Earthquake in Japan (March 2011) — 18

16 March 2011 — 14:00 GMT; 23:00 in Japan

In denial

There is an air of denial around the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that owns the nuclear plants in Fukushima, about the seriousness of the situation at the No 1 plant. Readings from various monitoring points suggest high levels of radiation leaks from the plant. The government asks people to be calm, but it does not seem to know what is actually happening on the ground. TEPCO has singularly failed to provide any sort of reliable up-to-date information, or indications that it has plans for different contingencies that may arise now. Plans are sometimes announced at press conferences, but they are not always implemented. People are asked to take the word of someone who doesn’t know what is happening.

Fukushima prefecture, not the Japanese state / government, has decided to aid the evacuation of around 140,000 people living in the area between the 20-km mandatory evacuation zone and the 30-km zone where people have been asked to stay indoors. While this is not mandatory, the prefecture estimates that over 30,000 people are likely to wish to evacuate. This is partly due to the shortages caused by the refusal, understandable, of logistics workers who refuse to enter an area close to the plants.

A brief summary of the situation

There are two nuclear power plants in Fukushima: there are 6 reactors at the No 1 plant, and 4 reactors at the No 2 plant. The No 2 plant has shut down and the 4 reactors there are regarded safe. All the reported problems relate to the reactors in the No 1 plant. 3 reactors at No 1 plant were in operation when the quake struck (numbers 1, 2 and 3), while others store spent fuel rods (numbers 4, 5 and 6). The no 3 reactor was in operation and stores spent fuel rods.

When the quake struck, the emergency systems failed, due to lack of power. There was a power cut, and the back-up diesel generators were damaged by the tsunami. As a result, the cores started to heat up, and pressure built up inside the buildings that house the reactors. This led to an explosion in the building of the no 1 reactor. The company, it seems, hesitated for some time to pump in sea water to cool down the core. The prime minister ordered the pumping of sea water, but that was only for the no 1 reactor. The same measure was not taken at the other two reactors (nos 2 & 3) at this juncture. Broadly similar processes have taken place in these two reactor later: there was an explosion in no 3 reactor, and fuel rods at the no 2 reactor were exposed completely for a prolonged period of time. Eventually it was decided to pump sea water into the no 2 and the no 3 reactors in an attempt to avoid complete meltdown. TEPCO hesitated to pump in sea water, since that meant that the reactors are very unlikely to be operational again.

Situation critical

The company admits that a partial core meltdown is likely in all three reactors, and the containment vessels have been breached. The spent fuel stored in a pool at no 4 reactor may become critical, and though that is probably the most worrying at the moment, the situation at no 2 reactor remains unclear and extremely dangerous. The TEPCO workers on site are doing their best, but the management’s ability to communicate the situation on the ground has been woefully inadequate.

Political failure

The government is facing two monumental tasks that would stretch any government. The first is to make sure that survivors of the earthquake and the tsunami are safe and warm. It needs to transport and provide sufficient food, water, fuel, medicines and other essential goods to the survivors. The second is the situation at the nuclear power plant. No one can be devoted to both of these issues in detail that they demand: there has to be effective delegation, but retain the ability to make tough choices when required. The Japanese prime minister, Mr Kan, seems to have failed to grasp this. He wants to be in charge: the problem is that he seems unable to distinguish between being in charge, and being seen in charge. He seems to care more about the latter than the former, and is in charge of neither task. It is all the more frustrating, because he probably understands the gravity of the risks associated with nuclear power plants more than most of his cabinet colleagues or other politicians, having studied applied physics at university.

The buck-passing must stop. Someone must be in charge and bear responsibility for the decisions relating to the nuclear power plant, and inform the public, whether news is good or bad.