The day after Japan’s strongest earthquake in recorded history and tsunamis along its north-eastern coast, the nation’s worst subliminal fear - nuclear meltdown - may have been roused too. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Japanese officials confirmed an explosion inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture on Saturday morning. There are 55 nuclear reactors in Japan and 11 went offline after the quakes while five have declared emergencies.
The explosion at Dai-ichi seems to have led to the collapse of a roof over part of the facility and a fast-moving cloud of gas easily visible on international television rising from the stricken buildings. There are continuing reports of difficulties in keeping the reactor fuel cool enough to prevent a core meltdown or further explosion. New leaks of hydrogen gas and some possible caesium venting may contribute to a “modest” spike in radiation near the facility.
In nuclear reactors, radioactive caesium is one of the fragments of a uranium atom that has been split as a result of nuclear fission. Normally, some modest radioactivity in the cooling water is inevitable because neutrons, the sub-atomic particles that carry on the chain reaction, hit hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the water and make them radioactive. But caesium, which persists far longer in the environment, comes from the fuel itself. A Japanese safety panel has already said the radiation levels in the reactor control room at the Dai-ichi plant were 1,000 times above normal and radiation levels near the power plant’s main gate measured eight times normal, according to Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK.
The New York Times reported the Dai-ichi plant was operating in a battery-controlled cooling mode because the local power grid was down. In response, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant operator, said it had installed a mobile generator to guarantee the cooling system would operate even after its reserve battery power was drawn down. Nonetheless, Tepco said it was also considering a “controlled containment venting” to avoid an “uncontrolled rupture and damage” to the containment unit. “With evacuation in place and the ocean-bound wind, we can ensure the safety,” nuclear safety official, Yukio Edano, said on Saturday. It was not clear, however, how long the cooling systems could continue to function in emergency modes or when normal power supplies could be restored.
Photo: Police officers wearing respirators guide people to evacuate away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following an evacuation order for residents who live in within a 10 km (6.3 miles) radius from the plant after an explosion in Tomioka Town in Fukushima Prefecture March 12, 2011. Japanese authorities battling to contain rising pressure in nuclear reactors damaged by a massive earthquake were forced to release radioactive steam from one plant on March 12, 2011 after evacuating tens of thousands of residents from the area. Tokyo Electric Power Co also said fuel may have been damaged by falling water levels at the Daiichi facility, one of its two nuclear power plants in Fukushima, some 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo. REUTERS/Asahi Shimbun.
A core meltdown could poison groundwater reserves for years to come, while further explosions or major leaks of pressurised gas could spew major amounts of caesium and strontium into the atmosphere. As a precaution, the government has already declared no-go areas for 10km around the plants, but US nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione told CNN viewers Dai-ichi’s accident was already the world’s third most serious nuclear accident, behind Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Japan depends on nuclear energy for about 30% of its total national electrical power generation and the reactors in the north-eastern part of the country were shut down on Friday. More than a million people were without electricity.
Lurking underneath all this is the memory that Japan – uniquely – suffered nuclear attacks in war, as well as a highly publicised nuclear fallout incident from a US atomic test that poisoned the crew of the fishing trawler Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon”) in 1954. Not surprisingly, these things have worked their way deeply into the psyche of post-war Japan. At a popular culture level the Fukuryu Maru incident gave birth to the cinematic creature Gojira, or Godzilla, who was spawned by nuclear testing in French Polynesian waters. The monster destroyed Tokyo and later New York dozens of times on film. If one of these afflicted reactors has further problems, it may become a question if, or when, nuclear issues reassert themselves into Japan’s contemporary political and societal universe.
As far as casualties from the earthquakes and tsunamis are concerned, more than a thousand deaths have now been confirmed, but there are reports of about 10,000 people missing as well. Given the damage people around the world have been witnessing on international television, it may be amazing so few people have been killed, injured or are still missing. The compelling video footage shows whole trains lifted off their tracks and pushed long distances, freighters dumped inland, thousands of homes, aircraft, cars and other vehicles crushed or burnt and whole districts covered with the rubble left by the tsunamis.
Like everyone else with friends or relatives in Japan, my family and I have been reaching out to check on them and reassure them. One of them, an IT and library services specialist, wrote back via e-mail with astonishing sangfroid: “…Although it was dreadfully fearful, I am OK without any harm. When the earthquake came, I was at the platform of a subway that was deep underground. Even in the deep underground, it shook awfully and I hurried to run up the long stairway to the ground level.
“I was going to the Noh theater in Shibuya where my teacher and his professional group were performing three Noh plays. Since all the public transportation except buses were stopped, I took a taxi to the theater and enjoyed the full performance. [editor:!] Amazingly, those Noh players calmly conducted all the plays even when some quakes came while they were performing.
“After the theater, I walked back home all the way from Shibuya to Shirokanedai, which took me an hour and a half. When I came back home, I found that a lamp on a shelf had fallen down and many pieces of broken glass [were] scattered over the floor. Otherwise, I am OK….”
While we monitored TV, we saw rowboats filled with yochien (crèche) children in their school jackets sitting quietly while a teacher helped them off rescue boats to waiting Japan Self Defence Force army personnel, carrying them to safety. No crying or screaming, no panic, doing what they had practiced before, just in case.
Photo: Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama, March 13, 2011. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano confirmed on Saturday there has been an explosion and radiation leakage at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.
One of our daughter’s friends said via Facebook that her younger brother was on a school bus coming back from the American School in Japan’s suburban campus to Tokyo’s downtown residential neighbourhoods. What was usually a 50-minute trip lasted approximately 12 hours, but again there was no panic on the roads.
In the past 24 hours, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan has made several television appearances, dressed in an emergency preparedness utility coat or windbreaker. Kan is a politician many people came to trust a generation ago when, as minister of health, he stepped in to set to right government procedures in the wake of a tainted blood for transfusions scandal that had fed deep anger and popular cynicism about politicians. Kan’s leadership mettle will almost certainly be judged by the quality and speed of his government’s responses to the aftermath of these disasters.
While it is still early days and the damage is not even properly inventoried, let alone remedied, and further significant aftershocks with still more damage may yet be in store for Japan, it may already be time to consider how much these events will become part of that country’s psyche.
In 1755, Portugal’s magnificent Baroque era capital, Lisbon, suffered massive damage from a quake and tsunami. Mirroring the European horror of the disaster and its aftermath, Voltaire would write in his classic novel, “Candide”, after his characters had witnessed Lisbon’s agony: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, whatever must the others be like?”
The Japanese will move on and rebuild, but at enormous cost. Outsiders will shudder at the disaster, but marvel at the spirit of a nation that works to “endure the unendurable”, as its emperor said of surrender at the end of the Second World War. Less than a generation later, the world was already looking on to see the new Japanese Economic Miracle.
This time, however, a hidden arbiter of how well they do may well be international currency and bond markets, as the country must plan how to finance the extraordinary rebuilding projects they now face, given the national debt already carried by its government. Tough times indeed. DM
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Photo: A helicopter flies past Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi No.1 Nuclear reactor March 12, 2011. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano confirmed on Saturday there has been an explosion and radiation leakage at the nuclear power plant. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon.