Fearing the fallout

How a cascading chain of events and complacent officials exposed Japan to a man-made crisis

Fearing the fallout

Asahi Shimbun/EPA/Keystone Press

Like most office workers in Japan, when the massive earthquake hit Friday afternoon, Dan Ayotte ducked under his desk as light fixtures and filing cabinets smashed to the floor around him. “It sounded like a train, it just kept getting more intense,” says the Peterborough, Ont., native. “I thought I was never going to see my family again.”

But Ayotte wasn’t just another terrified cubicle dweller in a swaying Tokyo skyscraper. As a mechanical technician with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Canada, Ayotte had spent the past three months working on one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It was a position that put him front and centre for the full devastation the quake was about to unleash. (General Electric designed the plant’s reactors and is a partner with Hitachi in the nuclear industry.)

When the violent shakes finally ended after five long minutes, Ayotte and a co-worker drove down to the edge of the sea. Along the way, they passed gaping cracks in the road so wide they’d swallowed trucks. All around, landslides snapped trees like matchsticks. Then Ayotte saw it, stretching across the horizon in the distance—a wall of water nine metres high, roaring straight toward the plant and its six reactors. The pair spun their car around and raced to a lookout point on a cliff high above the facility. What Ayotte witnessed next left him stunned. The first wave hit nearby cliffs with such force that dirt and debris exploded into the air “like it was hit with an artillery shell.” A fishery plant down by the water’s edge was swept away in seconds. And then the waves began to pound the plant and its reactors. “The nuclear plant took the full brunt of that first wave,” he says. “The water rolled right over the southern part of the station.”

What Ayotte didn’t know then, and what the world would only begin to learn hours later, was that the twin assaults of earthquake and tsunami had set off a cascading chain of events leading to the worst nuclear crisis in a generation. The emergency situation was only made worse by a conspiracy of hubris and denial among Japanese officials and nuclear industry proponents who couldn’t fathom that the country’s reactors and containment systems might fail. Yet early assurances that everything was under control soon gave way to the realization the reactors were at risk of suffering a catastrophic meltdown. As the full scale of the potential horror revealed itself—punctuated by images of workers clad head to toe in protective gear screening babies for radiation exposure—hard questions about the future of nuclear energy began to emerge, both inside and outside Japan.

As the crisis unfolds over the coming days and even weeks, Ayotte, like the rest of the world, will be watching closely from the safety of his home. His employer evacuated his crew the day after the quake hit, and he arrived back in Toronto on Sunday. After the events of the past week, he says he’s officially retired now. But his thoughts remain with the people suffering in Japan. “That plant is devastated, and the country will be years before it rebuilds,” he says. “It looks like a war zone over there.”

Events were still developing fast as Maclean’s went to print late Tuesday night EDT. After a series of hydrogen explosions and fires at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, three reactors had suffered at least partial meltdowns and radiation levels in the immediate vicinity spiked to dangerous levels. (At another nearby plant that had also suffered damage from the quake and tsunami, Fukushima Daini, operators had succeeded in cooling down all four reactors.) There were also reports that steam was rising from one of the reactors, though the source was unknown. But even as Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plants, raced to bring the reactors under control, a far greater threat was emerging. An explosion occurred by a pool containing spent fuel rods, and water in the pool was boiling off. If the rods, which though “spent” remain radioactive and dangerously hot, become exposed, they could ignite and emit clouds of radioactive smoke directly into the atmosphere. The government was considering a daring mission that would see military helicopters pour water on the pool to keep the rods submerged. More than 200,000 people living near the plants have been evacuated.

Given the worsening crisis, the International Atomic Energy Agency upgraded Fukushima on its nuclear accident scale to level six, declaring it a “serious accident.” That puts it ahead of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island incident in 1979, which registered a four on that scale, and just one level below the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which remains the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history.
Japan, a country all too aware of the dangers of radiation, finds itself at a terrifying juncture. With reports that the last 50 remaining workers had been evacuated due to extremely high radiation levels, that left no one to fight the fires at the plant. Their departure greatly diminished the chances that Fukushima might come out of this in something like a Three Mile Island scenario.

It is the other possibility that has gripped the world with fear. In a worst-case scenario, one of the Fukushima reactors completely melts down. The uranium in the fuel rods could form a molten liquid that melts through the steel and concrete containment chambers that envelope the core, and expose the environment to lethal levels of radiation. Likewise, the toxic cloud emanating from the pools has the potential to spread cancer-causing radioactive particles across Japan and even to neighbouring nations like the Koreas and China. This is the Chernobyl scenario, and the long-term impact would be catastrophic.

Masahi Goto knows the Fukushima reactors inside and out. As a former engineer at Hitachi, he’d helped design the containment facilities at the site. It was his job to test the safeguard measures to ensure they would not fail if pressure and temperatures increased dramatically in the event of a crisis. But a day and a half after plant officials first warned on Friday they were having trouble cooling the reactors down, Goto, who is now with the anti-nuclear group Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, had become incredibly frustrated with how the government was handling the situation.

Several times, officials had gone on TV to assure the Japanese the incident at the nuclear plant posed no health threat to them. And indeed, as late as Sunday night an eerie calm hung over Tokyo, 250 km to the south. But Goto worried the Japanese had been lulled into a dangerous false sense of security. “Although the government says reassuring words—that everything is alright and that safety has been assured—the general public needs to understand that this is truly a severe accident,” he said during a press briefing for foreign correspondents. “We’re not in immediate danger of a catastrophic situation, but if the cooling system put in place does not function anymore, there is a possibility that something terrible will happen.”

To understand what went wrong with the reactors at Fukushima, one needs to first know a little bit about how they are supposed to function under normal conditions. Known as boiling water reactors, they do exactly what the name says—like a giant kettle, they turn water into steam using nuclear fission, and then harness the steam with turbines to create the electricity Japan so desperately needs. (The country relies on nuclear power for 30 per cent of its energy needs.) The science is more technical, of course. Inside the reactor there are thousands of thin rods containing fingertip-sized uranium fuel pellets. The rods are encased in a steel vessel, which in turn is housed in a thick concrete structure. As fission occurs inside the rods, they generate intense heat measured in the thousands of degrees Celsius. For that reason, the rods must be kept fully submerged in water to prevent them from melting. The steam that burns off is eventually cooled and returned to the reactor. The whole process keeps the temperature inside the reactor at a manageable 270° C.

When the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. on Friday, the reactors automatically shut down, exactly as they were designed to do. Control rods were injected into the reactor that disabled the fission process, sort of like flicking an off switch. But a reactor doesn’t just turn off like a light. The rods continue to generate enormous amounts of heat as the radioactive material inside decays, so they must remain submerged in cool water for hours until their temperature comes down to below the boiling point. And this is where events at Fukushima went horribly wrong.

The atomic reaction inside the rods may have been disabled, but a chain reaction of errors and misfortune quickly unfolded outside. The initial earthquake knocked out the electrical power to the water cooling system. On-site diesel generators kicked in to provide backup power, but within an hour the wall of water Ayotte saw wash over the plant flooded the generators and they failed. The plant’s operators next turned to emergency batteries to power the cooling system. But the batteries had a lifespan of just eight hours and were only meant to serve as a stopgap measure. When mobile generators were located and brought to the reactors, it turned out the plugs didn’t fit the cooling system. As the batteries ran dry, the flow of new, cool water stopped, too. As the heat boiled off the water, the levels inside the reactor began to fall—all the ingredients needed for a meltdown.

If fuel rods are exposed to the air, it only takes a matter of minutes for their temperature to soar. Once the fuel rods hit around 1,200° C, their zirconium casing begins to break down and the uranium pellets inside begin to lose their shape. In the case of a partial meltdown, which is what happened at Three Mile Island, a section of the rods becomes exposed and begins to emit radiation. A full meltdown is far more serious. As the pellets melt, they’d form a molten mass that could melt through the reactor base and threaten human health.

Fearing the fallout

DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

To prevent that from happening, TEPCO, the power company, planned to pump in fresh water to keep the rods submerged. It’s unclear exactly what went wrong, but a valve on the pump is believed to have malfunctioned. As a backup, the company began to pump sea water into the reactor to keep it cool.

Yet this presented another problem. With the fuel rods so hot, much of the water inside the reactor had been turned to steam, increasing pressure inside. The pressure was so high that the sea-water pumps weren’t powerful enough to force the water inside. There were also fears that if the pressure became too great, it could damage the reactors. This is why operators began to vent steam into the atmosphere starting on Sunday. By doing so, though, they enabled radioactive material to escape. “It’s a terrible choice,” says Goto, the former Hitachi engineer, about what the engineers are facing. “If you vent this matter into the atmosphere, it will be gas with a very high radioactive content. If you do not vent and you allow the radiation and therefore the pressure to build up in the vessel, you raise the possibility of this vessel exploding.”

There have been several explosions at the plant, raising fears of a potential catastrophe. Fortunately, the cause of the explosions was not a nuclear blast. Instead, as the fuel rods reached dangerous temperatures, the zirconium casing began to degrade and produce hydrogen gas. The gas built up and ignited. The damage was limited mostly to the roof and walls of the buildings housing the reactors, though there were also indications that at least one of the reactor vessel’s thick steel walls was also affected.

By Monday evening, three days after the quake, it appeared the dwindling number of employees left at the plant were losing the battle. For the first time, the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said problems at Fukushima’s No. 2 reactor unit could develop into a full-scale “meltdown” situation. In a speech to the nation, Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged Japanese to “stay calm,” then went on say the radiation levels had “risen substantially. The risk that radiation will leak from now on has risen.”

The government imposed mandatory evacuation orders for anyone living within 20 km of the reactors. Far more frightening in a way, though, were the government’s instructions for 140,000 residents living between 20 and 30 km from the site. An official ordered those people to close their windows and doors and remain inside, preferably in a concrete building. Those wearing jackets were told to brush them off before venturing indoors, and everyone should shake any dust particles out of their hair. If there was laundry hanging on the line outside to dry, leave it.
On the one hand, Japanese were being told to go on with their regular activities, yet at the same time, large numbers of their countrymen were told to seal themselves inside their homes to safeguard their lives.

In the weeks following the Chernobyl disaster, 28 people died as a direct result of being exposed to massive levels of radiation. By comparison, the levels measured in Japan as of Tuesday have been relatively minor, and contained. But the long-term health impacts of the radiation released there are still very real. At one point during the disaster, one official report stated that levels hit 400 millisieverts per hour—20 times the annual limit allowed for radiation workers and uranium miners, and close to the levels recorded in towns 15 km from Chernobyl before they were evacuated. If a radioactive cloud of this intensity descended over an urban area, it would likely result in a jump in cancer rates over the long term. A dose of 100 millisieverts over the course of a year is the lowest level at which an increase in cancer is evident, says the World Nuclear Association.

Fearing the fallout

Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Exposure levels in areas around the plant were relatively easily treated by decontaminating: taking off clothes, which capture radioactive particles, and washing with soap and water. Potassium iodine pills were also used as a preventative measure by stopping radioactive material from attacking the thyroid. The key here, of course, is ensuring any human exposure is brief and that radiation doesn’t spread.

The good news is that a Chernobyl-style explosion is extremely unlikely in Japan. The problems at the Soviet plant stemmed from serious design flaws that caused a sudden power spike in the reactor, mixed with a lethal dose of human error. Within three seconds, a massive explosion ejected one-third of the reactor core and radioactive material 30,000 feet into the air. To ease concerns in Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano at one point said he believes the problem at the plant “will not develop into a situation similar to Chernobyl,” even in the worst case.

Yet the Japanese people have every reason to question what officials have been telling them. Japan’s nuclear industry suffers a dubious reputation for downplaying the risks earthquakes pose to nuclear reactors, and in some cases even covering up problems. In 2002, TEPCO’s former president and other officials were forced to resign after it was revealed they’d hidden evidence about more than two dozen incidents where reactors were damaged. There have also been high-profile cases where temperature data was falsified.

Prime Minister Kan has blasted TEPCO for not keeping him informed. He claimed that after the first explosion, the company didn’t inform his office for one whole hour. But Kan himself has at every turn appeared to play down the seriousness of the accident—at least until quite late in the process. It wasn’t until Tuesday, four days after the quake and tsunami hammered the plant, that Japan’s government and TEPCO formed a task force to deal with the crisis. “I’m appalled by the government’s complacency and arrogance—the bland assumption that everything is going to be alright,” says Gregory Clark, president emeritus at Tokyo’s Tama University. “Government nuclear operations have a very questionable record of forthrightness. We simply don’t know how worried we need to be.”

Clark suspects “bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance” are behind the failure of the plant’s backup systems. He’s witnessed that first-hand while serving on nuclear safety committees for Japan’s industry ministry, where he faced constant push-back against efforts to get the nuclear industry to open up. “I happen to favour nuclear power, but when I suggested that whistle-blowing on safety problems should not only be allowed, but rewarded as well, I was told that this was quite contrary to Japanese culture,” he says.

Critics of the industry have also long argued the reactors simply aren’t built to withstand the volatile geography of the region. Not only are the islands of Japan located right on the Pacific Rim of Fire, a region that encircles the Pacific Ocean and that experiences the majority of the world’s quakes, but Japan lies at the intersection of four slabs of the Earth’s crust. The country’s 55 nuclear reactors are built to withstand only a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, yet, as is now known, the seismic convulsions last week hit a magnitude of 9—thousands of times stronger.

Five years ago, a Japanese court ordered a nuclear reactor in Ishikawa prefecture to cease operations after nearby residents filed a lawsuit claiming the plant posed a serious danger. “The building structure of the reactor has a problem in that it underestimates the damage from an inland earthquake,” the judge said. “It is feared that local residents may get exposed to radiation if an accident occurs due to a quake that is larger than what the power company estimates.” The company, Hokuriku Electric Power, continued to operate the plant while it appealed the decision. In December, a higher court gave its blessing to the plant, citing “adequate safety measures.”

“The nuclear plants should have been built to withstand stronger earthquakes,” says Shuji Yoshida, a professor of geology at Chiba University. Now, as the crisis unfolds, he says the government is “hiding too much information” from the nation.

The industry and government officials haven’t done themselves any favours by being so secretive. The incident has thrown the future of nuclear power in Japan into disarray. “There are definitely going to be a lot of problems going forward for building another nuclear plant,” says Yoshida. “Japanese are very sensitive to nuclear threats because of the A-bomb.” As if to drive home that point, four days after the first reactor problems emerged, survivors of the 1945 U.S. atomic bomb attacked the way the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. have handled the current situation. “Speaking from my experience of suffering diseases and health concerns for a long time since being exposed to radiation, I want them to have more of a sense of crisis,” said Haruhide Tamamoto, 80, of Hiroshima.

It’s not just in Japan that nuclear’s future suddenly looks bleak. Just a few weeks shy of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, it’s taken nearly as long for the industry to recover from that terrible legacy. In the past couple of years, talk of a “nuclear renaissance” became more common, fuelled by worries over climate change and energy shortages. Hundreds of new reactor projects were in the planning stages. Now, across Europe, anti-nuclear protesters feel reinvigorated. In the U.S., there were calls from some legislators for President Barack Obama to rethink his support for the sector. And in Canada, uranium companies saw their stock prices plunge as investors speculated the reactor crisis in Japan means the renaissance is over before it started.

For the Japanese right now, those are still distant questions for another time, when the smoke and radioactive fallout from its nuclear crisis have been contained once and for all.

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