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CNO Summit Diary: Dressing Out to be Witnesses to History

At one point Wednesday, while within a few hundred yards of the three melted down reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, I was outfitted in three layers of gloves (two rubber, one cotton), plastic covers over my shoes, a very hot and very insulating Tyvek jumpsuit, and a respirator mask. The interior of our tour bus was fantastically shielded in plastic, and when, while maneuvering on a road between the ocean that sent the monstrous March 2011 tsunami and Daiichi's turbine buildings, our driver dramatically increased our speed as we arrived in front of unit 3, where the dose rate was highest on the site, to limit our exposure.

Storefront in an abandoned village.
All week the chief nuclear officers on this trip have regularly referenced their collective need to experience, first-hand, conditions in Japan that all but only a few have only read about. Our bus' movements, and our in-person engagements with shift managers and control room operators on duty the afternoon of March 11, 2011, at both Daini and Daiichi have ensured that they have.  

One of the many things I've learned this week is how marvelously our industry manages radiological protection. Each day our tour groups were on the Daiichi site (Tuesday and Wednesday) for upwards of 5 hours; our total dose each day, with negligible variation, was 2 millirem -- nothing compared to the 300 millirem we Americans naturally receive in background radiation each and every year.

Randy Edington, CNO at Palo Verde, has made a point of distinguishing the conditions he encountered on a visit he made to Daiichi in December 2012 with those our group is witnessing this week. Last December, Edington told me, his tour bus couldn't even approach the access road in back of unit 4, as we did Wednesday. There was late last year an enormous debris field still blocking access, and the dose was too high.

This week Edington has observed the removal of a dramatic volume of debris from numerous areas around the site, most particularly a massive mass of twisted steel that ominously cluttered the top of units 3 and 4. Additionally, there's a new building constructed next to and over unit 4 so that used fuel can be offloaded, perhaps later this year. Significant progress is being made here, without question, but of course one can't ignore some small practical matters whose disposition serves as an exclamation point for the consequences of what happened here 30 months ago: Every plastic bottle of water consumed by site workers and visitors necessarily will never leave the site -- it's radiological waste.

"Three-eleven is not over," one CNO told our assembly Thursday morning, while meeting in downtown Tokyo. "And it won't be for a long time." Another lesson necessarily learned from our visit. 

* * * * *

We were on Tuesday and Wednesday witnesses to history. There are memorial markers about Daiichi's turbine buildings chronicling the levels the tsunami water rose within. One set of floodlights in one turbine building corner still had tsunami water within its glass facings.

A field used to store contaminated soil.
A tsunami is a marvel of malevolent nature, a wall of water wider than our eyes' periphery, moving at times faster than 500 miles per hour. At Daiichi it took industrial strength steel -- and concrete -- and twisted it like Twizzler sticks. We saw just offshore a fantastically reconstituted and fortified seawall-breaker, but within the repaired line of defense a sobering reminder of the force that struck: pickup truck-sized chunks of concrete churned into a wide debris field. Daiichi's seawall was shredded by this monster.

"Nature, sometimes without mercy, comes and attacks us," one Daiichi reactor operator told our CNO's at a briefing Wednesday afternoon.           

* * * * *

The American CNOs have been changed this week by their engagements with site supervisers, shift managers and operators who were on duty that fateful 2011 afternoon. It's freshly searing to hear first-hand accounts from TEPCO personnel of how little they knew -- sometimes for weeks -- of the fate of their families, as first a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and then a historic 15-meter wall of water ravaged their land. The CNOs are having robust discussions trying to figure out protocols by which American nuclear utilities can communicate family status to site personnel who are on duty during notably destructive, but not adequately forecast, events. Industry already has such a protocol for hurricane conditions, for instance, but almost always sophisticated meteorological capabilities assure us of enough advance warning with which to account for family. As a consequence of what happened in Japan, and hearing of its impact first-hand, our CNOs want even more protective measures in place for our site personnel.        

And if the horror of March 2011 wasn't enough for Daini and Daiichi families, some relayed this to the American CNOs this week: in some communities, the children and spouses of some Fukushima personnel are regularly harassed and bullied by their embittered neighbors. 

* * * * *

At both Daini and Daiichi officers, operators and managers desperately wanted to know what more in safety strategy they ought to consider, and they looked to the Americans to tell them. In an especially poignant moment, Randy Edington stood up in a crowded conference room, held up his smart phone, pointed to the entirety of his traveling CNO contingency, and said, "In a crisis, I have each and every one of them on speed-dial." There aren't merely two Emergency Response Centers now in the United States, Edington added. There have long been 63 -- the location of every commercial nuclear power plant -- and at every one a CNO poised to aid when most needed to.    


jimwg said…
Excellent reports and I commend the personal introspections! A very important addition you might in include to aid FUD-busting is to relate the purpose of your preparedness in entering the Fukushima area. Already anti-nuke sites are ripping your features by asserting just strolling through Tomioka will exposure you to a sickening near lethal RAD dose and if you don't suit up at the Daiichi site that you're a goner in three hours. Mentioning exposure levels and hazards in laymen comprehension perspectives would improve your already fine reporting tremendously!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said…
DENUKE'EM Blog says CNO are touring Fukushima ghost towns in fast lead lined buses.

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