FUKUSHIMA: THE STORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER

Jun 12, 2015 by

 

By Louise Rubacky   TRUTHDIG

The New Press

To see long excerpts from “Fukushima” at Google Books, click here.

“Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster”
A book by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists

In “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster,” a team of scientists and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist recount what happens when a catastrophe strikes that no one imagines. No one with the clout to prevent it, that is. It’s a tale of entwined worlds that must cooperate intelligently in order to protect the public. The tensions and cross-purposes among them, however, lead to indecision, inaction and increased calamity. In crisis, these worlds—the nuclear energy industry, two powerful governments, and international regulatory commissions—are about as effective as a machine lubed with super glue.

Early and often comes the warning: HUBRIS AHEAD. Words and phrases like prevailing wisdom, low risk, practically unthinkable, unlikely, government assurances, assumptions, confidence, remote possibility and a situation we had never imagined appear throughout; they indicate attitudes about potential dangers, and point to why the earthquake and tsunami had such dire effects on Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and Japan.

This chronicle, another in the continuing tragedy of the human gamble against nature, is mostly peopled by players who could be said to represent knowledge, fear, power and money. In standing, the first of these comes last. Corporate captains, regulators and leaders charged with public safety cover up or sidestep facts that, if acknowledged and addressed, could imperil their coffers or careers. As in the U.S., there’s a symbiotic and dangerous relationship between government and industry in Japan. The route from the public to the private sector is known here as the revolving door; there, the delicate name for that greasy highway is “amakudari,” translated as “descent from heaven.”

The coastal earthquake that kicked off a trail of destruction and mayhem on March 11, 2011, measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, but was prematurely reported by the government as 7.9, 45 times less energetically powerful. It’s the biggest temblor in Japanese history, but the fifth largest ever recorded, and the authors present other reasons that industry and government should not have feigned surprise:

“Headlines scattered over the decades built a disturbing picture. Reactor owners falsified reports. Regulators failed to scrutinize safety claims. Nuclear boosters dominated safety panels. Rules were buried for years in endless committee reviews. ‘Independent’ experts were financially beholden to the nuclear industry for jobs or research funding. …”

Plenty of warnings were sounded, like those from noted seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi who, since 1997, had predicted grim scenarios that a catastrophic earthquake could set in motion. Other experts cautioned that tsunami reinforcements at Fukushima Daiichi were inadequate; they were made safe only up to 20 feet because plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company determined the danger of a wave above that height was “unrealistic.” In an island nation that generated 30 percent of its energy at nuclear plants and has over 1,000 earthquakes a year, company concerns about sending the wrong message to the public outweighed scientific evidence.

When the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, system failures flowed like lava from an active volcano. For three of their six reactors, the countdown to meltdown began. The earthquake took out plant AC power, and the tsunami drowned backup generators, cables, gauges and multiple critical tools. Internal emergency communications became spotty, as would be expected if those in charge had allowed themselves to imagine that such a destructive earthquake and tsunami could happen.

Within two hours of the 50-foot water wall flooding the plant, all backups for disaster control were kaput. The Fukushima incident was, like many nuclear accidents, “beyond design-basis.” This refers to power stations designed with accident management plans that function up to a certain degree of impact intensity. That threshold was much lower than the 9.0 quake and subsequent tsunami. Despite the risk, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also allowed U.S. plants to rely on design-basis planning, and for licensees to develop their accident management voluntarily. (Taking plants offline for seismic evaluation and upgrades is expensive: After the 2007 earthquake near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, all seven of its reactors underwent work. That cut production by 20 percent; owner TEPCO lost $1.44 billion and its stock fell 30 percent that year.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.