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Japan Continues to Battle Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 18, 2011

    Even as Japan’s nuclear crisis continues to lurch from bad to worse, Prime Minister Kan Naoto urged the public not to panic and assured them that his government was making all efforts to stabilise the situation and repair the damage wrought by the devastation. But in the wake of the authorities upgrading the threat level for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from 5 to 7, a classification reserved for the most severe nuclear crises such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Prime Minister Kan’s claims are being received with a degree of scepticism.

    The Fukushima nuclear facility was crippled by the 9-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. According to the deputy director general of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), Hidehiko Nishiyama, the rating was scaled up from 5 (applied to “an accident with wider consequences) to 7 (a “major accident” as per the International Atomic Energy Agency) because of the amount of radioactive material released from the plant. He added that the radioactive contaminants released from the plant amounted to 10 per cent of those released at Chernobyl. The radiation released into the atmosphere peaked between March 15 and 16, and subsequently declined. Kan’s assurance to the public that the situation was stabilising was made on this basis. Unlike at Chernobyl, however, no deaths have thus far been linked to the accident at Fukushima.

    The difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima is that the reactor itself exploded at Chernobyl, while at Fukushima though some radioactivity leaked from the reactor most of the radioactive material was contained within it. Earlier, the disaster was rated on par with the 1979 Three Mile Island in the US. But when the radiation began to impact the air, vegetables, tap water and the ocean, the rating was revised.

    Murray Jennex, a nuclear industry specialist at San Diego State University in California, has refuted the comparison between Fukushima and Chernobyl. According to him, the level of radioactive substances released from the damaged Fukushima plant is nowhere near the Chernobyl levels. While Chernobyl blew and there was no containment, Fukushima’s “containment has been holding, the only thing that hasn’t is the fuel pool that caught fire.” According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a level 7 incident entails “a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasueres.” Each level on the scale implies a tenfold increase in the quantum of radiation.

    The Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled nuclear plant, has said the fire that broke out in reactor No. 4 has been put out and that it did not have any impact on radiation levels around the plant or on the plant’s cooling systems. Only twenty-one facility personnel exhibited low-level radiation exposure symptoms. Despite TEPCO claims that some progress is being made in restoring the cooling mechanisms, but experts and government officials are unsure about how many months it will take to bring the plant under control. Some specialists, such as Professor Hisashi Ninokata of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, have suggested that TEPCO urgently needs to repair the plant’s damaged cooling system or even construct a whole new external plant to lower the temperature of the reactors to less than 100 degrees to stabilise the blazing fuel rods inside. He argues that since the existing residual heat removal system (RHRS) has been severely damaged by the tsunami, it is better to set up a brand new RHRS outside the turbine building in addition to an external cooling system.

    TEPCO officials are worried that highly radioactive water believed to be leaking from deep inside the troubled reactors has flooded the basements of the turbine building, particularly the basement floor of reactor two. This has been hampering attempts to repair the damage. Plugging the leaks and removing the toxic materials are top priorities, if the arduous but unpredictable task has to be completed sooner or later.

    The water inside the reactors is decreasing due to continuous leakage and so it has to be constantly replenished. TEPCO is struggling to stop this leakage. It pumped 10,400 tonnes of low-level radioactive water into the ocean to free storage capacity for the highly contaminated water from the reactors. It is estimated that 60,000 tons of contaminated water have flooded the turbine buildings of reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4. TEPCO engineers have been attempting to pump the water out and transfer it to other tanks and containment facilities. Progress has been slow and safe places to store this water are not available. Japan, moreover, has little experience in removing or processing such large volumes of extremely contaminated water, which has made the task daunting indeed.

    Japan is being criticised for its inept disaster management. Some countries sensitive to radiation have banned sales of Japanese products, particularly seafood and vegetables fearing them to be health hazards. South Korea and Russia have condemned Japan for dumping thousands of tons of radioactive water directly into the sea. Japan is also being blamed for not consulting its neighbours in advance and also for being late in disclosing the rising levels of cesium in the ocean. TEPCO stopped the discharge of low-level radioactive water into the sea after complaints from South Korea, China and Russia.

    Be that as it may, the comparison with Chernobyl is inappropriate. Fukushima is not a repeat of Chernobyl. TEPCO has taken appropriate measures such as injecting nitrogen into the reactors to counter any hydrogen build up, thus preventing the chances for a hydrogen explosion. Moreover, even if an explosion were to occur, the containment vessels are unlikely to explode, though some damage cannot be ruled out. In Chernobyl, the graphite moderators had burned following which massive amounts of radioactive materials were released into the air. In contrast, the Fukushima reactors do not have inflammable materials.

    According to Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the situation is “static but not yet stable”. While the majority of US military personnel deployed in Japan are helping to stem the disaster, China pressed Japan to provide details about the situation at the plant in a “timely, precisely and comprehensive manner”. Japan has assured both China and South Korea that it will appraise them of all developments in the crisis.

    While a nuclear renaissance may be on hold as a result of the Fukushima meltdown, a military renaissance appears ready to emerge. The over 100,000 self-defence forces deployed for disaster relief and their commendable role has conveyed their “indisputable relevance” to the Japanese people. The role played by them in rescue operations in cooperation with other nations is likely to change the general perception of the Japanese people towards the military.

    A series of aftershocks have rattled eastern Japan, thereby slowing down the recovery efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But a determined Japan is likely to overcome the crisis and, in addition, put in place more fool-proof safety mechanisms for future contingencies.