Fukushima 2012; Year In Review

2012 brought considerable progress in attempts to understand the disaster at Daiichi. We saw the first grainy peek into unit 2’s containment. By the end of the year vastly improved scope cameras were able to show more detail of the condition of containment at units 1 and 2. Unit 3 has still remained a challenge with limited work conducted there.

TEPCO used an increasingly sophisticated series of robots in 2012 with mixed success. They were able to investigate portions of the torus rooms of units 1 – 3. They also investigated TIPS rooms of each unit and the refueling floor of unit 2. Containment and torus room findings at each unit were greatly mixed with each unit having a unique set of visual evidence. Unit 1 developed a hydrogen pocket in the torus that was gradually purged over the latter portion of 2012. US DOE presented the idea of using Muon particles to attempt to find the melted fuel at the plant, by the end of the year no decision was made public on using this technology.

The plant was plagued by leaking and failing plastic hoses around the plant. Some areas were replaced with solid plastic pipe, and certain areas received pipe insulation. These changes appeared to help but leaks are still a constant occurrence. Review of information before the disaster discovered that TEPCO had never reconnected one set of incoming power lines that was severed 4 months before the 3-11 quake. The battery back up for an emergency data system was left disconnected before the disaster as workers claimed the cables on hand were too short leaving the unit with no battery power during the disaster. By the end of the year TEPCO quietly admitted some of the melted fuel could be in the suppression chamber of some of the units but has been unable to make further definitive statements about the location of melted fuel. Water storage continues to be an issue as they build more and more tanks at the plant complex. TEPCO is also working on a groundwater diversion system.

Unit 1: Workers managed to float a balloon up to the refueling floor with a camera to look around. The torus room was inspecting finding visual damage and extremely high radiation levels under the standing water in the torus room. Visual inspection inside containment found blackened structures and what appeared to be pieces of concrete that had fallen into the drywell.

Unit 2: Very high levels were found on the refueling floor around the reactor well. A robot inspection of the refueling floor also found a distinct steam plume coming out of the reactor well near the blow out panel. Readings released this year also identified the venting attempt at unit 2 to have created the largest radiation release event during the disaster. The containment showed extensively blistered paint and limited water in the drywell. TEPCO has yet to identify where unit 2 is leaking cooling water from. Unit 2 also saw some odd spikes in temperatures inside the reactor and some isotopes being generated that hinted as possible recriticalities. Unit 2 was found to still be releasing 8 million becquerels per hour in July of 2012.

Unit 3: Limited work was done inside 3 due to high radiation and structural concerns. The torus room was robot inspected finding less damaged than assumed. The TIPS room door was blown in and the torus room door was bowed out. High radiation water condensation was found at the equipment hatch and the large concrete plug for that door had been moved out of position. Late in 2012 work began to remove debris off of the top of unit 3 via scaffolding using remote controlled equipment. The refueling crane was found, dropped on top of the fuel racks in the spent fuel pool. As work commenced to remove debris off of unit 3 a steel beam was dropped in the pool that had to be carefully retrieved. The actual status of unit 3’s fuel pool condition and what is under all that debris on the refueling floor is an ongoing process. TEPCO hopes to put a cover on unit 3 in the future.

Unit 4: The top floor was completely removed including the containment and reactor caps. A steel cover was installed over the spent fuel pool and an elevator added to assist workers accessing the refueling floor. Two unused fuel assemblies were removed from the spent fuel pool and found to be slightly corroded with building debris in the assemblies. Work began to install a cover building and crane to facilitate removing the spent fuel from the pool. Analysis of the building was done multiple times throughout the year. Structural testing found that a segment along the west side of the reactor containment through multiple floors is structurally failed. Small millimeter changes have been found in the west wall though it is hard to say for sure if those changes are due to the west side of the building degrading or measurement error. TEPCO has purposely blocked any view of the refueling garage entrance into the building since the entrance stall has been removed. TEPCO cited “security” concerns for blocking out the area on photos but refused to provide more details.

Daini was found to have a unit with a cracked containment structure and TEPCO has been repairing and hoping for the ability to restart units at Daini. The local governments have declared they will not allow that to happen. TEPCO complied with multiple requests this year and released some of the teleconference video and audio of the early days of the disaster. Most of it involved discussions among TEPCO executives and various government officials.

2012 saw more worker deaths, meanwhile TEPCO took some steps to improve working conditions at the plants. A scandal over workers covering their dosimeters with lead plates went public and the government established a national database and reporting system for Daiichi workers. By March 2012 167 workers had hit their radiation maximum. Head of the Daiichi plant Masao Yoshida was diagnosed with cancer but information to the media denies it is related to his disaster exposure. Mr. Yoshida granted a few brief interviews where he praised the hard work and commitment of the workers who stayed at the plant to try to bring things under control. Workers among the “Fukushima 50” didn’t want their identity disclosed, many cited harassement but other locals that blame them for the disaster even though they too lost family and homes in the disaster.

The year started off with a New Year’s day 7.0 quake that caused a small water loss in the spent fuel pool of unit 4. Japan declared they would limit reactor life span to 40 years but watered down the idea soon after declaring it. Multiple groups gathered signatures for Referendums though none made it to a public vote even though most gathered significant numbers of signatures. A global conference was held in Yokohama on nuclear power issues early in the year. Japan found themselves with zero nuclear power by May of 2012. The government began to push for restarts of some reactors citing power shortages that never happened and were highly doubted by many experts and the media. In July of 2012 PM Noda made the political decision to restart two units at the Oi nuclear plant. This was met with a multiple day blockade of the plant entrance by a large number of protesters. The resolve of the people was clear, the government ignored the public outrage and restarted the units.

Multiple investigations into the disaster found varying sets of blame. Some claimed it was all culture at TEPCO setting the stage for TEPCO’s image rehab efforts. Foreign advisors were hired and a PR campaign instituted to try to show that TEPCO is now somehow a responsible and functional company worthy of running nuclear power plants. Stress tests were ordered to assure plant safety but were later scrapped after a new nuclear regulator was established. The NRA has been focusing on active faults under nuclear plants but have not established safety standards for nuclear plants that would be needed before any reactor could be restarted. Fukushima Prefecture officials came under fire for not disclosing then deleting SPEEDI radiation readings they were given during the early days of the disaster. They never shared that information with local governments so it could be used for evacuation decisions. The prefecture offices later discovered the missing files on a thumb drive after ongoing media attention on the incident.

Attempts to burn contaminated disaster debris in cities all over Japan continued as did local protests against it. Protests every Friday night in Tokyo expanded to other cities over the summer with 100,000 attending one larger protest according to organizers. The protests continued until those coordinating the protests were offered a meeting with PM Noda. The photo op solved nothing and caused the protests to wane. Later in the year the US began injecting themselves into Japanese nuclear politics claiming Japan needed to restart reactors to decrease proliferation risk and also that they needed to finish the Rokkasho reprocessing plant and continue funding Monju. The US claimed the only way forward was for Japan to go back to the old failed nuclear policy. What wasn’t said to the news media was the level of dependency the US nuclear industry has on Japan to keep their nuclear power industry functioning. Japanese owned companies make up the lion’s share of technical expertise and parts for the US nuclear industry.

Children in Tokyo were found to have cesium in their urine, suspected to be largely due to their diet. Children in Fukushima were found to have unusually high levels of thyroid abnormalities. This caused concern on an international level. Parents who sought second opinions or actual doctor exams for their children regarding their thyroid condition were frequently turned away. Those who were able to secure second opinions frequently found the Health Survey information to be incorrect and usually giving a reading outcome lower than independent doctors found. By the end of 2012 the UN Human Rights Council had investigated the issue and released statements of concern for the conditions in Japan.

Exposure data from various sources were released this year. Some of the government sources failed to identify readings vs. peoples time and locations of exposure leaving gaps in understanding of the data. Some people showed with little or no contamination while others showed with some unexpectedly high levels. Where people were during the worst of the releases and their ongoing life habits seem to be playing a role in people’s exposure levels.  Data from March 2011 was released this year that showed areas of Futaba had increasing radiation in the town even before evacuations had completed. At the time of the increasing readings hospital staff in Futaba photographed gridlocked traffic of people trying to flee the town. Mainichi Shimbun also found the Fukushima Health Survey to have been holding secret meetings to pre-determine the content and responses for public meetings.

People continued to leave the region over 2012 looking for work or a safer place to live. The few areas that were reopened to residents have struggled with a lack of services, jobs and so few willing to return that the communities continue to struggle. Over 1000 deaths have been given a government classification that ties them to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. These were mostly situations where the evacuation and similar disruption of life caused other conditions to end someone’s life. Areas far from the evacuation zone were found to have higher than expected radiation levels including Fukushima City. Decontamination efforts have proven to have limited improvement of conditions. In some areas the levels went right back up, other locations saw a more marked improvement. We also saw continued victimization of people from Fukushima where they have been discriminated against or had their allegations of conditions they experienced dismissed out of hand by critics. Discussion out of the national government began to consider areas where people may never be able to return. Little has been done to fully compensate most people leaving many still in limbo.

Contamination showed up everywhere, from gravel to seafood. Rivers around the region were found to be concentrating contamination. Foods, animals and sea life showed contamination but it wasn’t across the board. Certain species of fish showed consistently contaminated while others appeared to not be impacted. The location of the fish also seemed to play a role. Foods began to show certain foods like mushrooms, wild vegetables, yuzu and blueberries were more contaminated than other types of produce that many times showed no radiation. Wild boar and ducks were found to be contaminated. Meanwhile cesium was still being found in the US milk supply in January 2012 by UC Berkeley. Birds, bugs and lizards were found to have high concentrations of radiation and in the situation of certain bugs, mutations. “Black stuff” began being found by citizens around the region with very high radiation concentrations. The stuff was later found to be natural in origin, the mechanism for hyper concentration of radiation hasn’t been fully determined.

Exploration of the sea found low but traceable levels 400 miles off the Japan coast. Another found low but traceable levels in bluefin tuna. It was also found that government radiation meters were reading consistently lower than what people would obtain for a reading in the same area with a portable meter. The government eventually relented and admitted some aspects were causing meters to read too low but refused to admit any wrongdoing in the issue. Strontium 90 was found in locations all over Japan in varying levels. Areas as far as Tokyo region were found to have pockets of radiation as high as evacuation areas used after Chernobyl.

While much has been learned over the last year at Daiichi, some of the more critical understanding is still out of reach. The people directly impacted by the disaster say they are still hindered in being able to get their lives back together and many say the government is violating their human rights. That the economy and interests of corporations is being put ahead of people and the environment.

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