Analysis and translation by a tatami-chair observer of East Asian economics and security.
On Friday 11th March at 2:46 p.m., earthquakes along Japan’s east coast shook the Tōhoku region with unprecedented force triggering a 10 metre tsunami. The nation watched with horror as entire towns were swept away and farmsteads were steadily engulfed in burning debris.
Seven days later, 6,911 deaths have been confirmed and 10,316 are missing, making this one of the deadliest natural disasters in Japan’s history. Instead of focusing on victims, the nation holds it’s breath while engineers fail to quell a potential manmade catastrophe at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.
Press conferences have generated a media whirlwind. Although frustration grows that the crisis is not yet under control, plant operators TEPCO and the government have released more information on Fukushima Dai-Ichi than previous nuclear accidents. One power station has become the Tōhoku earthquake’s primary narrative, reinforced by government and media establishment alike.
MEXT real-time monitoring has shown heightened radiation rates in Ibaraki (Pacific coast, directly south of Fukushima) for the last five days. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency lists a cluster of installations at Tokai, including three research institutes and commercial reactors. Technologist Marian Steinback has plotted the MEXT data an Google Maps.
With Fukushima monitors offline since the tsunami, it’s natural to assume abnormal radiation levels are related to what we’re seeing on our TV screens. But variation between these clustered stations tell a different story, as do monitors at the Japan Atomic Power Company’s 1,060MW boiling water reactor, Tokai Dai-Ni. Below are screenshots of the radiation levels at each of four monitoring posts around that site during the last twenty-four hours.
Monitor D is detecting 2.4 times the radiation level at monitor A, which is within 1.5km. The discrepancy remains irrespective of wind direction, and all readings are higher when wind speed is lower. If radiation in Tokai was being blown 125km from Fukushima, the effect on all four monitors would be consistent and wind direction would influence readings. This morning’s rate was six times the ICRP recommended civilian exposure and eighteen times the normal background radiation level currently observed at Tepco’s west-coast Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant*. Something is wrong in Tokai village, and it’s receiving no scrutiny.
Tokai Dai-Ni was shut down automatically on Friday 11th March 2011. But operators Japan Atomic Power Company later submitted a report to local government advising that one of the two pumps used to cool water in the suppression pool had stopped working, and that two of three diesel generators used to power the cooling system during power failures were out of order. Restoring Tokai Dai-Ni to operation could mitigate Tokyo’s rolling black-outs, but at time of writing output is still flat-lining.
Tokai village was also the setting for a “flash criticality” in 1999 that was – like Fukushima Dai-Ichi** – rated severity four on the IAEA’s seven point scale. Three inadequately trained and supervised engineers mixed over six times the permitted dose of uranium oxides using steel buckets while preparing high grade fuel for an experimental fast-breeder reactor. The self-sustaining reaction continued for twenty hours, ultimately killing two workers and exposing 175 people to radiation exceeding the recommended annual limit.
The ISIS timeline, with remedial SDF involvement and repeated government assurances of safety, may seem familiar to those following current events in Fukushima. Remarkably, despite a history of poor governance and communication, people still trust the nuclear establishment here. “Japan’s most intelligent people are working on this problem, so I believe it will be ok” remarked one Tokyo resident following the second explosion at the plant.
For a nation whose quiet dignity, even now, has been noted by international media, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s acknowledgement that this is the worst crisis since World War Two must have been an uncomfortable comparison. The stakes are high for this strategically located country which, at the outset of 2011, had the second largest economy in the world. It’s difficult to know what to make of reports that the US navy had repositioned their ships to avoid a 160km radioactive plume, advised staff to limit outdoor activities 55km south of Tokyo and recommended an exclusion zone 50km greater than the Japanese guidance.
Yesterday Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa instructed SDF forces to conduct water-drops despite 87.7mSv/h readings 90m above the troubled reactor, because the situation “must be resolved today”. But by 9p.m. last night no progress had been made. As long as the distracting spectacle in Fukushima Dai-Ichi continues, the people of Tōhoku will face hardship without adequate support while the industry and commerce vital for rebuilding Tohoku will remain hindered by uncertainty. Many stories remain untold, and the media is only covering one.
* – Presumes radiation is gamma rays, other types would be worse.
** – While writing the IAEA amended their INES classification for Fukushima Dai-Ichi
NB. This blog was not scheduled to go live for several months but sharing this information now was important to me. Please excuse the poor presentation.