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IAEA Fukushima Report Leaves No One In Doubt

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Jun 4, 2011
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It was the tsunami that killed the reactor complex

Tsunami woodcutA report by an international team of nuclear energy experts has blamed Japan for failing to adequately protect the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex from the effects of tsunami waves. 

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.

Preliminary findings

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

failure_to_communicateThe IAEA report is being released following a series of new information releases by TEPCO that damage to reactor units 1-4 was much more serious much earlier than previously reported by the utility. 

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 Kearfort 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.

Photo by jannoon028.

Discussions
John Englert's picture
John Englert on Jun 5, 2011

The IAEA 5-page report seems to have made an error of omission. They said no reports of anyone harmed by exposure to radiation, which leaves out the two workers that received beta burns to their legs. Is it possible they weren’t harmed and just hospitalized to be cautious?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 5, 2011

While that Omission is indeed both regrettable and inexcusable, we all have to admit that, given the magnitude of the accident, including God forbid, a core melt-down, plus the fact that thousands of people in the vicinity external to the nuclear plants died horrible deaths from the Tsunami and Earthquakes, we have to admit that the case of the two workers (who didn’t wear their personal protective equipment) who got beta burns on their legs being overlooked is almost understandable.

Whew, that was one long sentence.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Jun 5, 2011

After posting my initial comment I did a very limited non-scientific survey of headlines about the two workers. It seems that most stories describe the workers as being radiation exposed not burned. Since the effects of beta burns may take up to several days to present, it certainly possible the workers were just hospitalized for observation and released without needing treatment.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Jun 5, 2011

The other two reactors are not operating.  There is extensive damage to the balance of plant infrastructure.  According to TEPCO, Fukushima Diaichi Units 5 & 6 will be decommissioned along with Units 1-4.  Also, TEPCO has cancelled plans to proceed with Units 7 &  8 at the Fukushima site.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Jun 5, 2011

Two Fukushima plant workers stepped in radioactive water and receveived radiation burns.  They were hospitalized and released following treatment.  Subsequently, there have been reports that various health ministries of the Japanese government have found that not all Fukushima emergency workers, or temporary workers on the site, had TLDs, which are personal radiation exposure monitors.  This is a serious omission.  It means we don’t know if any of these workers had more than the allowed exposure to radiation.

Dan Yurman's picture
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