Monday, February 20, 2012

The Independent: Fukushima - Return to the disaster zone

Unlike the Japanese MSM who posted perfunctory reports on their press tour of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant on February 20, 2012, David McNeill writing for UK's The Independent filed a more detailed, personal report on his return to Fukushima I Nuke Plant, as follows:

The Independent (2/21/2012)

Fukushima: Return to the disaster zone

By David McNeill

The journey to Fukushima Daiichi begins at the border of the 12-mile exclusion zone that surrounds the ruined nuclear complex, beyond which life has frozen in time. Weeds reclaim the gardens of empty homes along a route that emptied on a bitterly cold night almost a year ago. Shop signs hang unrepaired from the huge quake that rattled this area on 11 March, triggering the meltdown of three reactors and a series of explosions that showered the area with contamination. Cars wait outside supermarkets where their owners left them in Tomioka, Okuma and Futaba – once neat, bustling towns. Even birds have deserted this area, if recent research is to be believed.

The reason is signalled by a symphony of beeping noises from dosimeters on our bus. As we drive through a police checkpoint and into the town of Tomioka, about 15km from the plant, the radioactivity climbs steadily, hitting 15 microsieverts per hour at the main gate to the nuclear complex. At the other end of the plant, where the gaping buildings of its three most damaged reactors face the Pacific Ocean, the radiation level is 100 times this high, making it still too dangerous to work there.

Inside the plant's emergency co-ordination building, the air is filled with the sound of humming filters labouring to keep the contamination out. Hundreds of people work here, many sleeping in makeshift beds. Workers in radiation suits and full-face masks wander in and out. A large digital clock showing the current radiation reading inside the building dominates the wall of the central control room, where officials from operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) huddle around computers.

"Our main challenge now is to remove the nuclear fuel from the reactors," explains Takeshi Takahashi in his first interview since he took over as plant manager two months ago. "It's a technically very difficult problem, but we cannot hurry." His predecessor Masao Yoshida was forced to quit in December after being diagnosed with cancer – unrelated to his work, insists Tepco.

Mr Takahashi looks exhausted but says he is satisfied with the progress being made in bringing the plant to "a state of cold shutdown", meaning radiation releases are under control and the temperature of its nuclear fuel is consistently below boiling point.

The term is considered controversial. Engineers have only a rough idea of where exactly the melted fuel lies inside the damaged reactors, or of its exact state. The fuel is being kept cool by thousands of gallons of water that Tepco pumps on to it every day and which it is struggling to decontaminate. Engineers are frantically working to build more water tanks – on a ridge about 65ft from the reactors is a field of 1,000-ton water tanks. A crew is levelling land to make way for more.

We are told to wear our full-face masks for the climax of the visit – a tour of the six reactors. Every inch of our bodies is covered and even in the sub-zero temperatures of Fukushima in February, it is unbearably hot. Thousands of men worked through last year's summer heat of over 30C in this protective gear, struggling to clear debris and bring water to the reactors. "They were dropping like files in the heat," said one worker. "But they just had to keep going."

"The worst time was when the radiation was 250 milisieverts [per year – the maximum, temporary government limit] and we couldn't find people to do the work," explains Kazuhiro Sakamoto, an onsite subcontractor. "We could only work in two-minute bursts, when we were extracting caesium from contaminated water."

Some of that work is clear on site. The concrete building housing Reactor One, blown apart in the first explosion on 12 March, is now completely covered with a tarpaulin to contain its radioactivity. As our bus drives past the building, the beeping dosimeters climb to 100 microsieverts an hour. But as the most badly damaged Reactor Three looms into sight, its mess of tangled metal and steel gives off a startling reading of 1,500 microsieverts. Its cargo of lethal fuel includes plutonium and the roof of the building housing the reactor was blown off in the second explosion. "It's still too dangerous for workers to enter Reactor Three," says engineer Yasuki Hibi.

The state of Reactor Two, meanwhile, sparked some panic last week after Tepco reported that the heat of the fuel inside was climbing and apparently resisting efforts to bring it down. The nightmare scenario of another out-of-control reactor was briefly conjured up by the media before Tepco banished it by claiming faulty equipment. "We've identified the problem as a broken thermometer," says Mr Takahashi, adding: "I'm terribly sorry to everyone for causing so much concern."

Tepco officials constantly apologise. The apologies have become perfunctory and ritualised, failing to douse public anger over the scale of the disaster, or some of the company's sharp-elbowed tactics since it began. Compensation has dribbled into the pockets of over 100,000 evacuees who have lost everything and are stuck in legal limbo, without homes or clear futures. In one now infamous incident, the utility argued against a compensation claim by a golf course operator, saying radioactive materials from the nuclear plant belong to individual landowners, and are not the company's responsibility. Lawyers for the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club, 28 miles west of the plant, said they were "flabbergasted" by the argument.

But here at the Daiichi complex at least, the apologies seem genuine. Work here is hard, unrelenting and, in the long term, possibly fatal. The depth of feeling about this catastrophe is etched on the faces of hollow-eyed managers like Mr Takahashi, who live day and night in one of the world's least hospitable workplaces. He says he is motivated above all by one thing: "We will try to allow people to return to their homes as early as possible."

It is a mammoth task. Japan's government has admitted that dismantling the reactors and its 260-ton payload of nuclear fuel will take up to 40 years. Many people believe the government and Tepco will eventually be forced to recognise that the people who fled from this plant a year ago may not return for decades. In the meantime, the work at Fukushima Daiichi goes on. And on.

I think McNeill may be wrong in stating in square brackets that "250 millisieverts" the onsite subcontractor mentioned was "per year". I think the subcontractor may have meant "per hour"; thus work in 2-minute burst so that the exposure could be limited to less than 10 millisieverts for the workers. In the first 10 days or so of the accident, the radiation levels in some locations in the plant were extremely high, measured in millisievert/hour instead of microsievert/hour.

On March 16, for example, the radiation level was 400 millisieverts/hour on the 4th floor of Reactor 4. TEPCO actually send one of the employees up the reactor building to measure the level. I hope he ran back down as fast as he could.


Chibaguy said...

Thank you for the article. This was this reporters own opinion but it seems to reflect reality from what he saw. I would have liked to see him go into detail regarding decontamination efforts as they are at most time worthless. None of these people will be able to go home for decades.

Personally, I have spent almost a year dealing with SI units and the difference Bq, Gy and Sv readings. Most people that I talk to here understand Sv readings but in the US no one really understands what I am talking about.

Thank you for the post again!

Karen Sherry Brackett said...

Thank you for sharing this article. It is really sad to read about the state the workers are in. It is just wrong to eat and sleep on site. Those workers need a mental break from work and there is no way to achieve that without actually leaving work. Even soldiers have barracks to go home too. This just compounds their exposure rates.

No one should be working there at this point. The Compton scattering rates are increasing and this ship is going down. Had they not used water and only used noble gases to cool. They had a chance but water is just throwing fuel on a fire when it comes to exposed fuel. Once the cladding is shattered and broken raw fuel is exposed then water becomes the last thing you want in contact with fuel. Reactors are cooled in seconds when control rods are lowered. If they could not use gas for structural reasons, they should have just dumped the raw graphite mixture for control rods in. There is a research facility in Ibaraki. It's not like those materials were not available. This has basically in the end boiled down to bad business for the Japanese government. There was billions to make off this disaster and those in charge of wheeling and dealing did not care about the lives it would cost or the suffering it would prolong. That money should have been used to compensate those who lost their homes and businesses rather than to pollute water and create thousands of more tons in building materials to contain the never ending "imaginary" water demand. It does not matter one bit if they are keeping some fuel fragments cool with water while a corium criticality infects the atmosphere from below. I have seen two neutron flares the size of footballs this morning out of containment in the open atmosphere. This situation is as unstable and potentially dangerous as it can possibly be for the entire globe.

Anonymous said...

Raw graphite mixture? Like what caught fire in the Chernobyl accident?

Anonymous said...

Dump graphite on tons of melted fuel at 4 reactors in close proximity of each other at the ocean's edge and then pray for the mix to stay DRY. Ignore groundwater, risk of another tsunami, heavy rains from typhoons...etc. Good luck with your ensuing megaton nuclear explosion(s).

Anonymous said...

"We will try to allow people to return to their homes as early as possible."

Not sure I understand that statement by referring to work at the plant. If they cleaned & shut down the plant today, it would not make a difference to people returning home in Iitate, Minami-Soma etc. Two different problems. Of course, it's nice to have goals.

Anonymous said...

Well, I may be guilty of over exaggerating, it might ONLY be several kiloton nuclear excursions with flaming nuke fuel strewn about.

netudiant said...

Seen two 'football sized neutron flares' this morning??
Please elaborate.

Anonymous said...

@Karen Sherry Brackett,




Anonymous said...

IWJ, NicoNico, and now the Telegraph.
Is there a complete list somewhere of all the journalists allowed in on this tour ?

Anonymous said...

8:22, would those be bananna sammiches?

Phuc Notagain said...


Oh come on dude, Arto Lauri can!

DD said...

Thanks for this report, I read the original (actually did buy a paper copy as well), McNeill has at least tried to get information out to the Indie and I salute him as he has many "critics" who muddy the waters at least on the forum. All you can do as a reporter is to get the facts across in the space you are given and to try to indicate the bigger picture behind. Well done McNeill, Indie, & thanks ex-SKF for picking this up. Thanks also to other commenters who are not afraid to attach some sort of personal label to their words.

Anonymous said...

>> A large digital clock showing the current radiation reading

Reminds me what someone said (was it her ? )
"In pripyat, the clocks don't count the time, they count the radioactivity". Time has stopped in the Fukushima prefecture also.

F4eru at

Hélios said...

Ultraman, how are you ? I hope you are fine...

Found this article :

Anonymous said...

Arnie Gundersen has made an appearance at the JNPC.

Clear and concise

Anonymous said...

(cr here)

Will the Japanese citizens ever read things like the transcipts of the American officials trying to figure out what was going on (when the Japanese govt and TEPCO weren't telling)?

[Official Transcript of Proceedings
Title: Japan's Fukushima Daiichi ET Audio File
(telephone conversations)
Saturday, March 12, 2011]

Unfortunately, most of the U.S. public do not want to hear any bad news about the Fukushima radiation disaster either, and, the pro-nuke propaganda machine has been in full force.

Never thought I'd see a govt doing what Japan is doing to their own children, and, the world's environment, with this (soi-disant, "baseless rumor")
'radiation distribution'.

Anonymous said...

McNeill suggests that the workers sleep at Daiichi, but I think this is wrong. I think they sleep at J-Village.

Dennis Riches said...

Dear ex-skf;
This is off topic, but you seem to have no link for general contact or inquiries. I thought it would be nice if people in Japan knew about this project in France to remember 3/11
It's five minutes with no lights 2012/03/11 19:55-20:00.

Hélios said...

Merci à Dennis pour l'info, je vais la mettre sur mon blog.

Hi, Ultraman !
No news still, :(

Anonymous said...


arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

@anon at 2/22 1:36, McNeill is right. There is a room with bunk beds in the Anti-Earthquake building for some workers to sleep, though now almost all workers go to J-Village.

Hi, everyone I'm back, sort of. Coming back from a bad food poisoning..

Hélios said...

Happy you are back and still alive.

American food, just take care !

Post a Comment