Covid-19 and the Fukushima Disaster

Feb 02, 2021

Famous last words from the politicians, nuclear regulators, engineers, plant managers, and many others. Only it was untrue. Let’s see what we may learn from this historic event and perhaps, shed some light on our current situation.

On that day, Japan’s earthquake sensors detected the first offshore tremors within eight seconds of their occurrence and transmitted the information to Japan’s Meteorological Agency. They estimated the quake to be a large 7.9 on the Richter scale but not beyond what Japan has experienced in its past. The quake was later rescored as 9.0, the largest earthquake ever experienced in Japan.

Tsunami

Forty-one minutes after the earthquake, the first tsunami struck Japan’s coast with a thirteen-foot wave. It was followed eight minutes later by another; this one towering above forty-five feet. 19,000 of the tragic 20,000 deaths were the result of the tsunami.

But the tsunami is not our story.

Fukushima

First commissioned in 1971, this plant consisted of six boiling water reactors which drove electrical turbine generators, making it one of the 15 largest nuclear power stations in the world. Fukushima was the first nuclear plant to be designed, constructed, and run in conjunction with General Electric and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in the Fukushima district in Japan. In accordance with design, the reactors automatically shut themselves off within seconds of the detection of the quake. As the shaking worsened, all power blacked out at the plant and all homes and businesses along the battered coast. Thirteen emergency diesel generators fired up and restored power to the control rooms at the plant within seconds. All was well, as the staff quickly assembled to assess any damage and plan their next steps.

The Second Wave

When the second wave of the tsunami struck the plant’s seawall, the troubles began. The fifty-foot wall of water which came crashing down on the plant was higher than anyone ever planned for. It smashed through shuttered doors, drowning power panels that distributed electricity to pumps, valves, and other emergency equipment including the diesel generators in the now water-filled basement. The redundant above-ground generators were also rendered unusable because of the flooded power panels. “In nuclear parlance, Fukushima was now in a station blackout”[1].

Station Blackout

Nuclear regulators around the world all know that a station blackout is one of the most serious events that could occur at a nuclear facility. Without power to run the pumps and valves providing a steady flow of cooling water, a shutdown reactor’s radioactive fuel will overheat, boil away any remaining coolant, and bring the core to a meltdown. For decades, many countries with the same GE nuclear reactors refused to address this scenario because they were confident that the reliable backup generators could be repaired quickly if damaged. Finally, in the 1990s officials acted. They required an additional backup cooling system (Reactor Core Isolation Cooling system or RCIC) using steam pressure from the heat of the reactor. The RCIC can operate without electricity but its valves do require DC power by an eight-hour battery installed at the plant. But how long does an eight-hour battery last?

Running on Batteries

Coping with a station blackout is a race against time. Operators must restore AC power before the RCIC batteries run down and overheating of the core begins. Because of flooding, Fukushima lost not only its AC power but also its DC battery backups due to flooding. One by one, the six units lost all AC and DC power creating the world’s first nuclear accident for multiple reactors at the same time. All instrumentation at Fukushima was compromised. Workers could not determine the water levels in the reactors to assess pressure inside the reactors.

Operators were attempting every kind of kluge to recover systems. Truck batteries were brought inside in an attempt to power the water gauges. Fire engines were brought to the reactor buildings to pour fresh water into the reactors from above. Venting of steam was initiated to reduce pressure from inside the reactors. No one could establish an accurate reading for how many hours were left until meltdown.

Blind Leading the Blind

Nuclear regulations require an off-site command post for such emergencies. When the first emergency responders from NISA (Japanese nuclear regulators) arrived at the site located three miles from Fukushima, they found no power, phone service, food, or water. The building was also not equipped with air filters to protect those inside in case of a radiation release. No one thought that a reactor incident could affect the command post at three miles distance.

The plant owner, TEPCO, initiated an existing first-level emergency plan, but it didn’t fit this emergency at all. No risk assessment for the plant considered that an event fierce enough to damage a nuclear reactor might also disrupt basic power and communications throughout Japan for more than eight hours. Two emergency recovery groups at TEPCO headquarters meant to coordinate the deployment of the plan could not communicate, despite being in the same building.

The ‘blind’ owners, regulators, and politicians in Tokyo were giving orders to the ‘blind’ no-instrument, operators at Fukushima. Meanwhile, the restoration of power to Japan was measured in a number of days, not hours.

International Support and the Media

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) offered hands-on assistance to the Japanese immediately after the accident but were met with silence. The fragments of data that experts could glean from remote instrumentation painted a picture that was at odds with assessments coming out of Tokyo. The International Atomic Energy Agency was faulted for a sluggish and confusing response.

The media in Tokyo operated under a cloud. News briefings routinely contained two messages: “Radiation readings posed no immediate risk to health” and “remain calm.” Reports about Fukushima frequently were colored politically: pro or con biases regarding nuclear energy, pro or con the political party presently in office, pro or con Japan’s faceless elite who have influenced nuclear policy but seemed unaccountable for their actions. Millions of Japanese felt themselves abandoned. Government, corporations and the media now seemed ineffective, even suspect; all failing to deliver as a result of intent, ineptitude, or bias.

One Day Later

Exactly twenty-four hours after the tsunami flooded the plant, a powerful explosion ripped through reactor one, blasting off the roof and sending debris everywhere. All contingency actions to restore power were neutralized by the debris. Less than an hour after the explosion, radiation readings outside the plant boundary had soared. A decision was made to double the evacuation zone from a six to a twelve-mile radius around the plant. Media told viewers that the primary containment was intact and that there would be no major escape of radioactive material. (Earlier that day, the deputy general of NISA said at his daily briefing that “it looks like a core meltdown is occurring”.)

Local and international politicians struggled to determine how far to evacuate residents. The United States had 38,000 troops in Japan along with their 43,000 dependents, as well as, another 80,000 U.S. employees, businesspeople, and tourists. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was being relied on to provide guidance on the safety of the U.S. citizens in Japan. These experts were forced to rely on second-hand, fragmented information because the Japanese were not providing information and still had not accepted U.S. help. Existing U.S. computer simulations were unprepared to model a situation like this. Nobody had trained for an event this severe.

Unit after the unit was melting down and the situation worsened by the hour. On March 14th, another reactor exploded, spewing radioactivity into the environment. Japan’s prime minister had set an evacuation order for residents for only twelve miles. The U.S. wanted to expand that to fifty miles for all American citizens but were afraid of the political fallout with Tokyo. Tokyo, for its part, dreaded most that the accident, now rated level five like Three-Mile Island, might soon be acknowledged as a level seven rating like Chernobyl. Four weeks later Japanese authorities did just that.

United States Navy

The USS Ronald Reagan and six other U.S. navy vessels were diverted to take up position 100 nautical miles off Japan to help relief efforts. But radiation detectors in the engine room picked up readings two and a half times above normal. Although they were considered low, the admiral was worried about the safety of his sailors and aviators. The U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base located 188 miles from Fukushima also reported much higher dose radiation because of the wind shifts. At the plant, radiation had spiked to deadly levels making ongoing mitigation efforts almost impossible.

Screwups

TEPCO headquarters had ordered one thousand spare car batteries, but delivery to Fukushima was held up for hours in order to obtain government permits to use this as replacement equipment.

When the Japanese finally asked for assistance from the United States on March 14th, they requested heavy-duty pumping equipment to help pump seawater into the reactors. The delivery of these pump-trucks was delayed by the Japanese until a proper road permit could be obtained to drive them on the highway to Fukushima.

Ten years before, in 2001, TEPCO submitted to its regulators a single-page tsunami risk assessment plan which ruled out the possibility of a large tsunami hitting the plant and causing damage. The plan included no data to support this conclusion, and NISA asked for none. In 2002, this conclusion was questioned by an earthquake watchdog group, but TEPCO continued to maintain that a quake greater than 8.0 and a tsunami higher than twenty feet was simply not realistic. The allure of cheap nuclear power had mesmerized the regulators of Japan, much like regulators in almost all other countries.

Aftermath

Large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific Ocean during and after the disaster. Michio Aoyama, a professor of radioisotope geoscience at the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, has estimated that 18,000 terabecquerel (TBq) of radioactive cesium 137 were released into the Pacific during the accident, and in 2013, 30 gigabecquerel (GBq) of cesium 137 were still flowing into the ocean every day. The plant’s operator has since built new walls along the coast and also created a 1.5 km long “ice wall” of frozen earth to stop the flow of contaminated water. There has been ongoing controversy over the health effects of the disaster. An ongoing intensive cleanup program to decontaminate affected areas and decommission the plant will take an estimated 30 to 40 years.

On July 5, 2012, the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) found that the causes of the accident had been foreseeable and that the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had failed to meet basic safety requirements such as risk assessment, preparing for containing collateral damage, and developing evacuation plans. At a meeting in Vienna three months after the disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency faulted lax oversight by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. They determined that the ministry faced an inherent conflict of interest as the government agency in charge of both regulating and promoting the nuclear power industry. On 12 October 2012, TEPCO admitted for the first time that it had failed to take necessary measures for fear of inviting lawsuits or protests against its nuclear plants[2].

Today

At the time of this writing, Forbes reported, “Japan To Release Radioactive Fukushima Water Into Ocean”. Over 1.2 million tons of radioactive cooling water from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant will be released. Environmentalists and local fishermen have been urging the Japanese Government to reconsider this option, after almost a decade of Japanese efforts to build back their nuclear safety reputation. Elevated radioactive levels around the plant can still be detected[3].

COVID-19

I now divert your attention from the retelling of this sad tale, to set the stage for the following questions about Covid-19. Please consider:

1) Was anybody in-the-know about Covid-19’s likelihood and consequences prior to 2019?

2) Could anyone have imagined Covid-19?

3) Was mitigation and planning for Covid-19 underestimated by governments, hospitals, and medical professionals?

4) Was pandemic training adequate?

5) Does politics play a role in this event?

6) Does media have a bias for or against a political party?

7) Does bureaucracy play a role?

8) Were weasel words employed by politicians and media spokespeople, tasked to inform the public?

Could a secondary corresponding event have made Covid-19 a far greater medical disaster? Consider: Power outages, hurricanes, earthquakes, war, economic collapse

Summation:

Japan’s meltdowns resulted from a combination of two events, each of which is not considered uncommon in Japan. The possibility that both would happen together at a much greater magnitude was dismissed without evidence.

Covid-19 itself has proven to be a destroyer of unprecedented proportions and with a global scope. Have we been fortunate so far, that no other high magnitude, catastrophic events have coincided with it?

References:

[1] This quote and many others in this article are sourced from “Fukushima — The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” by Lochbaum, Lyman, Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nishandegnarain/2020/10/18/japan-to-release-radioactive-fukishima-water-into-ocean/#299bbcef4329