Nuclear Meltdown: Releasing radiation and containing the truth

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The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant pictured in March 2011 (top) and March 2014 (bottom).
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant pictured in March 2011 (top) and March 2014 (bottom).

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted last week that they should have declared a meltdown within days of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, instead of delaying the public announcement for months.

“We apologize for the great inconvenience and worry the delay caused”, a representative for TEPCO said this week.   The utility has also said it will investigate why the word “meltdown” was not used for months after the crisis began.

A meltdown is recognized by the public as severe damage to the core of a nuclear reactor with the potential for widespread radiation release.  Once the core is damaged, radioactive materials escape from the fuel rods into the coolant, make their way outside of the reactor vessel into the reactor building.  The reactor building is the last barrier between the radioactive materials and the environment.    The consequences and clean-up of a full-core meltdown are obviously more complicated and dangerous than a partial-meltdown like Three Mile Island – where only a portion of the core debris was damaged and all the fuel remained in the containment structure.

The word “meltdown” was so explosive, that TEPCO, the nuclear industry, and the Japanese government were loath to apply it until it could no longer be ignored.  The word has been so powerful, that it has crossed over into other fields – like personal meltdowns, financial meltdowns, political meltdowns, etc.

Within the first 24 hours, after the Unit 1 reactor building exploded on the morning of March 12th, TEPCO was aware that at least 50% of one of three cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged within hours of the accident and notified the government of the ongoing meltdown – but did not acknowledge that a meltdown had occurred to the public until May 2011, long after the melted nuclear fuel escaped from the damaged reactors into the containment vessels.

Tokyo Electric’s internal regulations stated that the utility should declare a meltdown if more than 5% of the reactor core was damaged.  TEPCO has since admitted that the reactor pressure vessel of the Unit 1 reactor was damaged within the first 12 hours of the accident.  This means that a meltdown should’ve been declared within a few hours of the onset of the accident, around the time that water levels in the reactor were falling and TEPCO began hinting at the possibility of venting operations.

Any member of the nuclear industry knew the severity of the accident must be critical if the utility was considering the manual release of radioactive materials into the environment, but the utility, regulators, and elected officials paraded in front of the media and downplayed the consequences of the venting operations to the public – further complicating an already very fast-moving and complex accident.

For months operators were unable to control the temperature and pressure levels in the reactors.  They were forced to feed the reactors with water to hinder the rising temperatures and simultaneously bleed the pressure from the reactors through venting operations, in order to prevent the reactor vessel from being compromised or exploding.  Despite their efforts, they were unable to prevent full-meltdowns from occurring in the Unit 1, Unit 2, and Unit 3 reactors, and the hydrogen generated in the crippled reactors destroyed the reactor buildings for Unit 1, Unit 3, and Unit 4.  Despite all of this, TEPCO chose not to publically acknowledge the full severity of the situation they were facing at Fukushima Daiichi.

When Masao Yoshida, the former plant chief of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, later talked about the hydrogen explosion that tore apart the Unit 1 reactor he said “I thought it was all over”.  This is the man on the ground with first-hand experience of what was happening, knowing that there was a very serious situation – and still the message was not being communicated to the public.

Despite their knowledge, TEPCO did not confirm that the three reactors had actually suffered meltdowns for months, a situation which cannot be tolerated or allowed to be repeated.  Though the embattled utility admitted in 2012 that it played down safety risks (fearing that additional safety measures would shut the plant down and turn public sentiment away from supporting nuclear power plants), the true consequences of these actions has as of yet to be fully investigated and analyzed.

Fukushima Daiichi Units Meltdown Postulated Start Day Meltdown Announced
Unit 1 Within 6 hours May 12th, 2011
Unit 2 Within 100 hours May 23rd, 2011
Unit 3 Within 36 hours May 23rd, 2011

All of the blame cannot be placed solely on TEPCO.  Within 24 hours of the accident – by the time radiation levels on-site were over 1,000 times the normal limits in the control rooms of the reactors, the nuclear industry, nuclear safety regulators, and the Japanese Government knew enough details of the severity of the accident to inform the public of the core damage and ongoing meltdowns, even while they were denying it in press conferences and interviews.

There were multiple indicators offsite that severe fuel damage was underway at multiple reactors within 48 hours of the earthquake and tsunami;

  • The high temperatures of the reactor cores,
  • inability to control pressure levels in the reactors,
  • increasing radiation levels onsite and offsite,
  • the evacuation of members of the public within 3 kilometers of the plant,
  • the contamination of some evacuees near the site,
  • the evacuation of members of the public within 10 kilometers of the plant,
  • venting operations taking place at multiple reactors,
  • the injection of seawater into the reactors,
  • explosions destroying multiple reactor buildings,
  • authorities confirmed the presence of iodine and cesium off-site,
  • officials distributing KI to residents,

An aerial view of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 11.

In the May 15th, 2011 press release from Tokyo Electric updating information about the meltdown in the Unit 1 reactor it reads “regarding the Unit 1, nuclear fuel pellets have melted, falling to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at a relatively early stage after the tsunami reached the station.”  Are we really to believe that this catastrophic fuel damage, which occurred within hours of the tsunami, was not known by TEPCO, the nuclear industry, and the Japanese government?  If we were unable to determine the status of a damaged nuclear core for months after the onset of fuel damage, even after all of the fuel has escaped the reactor core, what would that say about our collective ability to safely operate nuclear reactors?

But none of the indicators listed above would have communicated to lay members of the public the full severity of the amount of fuel damage by themselves the way that an official announcement that there was a meltdown of core materials in the reactor would have.  The delay in announcing the meltdowns limited the public’s ability to determine the actual severity of the situation at the plant.

Instead of bringing these facts to light, the steady stream of spokespersons and officials speaking to the media would downplay the severity of the events to the public.  The public was repeatedly told there was no cause for alarm even though the government had declared a nuclear emergency.  There was seemingly nothing that would not be said to prevent the public from becoming too concerned about the disaster, it was even claimed that the radioactivity being released during the venting operations would not affect the environment or human health.

When seawater was added to the reactor cores, officials acted as if the operation would resolve the problems, when they really knew it was a last ditch effort to reduce the amount of damage that was already known to be happening to the nuclear fuel in the core.

In Japan, TEPCO, the nuclear industry, regulatory agencies, and government officials worked to provide a unified front to the public.  No one had all of the information they felt they needed, but they had enough to make some very serious determinations.

To convince the public that the water inside of the Unit 5 and Unit 6 reactor buildings was not a serious health threat, a Japanese politician named Yasushiro Sonada drank a glass of what he claimed was decontaminated water from inside of the reactor buildings to prove it was safe to drink after decontamination.  Whether or not it was an actual health threat to drink the processed water, it was an obvious publicity stunt that was carried out for effect (it also turned out to be the subject of quite a few satirical comments by the public on media coverage articles).

Fukushima Daiichi - PhysOrg Article

When Japan raised the level of the disaster from a five to the maximum seven on the international scale, the same rating as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Japanese government took special care to point out that “far less” radiation had been released then from the 1986 disaster.

A Japanese professor named Syunichi Yamashita, who held the title of “Fukushima Radiation Health Risk Advisor” in Japan, worked to convince the public that the risks from radiation were low – and is perhaps most notorious for claiming that radiation would not affect the public if they were “happy”.

In the span of two months, Nature published two articles, one claiming there was no meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, and the next confirming there was a full-meltdown at the crippled Japanese plant.

On March 22nd, 2011, Nature blog published an article called “The meltdown that wasn’t”.  The article claims that there “has never been a full meltdown in a boiling-water reactor”, a fact that already had been proven wrong three times over at Fukushima Daiichi.

Fukushima Daiichi - Nature Blog Comment

A comment on that March article (see highlighted text in image above), published two years after the article was published, expressed confusion about whether or not a meltdown had actually occurred years after the disaster.  A demonstration of the persistent confusion of the general public about the details of the accident.

By the time the meltdowns were announced to the public, it was passed off as mysterious old news.  Another article published in Nature blog published on May 13th, 2011 titled “Understanding the complete meltdown at Fukushima Unit 1” told readers “Whatever happened inside unit 1, it happened weeks ago”, and quickly worked to quell any concern by noting that the temperature trends in the reactor were much lower than in March when the fuel had melted.  There is little argument that the delaying of the announcement of the meltdowns likely led to far less questions and concern then if it had been announced when officials were first aware of the extent of the damage.

Fukushima Daiichi - TEPCO Presentation Slide to NRC

This collective front was organized, very public, and very necessary for TEPCO and Japanese authorities.  On May 7th, 2015 at a closed-door briefing by a senior TEPCO official Kenji Tateiwa for select members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Tateiwa highlighted that an “International consensus on (the) health impact of low-dose radiation” was critical to relieve the anxiety, general perception of, and lack of trust towards, TEPCO and the Japanese government – in order to make evacuees feel comfortable returning to the areas where they used to live before the disaster.

Most of the vital accurate information that was disclosed early on during the disaster was more or less drowned out by the overwhelming number of instances where government officials would contradict themselves or someone else when bringing information to the public.

For example, on Saturday, March 13th – two days after the onset of the disaster, the Japanese government was still unable to nail down their own analysis of the event.

  • Yukio Edano, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, told reporters that a partial meltdown may have occurred at two reactors (Unit 1, Unit 3),
  • Toshihiro Bannai a director of international affairs for the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA) reported that “At this point, we have still not confirmed that there is an actual meltdown, but there is a possibility.
  • Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese ambassador to the United States said that “there was currently no evidence of a meltdown” at the Fukushima Daiichi site.
  • an unnamed “top Japanese official” said there was likely a “partial meltdown” at a second reactor at Fukushima Daiichi, implying that more than one reactor core was at risk,

One of the government officials who spoke out and was cut down in the first days of the disaster was Koichiro Nakamura, a senior official at the former Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA) at the time of the disaster.  Immediately after Nakamura confirmed at a press conference that a meltdown could be taking place at Fukushima Daiichi, he was removed from his position at the agency.

The nuclear industry response was just as muddled as that of international governments.

On the morning of March 12th, experts from the nuclear industry made the following statements;

  • Ian Hore-Lacy, Director of Communications for the World Nuclear Association told the “Early Show on Saturday Morning” after the explosion of the Unit 1 reactor building that the possibility of a meltdown was “most unlikely” and “diminishing by the hour”.
  • Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a nuclear expert from Russia told reporters that a Chernobyl-style meltdown, explosion, and large release of radiation was unlikely and added “I think that everything will be contained within the grounds, and there will be no big catastrophe.”
  • Ryohei Shiomi, a nuclear official from Japan, told CBS news that even if there was a meltdown, it wouldn’t affect people more than six-miles away from the plant.

In the United States, Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists was providing clear analysis to American news services warning that Japan would only have a few hours to prevent a meltdown.

Though the information they were receiving was very confusing, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was also very worried about the events in Japan.  In documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, the concern about the serious situation at Fukushima Daiichi is evident.

By the end of March 11th, 2011, the NRC was aware of and gravely concerned about the following facts:

  • There was an extended station black-out affecting multiple reactors
  • TEPCO was taking extraordinary measures to supply water to the reactors
  • Despite all efforts, operators were struggling to bring the reactors to a safe configuration
  • The emergency diesel generators were lost at multiple units, implying a common cause failure
  • The diesel fuel supply onsite was destroyed by the tsunami
  • Fuel in the reactors was damaged and radioactive iodine and cesium was being released into the environment
  • Temperature and pressure levels were rising in the Unit 1 reactor
  • The Japanese were preparing to vent the containment under “high radiation conditions”
  • Radiation levels around the site were far above normal and implied fuel damage
  • The Unit 2 containment pressure was almost double the design basis
  • Residents within 10 kilometers were evacuated

The NRC workers in the Emergency Operations Center monitoring the event in Japan were aware of the dangers of an extended station black-out and that nuclear power plants get into trouble pretty quickly after they lose power for cooling.  This led them to conclude that there was core damage by the afternoon of March 11th.  Exelon had simulated the Fukushima event at a simulator designed for the Quad Cities reactors in Illinois with a similar design.  According to the NRC estimates at the time based off of their information and the simulations, Unit 1 core damage would begin 12 hours after the onset of the disaster and “significant offsite releases” would begin 8 hours after the core damage.

Clearly what information that was getting out, was of enough use to those who knew how to interpret it, to allow them to make fairly accurate determinations about the situation in Japan.  The NRC even knew that the situation at the plants was more precarious than the official reports suggested and could potentially get much worse.  Why was that information not communicated to the public?

The average person who followed the situation at Fukushima Daiichi could tell that they were not receiving all of the story.  How can a government quantify the erosion of public trust that occurred over the handling of nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi?  No one has been able to fully measure what the fallout of the betrayal of public trust will amount to, but it will undoubtedly affect the trust of future host communities for nuclear facilities and waste storage sites alike.

Did the delay prevent the public from believing the accident at Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t as serious as it was?

Another question that has to be asked is, would fewer people have been put in harm’s way if the meltdowns had been announced promptly?   Would evacuees have had more time to gather their belongings, determine where to evacuate to, and take better routes?

The answers to these questions and more are important to consider and should be brought to the focus of public attention.

Source: TEPCO

Source: Reuters

Source: CBS News

Source: CBS News

Source: CBS News

Source: CNN

Source: CNN

Source: Time


Source: NJ

Source: NPR

Source: Nature

Source: Nature

Source: Nature

Source: TEPCO


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