Monday, June 13, 2011

NYT - Japan’s Prime Minister micro-managed Fukushima crisis

Distrust of the nuclear utility and government bureaucracy seen as too close to TEPCO cited as reason for some misguided interventions

naotoa kan via WikipediaThe Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, (right) personally interfered with crisis communications and gave technical orders on the use of sea water to cool nuclear reactors at Fukushima with little or no communication with TEPCO, the owner and operator of the six reactors affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. That’s the story that is being told in riveting reading in the New York Times for June 13 and it is well worth your time.

The newspaper reveals that Kan, rather than using a well structured crisis communications system set up for events like the ones of March 11, relied instead on a small group of close political aides who knew almost nothing about nuclear energy.

U.S. nuclear organizations who think that improvements to “crisis communications systems” will help in dealing with future nuclear incidents should pay close attention to the New York Times report.

Even more interesting is that the Fukushima plant manager did the unthinkable and disregarded an incredible order from Kan’s office to stop using sea water to cool the reactors. Apparently, the Japanese cultural preference for consensus outweighed common sense in the prime minister’s office, but not in the plant manager’s realm.

Early career experience shaped Kan’s response

The NYT reported that Kan’s interference with TEPCO’s sometimes stumbling response to the crisis was driven by a previous experience where blood donations tainted with AIDS were used and then covered up by the Japanese pharmaceutical industry and the health ministry bureaucracy which Kan headed at the time.

This personal betrayal and that of public trust has shaped Kan’s relationship with all government agencies including the Japan Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency which is housed in the trade ministry rather than being an independent entity. The IAEA in its recent report on the Fukushima crisis recommended the agency be strengthened to stand on its own.

The repeated clashes of Kan as a the charismatic political leader with the stolid and consensus seeking Japanese business / government consortiums is a classic retelling of the studies of sociologist Max Weber who foretold it over 100 years ago.

Remote sensing capabilities confirmed

remote sensing satellite image LANL Another revelation is that U.S. military remote sensing capabilities revealed a far graver situation in terms of radiation releases than TEPCO was sharing with the Japanese government or the U.S. ambassador. Also, TEPCO initially refused to meet with U.S. experts from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who were sent to Japan to help get control of the crippled reactors.

These developments may shed new light on the decision by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (right) to order a 50 mile evacuation of all Americans from the Fukushima plants much to the consternation of Japan which had ordered a 13 mile (20 km) limit. It now appears that the decision to issue the order came from the White House after U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos cabled that that Japan was refusing to share information about the crisis.

Gregory Jaczko NRC March 2011This blog reported on March 20 that the basis for Jaczko’s NRC decision could have been strongly influenced by data acquired from military aircraft and satellites. Further, this blog said at the time that it is a plausible scenario that Jaczko was presented with this information at the White House. Finally, it seems that he was then instructed to issue the 50 miles warning as a shot across Japan’s bow for failing to be more forthcoming about what was happening at Fukushima.

In other words, the plausible scenario now is that the reason Jaczko had limited or no consultations with his own crisis center staff at the NRC about the 50 mile order is that the decision was made at the White House and imposed on the NRC Chairman who was told to make it stick. The New York Times now confirms the basic thrust of this scenario.

Even so it took ten days for the Japanese government to begin to talk the more than three dozen nuclear experts dispatched by the NRC and Department of Energy and five days following Jaczko’s March 16th testimony to Congress in which he publicaly announced the 50 mile evacuation order.

We also know now from TEPCO that by this time the fuel in reactor units 1, 2 & 3 had been seriously deformed by heat and that in all likelihood there was melted fuel at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessels which were leaking radioactive water.

Missing important issues

There are a couple of issues which keep getting shoved aside in these revelations.

First, over 23,000 people are dead, or missing and presumed dead, from the earthquake and tsunami. This human tragedy keeps getting lost in the mainstream media’s fixation on Fukushima.

Second, an estimated 80,000 people have been displaced by the 20 km evacuation zone. There are radioactive hot spots (cesium-137) outside that zone that must be remediated before anyone can return.

Finally, TEPCO has not yet shown that it has control of the over 100,000 tonnes of radioactive water that have been generated since emergency cooling operations started on March 12.

A new report by the Japan Times on June 13 is that radioactive strontium-90 has been detected in groundwater and seawater around Fukushima. . SR-90 product of nuclear fission. It is present in significant amount in spent nuclear fuel and in radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. This is worrisome as nuclear experts familiar with the situation say this may indicate a breach of the primary containment structures of one or more of the damaged reactors

An aside on measuring radioactive bunnies

While anti-nuclear groups rant about earless radioactive bunnies at Fukushima, I can report that in my 20 years at the Idaho National Lab, I saw plenty of mildly radioactive bunnies out on the Arco desert. They all had their ears on.

RadioactiveRabbitRadioactive bunny poop that gets attention comes in at about 5,000 disintegrations per minute although this is not a fixed threshold.

Plant workers are instructed not to attempt to clean up the droppings on their own as part of routine maintenance. Instead, they are instructed to call RadCon for a survey and controlled removal of the material to a special landfill for low level radioactive waste.

Counts per minute (cpm) is a measure of radioactivity. It is the number of atoms in a given quantity of radioactive material that are detected to have decayed in one minute.

Disintegrations per minute (dpm) is also a measure of radioactivity. It is the number of atoms in a given quantity of radioactive material that decay in one minute. Dpm is commonly used as a measure of radioactive contamination.

One becquerel (Bq) is equal to one disintegration per second so with 60 seconds in a minute, one becquerel (Bq) is equal to 60 dpm. On a linear basis 5,000 dpm is equal to 83 Bq.

Radiation dose would depend on the type, length of exposure, and distance to the source. Frankly, as I saw it, the hawks that thrived on eating radioactive bunnies in Idaho, and also at Hanford, seemed to pursue their prey in any case.

There were plenty of other radioactive materials to worry about at Idaho including a million gallons of high level waste in underground tanks and remote handled transuranic waste sitting on surface pads inside interim storage containers. Safety practices that are derived from the mantra of time, distance, and shielding keep plant workers safe from these risks and from the rabbits.

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1 comment:

Friakel said...

Ok, I'm not a nuke but I'm really at loss to understand why Tepco still doesn't have a handle on its contaminated water.

A pretty robust setup would be an evaporator followed by low pressure ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis on the condensate.

A conservative design can handle very dirty water, even loaded with mud and sand, and would take about 80 MW for 2,000 m3/day, which shouldn't be an issue for a site like Fukushima.

The real challenge would be the size of the equipments if they want to play it extremely safe for the evaporators, indirect heating by superheated steam recirculation, operation near atmospheric pressure, all temperatures below 400°C, etc.