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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Five Years From Fukushima: Where Are We Now?

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Station under construction in the 1970's
We find ourselves at many different places, all at once, five years after the event that changed everything.  We see new opportunities, based on new ideas; we see some old places reawakening, all too slowly.  We watch as a nation struggles with its economy and need for energy, as elsewhere the concept that "an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere" leads to deliberate, voluntary entering of that power short, and power costly world Japan was thrust into in the months following March 11, 2011.  The world has indeed changed, and in many ways we might well have predicted these changes some time ago.

The spread of publications heralding this five year anniversary will no doubt be considerable; facing that, my presentation here must be either exceedingly brief, or else exhaustive to the point of intolerability in order to have any real chance of contributing to the overall discussion.  I shall choose brevity as much as possible over any attempt to document the thousands of personal actions, thousands of official report pages printed, hundreds of critical decisions made, in an attempt to reach some sort of bridge from then til now.

The Site

It is not any stretch to say that the conditions at Fukushima Daiichi are very considerably improved, and of course one asks "how could they not be?" after the five years since the tsunami that flooded the site with millions of tons of water and debris.  (Not to mention the destruction caused by the hydrogen gas explosions at Units 1 and 3, and the less forceful but still significant leaked-in gas burn at Unit 4.)  The workers at first had to rush to the emergency - had to meet the need where it was. There was no time to consider anything but utility, access, speed.  Over time, as the conditions of the nuclear plants made it clear that this would be not just a months but decades-long effort, TEPCO has moved to improve the accommodations for the workers as much as possible and actually, today, may be said to have afforded the legion of people, men and women alike, who are working at the site some identifiable measure of personal comfort.

Well worth watching is this latest TEPCO video, which itself looks back at five years' worth of events in an abbreviated form. (click link)

The Accident

For a long time, the real cause of the Fukushima Daiichi accident has been known -- that cause being what the industry refers to as Station Blackout, or that condition in which no electric power is available to operate plant indications, controls or systems.  The inundation of the site by the tsunami 46 minutes after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake (which the plants survived as they had survived other earthquakes, the operating units shutting down successfully and safely) caused the Station Blackout or SBO when the Emergency Diesel Generators and associated electric switchgear was flooded and made inoperable.  Many arguments have raged about the siting of the plant, or else if not that the location of the diesels in lower levels of the plant, or else of the failure to provide diesels at higher levels or even not immediately at the nuclear units.  Those considerations are, of course, specific to each nuclear plant site everywhere - and that is why, for example, Japan and the United States have chosen to supply large numbers of ready-use standby power supply and support vehicles which can be rushed to any site(s) needing them.

That the accident would have happened given only the tsunami, and letting dozens of possible scenarios play out after that, is almost unavoidable, although a sound case can be made that a serious tipping point was the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 just after 3:30 in the afternoon on March 12.  When that event occurred, attempts to connect portable resources to other units was interrupted, and people were literally forced to flee the area for a time for reasons of personal safety. (No substantiated claims of persons fleeing the site out of sheer fear have arisen, although the false claims continue.) After that interruption in site-wide operations it then became more and more likely that accidents would occur at other units on site, and of course there were eventually meltdowns at the other two units (2 and 3) which had been operating.  Unit 4 oddly suffered the effects of a hydrogen gas explosion itself, not from the spent fuel (as was commonly assumed in the early days) but rather from gas leaked over from the stricken, neighboring Unit 3.  It must be pointed out that all of Unit 4's spent fuel was removed intact last year, finally vanquishing those claims that it had been uncovered, had overheated, or worse.

This customized, remote controlled tracked dumper is typical of the equipment used at the site in the early days.  Note the television camera on the engine housing; vehicles were controlled from a special trailer or building.

Getting Control, Seeking Normalcy

In the years since, TEPCO has continued to make various moves at the seriously damaged units to control their conditions.  It has, for example, erected a huge enclosure around Unit 1 - - which it is now removing.  It has removed rubble and debris from the refueling floor levels of Units 3 and 4, and is preparing an enclosure to get the spent fuel out of Unit 3's spent fuel pool.  The appearance has changed drastically as the wrecked buildings and distributed materials are replaced with something still disordered, yet less otherworldly.  Gone are the days of armored and shielded fork lifts, cranes and dump trucks removing girders and glass and crushed vehicles, only to be halted by discovery of a new hot spot; today, areas are mostly accessible on foot and buses transport workers around the site, on which full respiratory equipment is required less and less.

Parallels, Effects

In the months after the accident, there was no time to consider what the long run would be - who would be responsible for what, and what would happen to the owner (TEPCO), or the nation, or even what would happen regarding the nuclear regulator's actions.  There can be no doubt that the accident was directly responsible for the dissolution of NISA, the regulator at the time, and the setup of a new nuclear regulator (Nuclear Regulation Authority) completely outside of the Ministry of Trade and Economy.

Eventually, given the fact that all nuclear plants in Japan were shut down, and that every single utility had to scramble to get generating sources and fuel for those sources, it became clear that TEPCO would not be able to survive, and it more or less did not.  The company has been receiving infusions of cash from the Japanese government, who now effectively owns it - in different circumstances, the company would have gone bankrupt.  This of course almost happened to the owner of Three Mile Island, General Public Utilities, who managed to avert bankruptcy only after being allowed to restart its remaining nuclear unit and stop buying as much (very expensive) replacement power for its customers.  TEPCO in the last five years has been forced to agree to decommission the two undamaged units at Fukushima Daiichi; the fate of its four units at Fukushima Daini, miles to the south, is unclear but know this:  Fukushima Prefecture has stated repeatedly that no nuclear plant will again operate on its soil, and it's sure as the sunrise that eventually TEPCO will have to write off Fukushima Daini as well.

Of course, there is one other TEPCO nuclear plant -- the massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant on the opposite coast of Japan, and into which the owner has poured millions of dollars worth of upgrades and backfits and modifications to get it ready to pass NRA's inspections to start up.  Given the public mistrust of TEPCO, it may well be that a contract operator will need to be brought in to "assist" TEPCO in starting up and operating the plant (Units 6 and 7, the two new ABWR's, would be first) until such time as TEPCO has regained a grain of public trust.

Much has been made in the way of comparing the Fukushima Daiichi accident to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, and now this recent name has joined the others on a short list of events that have reshaped an industry.  Parallels to the Chernobyl accident from an operational and business standpoint are few; the Soviet system was, as much as anything, responsible for and conducive to a situation in which that particular accident occurred, and there are so many systemic (political and operational) as well as physical differences between the old Soviet plants of that era and Fukushima's plants that comparison is more wasteful than helpful.

In terms of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, there are a few further parallels.  Neither accident directly caused the death of anyone.  Both saw the burn of hydrogen generated in the accident, but the effect in the strongly built containment of the TMI plant was nil outside the containment itself.  Not so, as we've seen, at Fukushima.  In both cases too, we have seen that it was several years in and still no one was exactly sure what the condition of the melted nuclear fuel was.  In the case of the heavily damaged Fukushima plants, it will certainly be longer to find that out than it was at Three Mile Island.  Bringing back in Chernobyl for just a moment, the condition was suspected early and known fairly soon and was considered so bad that it was better to bury the destroyed reactor under lead and chemicals, and then build an enclosure over it; another, further outer enclosure is now being added.  Fukushima Daiichi will not see this fate, it is almost certain, making it between the TMI and Chernobyl experiences in terms of the cleanup.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 enclosure, courtesy Tokyo Electric Power Co.

A Tough Road

Just this week, after Kansai Electric Power had been allowed to restart its Takahama 3 and 4 units, it was ordered by a Japanese court to shut them back down.  This court action took place completely outside the nuclear regulatory atmosphere, and gives a clear message that nuclear restarts in Japan will from this point on be exceedingly problematic until a precedent is set (as we have in the US) that regulation of nuclear plants, and the determination of their safety, is a national (Federal) matter and is limited in scope to the nation's nuclear regulator alone.

The Japanese government and the vast majority of corporate entities are heavily for restarting reactors, to cut fuel costs and to get the Japanese economy (read as "export machine") moving again.  Various prefectures are for this, while some others aren't sure and still some others (Fukushima) are dead set against any interior or adjoining nuclear operation if they can help it.  To the extent that they can, antinuclear forces are also trying to call into question every possible tiny defect in the earth as an "active fault," so that any reactors near them cannot be operated -- this is the case in a number of places, and legal actions continue.  We certainly can say this:  The nature of the nuclear plant operations in the future in Japan cannot yet be augured with any sense of surety.

A Future, In Spite of Setback

As recently as the shutdown injunction was issued for Kansai Electric, another couple of announcements were made -- that UAMPS had obtained permission to begin investigating the old National Reactor Testing Station, now INL, for siting of a NuScale SMR power plant, and also separately that Bechtel Corporation was reinvigorating the effort to build the Generation mPower SMR.  The units that Korea Electric Power / Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power are building in the United Arab Emirates at Barakah are on time and on schedule, and construction arrangements for the four new AP1000 units underway in the USA have recently been streamlined and integrated with the bringing of the construction operation in-house by the reactor vendor.  Nuclear energy continues to move forward, all around the world.  Yes, in some places, it's going to slowly reduce (France) or be killed off (Germany.)  In others, it's growing steadily (South Korea) or very rapidly (China) while in other places the share is expected to grow (South Africa) or is expected to go from zero to something in the foreseeable future (Kenya.)

The Fukushima Daiichi accident did change very many things, but in one certain parallel to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, it did not and cannot kill off nuclear energy.  In none of these cases did worldwide overall opinion swing against nuclear energy.  It continues to be considered as vitally necessary in many places today -- and, as the environment takes on more importance every day, the fact that nuclear plants produce no exhaust or gaseous emissions makes them a very significant force in "clean energy."  While the nuclear entities around the world have much to do in terms of messaging, of ensuring communication with the public, and with gaining public trust, a great deal of that work has already been done simply by acknowledging the need for clean (low or no CO2,) reliable power.  It is on that cornerstone that the future of nuclear energy is being built.

3:20 PM Eastern March 10, 2016


  1. Thank you for this write up!

    Regarding the chain of events, one more point was of interest for me and deserves mentioning IMHO: it is my understanding (as an outsider) that the loss of the function/control of the "Isolation Condensor" at Unit 1 played as well a crucial role in the accident. I am not really qualified to judge whether a successful operation of the IC after the tsunami would have tipped the scale enough to prevent the meltdown at Unit 1 and the following hydrogen explosion (which appears to be kingpin of this accident) – but it seems to me possible that Fukushima might not be remembered the same had the IC worked as intended.

    And two points regarding TEPCO come to my mind which should not be forgotten: Firstly, TEPCO always admitted only that what could no longer be denied. E.g. with regards whether and how much fuel had melted. These numbers were revised massively by TEPCO several times over time, when it should have been clear very early that a meltdown had occurred.

    And secondly, my impression is that working conditions at Fukushima were (unnecessary) bad, with TEPCO displaying a level of "disinterest" (if not disregard) towards human safety that appears to me nothing short of criminal. I remember reports of "mishaps" during the clean up, when wrong valves were opened an contaminated water was pumped to the outside, which appear to me to be acts of sabotage as a form of protest against TEPCO's policy of disregard to human life and lack of transparency.

    1. Well, the IC at Unit 1 was started and stopped and started and stopped, and the loss of power finally prevented the operators from being able to easily restart it. This has been, and continues to be, hashed out, back and forth on the inside and probably will be for some time. The operators nixed it initially because they exceeded a cooldown rate limit. Here's the hindsight: Had they known a giant tsunami was coming they'd have left it run. But they did not know for certain, so it was by the rules, business as usual. It's hard to fault them in those conditions.

      The meltdowns were, I guarantee you, known to everyone on the site, early, because of the radiation levels and the explosion at Unit 1. So the problem isn't realization of the meltdown, it's one of communicating that outside the site.

      TEPCO did not have a disregard for human life I don't think, as bad as you put it. Yes, there were many problems, but the actions of those trying to get those plants under control in dire circumstances (in other words at great personal risk) were not short of heroic. I think TEPCO corporate realized that somewhat later. The mistaken actions you mention are perceived today to be the result of having to use improvised procedures on deranged or damaged or altered systems without benefit of proper time to write and walk down procedures. Generally this sort of thing should be expected once a site is in the situation Fukushima Daiichi was after the accident - but again, this is hindsight. For people like me that are ex-Navy and trained in shipboard damage control, the chaos of post-accident scenarios is palpable and memorable. This almost surely wasn't the case for those trying to save the plants that day, or that week - they had no real training in conditions THAT severe.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful and insightful commentary. I do appreciate it very much!

  2. Mr. Davis, your excellent Fukushima coverage has made your blog my first resort as an aggressively pro-nuclear student in an unyieldingly anti-nuclear environment (Boulder, Colorado.) But I find myself casting about in search of resources on historical accidents that are free of anti-nuclear hysteria and cynicism. Do you have any favorites?

  3. Mr. Davis, your excellent Fukushima coverage has made your blog my first resort as an aggressively pro-nuclear student in an unyieldingly anti-nuclear environment (Boulder, Colorado.) But I find myself casting about in search of resources on historical accidents that are free of anti-nuclear hysteria and cynicism. Do you have any favorites?