It was the tsunami that killed the reactor complex
Despite a long history of horrific tidal events, it turns out TEPCO, the utility that built and operates the power station, stood up a five meter wall. The wave that roared ashore on March 11 was more than three times that height.
The preliminary report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by UK nuclear safety expert Mike Weightman, and composed of 18 experts from 12 nations, said, “The tsunami hazard for several sites was under-estimated.”
Additionally, the IAEA team said nuclear utilities should consider building disaster proof emergency response centers to avoid the loss of communications that plagued TEPCO’s uneven response to the crisis.
In a draft report summary delivered to Japanese authorities June 1, the team published a set of preliminary conclusions and identified lessons learned in three broad areas:
1. External hazards,
2. Severe accident management, and
3. Emergency preparedness.
The final report will be delivered to the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at IAEA headquarters in Vienna in two weeks. The expert team made several preliminary findings and lessons learned, including:
- Japan's long-term response, including the evacuation of the area around stricken reactors, which displaced 80,000 people, has been impressive and well organized. A suitable and timely follow-up program on public and worker exposures and health monitoring would be beneficial;
- The tsunami hazard for several sites was underestimated. Nuclear plant designers and operators should appropriately evaluate and protect against the risks of all natural hazards, and should periodically update those assessments and assessment methodologies;
- Nuclear regulatory systems should address extreme events adequately, including their periodic review, and should ensure that regulatory independence and clarity of roles are preserved;
- The Japanese accident demonstrates the value of hardened on-site Emergency Response Centers with adequate provisions for handling all necessary emergency roles, including communications.
- The IAEA team praised the “exemplary work” of plant staff working under difficult and dangerous conditions.
Regulators cited for “cozy” relationship with TEPCO
The IAEA team was not happy with the role of Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (JNISA). It is not independent, the team said, because it is housed in Japan’s trade ministry making it both a promoter and regulator of the country’s nuclear energy industry.
Stephen Lincoln, an Australian energy expert, told the Bloomberg wire service June 1, the relationship between JNISA and TEPCO was “cozy and complacent.”
Also, the IAEA said TEPCO’s roadmap and schedule for bringing the reactor complex under control was unrealistic. It wrote that the plan needed to be modified and would benefit from the expertise of other nations.
TEPCO’s failure to communicate
Significant damage occurred to the fuel inside the reactor pressure vessels within the first four days following the loss of electricity to cool the reactors. TEPCO now believes that almost all of the fuel in reactor unit 1 has crumbled to the bottom of the pressure vessel. The utility said similar damage, though perhaps to a lesser degree, also likely occurred in units 2 & 3.
Additionally it became more clear how serious the miscommunications were between the government and the utility with both sides trading charges and blame for faulty instructions about how to respond to the crisis.
Chaotic conditions and a lack of information about the status of the reactors contributed to subsequent problems including creation of huge uncontrolled volumes of radioactive water which continue to hamper recovery work.
A Reuters report quoted nuclear safety expert Kim Kearfott of the University of Michigan, as saying, “There are aspects of the planning for safety at the Fukushima plant which are, in retrospect, very stupid and show a lack of imagination.”
She added, “the nuclear industry can do better than this.”
In a separate development, Japanese Prime Minister Naotoa Kan survived a no confidence vote in Parliament, but is expected to eventually resign taking the blame for the government’s missteps in handling the crisis.
As for TEPCO, its stock has been hammered by the crisis and its bonds reduced to junk status. It is expected that the government may place the company in a limited form of receivership in order to use taxpayer funds to pay for cleanup and for compensation.
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