Fukushima disaster: Workers reveal they were in the dark about meltdown and radiation exposure limits

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Ministers have admitted holding back vital information in order to prevent a panic.

Government spokesmen initially denied there was a meltdown and said the plant’s problems posed “no immediate risk” to human health.

Safety authorities ranked the accident as a mere four on the international scale of nuclear accidents.

Not until a month later did it upgrade this to a maximum seven – like Chernobyl.

The full details of what happened to the nuclear reactor are still emerging and far from complete.

The day after the earthquake, there was an explosion in the No 1 reactor building.

Two days later, the No 3 reactor building blew its top.

The following morning there were blasts at reactors two and four.

These explosions released a plume of radiation, but the government withheld projections of its size and how it spread up and down the coast and inland to Fukushima city, Koriyama and Tokyo.

Nuclear and emergency workers were also in the dark.

I drive to Iwaki, a coastal city south of the power plant, to interview one of the men involved in the clear-up operation.

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T-san was evacuated from Fukushima Daiichi plant after the earthquake struck and returned almost two weeks later to join the containment operation.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” says T-san, who has asked to remain anonymous.

“Nobody mentioned a meltdown.  We didn’t get any critical accident training or instructions.

But we all knew the situation was very bad. I thought this might be my final mission. I know it sounds a little silly, but I felt like a kamikaze who was prepared to sacrifice everything for my family and my country.”

Since March, he estimates he has been exposed to 50 millisieverts of radiation. Under the government’s previous guidelines, this was the maximum allowed for an entire year.

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He is not alone. By Tokyo Electric‘s own figures, 410 workers have, like T-san, been exposed to more than 50 millisieverts since the disaster.

Another six have received a dose above 250.

But in an emergency move, that became legal in March, the government has increased the permissible dose for nuclear workers from 100 to 250 millisieverts.

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“They changed it so suddenly and dramatically that we didn’t know what was dangerous, what was safe,” T-san says. “We were confused. Had the government been too strict before, or was it suddenly being too lax? We didn’t know what to believe.”

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According to the WHO, the average background radiation people are exposed to worldwide is 2.4 millisieverts per year.

A single chest x-ray adds 0.1 microsieverts, a six-hour transatlantic flight 0.5 and a whole-body CT scan 12 microsieverts.

However, in these cases, the radiation is predictable, external and relatively easy to deal with.

The fallout from Fukushima was far messier and likely to enter human bodies, where radiation does more damage.

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The overall radiation release from the plant is staggering – 770,000 terabecquerels in the wake of the accident and a billion becquerels still being added each day while engineers struggle to seal the broken containment structure.

Most of the iodine – with its eight-day half-life – has since decayed and the cesium and other radionuclides have been diluted and dissipated.

But much has seeped into the soil, contaminated the leaves in the forests and is being passed through the food chain to cattle, fish, vegetables – and humans.

Source: www.guardian.co.uk, via Environment: Nuclear power | guardian.co.uk
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