Posts Tagged ‘Engineering’

Fukushima Unit 3 Al Fresco, journalists don’t see it, Officials downplay it

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

The image below speaks for itself: the extent of damages at Unit 3 (left of the photo) are so severe that the spent fuel pools don’t exist anymore, and worse: the reactor must be completely exposed.

Fukushima reactor 3 total destruction - from

Now how come journalists these days cannot do this simple comparison work, and instead of questioning the reports by Tepco and the Japanese government, simply regurgitate blindly what they hear?

Although I can understand that no journalist wants to see things by themselves as the extent of contamination around Fukushima would “definitely” (to paraphrase a Japanese interviewed by the Washington Post saying “Tepco insisted that radiation definitely wasn’t leaking. Tokyo Electric should stop using the word ‘definitely’”) damage their health (but it’s questionable why they wouldn’t do so, war journalists have more balls than that, isn’t it about time a war journalist shows up there for less biased reports?), this kind of homework is not being done enough.
Even less thrown at the face of Tepco to point out how they obviously downplay the seriousness of the accident when a new piece of information shows up, just to acknowledge how bad it was later on.

1/ The Analysis

Here is the detailed analysis.

The image above is composed of 4 images:
- Diagram 1: original diagram of the Mark 1 General Electric reactor building. Image courtesy of GE from this Forbes article.
- Photo 2: original photo of Units 3 (left) and 4 (right) taken by Air Photo Service on March 24th, from this Wall Street Journal article.
- Diagram 3: altered Diagram 1 showing a ladder for scale purpose, so we can estimate how much of the reactor building has be pulverized.
- Photo 4: altered Photo 2 showing the same ladder to scale on both Unit 3 and Unit 4. The distance between 2 steps matches the squares of the concrete building structure.

As the reactor building diagram is from GE, you can hopefully expect it is to be at scale.

The goal here is to evaluate roughly how much of the building is gone.

The explosion on Unit 4 shows the structure of the building, which resembles a mesh with a height of roughly 5 squares.

When moving this ladder to the left to overlay with the more damaged Unit 3, you can see that the top 3 squares are gone.

Now drawing a 5-step ladder on the GE diagram (Diagram 3), we can see that if we were to remove the top 3 steps to the building, not only there would be not spent fuel pool left, but the top of the reactor would be completely exposed.

This seems pretty clear and obvious the damages to the reactor are huge, the whole thing is just in plain air, al fresco.

2/ The Journalists view

According to the New York Times article on the status of the reactors, the explosion damaging Unit 3 occurred on March 14th.

This same article has this entry:

MARCH 17, 9:48 AM
Helicopters make four passes to dump water on the building in an effort to cover the spent fuel, which may have been exposed to the air.

“may have been exposed”. That’s a weak evaluation of the situation.
To the journalists’ defense, our picture above was not available on March 17th.

But that defense doesn’t stand long, here is a picture that was available as early as March 16th from this CNN article:

It’s already obvious Unit 3 is a wreck on March 16th, and the comparison the Unit 4 is already possible: it’s already missing the 3 squares of our green ladder in the first picture.

While I don’t expect journalists to be civil engineering experts nor having nuclear plant building knowledge, I would expect them to bring those photos to the appropriate expert that would be able to point out the extent of the damages.

Then according to the same New York Times article on March 25th:

Officials say that the reactor vessel may have been damaged. A senior nuclear executive who insisted on anonymity said that there was a long vertical crack running down the side of the vessel.

Couldn’t a mere journalist already realize that looking at the March 16th picture?
Couldn’t Tepco have realized that already?

3/ Incompetence of officials

Note that “Officials” here are just emitting the possibility that the reactor has been damaged.

The possibility should have been acknowledged by officials already back in March 16th from the picture above, and even earlier as the picture may have been taken earlier, or they must have had a visual sooner (by long range camera, helicopter, drone, satellite,…).
March 25th should have been the confirmation that the reactor vessel has been damaged or not as they would have had sufficient time to get a precise visual on the inside of the building (again there are lots of tools: helicopters, drones, satellites, your local psychic …)

The whole story of the accident at Fukushima is full of this lack of information, with officials not spilling the beans and releasing key information slowly in a controlled manner, journalists simply echoing what officials say without really verifying or getting expert advices.

And the overall mentality and way of approaching such a crisis, in the big picture, has been to take only small escalating steps in protecting the citizens, based on the fact they had no information of a core meltdown.
They also had no information of a NON core meltdown! Most of the instruments were damaged in the different blasts (the pictures above obviously show everything in the building wiped out, so you can’t expect any sensors (temperature, pressure, radioactive dose,…) to work or the cables connecting them are just gone.

Basically they were flying blind from the beginning: no information that a meltdown is occurring means no need to evacuate more, not even with such doubt as there was also no information that the meltdown and radioactive releases were happening or not.

What kind of safety measures are that?

If you don’t know enough, you should consider the worst case scenario, not the best cases scenario!

Better safe than sorry no?

4/ “Wait until the building collapses, then get out of it” mentality

In that manner, Fukushima is just a replay of the Three Mile Island accident, where the best case scenario prevailed over the worst case scenario (two redundant indicators were showing opposite readings and the operators decided to trust the optimistic one while it was the pessimistic one that was correct).

The correct approach in any kind of emergency, especially if you lack information, is to assume the worst and act accordingly.

Would you wait until a building completely collapses before getting out of it?
No, you would run out at the first sign of any part of the building collapsing.

That’s what the French did as early as March 17th by evacuating all their citizens as far as Tokyo by not only advising them to leave, but also sending planes to bring them back to France:

“Given the possible evolution of the situation, French citizens in Tokyo are recommended to leave the region for the south of the country or for France,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

This is showing real caution and it’s what you would expect from your government: to protect you first even at the simple possibility of harm, and not waiting for hard proof and confirmation that real danger is already here.
Then when things calm down, you can decide to go back (or in the case here in Fukushima, not going back to Japan for a while…)

Unfortunately it’s often too late to take action, and you harmed more of your citizens by not taking action, and choosing to believe in the best case scenario first until proof of the contrary.

The Fukushima evacuation zone is still at 20 km (12 miles) only, today Tuesday April 5th… Outrageous!

Even more outrageous when you know the IAEA suggested Japan to widen the exclusion zone back on March 30th!

Good thing Japanese are docile, in the US it would be chaos and gun fights, as in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

5/ Putting things in perspective

Now let’s go crazy and do a simple comparison.

Little Boy, the atomic bomb that detonated over Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, contained 64 kg (141 lbs) of Uranium, and only 0.6g (0.02 ounces) to 0.8g (0.03 ounces) of this mass was transformed in energy.
Ok, this is according to Wikipedia, I see the critics coming already, so let’s say 100% of the Uranium contained in Little Boy.

Chernobyl: 180,000 kg (180 tons or 360,000 lbs) of Uranium.

Fukushima has around 1,900,000 kg (1,900 tons or around 4,000,00 lbs) of Uranium and Plutonium according to this Scientific American article, that’s 1.9 Million tons or 4 Million pounds!
By the way it’s Unit 3 we’ve been talking about so far, the one with the extremely damaged building, that has the dangerous Plutonium…

Why do you think France estimated the severity of the Fukushima accident at Level 6 (on a scale where the maximum is level 7) as far back as March 15th when Tepco still estimated it at Level 4?

And 3 days later, on March 18th, Tepco raised the severity of the accident to Level 5…

France is the most “nuclearized” country in the world, with 80% of its electricity coming from a nuclear source.
By comparison the US share of nuclear energy is only 20% and Japan is 30%.
So maybe they know a little about nuclear stuff… and if they were wrong, it doesn’t matter, they took the right steps for their citizens: get the f**k out, ask questions later.

How long before Tepco raises the severity to Level 7?

Update 04/11/2011:
Japan finally admits today that Fukushima is at Level 7 (up from Level 5), a level only achieved by Chernobyl in 1986.
Now this scale rates accidents for single reactors only.
As there’s actually 6 reactors in trouble in Fukushima with 4 of them in pretty bad shape, we’re actually witnessing a tragedy several times more serious than Chernobyl (who said 4 times?)