Monday, November 14, 2011

Being At Fukushima – Now and Then

insidefukushima8Talking Points Memo has posted a set of photos at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Reporters were let into the facility for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant. A New York Times story covering the visit cannot really allow much room to acknowledge that progress has been made:

The ground around the hulking reactor buildings was littered with mangled trucks, twisted metal beams and broken building frames, left mostly as they were after one of the world’s largest recorded earthquakes started a chain reaction that devastated the region and, to some extent, Japan. 

Chain reaction, get it? Ha ha.

While no one died in the nuclear accident, the environmental and human costs were clear during the drive to the plant through the 12-mile evacuation zone.

It might have been nice to have this higher than the eighth paragraph, but it’s still nice to see – though it would have been more fully accurate to note that the human toll was quite dreadful and the property damage a hurt heaped upon a mortal wound.

About 20,364 people have been declared (about 15,700) or assumed (about 4800) dead. About 112,000 buildings were leveled and another 140,000 badly damaged. All of it caused by the earthquake and tsunami, none of it by Fukushima Daiichi.

The company’s minders on the bus were eager to show off one of its major accomplishments so far: the completion of a huge superstructure built over reactor No. 1, designed to trap radioactive materials. The company said a similar cap would soon be built over the heavily damaged No. 3 reactor.

So there’s that. But you know what? As far as a story on this event goes, that’s okay. The pieces are mostly there and it would be foolish to pretend that the accident hasn’t taken its own toll and that the toll doesn’t merit covering. It does – of course it does – but it’s worth stressing that the horror widely anticipated by the press early on never materialized. But – that’s okay.

Finding a balance that will satisfy all readers will take considerably more time. In the interim, the Times’ Martin Fackler does allow for some consideration:

The star of Saturday’s press briefing was Masao Yoshida, the manager of the plant and a man now revered for his stamina over months of grueling, and often dispiriting, work.

During the briefing, he mainly stuck to the message that Tepco was hoping to deliver: “I have no doubt the reactors have been stabilized,” he said. But in an echo of the plain spokenness that won the admiration of Naoto Kan, the prime minister at the peak of the crisis, he added a note of caution: “There is still danger.”

Well, some consideration anyway. I’d say the whole article is worth a read, though one has to allow for a narrative approach that Fukushima, stubbornly, hasn’t really earned. The earthquake and tsunami? Woefully, they did earn it.

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If you want to know what it was like to be at Fukushima Daiichi after a major earthquake hit and the staff knew it had about 40 minutes to prepare before a tsunami struck the facility, and the tsunami then struck, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO to its friends), has assembled a timeline, with complete cooperation from Tepco and the Japanese authorities, that does not mean to create a dramatic narrative but cannot avoid it.

Because of a lack of power, temporary batteries were necessary to open the SRV. Batteries were gathered from cars, carried to the control room, and connected. However, the voltage was insufficient, so additional batteries were scavenged and added. Operators attempted to operate several SRVs without success. With no injection, reactor water level decreased. The lack of core cooling likely resulted in core damage and the generation of hydrogen from the high-temperature interaction of steam and zirconium inside the reactor.

In it’s dry, factual way, the timeline can occasionally forget that those batteries didn’t gather themselves from cars – and that those gathering the batteries could not be sure then if their families were alive or dead.

Granted, the point here is not drama:

“The U.S. nuclear energy industry is committed to learning from Japan’s experience and applying relevant lessons to make U.S. nuclear energy facilities even safer. We are sharing this report with the widest possible audience because it is important that we all work from the same set of facts in determining the appropriate response,” said NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Tony Pietrangelo. “It is of paramount importance that we learn from it and take our facilities to even higher levels of safety and preparedness.”

That’s the point. But drama is there, too.

What a remarkably resourceful and brave group of people those workers were at Fukushima. I hope we learn their names at some point.

There’ll be plenty more to say about the substance of the timeline, but it’d be a shame to let the moment of its release pass without a salute to the workers over on that side of the Pacific.

Cars piled up against the Fukushima Daiichi facilities.

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