because the emergency workers on the site can only remain at the plant for brief periods and cannot get too close to the damaged reactors and spent fuel ponds it is impossible to ascertain the full extent of the damage and the level of the pools after three days of water spraying.

The best clues come from radiation monitoring, both on and off site. Those are the numbers to watch closely and which the domestic and international media should be quickly reporting while attempting to provide scientific context for those numbers.


VOA's Northeast Asia Bureau Chief Steve Herman, spent the last week in Fukushima Prefecture. His experience with nuclear-related issues began in the late 1970s as a teenaged journalist at a Las Vegas radio station, reporting on activities at the Nevada Test Site and covering a highly-technical federal court trial stemming from the accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere from the U.S. government's 1970 Baneberry nuclear test.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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