Japan Nuclear Problems Escalate

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., March 12, 2011, 10:30 a.m. EST – For those who covered both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, there is an eerie symmetry with what is happening in Japan. In the prior cases – much different from each other and, most likely, very different from what is happening at Fukushima prefecture – the events began with official attempts to downplay the size and scope of the events. As time passed, it became clear that what actually occurred was far worse than what industry and government officials were peddling. They were downplaying the events, in part to prevent fear and panic, in part to cover their posteriors.

In the case of TMI, it took literally months to determine just what happened inside the reactor and how bad the event really was. In the case of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union found it impossible to hide the visual and physical effects of the explosion of the RBMK graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor. But they tried. Similarly, it is impossible to downplay the visual impact of the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi 1 plant. A video showing the explosion, demonstrating that this was a major event, is available on YouTube.

The actions of Japan’s nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA), demonstrate the serious nature of the events in Japan. The agency first ordered a six-kilometer evacuation in the area surrounding Daiichi 1, then expanded that to 10-km, and, most recently, to 20-km. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, NISA has also ordered a 10-km evacuation at the Danini nuclear station. According to the IAEA, Japan is planning to “distribute iodine to residents in the area of both plants,” strongly suggesting that I-131, a fission product from damaged fuel, has been found offsite. The IAEA’s reference to distributing iodine is almost certainly means distribution of potassium iodide (KI), which blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine in the thyroid. Radioactive iodine can cause thyroid cancers. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian Samuel Walker, U.S. and Pennsylvania authorities strongly considered distributing KI around Harrisburg, Pa., after the Three Mile Island accident, but backed away from the plan for fear it would cause further panic in the population.

The New York Times in this morning’s edition reported, “Officials said even before the explosion that they had detected cesium, an indication that some of the nuclear fuel was already damaged.” This is further evidence of fuel damage and off-site radiation, particularly troubling if true.

As the event proceeded yesterday evening (in the U.S.), it soon developed that two reactors were having serious cooling water problems: Daiichi 1 and Danini 1, also located in Fukushima Prefecture near the Daiichi complex. To keep things straight, here’s the rundown of the Japanese units and stations involved, courtesy of the World Nuclear Association’s plant database. There have been press reports that other reactors in the two Fukushima Prefecture nuclear stations have suffered core cooling emergencies.

The stations are all owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., and all are General Electric boiling water reactors, which went into service between 1971 and 1982. Daiichi 1 is a 439-MW reactor that went into service in 1971. Daiichi 2 is a 760-MW unit that began operating in 1974, followed by Daiichi 3 (760 MW) in 1976, Daiichi 4 (760 MW) in 1978, Daiichi 5 (760 MW) in 1978, and Daiichi 6 (1067 MW) in 1979. Two advanced BWRs are planned for the Saiichi site.

Fukushima Daini 1 is a 1067-MW BWR that began operating in 1982, followed by 1067-MW units 2 (1984), 3 (1985), and 4 (1987). According to the WNA, Japan’s 54 nuclear units provide 30% of the country’s electricity, expected to rise to 40% by 2017.

I covered both TMI from 1979 through the 1980s and Chernobyl from 1986 on. Based on my personal experience, here are some guidelines when viewing reading about what has been transpiring in Japan.

First, don’t accept anything at face value, particularly information and opinion offered by government and industry officials. The immediate industry and government response at TMI was a tissue of misstatements, misunderstandings, and, in some cases, outright lies. As time passed, the NRC became a credible source of information, but not initially. No one knew what was going on for quite some time. In the case of Chernobyl, the first instinct of the Soviet Union was to cover up, and they stuck to their guns until it was obvious they were lying. Eventually, led by President Gorbachev, the Soviets came clean.

Next, treat anything activists on either, or any, side of events say for what it is: speculation at best and, most likely, special interest pleading. Anti-nukes will try to fit the events as they emerge into their particular policy and political mold. They will exaggerate the dangers and damages. Industry will do the same, in the opposite direction. Don’t accept anybody’s conclusions as definitive. Discount anything offered by graybeards and chin-stroking wise people on television.

Don’t expect journalists thrown into the story with little or no background to have much to contribute to the story. For the most part, the folks covering the story know nothing about nuclear power details. The best to expect is accuracy in reporting what folks who do know something have to say. There is also a language problem, made worse by an industry that sometimes uses language to conceal and confuse. That’s going to be a double problem when the officials are Japanese and the reporters speak, write and think in English. That was a big problem with Chernobyl, where the officials were speaking and writing in Russian, and the plant design was unlike anything seen in the U.S.

Finally, expect the worst and be happy if you are wrong. These events, and even lesser problems such as the head-rot at First Energy’s Davis Besse plant a few years ago, tend to go from bad to worse.

More to come as events evolve.