(Updated March 2014)
- Following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident on 11 March 2011. All three cores largely melted in the first three days.
- The accident was rated 7 on the INES scale, due to high radioactive releases over days 4 to 6, eventually a total of some 940 PBq (I-131 eq).
- Four reactors were written off due to damage in the accident – 2719 MWe net.
- After two weeks the three reactors (units 1-3) were stable with water addition but no proper heat sink for removal of decay heat from fuel. By July they were being cooled with recycled water from the new treatment plant. Reactor temperatures had fallen to below 80ºC at the end of October, and official 'cold shutdown condition' was announced in mid-December.
- Apart from cooling, the basic ongoing task was to prevent release of radioactive materials, particularly in contaminated water leaked from the three units. This task became newsworthy in August 2013.
- There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes to ensure this. Government nervousness delays their return.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of magnitude 9.0 at 2.46 pm on Friday 11 March 2011 did considerable damage in the region, and the large tsunami it created caused very much more. The earthquake was centred 130 km offshore the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture on the eastern cost of Honshu Island (the main part of Japan), and was a rare and complex double quake giving a severe duration of about 3 minutes. Japan moved a few metres east and the local coastline subsided half a metre. The tsunami inundated about 560 sq km and resulted in a human death toll of over 19,000 and much damage to coastal ports and towns with over a million buildings destroyed or partly collapsed.
Eleven reactors at four nuclear power plants in the region were operating at the time and all shut down automatically when the quake hit. Subsequent inspection showed no significant damage to any from the earthquake. The operating units which shut down were Tokyo Electric Power Company's (Tepco) Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2, 3, and Fukushima Daini 1, 2, 3, 4, Tohoku's Onagawa 1, 2, 3, and Japco's Tokai, total 9377 MWe net. Fukushima Daiichi units 4, 5 & 6 were not operating at the time, but were affected. The main problem initially centred on Fukushima Daiichi units 1-3. Unit 4 became a problem on day five.
The reactors proved robust seismically, but vulnerable to the tsunami. Power, from grid or backup generators, was available to run the Residual Heat Removal (RHR) system cooling pumps at eight of the eleven units, and despite some problems they achieved 'cold shutdown' within about four days. The other three, at Fukushima Daiichi, lost power at 3.42 pm, almost an hour after the quake, when the entire site was flooded by the 15-metre tsunami. This disabled 12 of 13 back-up generators on site and also the heat exchangers for dumping reactor waste heat and decay heat to the sea. The three units lost the ability to maintain proper reactor cooling and water circulation functions. Electrical switchgear was also disabled. Thereafter, many weeks of focused work centred on restoring heat removal from the reactors and coping with overheated spent fuel ponds. This was undertaken by hundreds of Tepco employees as well as some contractors, supported by firefighting and military personnel. Some of the Tepco staff had lost homes, and even families, in the tsunami, and were initially living in temporary accommodation under great difficulties and privation, with some personal risk. A hardened emergency response centre on site was unable to be used in grappling with the situation due to radioactive contamination.
Three Tepco employees at the Daiichi and Daini plants were killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami, but there have been no fatalities from the nuclear accident.
Among hundreds of aftershocks, an earthquake with magnitude 7.1, closer to Fukushima than the 11 March one, was experienced on 7 April, but without further damage to the plant. On 11 April a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and on 12 April a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, both with epicenter at Fukushima-Hamadori, caused no further problems.
The two Fukushima plants and their siting
The Daiichi (first) and Daini (second) Fukushima plants are sited about 11 km apart on the coast, Daini to the south.
The recorded seismic data for both plants – some 180 km from the epicentre – shows that 550 Gal (0.56 g) was the maximum ground acceleration for Daiichi, and 254 Gal was maximum for Daini. Daiichi units 2, 3 and 5 exceeded their maximum response acceleration design basis in E-W direction by about 20%. The recording was over 130-150 seconds. (All nuclear plants in Japan are built on rock – ground acceleration was around 2000 Gal a few kilometres north, on sediments).
The original design basis tsunami height was 3.1 m for Daiichi based on assessment of the 1960 Chile tsunami and so the plant had been built about 10 metres above sea level with the seawater pumps 4 m above sea level. The Daini plant as built 13 metres above sea level. In 2002 the design basis was revised to 5.7 metres above, and the seawater pumps were sealed. Tsunami heights coming ashore were about 15 metres, and the Daiichi turbine halls were under some 5 metres of seawater until levels subsided. Daini was less affected. The maximum amplitude of this tsunami was 23 metres at point of origin, about 180 km from Fukushima.
In the last century there have been eight tsunamis in the region with maximum amplitudes at origin above 10 metres (some much more), these having arisen from earthquakes of magnitude 7.7 to 8.4, on average one every 12 years. Those in 1983 and in 1993 were the most recent affecting Japan, with maximum heights at origin of 14.5 metres and 31 metres respectively, both induced by magnitude 7.7 earthquakes. The June 1896 earthquake of estimated magnitude 7.6 produced a tsunami with run-up height of 38 metres in Tohoku region, killing 27,000 people.
The tsunami countermeasures taken when Fukushima Daiichi was designed and sited in the 1960s were considered acceptable in relation to the scientific knowledge then, with low recorded run-up heights for that particular coastline. But through to the 2011 disaster, new scientific knowledge emerged about the likelihood of a large earthquake and resulting major tsunami. However, this did not lead to any major action by either the plant operator, Tepco, or government regulators, notably the Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The tsunami countermeasures could also have been reviewed in accordance with IAEA guidelines which required taking into account high tsunami levels, but NISA continued to allow the Fukushima plant to operate without sufficient countermeasures, despite clear warnings.
A report from the Japanese government's Earthquake Research Committee on earthquakes and tsunamis off the Pacific coastline of northeastern Japan in February 2011 was due for release in April, and might have brought about changes. The document includes analysis of a magnitude 8.3 earthquake that is known to have struck the region more than 1140 years ago, triggering enormous tsunamis that flooded vast areas of Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The report concludes that the region should be alerted of the risk of a similar disaster striking again. The 11 March earthquake measured magnitude 9.0 and involved substantial shifting of multiple sections of seabed over a source area of 200 x 400 km. Tsunami waves devastated wide areas of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.
(See also background on Earthquakes and Seismic Protection for Nuclear Power Plants in Japan)
Events at Fukushima Daiichi 1-3 & 4
It appears that no serious damage was done to the reactors by the earthquake, and the operating units 1-3 were automatically shut down in response to it, as designed. At the same time all six external power supply sources were lost due to earthquake damage, so the emergency diesel generators located in the basements of the turbine buildings started up. Initially cooling would have been maintained through the main steam circuit bypassing the turbine and going through the condensers.
Then 41 minutes later the first tsunami wave hit, followed by a second 8 minutes later. These submerged and damaged the seawater pumps for both the main condenser circuits and the auxiliary cooling circuits, notably the Residual Heat Removal (RHR) cooling system. They also drowned the diesel generators and inundated the electrical switchgear and batteries, all located in the basements of the turbine buildings (the one surviving air-cooled generator was serving units 5 & 6). So there was a station blackout, and the reactors were isolated from their ultimate heat sink. The tsunamis also damaged and obstructed roads, making outside access difficult.
All this put those reactors 1-3 in a dire situation and led the authorities to order, and subsequently extend, an evacuation while engineers worked to restore power and cooling. The 125-volt DC batteries for units 1 & 2 were flooded and failed, leaving them without instrumentation, control or lighting. Unit 3 had battery power for about 30 hours.
At 7.03 pm Friday 11 March a Nuclear Emergency was declared, and at 8.50pm the Fukushima Prefecture issued an evacuation order for people within 2 km of the plant. At 9.23 pm the Prime Minister extended this to 3 km, and at 5.44 am on 12th he extended it to 10 km. He visited the plant soon after. On Saturday 12th he extended the evacuation zone to 20 km.
Inside the Fukushima Daiichi reactors
The Fukushima Daiichi reactors are GE boiling water reactors (BWR) of an early (1960s) design supplied by GE, Toshiba and Hitachi, with what is known as a Mark I containment. Reactors 1-3 came into commercial operation 1971-75. Reactor power is 460 MWe for unit 1, 784 MWe for units 2-5, and 1100 MWe for unit 6.
When the power failed at 3.42 pm, about one hour after shutdown of the fission reactions, the reactor cores would still be producing about 1.5% of their nominal thermal power, from fission product decay – about 22 MW in unit 1 and 33 MW in units 2 & 3. Without heat removal by circulation to an outside heat exchanger, this produced a lot of steam in the reactor pressure vessels housing the cores, and this was released into the dry primary containment (PCV) through safety valves. Later this was accompanied by hydrogen, produced by the interaction of the fuel's very hot zirconium cladding with steam after the water level dropped.
As pressure started to rise here, the steam was directed into the suppression chamber under the reactor, within the containment, but the internal temperature and pressure nevertheless rose quite rapidly. Water injection commenced, using the various systems provide for this and finally the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS). These systems progressively failed over three days, so from early Saturday water injection to the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) was with fire pumps, but this required the internal pressures to be relieved initially by venting into the suppression chamber/ wetwell.
Inside unit 1, it is understood that the water level dropped to the top of the fuel about three hours after the scram (6 pm) and the bottom of the fuel 1.5 hours later (7.30 pm). The temperature of the exposed fuel rose to some 2800°C so that the central part started to melt after a few hours and by 16 hours after the scram (7 am Saturday) most of it had fallen into the water at the bottom of the RPV. Since then RPV temperatures have decreased steadily.
As pressure rose, attempts were made to vent the containment, and when external power and compressed air sources were harnessed this was successful, by about 2.30 pm Saturday. The venting was designed to be through an external stack, but in the absence of power much of it backflowed to the service floor at the top of the reactor building, representing a serious failure of this sytem. The vented steam, noble gases and aerosols were accompanied by hydrogen. At 3.36 pm on Saturday 12th, there was a hydrogen explosion on the service floor of the building above unit 1 reactor containment, blowing off the roof and cladding on the top part of the building, after the hydrogen mixed with air and ignited. (Oxidation of the zirconium cladding at high temperatures in the presence of steam produces hydrogen exothermically, with this exacerbating the fuel decay heat problem.)
In unit 1 most of the core – as corium comprised of melted fuel and control rods – was assumed to be in the bottom of the RPV, but later it appeared that it had mostly gone through the bottom of the RPV and eroded about 65 cm into the drywell concrete below (which is 2.6 m thick). This reduced the intensity of the heat and enabled the mass to solidify.
Much of the fuel in units 2 & 3 also apparently melted to some degree, but to a lesser extent than in unit 1, and a day or two later. In mid-May 2011 the unit 1 core would still be producing 1.8 MW of heat, and units 2 & 3 would be producing about 3.0 MW each.
In mid-2013 the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) confirmed that the earthquake itself had caused no damage to unit 1.
In unit 2, water injection using the steam-driven back-up water injection system failed on Monday 14th, and it was about six hours before a fire pump started injecting seawater into the RPV. Before the fire pump could be used RPV pressure had to be relieved via the wetwell, which required power and nitrogen, hence the delay. Meanwhile the reactor water level dropped rapidly after back-up cooling was lost, so that core damage started about 8 pm, and it is now provisionally understood that much of the fuel then melted and probably fell into the water at the bottom of the RPV about 100 hours after the scram. Pressure was vented on 13th and again on 15th, and meanwhile the blowout panel near the top of the building was opened to avoid a repetition of unit 1 hydrogen explosion. Early on Tuesday 15th, the pressure suppression chamber under the actual reactor seemed to rupture, possibly due to a hydrogen explosion there, and the drywell containment pressure inside dropped. However, subsequent inspection of the suppression chamber did not support the rupture interpretation. Later analysis suggested that a leak of the primary containment developed on Tuesday 15th. Most of the radioactive releases from the site appeared to come from unit 2.
In Unit 3, the main back-up water injection system failed at 11 am on Saturday 12th and early on Sunday 13th, water injection using the high pressure system failed also and water levels dropped dramatically. RPV pressure was reduced by venting steam into the wetwell, allowing injection of seawater using a fire pump from just before noon. Early on Sunday venting the suppression chamber and containment was successfully undertaken. It is now understood that core damage started about 9 am and much or all of the fuel melted on the morning of Sunday 13th and possibly fell into the water at the bottom of the RPV, or was retained on the core support plate within the shroud.
Early on Monday 14th PCV venting was repeated, and this evidently backflowed to the service floor of the building, so that at 11 am a very large hydrogen explosion here above unit 3 reactor containment blew off much of the roof and walls and demolished the top part of the building. This explosion created a lot of debris, and some of that on the ground near unit 3 was very radioactive.
In defueled unit 4, at about 6 am on Tuesday 15 March, there was an explosion which destroyed the top of the building and damaged unit 3's superstructure further. This was apparently from hydrogen arising in unit 3 and reaching unit 4 by backflow in shared ducts when vented from unit 3.
Water has been injected into each of the three reactor units more or less continuously, and in the absence of normal heat removal via external heat exchanger this water was boiling off for some months. In the government report to IAEA in June it was estimated that to the end of May about 40% of the injected water boiled off, and 60% leaked out the bottom. In June 2011 this was adding to the contaminated water on site by about 500 m 3 per day. In January 2013 4.5 to 5.5 m 3 /hr was being added to each RPV via core spray and feed water systems, hence 370 m 3 per day, and temperatures at the bottom of RPVs were 19°C in unit 1 and 32°C in units 2 & 3, at little above atmospheric pressure.
There was a peak of radioactive release on 15th, apparently mostly from unit 2, but the precise source remains uncertain. Due to volatile and easily-airborne fission products being carried with the hydrogen and steam, the venting and hydrogen explosions discharged a lot of radioactive material into the atmosphere, notably iodine and caesium. NISA said in June that it estimated that 800-1000 kg of hydrogen had been produced in each of the units.
Nitrogen is being injected into the containment vessels of all three reactors to remove concerns about further hydrogen explosions, and in December this was started also for the pressure vessels. Gas control systems which extract and clean the gas from the PCV to avoid leakage of caesium have been commissioned for all three units.
Through 2011 injection into the RPVs of water circulated through the new water treatment plant achieved relatively effective cooling, and temperatures at the bottom of the RPVs were stable in the range 60-76°C at the end of October, and 27-54°C in mid-January. RPV pressures ranged from atmospheric to slightly above (102-109 kPa) in January, due to water and nitrogen injection. However, since they are leaking, the normal definition of "cold shutdown" does not apply, and Tepco waited to bring radioactive releases under control before declaring "cold shutdown condition" in mid-December, with NISA's approval. This, with the prime minister's announcement of it, formally brought to a close the 'accident' phase of events.
The AC electricity supply from external source was connected to all units by 22 March. Power was restored to instrumentation in all units except unit 3 by 25 March. However, radiation levels inside the plant were so high that normal access was impossible until June.
Event sequence following earthquake (timing from it)
|Loss of AC power
||+ 51 min
||+ 54 min
||+ 52 min
|Loss of cooling
||+ 1 hour
||+ 70 hours
||+ 36 hours
|Water level down to top of fuel*
||+ 3 hours
||+ 74 hours
||+ 42 hours
|Core damage starts*
||+ 4 hours
||+ 77 hours
||+ 44 hours
|Reactor pressure vessel damage*
|Fire pumps with fresh water
||+ 15 hours
||+ 43 hours
|Hydrogen explosion (not confirmed for unit 2)
||+ 25 hours
|+ 87 hours
|+ 68 hours
|Fire pumps with seawater
||+ 28 hours
||+ 77 hours
||+ 46 hours
|Off-site electrical supply
||+ 11-15 days
|Fresh water cooling
||+ 14-15 days
Tepco has said that the three reactors, with unit 4, are written off and will be decommissioned.
Summary: Major fuel melting occurred early on in all three units, though the fuel remains essentially contained except for some volatile fission products vented early on, or released from unit 2 in mid-March, and some soluble ones which were leaking with the water, especially from unit 2, where the containment is evidently breached. Cooling is provided from external sources, using treated recycled water, with a stable heat removal path from the actual reactors to external heat sinks. Temperatures at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessels have decreased to well below boiling point and are stable. Access has been gained to all three reactor buildings, but dose rates remain high inside. Nitrogen is being injected into all three containment vessels and pressure vessels. Tepco declared "cold shutdown condition" in mid-December when radioactive releases had reduced to minimal levels.
(See also background on nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi)
Fuel ponds: developing problems
Used fuel needs to be cooled and shielded. This is initially by water, in ponds. After about three years under water, used fuel can be transferred to dry storage, with air ventilation simply by convection. Used fuel generates heat, so the water is circulated by electric pumps through external heat exchangers, so that the heat is dumped and a low temperature maintained. There are fuel ponds near the top of all six reactor buildings at the Daiichi plant, adjacent to the top of each reactor so that the fuel can be unloaded under water when the top is off the reactor pressure vessel and it is flooded. The ponds hold some fresh fuel and some used fuel, pending its transfer to the central used/spent fuel storage on site. (There is some dry storage on site to extend the plant's capacity.)
At the time of the accident, in addition to a large number of used fuel assemblies, unit 4's pond also held a full core load of 548 fuel assemblies while the reactor was undergoing maintenance, these having been removed at the end of November.
A separate set of problems arose as the fuel ponds, holding fresh and used fuel in the upper part of the reactor structures, were found to be depleted in water. The primary cause of the low water levels was loss of cooling circulation to external heat exchangers, leading to elevated temperatures and probably boiling, especially in heavily-loaded unit 4. Here the fuel would have been uncovered in about 7 days due to water boiling off. However, the fact that unit 4 was unloaded meant that there was a large inventory of water at the top of the structure, and enough of this replenished the fuel pond to prevent the fuel becoming uncovered – the minimum level reached was about 1.2 m above the fuel on about 22 April.
After the hydrogen explosion in unit 4 early on Tuesday 15 March, Tepco was told to implement injection of water to unit 4 pond which had a particularly high heat load (3 MW) from 1331 used fuel assemblies in it, so it was the main focus of concern. It needed the addition of about 100 m3/day to replenish it after circulation ceased.
From Tuesday 15 March attention was given to replenishing the water in the ponds of units 1, 2, 3 as well. Initially this was attempted with fire pumps but from 22 March a concrete pump with 58-metre boom enabled more precise targeting of water through the damaged walls of the service floors. There was some use of built-in plumbing for unit 2. Analysis of radionuclides in water from the used fuel ponds suggested that some of the fuel assemblies might be damaged, but the majority were intact.
There was concern about structural strength of unit 4 building, so support for the pond was reinforced by the end of July.
New cooling circuits with heat exchangers adjacent to the reactor buildings for all four ponds were commissioned after a few months, and each reduced the pool temperature from 70°C to normal in a few days. Each has a primary circuit within the reactor and waste treatment buildings and a secondary circuit dumping heat through a small dry cooling tower outside the building.
The next task was to remove the salt from those ponds which had seawater added, to reduce the potential for corrosion.
In July 2012 two of the 204 fresh fuel assemblies were removed from the unit 4 pond and transferred to the central spent fuel pool for detailed inspection to check damage, particularly corrosion. They were found to have no deformation or corrosion. Unloading the 1331 spent fuel assemblies in pond 4 and transferring them to the central spent fuel storage commenced in mid-November 2013. These comprise 783 spent fuel plus the full fuel load of 548.
The central spent fuel pool on site in 2011 held about 60% of the Daiichi used fuel, and is immediately west (inland) of unit 4. It lost circulation with the power outage, and temperature increased to 73°C by the time mains power and cooling were restored after two weeks. In late 2013 this pond, with capacity for 6840, held 6375 fuel assemblies. The older ones will be transferred to 65 casks in dry storage, with total capacity of about 4000 assemblies. Eventually these will be shipped to JNFL’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant or to Recyclable Fuel Storage Company’s new Mutsu facility.
Summary: The spent fuel storage pools survived the earthquake, tsunami and hydrogen explosions without significant damage to the fuel or significant radiological release, or threat to public safety. The new cooling circuits with external heat exchangers for the four ponds are working well. Temperatures are normal. Analysis of water has confirmed that most fuel rods are intact. Fuel assemblies are now being removed from unit 4 pool.
(See also background on Fukushima Fuel Ponds)
Radioactive releases to air
Regarding releases to air and also water leakage from Fukushima, the main radionuclide from among the many kinds of fission products in the fuel was volatile iodine-131, which has a half-life of 8 days. The other main radionuclide is caesium-137, which has a 30-year half-life, is easily carried in a plume, and when it lands it may contaminate land for some time. It is a strong gamma-emitter in its decay. Cs-134 is also produced and dispersed, it has a two-year half-life. Caesium is soluble and can be taken into the body, but does not concentrate in any particular organs, and has a biological half-life of about 70 days. In assessing the significance of atmospheric releases, the Cs-137 figure is multiplied by 40 and added to the I-131 number to give an "iodine-131 equivalent" figure.
As cooling failed on the first day, evacuations were progressively ordered. By the evening of Saturday 12 March the evacuation zone had been extended to 20 km from the plant. From 20 to 30 km from the plant, the criterion of 20 mSv/yr dose rate was applied to determine evacuation, and is now the criterion for return being allowed. 20 mSv/yr was also the general limit set for children's dose rate related to outdoor activities, but there were calls to reduce this.In areas with 20-50 mSv/yr from April 2012 residency is restricted, with remediation action to be completed in March 2014. See later section on Return of Evacuees.
A significant problem in tracking radioactive release was that 23 out of the 24 radiation monitoring stations on the plant site were disabled by the tsunami.
After the hydrogen explosion in unit 1 on 12 March, some radioactive caesium and iodine were detected in the vicinity of the plant, having been released via the venting. Further I-131 and Cs-137 and Cs-134 were apparently released during the following few days, particularly following the hydrogen explosion at unit 3 on 14th and in unit 4 on 15th. Considerable amounts of xenon-133 and iodine-131 were vented, but most of the caesium-137 (14 out of 15 PBq total) along with most of the Cs-134 apparently came from unit 2 on or after the 15th – the only one of the four units which did not suffer a hydrogen explosion demolishing its superstructure. Also ten times more iodine is attributed to unit 2 than unit 1, while unit 3 produced half as much as unit 1. However, there remains some uncertainty about the exact sources and timings of the radioactive releases.
On 16 March, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission recommended local authorities to instruct evacuees under 40 years of age leaving the 20 km zone to ingest stable iodine as a precaution against ingestion (eg via milk) of radioactive iodine-131. The pills and syrup (for children) had been pre-positioned at evacuation centers. The order recommended taking a single dose, with an amount dependent on age. However, it is not clear that this was implemented. On 11 April the government suggested that those outside the 20km zone who were likely to accumulate 20 mSv total dose should move out within a month. Data at the end of May (with most I-131 gone by decay) showed that about half of the 20 km evacuation zone and a similar area to the NW, total about 1000 sq km, would give an annual dose of 20 mSv to March 2012.
France's Institute for Radiological Protection & Nuclear Safety (IRSN) estimated that maximum external doses to people living around the plant were unlikely to exceed 30 mSv/yr in the first year. This was based on airborne measurements between 30 March and 4 April, and appears to be confirmed by the above figures. It compares with natural background levels mostly 2-3 mSv/yr, but ranging up to 50 mSv/yr elswhere.
The main concentration of radioactive pollution stretches northwest from the plant, and levels of Cs-137 reached over 3 MBq/m2 in soil here, out to 35km away. In mid-May about 15,000 residents in a contaminated area 20-40 km northwest of the plant were evacuated, making a total of over 100,000 displaced persons.
The IAEA reported on 19 March that airborne radiation levels had spiked three times since the earthquake, notably early on 15th (400 mSv/hr near unit 3), but had stabilized since 16th at levels significantly higher than the normal levels, but within the range that allows workers to continue on-site recovery measures.
NISA estimated that about 130 PBq of iodine-131 was released from the reactors, mostly around 15 March and the two days following – 0.16% of the total inventory. In 32 days this released iodine would have diminished to one sixteenth of original activity – 8 PBq. NISA's report to IAEA said that this 130 PBq of I-131 together with 6 PBq of caesium-137* released gave an "iodine-131 equivalent" figure of 370 PBq, which resulted in the re-rating of the accident to INES level 7. NISA in June increased this estimate to 770 PBq (I-131 eq), being 160 PBq of I-131 and 15 PBq of Cs-137. Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC, a policy body) estimated that 12 PBq of Cs-137 had been released, giving an "iodine-131 equivalent" figure of 630 PBq to 5 April, but in August lowered this estimate to 570 PBq. The 770 PBq figure is about 15% of the Chernobyl release of 5200 PBq iodine-131 equivalent. The NSC said that most radioactive material was released from the unit 2 suppression chamber during two days from its apparent rupture early on 15 March. It said that about 154 TBq/day was being released on 5 April, but that this had dropped to about 24 TBq/d over three weeks to 26 April and to about 24 GBq/d in mid-July. In mid-August 2011 the estimate from all three reactors together was about 5 GBq/d.
Tepco estimates published in May 2012 showed a total of about 1020 PBq released to the atmosphere over 12-31 March 2011 (after which very little was released). Apart from noble gases this comprised 500 PBq iodine-131, 10 PBq Cs-137 and 10 PBq Cs-134. In iodine-131 equivalent terms this comes to 500 + 400 + 40 = 940 PBq iodine-131 eq released to atmosphere. In addition, 500 PBq noble gases was estimated, mainly xenon-133. This is normally disregarded since is not biologically active and has only a five-day half life. Of the total releases, about 20% came from Unit 1, 40% from Unit 2 (peak on 15 March), and 40% from Unit 3 (peak on 16 March). Releases to the ocean over 26 March to 30 September were about 11 PBq iodine-13, 3.5 PBq Cs-134, 3.6 PBq Cs-137, total 18.1 PBq (or 169 PBq I-131 eq) apart from atmospheric fallout. Relatively little radioactive material was released by the active venting of pressure inside the reactor vessels (routing steam through water and releasing it through the exhaust stacks) or by the hydrogen explosions.
Tepco sprayed a dust-suppressing polymer resin around the plant to ensure that fallout from mid-March was not mobilized by wind or rain. In addition it removed a lot of rubble with remote control front-end loaders, and this further reduced ambient radiation levels, halving them near unit 1. The highest radiation levels on site came from debris left on the ground after the explosions at units 3 & 4.
Radioactivity, primarily from caesium-137, in the evacuation zone and other areas beyond it has been reported in terms of kBq/kg (compared with kBq/m2 around Chernobyl). However the main measure has been presumed doses in mSv/yr. The government has adopted 20 mSv/yr as its goal for the evacuation zone and more contaminated areas outside it, and supports municipal government work to reduce levels below that. The total area under consideration for attention is 13,000 km2.
In mid-May 2011 work started towards constructing a cover over unit 1 to reduce airborne radioactive releases from the site, to keep out the rain, and to enable measurement of radioactive releases within the structure through its ventilation system. The frame was assembled over the reactor, enclosing an area 42 x 47 m, and 54 m high. The sections of the steel frame fitted together remotely without the use of screws and bolts. All the wall panels have a flameproof coating, and the structure has a filtered ventilation system capable of handling 40,000 cubic metres of air per hour through six lines, including two backup lines. The cover structure is fitted with internal monitoring cameras, radiation and hydrogen detectors, thermometers and a pipe for water injection. The cover was completed with ventilation systems working by the end of October 2011. It was expected to be needed for two years. In May 2013 Tepco announced its more permanent replacement, to be built over four years. It would start demolishing the current cover at the end of 2013 and then remove concrete and other rubble on the top floor of the building. A crane and other equipment for fuel removal will then be installed, and a new cover put in place over the building.
Similar covers were designed to fit around unit 3&4 reactor buildings after the top floors were cleared up in 2012. Work started on the 69 x 31 m cover (53 m high) for unit 4 in April 2012, and the cantilevered structure was completed in July 2013. It was fully equipped by the end of 2013 to enable unloading of used fuel from the storage pond into containers. This is accomplished under water, using the new fuel handling machine (replacing the one destroyed by the hydrogen explosion) so that it can be transferred to the central storage on site. This was well under way early in 2014. Animation video of the process here. A different design of cover is planned for unit 3, and foundation work had begun in 2012. Large rubble removal took place late in 2013 and fuel removal from the pool is scheduled in 2015, and fuel debris retrieval from about 2021, after units 1&2 started. Spent fuel removal from units 1&2 pools is scheduled in 2018, and fuel debris retrieval from 2020.
Tests on radioactivity in rice have been made and caesium was found in a few of them. The highest levels were about one quarter of the allowable limit of 500 Bq/kg, so shipments to market are permitted.
Maps from MEXT aerial surveys carried out approximately one year apart show the reduction in contamination from late 2011 to late 2012. Areas with colour changes in 2012 showed approximately half the contamination as surveyed in 2011, the difference coming from decay of caesium-134 (two year half-life) and natural processes like wind and rain. In blue areas, ambient radiation is very similar to global background levels at <0.5uSv/h which is equal to <4.38 mSv/y.
Summary: Major releases of radionuclides, including long-lived caesium, occurred to air, mainly in mid-March. The population within a 20km radius had been evacuated three days earlier. Considerable work was done to reduce the amount of radioactive debris on site and to stabilise dust. The main source of radioactive releases was the apparent hydrogen explosion in the suppression chamber of unit 2 on 15 March. A cover building for unit 1 reactor has been built and commissioned, a more substantial one for unit 4 is under construction. Radioactive releases in mid-August 2011 had reduced to 5 GBq/hr, and dose rate from these at the plant boundary was 1.7 mSv/yr, less than natural background.
Sequence of evacuation orders based on the report by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident:
14:46 JST The earthquake occurred.
15:42 TEPCO made the first emergency report to the government.
19:03 The government announced nuclear emergency.
20:50 The Fukushima Prefecture Office ordered 2km evacuation.
21:23 The government ordered 3km evacuation and to keep staying inside buildings in the area of 3-10km.
05:44 The government ordered 10km evacuation.
18:25 The government ordered 20km evacuation.
11:01 The government ordered to keep staying inside buildings in the area of 20-30km.
25 March The government requested voluntary evacuation in the area of 20-30km.
21 April The government set the 20km no-go area.
Radiation exposure on the plant site
By 31 December 2011, Tepco had checked the radiation exposure of 19,594 people who had worked on the site since 11 March, for many of these considering both external dose and internal doses (measured with whole-body counters). It reported that 167 workers had received doses over 100 mSv. Of these 135 had received 100 to 150 mSv, 23 150-200 mSv, three more 200-250 mSv, and six had received over 250 mSv (309 to 678 mSv) apparently due to inhaling iodine-131 fume early on. The latter included the two unit 3-4 control room operators in the first two days who had not been wearing breathing apparatus. There were up to 200 workers on site each day. Recovery workers are wearing personal monitors, with breathing apparatus and protective clothing which protect against alpha and beta radiation. So far over 3500 of some 3700 workers at the damaged Daiichi plant have received internal check-ups for radiation exposure, giving whole body count estimates. The level of 250 mSv was the allowable maximum short-term dose for Fukushima accident clean-up workers through to December 2011, 500 mSv is the international allowable short-term dose "for emergency workers taking life-saving actions". Since January 2012 the allowable maximum has reverted to 50 mSv/yr.
No radiation casualties (acute radiation syndrome) occurred, and few other injuries, though higher than normal doses were being accumulated by several hundred workers on site. High radiation levels in the three reactor buildings hindered access there through into 2012.
Monitoring of seawater, soil and atmosphere is at 25 locations on the plant site, 12 locations on the boundary, and others further afield. Government and IAEA monitoring of air and seawater is ongoing, with high but not health-threatening levels of iodine-131 being found in March. With an eight-day half-life, most I-131 had gone by the end of April 2011.
A radiation survey map of the site made in March 2013 revealed substantial progress: the highest dose rate anywhere on the site was 0.15 mSv/h near units 3 and 4. (Soon after the accident a similar survey put the highest dose rate at 300 mSv/h near rubble lying alongside unit 3.) The majority of the power plant area was at less than 0.01 mSv/h. These reduced levels are reflected in worker doses: during January 2013, the 5702 workers at the site received an average of 0.86 mSv, with 75% of workers recorded as receiving less than 1 mSv. In total, only about 2% of workers received over 5 mSv and the highest dose in January was 12.65 mSv for one worker.
Media reports have referred to "nuclear gypsies" – casual workers employed by subcontractors on a short-term basis, and allegedly prone to receiving higher and unsupervised radiation doses. This transient workforce has been part of the nuclear scene for at least four decades, and at Fukushima their doses are very rigorously monitored. If they reach certain levels, e.g. 30 mSv but varying according to circumstance, they are reassigned to lower-exposure areas.
Summary: Six workers received radiation doses apparently over the 250 mSv level set by NISA, but at levels below those which would cause radiation sickness.
Radiation exposure and fallout beyond the plant site
On 4 April 2011, radiation levels of 0.06 mSv/day were recorded in Fukushima city, 65 km northwest of the plant, about 60 times higher than normal but posing no health risk according to authorities. Monitoring beyond the 20 km evacuation radius to 13 April showed one location – around Iitate – with up to 0.266 mSv/day dose rate, but elsewhere no more than one-tenth of this. At the end of July the highest level measured within 30km radius was 0.84 mSv/day in Namie town, 24 km away. The safety limit set by the central government in mid-April for public recreation areas was 3.8 microsieverts per hour (0.09 mSv/day).
In June 2013, analysis from Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) showed that the most contaminated areas in the Fukushima evacuation zone had reduced in size by three-quarters over the previous two years. The area subject to high dose rates (over 166 mSv/yr) diminished from 27% of the 1117 km2 zone to 6% over 15 months to March 2013, and in the ‘no residence’ portion (originally 83-166 mSv/yr) no areas remained at this level and 70% was below 33 mSv/yr. The least-contaminated area is now entirely below 33 mSv/yr.
In August 2011 The Act on Special Measures Concerning the Handling of Radioactive Pollution was enacted and it took full effect from January 2012 as the main legal instrument to deal with all remediation activities in the affected areas, as well as the management of materials removed as a result of those activities. It specified two categories of land:
- Special Decontamination Areas consisting of the “restricted areas” located within a 20 km radius from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and “deliberate evacuation areas” where the annual cumulative dose for individuals was anticipated to exceed 20 mSv. The national government promotes decontamination in these areas. These areas are subdivided into three: dose 1- 20 mSv/yr (green) dose 20-50 mSv/yr (yellow) and dose over 50 mSv/yr and over 20 mSv/yr average over 5 years (red).
- Intensive Contamination Survey Areas including the so-called Decontamination Implementation Areas, where an additional annual cumulative dose between 1mSv and 20mSv was estimated for individuals. Municipalities implement decontamination activities in these areas.
In May 2013, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported, following a detailed study by 80 international experts. It concluded that "Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers." The only exception are the 146 emergency workers that received radiation doses of over 100 mSv during the crisis. They will be monitored closely for "potential late radiation-related health effects at an individual level."
By contrast, the public was exposed to 10-50 times less radiation. Most Japanese people were exposed to additional radiation amounting to less than the typical natural background level of 2.1 mSv per year.
People living in Fukushima prefecture are expected to be exposed to around 10 mSv over their entire lifetimes, while for those living further away the dose would be 0.2 mSv per year. The UNSCEAR conclusion reinforces the findings of several international reports to date, including one from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that considered the health risk to the most exposed people possible: a postulated girl under one year of age living in Iitate or Namie that did not evacuate and continued life as normal for four months after the accident. Such a child's theoretical risk of developing breast cancer by age 89 would be increased from 29.04% to 30.20%, according to WHO's analysis.
UNSCEAR's report "will be the most comprehensive international scientific analysis of the information available to date" when published in full later in 2013 at the UN General Assembly.
In September 2013 the government said that “The radiation dose due to the radioactive material release is 0.03 mSv per year, equivalent to 1/70 of annual natural radiation dose (Japan’s average is 2.1 mSv per year)."
Eleven municipalities in the former restricted zone or planned evacuation area, within 20 km of the plant or where annual cumulative radiation dose is greater than 20 mSv, are designated Special Decontamination Areas, where decontamination work is being implemented by the government. A further 100 municipalities in eight prefectures, where dose rates are equivalent to over 1 mSv per year are classed as Intensive Decontamination Survey Areas, where decontamination is being implemented by each municipality with funding and technical support from the national government. In the Special Decontamination Areas, decontamination is proceeding and was complete to target levels in one municipality by June 2013.
In October 2013 a 16-member IAEA mission reported on remediation and decontamination in the Special Decontamination Areas. Its preliminary report said that decontamination efforts were commendable but driven by unrealistic targets. If annual radiation dose was below 20 mSv, such as generally in Intensive Decontamination Survey Areas, this level was “acceptable and in line with the international standards and with the recommendations from the relevant international organisations, e.g. ICRP, IAEA, UNSCEAR and WHO.” The clear implication is that people in such areas should be allowed to return home. Furthermore the government should increase efforts to communicate this to the public, and should explain that its long-term goal of achieving an additional individual dose of 1 mSv/yr is unrealistic and unnecessary in the short term. Also, there is potential to produce more food safely in contaminated areas.
Summary: There have been no harmful effects from radiation on local people, nor any doses approaching harmful levels. However, some 160,000 people were evacuated from their homes and only in 2012 were allowed limited return. In October 2013, 81,000 evacuees remained displaced due to government concern about radiological effects from the accident.
Comments on the radiation situation by international experts are posted on Prime Minister & Cabinet official website.
Return of evacuees
Permanent return remains a high priority, and the evacuation zone is being decontaminated where required and possible, so that evacuees (81,000 from this accident according to METI) can return without undue delay. There are many cases of evacuation stress including transfer trauma among evacuees, and once the situation had stabilised at the plant these outweighed the radiological hazards of returning, with over 1000 deaths reported (see below). There are also 65,000 tsunami survivor refugees remaining displaced.
In December 2011 the government said that where annual radiation dose would be below 20 mSv/yr, the government would help residents return home as soon as possible and assist local municipalities with decontamination and repair of infrastructure. In areas where radiation levels are over 20 mSv/yr evacuees will be asked to continue living elsewhere for “a few years” until the government completes decontamination and recovery work. The government will consider purchasing land and houses from residents of these areas if the evacuees wish to sell them.
From April 2012 part of the 20-km radius area and the portion of Minami Soma city extending north from it, were re-categorised by the Environment Ministry: below 20 mSv/yr, evacuation called off; 20-50 mSv/yr "restrict residency", allowing entry for specific purposes with no protective equipment required and remediation action to be completed in March 2014 (now 2017); and over 50 mSv/yr "difficulty of return", with restricted entry and remediation deferred. These restricted areas, comprising about half of the 20-km radius evacuation zone, are not expected to drop below 20 mSv/yr before about March 2016. Such areas add to those devastated by the tsunami, where rebuilding is very uncertain.
From July 2012 to August 2013 this zoning was extended by METI to all municipalities affected by radioactive fallout, both within the 20 km zone and extending beyond it to about 45 km northwest. The extended area includes Iitate, Minami Soma, Namie, Tomioka, Katsurao and Kawamata. Within the 20 km zone, Futaba, close to the plant, was the only municipality still closed to any return of evacuees, but the government relaxed restrictions for the town in May 2013. Most of the houses were destroyed in the tsunami, so return of evacuees is limited by that. Of the total evacuees from around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some 72,800 lived in the towns and villages of Futaba district. The Futaba district was heavily dependent economically on the plant, with much of its industry geared towards the power sector.
In November 2013 the NRA decided to change the way radiation exposure was estimated. Instead of airborne surveys being the basis, personal dosimeters would be used, giving very much more accurate figures, often much less than airborne estimates. The same criteria would be used, as above, with 20 mSv/yr being the threshold of concern to authorities.
In February 2014 the results of a study were published showing that 458 residents of two study areas 20 to 30 km from the plant and a third one 50 km northwest received radiation doses from the contaminated ground similar to the country’s natural background levels. Measurement was by personal dosimeters over August-September 2012.
As of October 2012, over 1000 disaster-related deaths that were not due to radiation-induced damage or to the earthquake or to the tsunami had been identified by the Reconstruction Agency < http://www.reconstruction.go.jp/english/>, based on data for areas evacuated for no other reason than the nuclear accident. About 90% of deaths were for persons above 66 years of age. Of these, about 70% occurred within the first three months of the evacuations. (A similar number of deaths occurred among evacuees from tsunami- and earthquake-affected prefectures. These figures are additional to the 19,000 that died in the actual tsunami.)
The premature deaths reported in 2012 were mainly related to the following: (1) somatic effects and spiritual fatigue brought on by having to reside in shelters; (2) Transfer trauma – the mental or physical burden of the forced move from their homes for fragile individuals; and (3) delays in obtaining needed medical support because of the enormous destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami. However, the radiation levels in most of the evacuated areas were not greater than the natural radiation levels in high background areas elsewhere in the world where no adverse health effect is evident, so maintaining the evacuation beyond a precautionary few days was evidently the main disaster in relation to human fatalities.
Fukushima prefecture provided a further report early in 2014 which said that the ‘indirect’ deaths in the prefecture were greater than the number (1607) killed in the quake and tsunami. It put the figure at 1656 as determined by municipal panels that examine links between the disaster’s aftermath and death. The figure is greater than for Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, with 434 and 879 respectively, though they had much higher loss of life in the quake and tsunami – about 14,200. The disparity is attributed to the older age group involved among Fukushima’s evacuated quake/tsunami survivors, about 90% of indirect deaths being of people over 66. Causes of indirect deaths include physical and mental stress stemming from long stays at shelters, a lack of initial care as a result of hospitals being disabled by the disaster, and suicides. The high rate of these deaths continues three years later as the evacuation is maintained for about 135,000 people – apparently some 75,000 from the nuclear accident and 60,000 from the natural disaster itself. Evaluation of ‘indirect deaths’ is according to a model developed by Niigata prefecture after the 2004 earthquake there. (Japan Times 20/2/14)
Evacuees receive JPY 100,000 ($1,030) per month in psychological suffering compensation. The money is tax-exempt and paid unconditionally. In October 2013, about 84,000 evacuees received the payments. Statistics indicate that an average family of four has received about JPY 90 million ($900,000) in compensation from Tepco. The average compensation for real estate was JPY 49.1 million ($490,000), JPY 10.9 million ($110,000) for lost wages, and JPY 30 million ($300,000) as “consolation money” for pain and suffering. (Asahi Shimbun 26/10/13)
The Fukushima prefecture has 17,000 government-financed temporary housing units for some 29,500 evacuees from the accident. The prefectural government says residents can continue to use these until March 2015. The number compares with very few built in Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori prefectures for the 222,700 tsunami survivor refugees there. (Japan Times 17/11/13) Another reported contrast from the Reconstruction Agency is that some $30 billion has been paid to 84,000 nuclear accident refugees but only some $20 billion to 300,000 tsunami survivors in the Tohoku region.
An August 2012 Reconstruction Agency report also considered workers at Fukushima power plant. Of almost 1500 surveyed, many were stressed, due to evacuating their homes (70%), believing they had come close to death (53%), the loss of homes in the tsunami (32%), deaths of colleagues (20%) and of family members (6%) mostly in the tsunami. The death toll directly due to the nuclear accident or radiation exposure remained zero, but stress and disruption due to the continuing evacuation remains high.
Tokyo’s Board of Audit reported in October 2013 that 23% of recovery funding – about JPY 1.45 trillion ($14.5 billion) – had been misappropriated. Some 326 out of about 1400 projects funded had no direct relevance to the natural disaster or Fukushima accident. (Mainichi 1/11/13)
Summary: Many evacuated people remain unable to fully return home due to government-mandated restrictions based on conservative radiation exposure criteria. However, over 1000 premature deaths have been caused by maintaining the evacuation beyond a prudent week or so. Decontamination work is proceeding while radiation levels decline naturally. The October 2013 IAEA report makes it clear that many evacuees should be allowed to return home.
Managing contaminated water
Removing contaminated water from the reactor and turbine buildings had become the main challenge in week 3, along with contaminated water in trenches carrying cabling and pipework. This was both from the tsunami inundation and leakage from reactors. Run-off from the site into the sea was also carrying radionuclides well in excess of allowable levels. By the end of March all storages around the four units – basically the main condenser units and condensate tanks – were largely full of contaminated water pumped from the buildings. Some 1000 storage tanks were set up progressively, including initially 350 steel tanks with rubber seams, each holding 1200 m3. A few of these developed leaks in 2013.
Accordingly, with government approval, Tepco over 4-10 April released to the sea about 10,400 cubic metres of slightly contaminated water (0.15 TBq total) in order to free up storage for more highly-contaminated water from unit 2 reactor and turbine buildings which needed to be removed to make safe working conditions. Unit 2 is the main source of contaminated water, though some of it comes from drainage pits. NISA confirmed that there was no significant change in radioactivity levels in the sea as a result of the 0.15 TBq discharge.
Tepco then began transferring highly-radioactive water from the basement of unit 2 turbine hall and cabling trench to the holding tank and waste treatment plant just south of unit 4. The water contained 3 TBq/m3 of I-131 and 13 TBq/m3 of Cs-137. Some 120 m3/day of fresh water was being injected into unit 2 reactor core and this replenished the contaminated water being removed, as in the other units.
Tepco built a new wastewater treatment facility to treat contaminated water. The company used both US proprietary adsorbtion and French conventional technologies in the new 1200 m3/day treatment plant. A supplementary and simpler SARRY plant to remove caesium using Japanese technology and made by Toshiba and Shaw Group was installed and commissioned in August 2011. These plants reduce caesium from about 55 MBq/L to 5.5 kBq/L – about ten times better than designed. Desalination is necessary on account of the seawater earlier used for cooling, and the 1200 m3/day desalination plant produces 480 m3 of clean water while 720 m3 goes to storage. By mid-March 2012, over 250,000 m3 of water had been treated. This, at about 400 m3/d, is then recycled for further cooling in the three reactors, following which it is treated again. A steady increase in volume of the stored water (about 400 m3/d net) is due to groundwater finding its way into parts of the plant and needing removal and treatment. In October 2012 Tepco was reported to be struggling to store over 200,000 m3 of contaminated water, while anticipating the start-up of a new Toshiba water treatment plant, in November, which was to allow discharge of clean water to the sea.
Early in 2013 Tepco started to test and commission this Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), developed by EnergySolutions and Toshiba. Each of three trains is capable of processing 250 m3/day to remove 62 remaining radioisotopes, and by the end of 2013 Tepco plans to run two simultaneously while holding the third in reserve. The ALPS is a chemical system which will remove radionuclides to below legal limits for release. However, because tritium is contained in water molecules, ALPS cannot remove it, which gives rise to questions about the discharge of treated water to the sea. Tritium is a weak beta-emitter which does not bio-accumulate (half-life 12 years), and its concentration has levelled off at about 1 MBq/L in the stored water, with dilution from groundwater balancing further release from the fuel debris. A September 2013 report from the Atomic Energy Society of Japan recommends diluting the ALPS-treated water with seawater and releasing it to the sea at the legal discharge concentration of 0.06 MBq/L, with monitoring to ensure that normal background tritium levels of 10 Bq/L are not exceeded.
In September 2013 about 930 tanks with 406,000 m3 of capacity held about 330,000 m3 of water, most of this not yet treated through ALPS. About 300 of the tanks are built from flanged steel panels with rubber seals, and one of these leaked significantly in mid-2013 (see below). Tepco plans to increase the storage capacity for contaminated water at the site to 700,000 m3 by September 2015. A total of about 230,000 m3 of water has been recovered from injection into the reactors of units 1 to 3 since March 2011.
By the end of June 2011, Tepco had installed 109 concrete panels to seal the water intakes of units 1-4, preventing contaminated water leaking to the harbour. From mid-June some treatment with zeolite of seawater at 30 m3/hr was being undertaken near the water intakes for units 2 & 3, inside submerged barriers installed in April. From October, a steel water shield wall was built on the sea frontage of units 1-4. It extends about one kilometre, and down to an impermeable layer beneath two permeable strata which potentially leak contaminated groundwater to the sea. The inner harbour area which has some contamination is about 30 ha in area. The government in September 2013 said that “At present, statistically-significant increase of radioactive concentration in the sea outside the port of the TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi NPS has not been detected.” And also that “The results of monitoring of sea water in Japan are constantly below the standard of 10 Bq/L” (the WHO standard for Cs-137 in drinking water).
A four-year international survey assessing radiological pollution of the marine environment near the plant commenced in July 2011, under IAEA auspices and led by Australia, South Korea and Indonesia. In September 2011, researchers at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Kyoto University and other institutes estimated that about 15 PBq of radioactivity (I-131 and Cs-137) had been released into the sea from late March through April, including substantial airborne fallout. In August 2013 Tepco estimated that 20 to 40 TBq of tritium might have leaked into the sea over 28 months since May 2011, which it compared with 22 TBq/yr discharge limit from the six-unit plant normally. The 9-month estimated releases from December 2012 for Sr-90 and Cs-137 were 0.7 and 1.0 TBq respectively, compared with 0.22 TBq/yr combined discharge limit. This is going into the 30 hectare inner harbour area, which is barricaded from the open sea.
In August 2013 a leak of partly-treated water was discovered and rectified. The water concerned in the puddle on the ground (concentrated by evaporation in hot weather) had 80 MBq/L, and it was initially feared that about 300 m3 (24 TBq) had leaked into the soil immediately adjacent to the tank and some possibly moved further. At least six cubic metres of soil was identified as contaminated, and was removed. Tepco said that it was the most serious event at the plant since the March 2011 accident, and that "There is a possibility that contaminated earth and sand flowed into the drainage. We cannot rule out the possibility that part of the contaminated water flowed into the sea." The NRA classified the incident as a Level 1 ‘Anomaly’ on INES scale, but the following day (22 August) it speculated that it maybe should be Level 3 – a ‘Serious Incident’ comparable with seven well-reported reactor problems in the past 25 years. Tepco shares dropped 16% on the Tokyo stock exchange. The following week (28 August) the NRA confirmed its provisional Level 3 rating, without giving a convincing explanation of why it qualified thus. However, the water in the leaky tank had only 0.2 MBq/L, and the NRA admitted that the leak could have been much smaller than it first said. The maximum credible leakage was thus 60 GBq – less than 1% of a single radioisotope source for medical therapy. The NRA chairman was quoted as saying that the INES ranking might be reviewed again.
Apart from the above-ground water treatment activity, there is now a groundwater bypass to reduce the groundwater level above the reactors by about 1.5 metres, pumping from 12 wells and eventually discharging the uncontaminated water into the sea. This will largely prevent it flowing into the reactor basements and becoming contaminated. In addition, an impermeable wall is being constructed on the sea-side of the reactors, and inside this a frozen soil wall will further block water flow into the reactor buildings.
In October 2013 guidelines for rainwater release from the site allowed Tepco to release water to the sea without specific NRA approval as long as it conformed to activity limits. Tepco has been working to 25 Bq/L caesium and 10 Bq/L strontium-90.
Summary: A large amount of contaminated water had accumulated on site, but with the commissioning of a new treatment plant in June 2011 this was progressively being treated and recycled for reactor cooling. However, the main plant is not performing as well as expected, and a supplementary plant was installed. In 2013 a further, more sophisticated plant was commissioned. The persistence of tritium limits the potential to release treated water to the sea. Some radioactivity has been released to the sea, but this has mostly been low-level and it has not had any major impact beyond the immediate plant structures. Concentrations outside these structures have been below regulatory levels since April 2011.
The International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID) was set up in August 2013 Japan by JAEA, Japanese utilities and reactor vendors, with a focus on Fukushima 1-4.
In September 2013 IRID called for submissions on the management of contaminated water at Fukushima. In particular, proposals were sought for dealing with: the accumulation of contaminated water (in storage tanks, etc); the treatment of contaminated water including tritium removal; the removal of radioactive materials from the seawater in the plant's 30 ha harbour; the management of contaminated water inside the buildings; measures to block groundwater from flowing into the site; and, understanding the flow of groundwater. Responses were submitted to the government in November.
In December 2013 IRID called for innovative proposals for removing fuel debris from units 1-3 about 2020.
Fukushima Daiichi 5&6
Units 5 & 6, in a separate building, also lost power on 11 March due to the tsunami. They were in 'cold shutdown' at the time, but still requiring pumped cooling. One air-cooled diesel generator at Daiichi 6 was located higher and so survived the tsunami and enabled repairs on Saturday 19th, allowing full restoration of cooling for units 5 and 6. While the power was off their core temperature had risen to over 100°C (128°C in unit 5) under pressure, and they had been cooled with normal water injection. They were restored to cold shutdown by the normal recirculating system on 20th, and mains power was restored on 21-22nd.
In September 2013 Tepco commenced work to remove the fuel from unit 6. Prime Minister Abe then called for Tepco to decommission both units. Tepco announced in December 2013 that it would decommission both units from the end of january 2014. Unit 5 is a 760 MWe BWR the same as units 2-4, and unit 6 is larger – 1067 MWe. They entered commercial operation in 1978 and 1979 respectively. It is proposed that they will be used for training.
Meanwhile Tepco and Mitsubishi plan to build and operate two new 500 MWe coal-burning power plants near Fukushima Daiichi at Hirono Town and Iwaki City. This will partly compensate for the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi units, especially if 5&6 are included. The investment is expected to be JPY 300 billion ($3 billion). The plants will be state-of-the-art integrated combined gasification cycle with less atmospheric pollution than the coal plants now operating in Japan. The companies plan to apply for a government subsidy to help defray costs. (Mainichi 23/11/13)
Remediation on site and decommissioning units 1-4
Tepco published a six- to nine-month plan in April 2011 for dealing with the disabled Fukushima reactors, and updated this several times subsequently. Remediation over the next couple of years proceeded approximately as planned. At the end of August 2011 Tepco announced its general plan for proceeding with removing fuel from the four units, initially from the spent fuel ponds and then from the actual reactors. At the end of 2013 Tepco announced the establishment of an internal entity, the Decommissioning Company, to focus on measures for decommissioning units 1-6 and dealing with contaminated water. The company is scheduled to commence operations around April 2014.
Tepco has a website giving updates on decommissioning work and environmental monitoring.
Storage ponds: First, debris has been removed from the upper parts of the reactor buildings using large cranes and heavy machinery. Covers will be built as required, and overhead cranes and fuel handling machines necessary to remove the spent fuel assemblies will be reinstalled, as already at unit 4. Casks to transfer the removed fuel to the central spent fuel facility have been designed and manufactured using existing cask technology.
In July 2012 two unused fuel assemblies were removed from unit 4 pond, and were found to be in good shape, with no deformation or corrosion. Tepco started removal of both fresh and used fuel from the pond in November 2013, 22 assemblies at a time in each cask. This has been uneventful, and the task is expected to continue through 2014. By late February, 352 used and 22 new fuel assemblies had been moved in 17 cask shuttles without incident, and weekly updates are published.
Reactors 1-3: First it will be necessary to identify the locations of leaks from the primary containment vessels (PCVs) and reactor buildings using manual and remotely controlled dosimeters, cameras, etc., and indirectly analyse conditions inside the PCVs from the outside via measurements of gamma rays, echo soundings, etc. Any leakage points will be repaired and both reactor vessels (RPVs) and PCVs filled with water sufficient to achieve shielding. Then the vessel heads will be removed. The location of melted fuel and corium will then be established. In particular, the distribution of damaged fuel believed to have flowed out from the reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) into PCVs will be ascertained, and it will be sampled and analysed. After examination of the inside of the reactors, states of the damaged fuel rods and reactor core internals, sampling will be done and the damaged core material will be removed from the RPVs as well as from the PCVs. The whole process will be complex and slow, since safety remains paramount. In December Tepco estimated that the fuel would be removed from the reactors within 25 years – in line with US experience at Three Mile Island, though other estimates suggest ten years.
The four reactors will be completely demolished in 30-40 years – much the same timeframe as for any nuclear plant. As noted above units 5-6 are to be decommissioned in 2014 and will be used for training.
Earlier, consortia led by both Hitachi-GE and Toshiba submitted proposals to Tepco for decommissioning units 1-4. This would generally involve removing the fuel and then sealing them for a further decade or two while the activation products in the steel of the reactor pressure vessels decay. They can then be demolished. As noted above, removal of the very degraded fuel will be a long process in units 1-3, but will draw on experience at Three Mile Island in USA. In January 2012 it was reported that an industry consortium (Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Toshiba) would determine how to locate fuel debris inside units 1-3 and how to fill the pressure vessels with water.
Tepco has allocated ¥207 billion ($2.53 billion) in its accounts for decommissioning units 1 to 4. The government has allocated ¥1150 billion ($15 billion) for decontamination in the region, with the promise of more if needed.
The new International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID) has a focus on Fukushima 1-4. See section above.
A 12-member international expert team assembled by the IAEA at the request of the Japanese government has reported on remediation strategies for contaminated land. The mission focused on the remediation of the affected areas outside of the 20 km restricted area. The team said that it agreed with the prioritization and the general strategy being implemented, but advised the government to focus on actual dose reduction. They should "avoid over-conservatism" which "could not effectively contribute to the reduction of exposure doses" to people. It warned the government against being preoccupied with "contamination concentrations rather than dose levels," since this "does not automatically lead to reduction of doses for the public." The team's report calls on the Japanese authorities to "maintain their focus on remediation activities that bring best results in reducing the doses to the public."
Fukushima Daini plant
Units 1-4 were shut down automatically due to the earthquake. The tsunami - here only 9 m high - affected the generators and there was major interruption to cooling due to damaged heat exchangers, so the reactors were almost completely isolated from their ultimate heat sink. Damage to the diesel generators was limited and also the earthquake left one of the external power lines intact, avoiding a station blackout as at Daiichi 1-4. Staff laid and energised 8.8km of heavy-duty electric cables in 30 hours to supplement power.
In units 1, 2 & 4 there were cooling problems still evident on Tuesday 15th. Unit 3 was undamaged and continued to 'cold shutdown' status on 12th, but the other units suffered flooding to pump rooms where the equipment transfers heat from the reactor heat removal circuit to the sea. Pump motors were replaced in less than 30 hours. All units achieved 'cold shutdown' by16 March, meaning core temperature less than 100°C at atmospheric pressure (101 kPa), but still requiring some water circulation. The almost complete loss of ultimate heat sink proved a major challenge, but the cores were kept fully covered.
Radiation monitoring figures remained at low levels, little above background.
There is no technical reason for the Fukushima Daini plant not to restart. restart. However, Tepco in October 2012 said it planned to transfer the fuel from the four reactors to used fuel ponds by March 2015.
International Nuclear Event Scale assessment
Japan's Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency originally declared the Fukushima Daiichi 1-3 accident as Level 5 on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) – an accident with wider consequences, the same level as Three Mile Island in 1979. The sequence of events relating to the fuel pond at unit 4 was rated INES Level 3 – a serious incident.
However, a month after the tsunami the NSC raised the rating to 7 for units 1-3 together, 'a major accident', saying that a re-evaluation of early radioactive releases suggested that some 630 PBq of I-131 equivalent had been discharged, mostly in the first week. This then matched the criterion for level 7. In early June NISA increased its estimate of releases to 770 PBq, from about half that, though in August the NSC lowered this estimate to 570 PBq
For Fukushima Daini, NISA declared INES Level 3 for units 1, 2, 4 – each a serious incident.
Beyond whatever insurance Tepco might carry for its reactors is the question of third party liability for the accident. Japan is not party to any international liability convention but its law generally conforms to them, notably strict and exclusive liability for the operator. Two laws governing them are revised about every ten years: the Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damage and Law on Contract for Liability Insurance for Nuclear Damage. Plant operator liability is exclusive and absolute (regardless of fault), and power plant operators must provide a financial security amount of JPY 120 billion (US$ 1.46 billion) – it was half that to 2010. The government may relieve the operator of liability if it determines that damage results from “a grave natural disaster of an exceptional character” (which it did not do here), and in any case total liability is unlimited.
In mid April 2011, the first meeting was held of a panel to address compensation for nuclear-related damage. The panel established guidelines for determining the scope of compensation for damage caused by the accident, and to act as an intermediary. It was established within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and is led by Law Professor Yoshihisa Nomi of Gakushuin, University in Tokyo.
On 11 May 2011, Tepco accepted terms established by the Japanese government for state support to compensate those affected by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The scheme includes a new state-backed institution to expedite payments to those affected by the Fukushima accident. The body would receive financial contributions from electric power companies with nuclear power plants in Japan, and from the government through special bonds that can be cashed whenever necessary. The government bonds total JPY 5 trillion ($62 billion). Tepco accepted the conditions imposed on the company as part of the package. That included not setting an upper limit on compensation payments to those affected, making maximum efforts to reduce costs, and an agreement to cooperate with an independent panel set up to investigate its management.
This Nuclear Damage Compensation Facilitation Corporation, established by government and nuclear plant operators, includes representatives from other nuclear generators and will also operate as an insurer for the industry, being responsible to have plans in place for any future nuclear accidents. The provision for contributions from other nuclear operators is similar to that in the USA. The government estimates that Tepco will be able to complete its repayments in 10 to 13 years, after which it will revert to a fully private company with no government involvement. Meanwhile it will pay an annual fee for the government support, maintain adequate power supplies and ensure plant safety. Tepco estimated its extra costs for fossil fuels in 2011-12 (April-March) would be about JPY 830 billion ($10.7 billion).
On 14 June, Japan's cabinet passed the Nuclear Disaster Compensation Bill, and a related budget to fund post-tsunami reconstruction was also passed subsequently.
In September 2011 the Nuclear Damage Compensation Facilitation Corporation started by working with Tepco to compile a business plan for the next decade. This was approved by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) so that some JPY 900 billion ($11.5 billion) could be released to the company through bonds issued to the Nuclear Damage Facilitation Fund to cover compensation payments to March 2012. The plan also involved Tepco reducing its own costs by JPY 2545 billion ($32.6 billion) over the next ten years, including shedding 7400 jobs. This special business plan was superseded by a more comprehensive business plan in March 2012, involving compensation payments of JPY 910 billion ($11.6 billion) annually. Tepco wanted to include an electricity rate increase of 17% in the plan, to cover the additional annual fuel costs for thermal power generation to make up for lost capacity at idled nuclear power plants.
In February 2012 METI approved a further JPY 690 billion ($8.9 billion) in compensation support from the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, subject to Tepco's business plan giving the government voting rights. In June 2012 shareholders voted to sell the Japanese government 50.11% of Tepco's voting shares and an additional 25.73% with no voting rights, for JPY 1 trillion (about $12.5 billion), paid through the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund. This was effected at the end of July, so that Tepco then became government-controlled, at least temporarily. Tepco said it appreciated the chance to 'transform to New Tepco'.
The government and 12 utilities are contributing funds into the new institution to pay compensation to individuals and businesses claiming damages caused by the accident. It will receive JPY 7 billion ($91 million) in public funds as well as a total of JPY 7 billion from 12 nuclear plant operators, the Tepco share of JPY 2379 million ($30 million) being largest. The percentage of utility contributions is fixed in proportion to the power output of their plants, so Kansai Electric Power Co. will provide JPY 1229 million, followed by JPY 660 million by Kyushu Electric Power Co. and JPY 622 million by Chubu Electric Power Co. Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which owns a used nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture, will provide JPY 117 million to the entity. The utility companies will also pay annual contributions to the body. Tepco is required to make extra contributions, with the specific amount to be decided later.
By November 2012, Tepco had paid JPY 1.371 trillion ($16.7 billion) in compensation, based on decisions of the Nuclear Damage Compensation Facilitation Corporation. Its loans from the NDLF Fund totalled about the same.
In June 2013 Tepco requested a further JPY 666 billion ($6.7 billion) in government support through the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, bringing the total amount requested by Tepco to JPY 3.79 trillion ($38 billion). The company said that more than half of the latest request – some JPY 370 billion ($3.7 billion) – resulted from the re-evaluation of the evacuation zone around the damaged plant and a re-examination of the estimated amount "regarding compensation for mental damages, loss or depreciation of valuables such as housing lands and buildings." About JPY 43 billion ($431 million) was due to a higher estimate of compensation coming from damages to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, as well as the food processing and distribution industries. This, it said, also resulted from "harmful rumours" about the possible health effects of consuming food products from the region near the damaged power plant. As restrictions on the transport of foodstuffs from the Fukushima area is set to continue, an additional JPY 240 billion ($2.4 billion) was included to cover for the further compensation claims resulting from this.
In December 2013 the government raised the upper limit of its financial assistance to Tepco from JPY 5 trillion to JPY 9 trillion ($86 billion).
Inquiries and reports
In May 2011 a team of 18 experts from 12 countries spent a week at the plant on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and its final report was presented to the IAEA Ministerial Conference in Vienna in June.
Early in June 2011 the independent Investigation Committee on the Accident (ICANPS), a panel of ten experts, mostly academics and appointed by the Japanese cabinet, began meeting. It has two technological advisers. An initial report was published in December 2011 and a final report in July 2012. The panel set up four teams to undertake investigations on the causes of the accident and ensuing damage and on measures to prevent the further spread of damage caused by the accident, but not to pursue the question of responsibility for the accident.
The national Diet later set up a legally-constituted Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) of ten members which started its work in December 2011. One of the purposes of NAIIC is to provide suggestions including the “re-examination of an optimal administrative organization” for nuclear safety regulation based on its investigation of the accident. NAIIC reported in July 2012, harshly criticizing the government, the plant operator and the country’s national culture. After conducting 900 hours of public hearings and interviews with more than 1,100 people and visiting several nuclear power plants, the commission’s report concluded that the accident was a “manmade disaster,” the result of “collusion between the government, the regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co.” It said the “root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions.” The NAIIC criticized the regulator for insufficiently maintaining independence from the industry in developing and enforcing safety regulations, the government for inadequate emergency preparedness and management, and Tepco for its poor governance and lack of safety culture. The report called for fundamental changes across the industry, including the government and regulators, to increase openness, trustworthiness and focus on protecting public health and safety.
The NAIIC Chairman wrote: "What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan.' Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity.” The mindset of government and industry led the country to avoid learning the lessons of the previous major nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. "The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us (every Japanese citizen) should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society."
NAIIC reported that Tepco had been aware since 2006 that Fukushuima Daiichi could face a station blackout if flooded, as well as the potential loss of ultimate heat sink in the event of a major tsunami. However, the regulator, NISA, gave no instruction to the company to prepare for severe flooding, and even told all nuclear operators that it was not necessary to plan for station blackout. During the initial response to the tsunami, this lack of readiness for station blackout was compounded by a lack of planning and training for severe accident mitigation. Plans and procedures for venting and manual operation of emergency cooling were incomplete and their implementation in emergency circumstances proved very difficult as a result. NISA was also criticised for its "negligence and failure over the years" to prepare for a nuclear accident in terms of public information and evacuation, with previous governments equally culpable. Then Tepco’s difficulty in mitigation was compounded by government interference which undermined NISA.
On 7 June 2011 the government submitted a 750-page report to IAEA compiled by the nuclear emergency taskforce, acknowledging reactor design inadequacies and systemic shortcomings. It said that "In light of the lessons learned from the accident, Japan has recognized that a fundamental revision of its nuclear safety preparedness and response is inevitable."
On 11 September a second report was issued by the government and submitted to the IAEA, summarising both on-site work and progress and off-site responses. It contained further analysis of the earthquake and tsunami, the initial responses to manage and cool the reactors, the state of spent fuel ponds and the state of reactor pressure vessels. It also summarised radioactive releases and their effects.
Meanwhile a July report from MIT's Centre for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems provided a useful series of observations, questions raised, and suggestions. Its Appendix has some constructive comment on radiation exposure and balancing the costs of dose avoidance in circumstances of environmental contamination.
In November 2011 the US Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) released its Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, with timeline. This 97-page report gives a valuable and detailed account of events.
Also in November 2011 the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute published a 280-page report on the accident, with proposals to be addressed in the future.
On 2 December 2011 Tepco released its interim investigation report on the accident (in Japanese).
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is undertaking a 12-month study on the magnitude of radioactive releases to the atmosphere and ocean, and the range of radiation doses received by the public and workers.
An analysis by the Carnegie Endowment in March 2012 said that if best practices from other countries had been adopted by Tepco and NISA at Fukushima, the serious accident would not have happened, underlining the need for greater international regulatory collaboration.
In April 2012 the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) published Fukushima Daiichi Accident – Technical Causal Factor Analysis, which identified the root cause beyond the flooding and its effects as a failure to consider the possibility of the rupture of combinations of geological fault segments in the vicinity of the plant.
A preliminary report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in May 2012 estimated the radiation doses that residents of Japan outside the evacuated areas received in the year following the accident. The report's headline conclusion is that most people in Fukushima prefecture would have received a radiation dose of between 1 and 10 mSv during the first year after the accident. This compares with levels of about 2.4 mSv they would have received from unavoidable natural sources. In two places the doses were higher – between 10 and 50 mSv, still below any harmful level. Almost all were “below the internationally-agreed reference level for the public exposure due to radon in dwellings” (about 10 mSv/yr).
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) in May 2012 reported that despite skin contamination of several workers, no clinically-observable effects have been reported and there is no evidence of acute radiation injury in any of the 20,115 workers who participated in Tepco’s efforts to mitigate the accident at the plant. Eighteen UNSCEAR member states provided 72 experts for the assessment. UNSCEAR also surveyed Fukushima prefecture tol compare its data with Japanese measurements of exposures of some 2 million people living there at the time of the accident.
The results of UNSCEAR’s 12-month study on the magnitude of radioactive releases to the atmosphere and ocean, and the range of radiation doses received by the public and workers were announced in May 2013 are reported above in the subsection on Radiation Exposure. A final report of radiation effects will be presented to the UN late in 2013.
In October 2013 a 16-member IAEA mission visited at government request and reported on remediation and decontamination in particular. Its preliminary report said that decontamination efforts were commendable but driven by unrealistic targets.
"Stress Tests" on Japanese reactors and new regulatory authority
The government ordered nuclear risk and safety reassessments – so-called "stress tests" – based on those in the EU for all Japan's nuclear reactors except Fukushima's before they restart following any shutdown, including for routine checks. These were in two stages, and are described in the Japan paper.
The government then created a separate Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) under the authority of the Environment Ministry and combining the roles of NISA and NSC, commissioned in September 2012. A new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) replaced the NSC and will review the effectiveness of the NRA and be responsible for the investigation of nuclear accidents.
Acton J.M. & Hibbs M, Why Fukushima was preventable, March 2012 Carnegie Paper.
Government’s Decision on Addressing the Contaminated Water Issue at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi NPS, 3 Sept 2013, on Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site.
K. Tateiwa, Jan 2014, Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi NPS.