No Nuke Power

24 July 2007
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Kashiwazaki, Japan — After last week’s earthquake rocked the world’s largest nuclear plant, we were hearing conflicting information from the industry. Quickly, we put together a team to help our Japan office make sure the radiation leak was not worse than official reports were saying.
Here’s the diary updates from two members of our team:

Jan –  Nuclear issue expert from the Czech Republic

Rianne – Radiation expert from the Netherlands with a PhD in physical chemistry.

Jan – After the earthquake, TEPCO, the utility that operates seven large reactors on the site, first said that there was only a fire at one transformer, and that no radioactivity had escaped. Later that day, they said that about 1.5 liters of contaminated water had escaped into the ocean. A few hours later it was revealed the volume of water was actually a thousand times larger.

At this point it became clear that the whole thing was worth active investigation. Next night, I set my alarm clock to 3am so I could make some phone calls to Japan over seven time zones. I spoke to several organizations and grassroots contacts in the region. The basic input from their side was that they were also missing information, but they were very concerned because the strength of the 6.8 quake was two or three times bigger than what the reactors were projected to withstand.

Second thing was that local people were very nervous. They did not trust the official statements, and were worried about the possibility of a serious radioactive spill. They had no means to get any data.  The information from the official monitoring network disappeared from the TEPCO website, and no other independent institution had stepped in to make checks. (TEPCO later said that lack of data on the website was due to a damaged server, but this was not exactly reassuring.)

What then followed was an example of the best qualities Greenpeace has: Gathering experienced and dedicated experts and preparing special measuring equipment took only few hours.

Rianne – Monday morning, 9 am: Dutch television shows a fire at a nuclear power plant in Japan caused by a serious earthquake. Thirty-six hours later I sit on a plane to Tokyo, accompanied by my colleague Jan from Greenpeace International and my favourite radiation ‘toys’ (measuring equipment). An 11-hour flight and 6-hour drive bring us to Kashiwazaki, ten kilometres from the shaken nuclear reactors. Our team with a total of ten colleagues from Japan, UK, Czech Republic, Australia and the Netherlands gather for their first meeting. My first rapid ‘rapid response’ Greenpeace expedition has started.

People around the nuclear facility are terribly worried, and no wonder! I am here to answer their urgent question: Are there radiation risks in the immediate vicinity of the plant?

Jan – Our office in Tokyo, in the same short time, hired additional hardware and provided people to translate, drive us to the location and document the story – including arrangements to operate in a region where most of the infrastructure was still not working and movement on roads was limited both by damage and police.

The Japan office even managed to find us accommodation directly in the city of Kashiwazaki, some 10 kilometers from the plant, in a hotel that had no water supply but provided a slow but functioning internet connection.

Long stories can be told about the damaged city, demolished houses that we passed on the way to the nuclear site, and big cracks on bridges and roads were we drove.

Rianne – So three days after the earthquake I take my favourite radiation toy, the Exploranium gammaspectrometer, for a stroll on the beach. The Exploranium is the Rolls Royce of radiation monitors: it not only detects if there is radioactive contamination, it also tries to identify which radioactive isotopes are there. Heaven for radiation geeks like me!

Greenpeace Netherlands bought this expensive piece of equipment last February, and it has since identified americium-241, cobalt-60 and cesium-137 near a nuclear facility in Belgium, and measured dose rates near the uranium enrichment plant in The Netherlands. This is its first job overseas.

Jan – While our experts were checking the field, I took the opportunity to make an official visit to the TEPCO propaganda center next to the entrance to the site (nobody was allowed to get really inside the plant itself). Outside strange smiling ‘atom-dwarfs’, inside chaos including a scene with large broken aquarium. After few minutes we were asked to go out because it was not safe to stay in the building.

The nervous men with TEPCO badges were handing me colored brochures explaining how safe and nice the reactors are. I guess they were still suffering post shock trauma, and tried to follow old patterns of their public relations without actually realizing how bizarre it was.

Rianne – Together with Stan, Pete, Ryo and Toru and protected by our personal electronic dosimeters that emit a seriously annoying sound when radioactivity is detected, we do a rough survey of the beach areas near the fence north and south of the nuclear plant. At first glance, we don’t detect any alarming levels of radiation.

We, on the other hand, are detected by TEPCO’s security service, and are kindly requested to increase the distance between the fence and ourselves. We obediently follow their orders, after finishing a five-minute measurement next to the fence.

Jan – The first booklet has an English motto on the front saying, “Covered with many green plants and flowers”. The second is even more interesting. Printed back in 1992, it illustratively educates reader ‘that there is no risk of a big earthquake in the area because detailed research was done both from historical evidence and of geological faults’. It also says (in a very ‘scientific’ tone) that the biggest earthquake that which could theoretically hit the site is a 6.5 scale one, which the reactors are designed to withstand. Oh, but, oops… this week they were hit with a 6.8.  And it is a logarithmic scale, which therefore means about three times stronger trembling; and yet, it could have been worse!

Rianne – Of course, time is of the essence in a situation like this. Naturally, people want some answers sooner rather than later.  But a survey of the area takes time, and sometimes interpretation of the measurements involves some serious thinking.

What we are trying to find is an increase of radiation levels relative to the background.   Alarming sounds on our radiation monitors would instantly reveal a dangerous situation. But much more time is needed to be able to say that there is no immediate health risk.

Jan – Apart from that surrealistic visit of TEPCO, second unforgettable moment for me came when we met with Takemoto-san, a man who lives in the village of Kariwa literally above the hill from reactors. He showed us that his part of the village has highest percentage of collapsed houses, more than half of them fell down or were seriously damaged and most of families had to leave. Following governmental inspections door to door, his own house got status of “limited access” which means that he cannot stay or sleep there but can at least use it as a storage of his belongings. Mr. Takemoto, a long time critic of the plant, concluded that earthquake was strongest at this location and therefore hit the reactors with full force.

Rianne – It takes us two days and many hours in the field to state that there is no immediate radiation risk for the people living near the damaged nuclear reactors. We found some places with slightly increased radiation levels, but our equipment identifies thorium and radium, both natural isotopes. No iodine, chromium or cobalt, which TEPCO admitted were discharged into the air.

For a nuclear expert, finding radiation is part of the fun, and I’ll admit that a part of me would have been excited to find something more.  But mostly I am relieved that I can ease the local people’s minds.

Jan – Now we are on the way back home, after finding out that most places that we checked around the plant did not indicate increased radioactivity. (Sometimes the radiation level doubled against natural background, but our gamma spectrometer showed it was caused only by natural isotopes of thorium and radium.)

I was more than happy to explain to local people that there is no immediate radiation danger, they can for the moment relax and focus their efforts to rebuilding their households.

However, there is an obvious need for more systematic and deeper monitoring.  The damaged structures at the plant could leak more radioactivity in coming weeks and months.

We must also hope that the reactors will never be restarted.  That would obviously be like playing Russian roulette with future earthquakes.

Afterword:  On 22 July, the government of Japan agrees to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the Kashiwazaki reactors.

IAEA’s role as a promoter of nuclear power compromises it somewhat as a watchdog institute.  However, they are the best international institution to conduct a thorough inspection of the plant.