Here's The Economist's take on the Japanese declaration of "the cold shutdown state" and the end of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant accident. The title of the article pretty much says it all.
The paper well summarizes the elementary incompetency of both TEPCO and the Japanese government, and says the government's interim report hasn't got much attention that it deserves, except among techies at Physics Forum. It also correctly points out these reports are nothing but confidence-building exercises in Japan.
The paper's conclusion:
"Until somebody in power seizes on the report as a call to action, its findings, especially those that reveal sheer ineptitude, suggest that the public has every reason to remain as scared as hell."
The Economist (1/7/2012):
THERE is a breathtaking serenity to the valley that winds from the town of Namie, on the coast of Fukushima prefecture, into the hills above. A narrow road runs by a river that passes through steep ravines, studded with maples. Lovely it may be, but it is the last place where you would want to see an exodus of 8,000 people fleeing meltdowns at a nearby nuclear-power plant.
Along that switchback road the day after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011, it took Namie’s residents more than three hours to drive 30km (19 miles) to what they thought was the relative safety of Tsushima, a secluded hamlet. What they did not know was that they were heading into an invisible fog of radioactive matter that has made this one of the worst radiation hotspots in Japan—far worse than the town they abandoned, just ten minutes’ drive from the gates of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. It was not until a New York Times report in August that many of the evacuees realised they had been exposed to such a danger, thanks to government neglect.
Negligence forms the backdrop for the first government-commissioned report into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, released in late December. Although only an interim assessment (the complete report is due in the summer), it is already 500 pages long and the product of hundreds of interviews. A casual reader might be put off by the technical detail and the dearth of personal narrative. Yet by Japanese standards it is gripping. It spares neither the government nor Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the nuclear plant. It reveals at times an almost cartoon-like level of incompetence. Whether it is enough to reassure an insecure public that lessons will be learnt is another matter.
Since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, it has become axiomatic to assume that complex systems fail in complex ways. That was broadly true of Fukushima, though often the failures appear absurdly elementary. In the most quake-prone archipelago on earth, TEPCO and its regulators had no accident-management plan in the event of earthquakes and tsunamis—assuming, apparently, that the plant was proofed against them and that any hypothetical accidents would be generated only from within. TEPCO had, in the event of nuclear disaster, an off-site emergency headquarters just 5km from the plant that was not radiation-proof, and so was effectively useless. On site, the workers in its number one reactor appear not to have been familiar with an emergency-cooling system called an isolation condenser, which they wrongly thought was still working after the tsunami. Their supervisors made the same mistake, so a vital six hours were lost before other methods for cooling the overheating atomic fuel rods were deployed. Partly as a result, this was the first reactor to explode on March 12th.
The government was almost as clueless. Naoto Kan, then prime minister, had a crisis headquarters on the fifth floor of the Kantei, his office building. But emergency staff from various ministries were relegated to the basement, and there was often miscommunication, not least because mobile phones did not work underground. Crucial data estimating the dispersion of radioactive matter were not given to the prime minister’s office, so that evacuees like those from Namie were not given any advice on where to go. That is why they drove straight into the radioactive cloud. The report faults the government for providing information that was often bogus, ambiguous or slow. Perhaps the biggest failure was that nobody in a position of responsibility—neither TEPCO nor its regulators—had sought to look beyond the end of their noses in disaster planning. No one seems ever to have tried to “think the unthinkable”.
In America official reports such as those on the September 11th attacks or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have become acclaimed books. This one is hardly a page-turner. A privately funded foundation, headed by Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, is doing a separate investigation, based partly on the testimony of TEPCO whistle-blowers. (One, according to Mr Funabashi, says the earthquake damaged the reactors before the tsunami, a claim that officials have always rejected.) It at least promises to have literary merit. Mr Funabashi, a prominent author, draws parallels between the roots of the disaster and Japan’s failures in the second world war. They include the use of heroic front-line troops with out-of-touch superiors; rotating decision-makers too often; narrow “stovepipe” thinking; and the failure to imagine that everything could go wrong at once.
Complex systems, jerry-rigged
For now, the risk is that the interim report does not get the attention it deserves. So far it seems to have aroused more interest on a techie website called Physics Forums, beloved of nuclear engineers, than in the Japanese press. The government, led by Yoshihiko Noda, has not yet used it as a rallying call for reform. One of its recommendations, an independent new regulatory body, will soon be set up. Others, such as new safety standards and broader evacuation plans, would take months to implement.
Such reports are, after all, confidence-building exercises. They are meant to reassure the public that, by exposing failures, they will help to prevent them from being repeated. In the case of Fukushima Dai-ichi there is still plenty to be nervous about. Although the government declared on December 16th that the plant had reached a state of “cold shutdown”, much of the cooling system is jerry-rigged and probably still not earthquake-proof. On January 1st a quake temporarily caused water levels to plunge in a pool containing highly radioactive spent-fuel rods.
Meanwhile, across Japan, 48 out of 54 nuclear reactors remain out of service, almost all because of safety fears. Until somebody in power seizes on the report as a call to action, its findings, especially those that reveal sheer ineptitude, suggest that the public has every reason to remain as scared as hell.