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Personal perspective from Japan on Fukushima nuclear disaster

By Dominique Numakura

FukushimaThe situation has been getting worse and worse every day. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) cannot deny the meltdown and fission. It will take several months to terminate the release of radioactive materials from the facilities and several years to remove the contamination from the area.

More than 30 years ago, I was employed in the research field for nuclear chemistry, and was licensed in Japan to manage radioactive materials and radiation equipment.

My field of concentration was chemical behavior from radioactive materials, specifically iodine 131 and bromine 80 in the form of gaseous fallout when released from nuclear facilities.

My colleagues and I focused on nuclear power generators and recycling plants used for spent nuclear fuels.

My career path later veered to the electronics industry.

FOR INSIGHT into the impact of the Fukushima disaster on the electronics industry read: Defining disaster in Japan: Impact on Japanese and global electronics supply chains

My technological background is not current in the nuclear arena; however, I continue to be surprised to learn the little amount of progress, and/or upgrades to the safety measures at the Japanese nuclear facilities.

I should explain some more details about the accident. There could be a lot of learning.

TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the owner of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima announced to the media all nuclear reactors were safely shut down following the earthquake and tsunami.

TEPCO went further on to say there was no release of radioactive materials from their facilities because the nuclear fuels were covered by multiple reliable vessels and encased buildings.

Their initial report was way to optimistic.

The tsunami caused power outages across the region, including the grid that services the plant.

TEPCO lost monitoring and control capabilities from the plant. The nuclear chain reaction was actually stopped by the graphite control rods; however, a bigger issue surfaced from the used nuclear fuel depot.

These spent fuel rods continuously generate incredible amounts of heat and the elevated temperatures caused physical damages to the casings.

Cracks in the casings allowed the release of radioactive fission products such as cesium 137 and iodine 131. (Spent nuclear fuel in the reactors and storage pools must be continuously cooled down after a reactor shut down; unfortunately, the power source to the plant was destroyed and water could not be pumped into the facility.)

Fukushima Plant #1 consisted of six nuclear reactor units and electric powered generators.

Three of the nuclear reactor units were scheduled for routine maintenance and were not on line, so their uranium fuel rods were kept in storage pools. Four of these units were seriously damaged from hydrogen explosions and fire during the first few days following the earthquake.

Testing of the surrounding areas revealed radioactive materials released from the spent fuel rods were present in the air; sea, city water and vegetables.

TEPCO and government officials downplayed the scope of the contamination, and declared a safe distance of 30 kilometers from the plant would be adequate for the general public.

Most of Japan’s general public is extremely skeptical of these reports.

There are many safe guards and stop gaps in place at nuclear facilitates to prevent this type of disaster– why did they not work this time?

In my opinion, TEPCO did not provide any scientific data early on, so the government probably assumed the situation was under control.

Did TEPCO disclose all of available information early on, or did they intentionally choose to down play up the magnitude of the problem? I don’t know.

According to news reports, TEPCO did not have enough remote monitoring and analytical facilities in the plant. This was a cost savings plan, plus they lacked a quick turnaround in data collection should a disaster like what we are now dealing with were to occur.

This is still an extremely fluid situation…

TEPCO still has not specified how the reactors were damaged, various types of damage, or the contamination source.

One thing for sure, there will be a new nuclear regulatory commission established once the dust has settled from this disaster.

Safety measures and controls should have been in place and continuously monitor. It’s too bad that this catastrophe is the catalyst to transform the industry.

The situation has been getting worse and worse every.

The Japanese government safety agency has to announce new contaminations every day.

Now, TEPCO cannot deny the meltdown and fission reaction of the nuclear fuels in the reactors.

A high-level official says it will take several months to terminate the release of radioactive materials from the facilities. Another expert officer says it will take several years, at least, to remove the contamination from the area.

This means there is no possibility to operate the reactors again.

TEPCO saved the costs of including additional safety and security measures and equipment when it built its Fukushima reactors, but TEPCO now has an astronomical heavy debt following this accident.

Personal note from Dominique:

It has passed three weeks since the disaster in the Eastern Japan. We are still experiencing several aftershock earthquakes every day. However, there have been a remarkable recovery except coast area and nuclear plant area. Highways and power supply are almost fixed.

It depends on the area, but city water and gas supply need some more weeks for whole recovery. Shinkansen railway to Sendai needs three more weeks to be fixed.

Most of the electronics companies in Tohoku area are ready to restart the operation. They are waiting the materials and labors.

There was a sad news for me. One of my old cousins were living in a small town in the coast area. Fortunately, she has moved to nursing home two weeks before the tsunami and she survived. But her husband, a retired fisherman was staying in the house with their dog and cats.

The house was beside a small river close to beach and whole house was swept away by the tsunami. Few days ago, his body was discovered under the debris and his death was confirmed. My old cousin is Alzheimer disease and she cannot understand the situation.

I want to visit her as soon as possible. But the local railways and local routes in the area were completely destroyed I cannot enter the area right now. We cannot have funeral for him for a while. Many families in the small town had similar tragedies this time. Please pray for them.

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