Fukushima update—The current state of F-D cleanup, part 5

The previous two posts in this series looked at a number of concerns from the anti-nuclear community, and some newspapers that should know better, and found no evidence for their concerns. However, concerns about how Japan and Tepco are doing have been expressed by more credible sources. This is an update on those concerns, mostly about water. What I learned while researching this is that they are not about safety, but about reassuring the public, and doing the project right—whether or not safety is an issue.

The first rather lengthy section comes from an article by an adviser to the Japanese with experience in the U.S. cleanup after Three Mile Island. This is followed by some short sections linking to high level criticisms over Japanese handling of the Fukushima accident—some recent, some older.

Lake Barrett, Tepco Adviser, writes about the problems in Japan

Lake Barrett has been brought in by Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) as an advisor on cleanup of the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident. He headed the Three Mile Island Cleanup Site Office for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 1980 to 1984, in the years immediately after the 1979 accident.

In an article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Barrett summarizes the current state of the accident. Bottom line—the Japanese have done heroic work so far. They have to deal with a number of water issues. The problems are much more about public confidence than safety, and Japan coming to terms with how much of its admittedly significant resources to spend on relatively minor issues. Here are a few more details:

• Even accidents that have low health impacts such as the Fukushima accident can be socially disruptive and have huge cleanup costs.

• In the U.S. (and presumably elsewhere), multibillion dollar improvements were implemented after both Three Mile Island and F-D.

• Contaminated water is part of the mess of cleanup, more at F-D than at TMI. While the contamination is

at a very low level and presents little risk to the public or the environment… [still it can be] significant from a public-confidence perspective. So it is vitally important that Japan have a comprehensive accident cleanup plan in place that is not only technically protective of human health and the environment, but is also understood to be protective by the public…

[Tepco] has worked hard and has indeed contained most of the significant contamination carried by water used to cool the plant’s damaged reactor cores. Still, a series of events—including significant leakage from tanks built to hold radioactive water—has eroded public confidence….[The plan used] needs to include a new level of transparency for and outreach to the Japanese public, so citizens can understand and have confidence in the ultimate solution to the Fukushima water problem, which will almost certainly require the release of water—treated so it conforms to Japanese and international radioactivity standards—into the sea…

While most of the highly contaminated water has been dealt with, Tepco and the Japanese government are “having great difficulty in managing the overall contaminated-water situation, especially from a public-confidence perspective. The engineering challenge—control of a complex, ad hoc system of more than 1,000 temporary radioactive water tanks and tens of miles of pipes and hoses throughout the severely damaged plant—is truly a herculean task. Explaining what is going on and what has to be done to an emotional, traumatized, and mistrusting public is an even larger challenge.

The politics of the solutions are more challenging than the technical solutions.

• The technical aspects of the problems are mostly about water:
—340,000 tons (cubic meters)/90 million gallons of radioactive water stored in more than 1,000 tanks. Most of the radioactivity, the cesium-134 and cesium-137, as well as oils and salts, have been removed, and this water is being recycled back into the cores to continue cooling them. The current method of cleaning the water does not remove strontium.
—Ground water is leaking into the reactor cores (this is where most of the 340,000 tons of stored water comes from).

This building-basement water is the highest-risk water associated with the Fukushima situation. That water is being handled reasonably well at present, but because of the constant in-leakage of groundwater, some ultimate disposition will eventually be necessary. [A system of cleaning the water is now being tested.] In fact, I am writing this article while sitting on an airplane, and I am receiving more ionizing radiation from cosmic rays at this higher altitude than I would receive from drinking effluent water from the Advanced Liquid Waste Processing System.

—Also of concern,

water flowed into underground tunnels that connect buildings at the plant, and into seawater intake structures. These many tunnels contain hundreds, if not thousands, of pipes and cables. Most of these were non-safety grade tunnels that were cracked by the earthquake. In March and April 2011, therefore, fairly large volumes of highly contaminated water likely flowed into the ground near the sea and, at some points, directly into the sea….Although the amount of radioactivity in this groundwater is only a very small fraction of what was released in March and April 2011, this contamination has become an emotional issue, because the public believes it had been told the leakage was stopped. It is in fact true that the gross leakage of highly contaminated water from Fukushima buildings and pipes has been stopped. Still, approximately 400 tons (105,000 gallons) of groundwater per day is moving toward the sea from these areas, and it contains some contamination from these earlier leakage events. The amount of radioactivity in this water flow does not represent a high risk; the concentrations are generally fairly low…Regardless of the relatively low concentration of radioactive contaminants and Tepco’s efforts at containment, the water entering the sea in an uncontrolled manner is very upsetting to many people.

—Cesium which settled on the soil in the early days of the accident will be washed into the ocean; Tepco can’t prevent this large volume, low radioactivity transfer to the ocean. This is 600 tons (155,00 gallons) per day.

• Tepco can do better, with some suggestions. But bottom line:

Enormous amounts of scarce human and financial resources are being spent on the current ad hoc water-management program at Fukushima, to the possible detriment of other high-importance clean up projects. Although Japan is a rich country, it does not have infinite resources. Substantial managerial, technical, and financial resources are needed for the safe removal of spent nuclear fuel from the units 1, 2, 3, and 4 spent fuel pools, and to develop plans and new technologies for eventually digging out the melted cores from the three heavily damaged reactor buildings. Spending billions and billions of yen on building tanks to try to capture almost every drop of water on the site is unsustainable, wasteful, and counterproductive. Such a program cannot continue indefinitely…I see no realistic alternative to a program that cleans up water with improved processing systems so it meets very protective Japanese release standards and then, after public discussion, conducts an independently confirmed, controlled release to the sea.

Videos of current Tepco plans

Cleanup plans

Plans for spent fuel pool 4

A number of Japanese reports were highly self-critical

Reports issued by different levels of the Japanese government and various regulatory bodies and academics saw the Japanese culture of safety as inadequate; this, as well as a once in a millennium tsunami, led to the accident. A number of reports emphasized that the Japanese had failed to learn from major accidents such as Three Mile Island in the U.S. and the flooding of the French Blayais nuclear plant in 1999. Nor had they seen it as necessary to make improvements incorporated over time in other countries.

Atsuyuki Suzuki, former president of the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency, and now senior scientific adviser to his successor, listed some of these reports in a talk at UC, Berkeley (start around 8 minutes for a longer list):
• country specific-groupthink with consensus first, overconfidence, etc (Parliament)
• human caused disaster, lack of emergency preparedness (government)
• lack of safety consciousness, ignoring both natural events and worker training (academic)

Suzuki emphasized the reluctance to learn from accidents and insights in other countries, as well as “undue concerns about jeopardizing local community’s confidence if risks are announced” and the “regulator’s difficult position due to the public perception that the government must be prevailingly correct at every moment.” He also talked about the time it takes to move to a safety culture.

We are now seeing outreach to non-Japanese experts. Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman met November 4, 2013 in the second of a series of meetings to establish bilateral nuclear cooperation. In addition to Lake Barrett, Dale Klein (former head of the U.S. NRC), Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and others have been invited as advisers. Time will tell if this cooperation continues, and if Japan incorporates improvements in parallel with those required in other countries.

Outside criticisms of Japanese and Tepco management of the cleanup, and of communication

There is general agreement that the Japanese government was trained at the anti-Tylenol school of disaster communication.

World Nuclear Association posted August 28, 2013, about Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority’s failure to listen to International Atomic Energy Agency—NRA went back and forth on how to rate an incident, rating an incident 3 which should have been a 1 or 0 (incidents are rated from 1 to 3 on the International Nuclear Events Scale, or INES; accidents from 4 to 7):

“In Japan we have seen a nuclear incident turn into a communication disaster,” said Agneta Rising, Director General of the World Nuclear Association. “Mistakes in applying and interpreting the INES scale have given it an exaggerated central role in coverage of nuclear safety.” WNA noted that the leakage from a storage tank “was cleared up in a matter of days without evidence of any pollution reaching the sea.” “However, news of the event has been badly confused due to poor application and interpretation of the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which has led to enormous international concern as well as real economic impact.” The regulator’s misuse of the International Nuclear Event Scale ratings “cannot continue: if it is to have any role in public communication, INES must only be used in conjunction with plain-language explanations of the public implications – if any – of an incident,” said Rising.

WNA urged Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority to listen to the advice it has received from the International Atomic Energy Agency: “Frequent changes of rating will not help communicate the actual situation in a clear manner,” said the IAEA in a document released by the NRA. The IAEA questioned why the leak of radioactive water was rated as Level 3 on the INES scale: “The Japanese Authorities may wish to prepare an explanation for the media and the public on why they want to rate this event, while previous similar events have not been rated.” Since then the NRA has admitted that the leak could have been much smaller than it said, and also it transpires that the water in the tank was 400 times less radioactive than reported (0.2 MBq/L, not 80 MBq). The maximum credible leakage was thus minor, and the Japan Times 29/8 reports the NRA Chairman saying “the NRA may reconsider its INES ranking should further studies show different amounts of water loss than those provided by Tepco.” The last three words are disingenuous, in that Tepco had said that up to 300 m3 might have leaked, it was NRA which allowed this to become a ‘fact’. Maybe back to INES level 1 or less for the incident.

Since the leak was discovered, each announcement has been a new media event that implied a worsening situation. “This is a sad repeat of communication mistakes made during the Fukushima accident, when INES ratings were revised several times,” said Rising. “This hurt the credibility of INES, the Japanese government and the entire nuclear sector – all while demoralising the Japanese people needlessly.” “INES will continue to be used ….. but it represents only one technical dimension of communication and that has now been debased.”

There were concerns about whether, and how effectively, Japan was requesting help, in this case on the permafrost project:

The Japanese firms involved appear to be taking a go-it-alone approach. Two weeks ago, a top official at Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) signaled that the utility behind the Fukushima disaster would seek international assistance with the Fukushima water contamination crisis. But experts at U.S.-based firms and national labs behind the world’s largest freeze-wall systems—and the only one proven in containing nuclear contamination—have not been contacted by either Tepco or its contractor, Japanese engineering and construction firm Kajima Corp.

There was high level concern about both planning and communication:

Tepco needs “to stop going from crisis to crisis and have a systematic approach to water management,” Dale Klein, the chairman of an advisory panel to Tepco and a former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said.

Appearing to believe that no one in Japan was explaining radioactivity to the Japanese, some outside experts discussed health issues with the Japanese public.

And all along there have been concerns about how the Japanese treat workers at the Fukushima and other nuclear plants. Worker pay at the Fukushima plant recently doubled to $200/day, and better meals will be provided. It appears to remain true that a majority of workers at Japanese power plants are picked up on street corners.

Getting to Safety

The story of how workers are treated has little to do with safety issues, apparently, although it’s harder to have most of your staff trained in safety procedures if they are irregular workers. It helps maintains an image of Tepco as a company that doesn’t care about employees. Contrast this with Alcoa’s experience under Paul O’Neill. As discussed by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, O’Neill focused on safety. Managers went into self-protective mode and began asking workers how to make the workplace safer, and while they were talking, workers shared other ideas. Alcoa became highly profitable because of the focus on safety.

It takes a while to shift to a culture that emphasizes safety. The U.S. process has been aided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which ordered very costly upgrades after Three Mile Island. The safer plants operated with fewer unplanned outages, and capacity factor, the percentage of time the plant is running, went from less than 60% in 1979 to 90% today. Since a very expensive capital investment which is not operating is an unprofitable investment, the effect of NRC’s regulations was to make the industry profitable. Additionally, the U.S. has another tool for improvement, Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. INPO describes their purpose:

INPO employees work to help the nuclear power industry achieve the highest levels of safety and reliability – excellence – through:

• Plant evaluations
• Training and accreditation
• Events analysis and information exchange
• Assistance

In the Q&A at the end of the Suzuki talk, one person asserted that INPO’s actions have been even more important than NRC’s, and I saw head-nodding. Suzuki’s response was that Japan is not ready for the current U.S. NRC/INPO path. [The idea is that just as people need to learn a variety of motions—sideways and falling—before learning complicated games like basketball, Japan has to spend time learning simpler skills, or unlearning skills that makes consensus work better in the country with such high population density.]


It takes years to shift to a culture of safety, and just become some industries adopt doesn’t mean others aren’t left behind. In the U.S., any number of industries are far from giving us a sense that they are safe—natural gas, oil refineries, and chemical industries all have worse records than nuclear power. But nuclear is held to different standards, and there will be world pressure on all nations with nuclear power to take international advice. They may not. We can hope that they do. And that a culture of safety spreads to other more dangerous industries.

Both getting to a culture of safety, and staying there, are helped by sensible decisions imposed by a regulatory body AND improvements in the workplace culture. This means more communication, more respect for workers, and workers who have a commitment to the company (not day labor). Nuclear utilities, in every country, would benefit from communication about best practices elsewhere, at both a regulatory level and a workplace level a la INPO in the U.S. It appears that pressure from the Japanese public and nuclear professionals outside Japan is moving the Japanese in this direction. There are studies focused on workplace cultures, with less superficial recommendations; hopefully utilities around the world are paying attention to these as well.

The Japanese social structure appears to encourage poor communication about risks beforehand, and gratuitous and expensive “protective actions” later, such as cleanup to a level far beyond what international organizations see as necessary. The effect is increasing public anxiety, and shifting money from important projects.

Over time, and with ongoing shifts in Japanese society (or at least the nuclear portion), the dangers of new accidents, and concerns about this one, will decrease. Money will be spent in ways that contribute more to society. And Japan can return to fighting climate change.

Part 1 Bottom line numbers
Part 2 The state of the evacuation, food and fish
Part 3 The plume and fish come to North America
Part 4 The history of predictions on spent fuel rods

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