Saturday, November 12, 2011

Report Gives New Details of Chaos at Stricken Plant


November 11, 2011

Report Gives New Details of Chaos at Stricken Plant


Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 was stuck in darkness, and everyone on site feared that the reactor core was damaged. It was the day after a huge earthquake and a towering tsunami devastated the plant, and the workers for Tokyo Electric Power Company knew they were the only hope for halting an unfolding nuclear disaster.

Another power company tried to help. It rushed a mobile electrical generator to the site to power the crucial water pumps that cool the reactor. But connecting it required pulling a thick electrical cable across about 650 feet of ground strewn with debris from the tsunami and made more treacherous by open holes left when manhole covers were washed away.

The cable, four inches in diameter, weighed approximately one ton, and 40 workers were needed to maneuver it into position. Their urgent efforts were interrupted by aftershocks and alarms about possible new tsunamis.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, the workers had managed what many consider a heroic feat: they had hooked up the cable. Six minutes later, a hydrogen explosion ripped through the reactor building, showering the area with radioactive debris and damaging the cable, rendering it useless.

Those details about the first hours after the earthquake at the stricken plant are part of a new 98-page chronology of the Fukushima accident. The account, compiled by American nuclear experts, is meant to form a basis for American nuclear operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to learn lessons from the disaster. But it also provides a rare, detailed look at workers’ frantic efforts to save the plant, portraying (in measured technical language) scenes worthy of the most gripping disaster movies.

The experts who compiled the report work for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an Atlanta organization that is an integral part of the American nuclear industry and one that has won praise over the years for its audits, sometimes critical, of plants around the country.

The authors could provide a deep level of detail because they were able to interview operators and executives from Tokyo Electric Power Company and had access to many of the company’s documents and data.

The chronology does not draw any conclusions about the accident, or analyze the actions taken after the earthquake; it is intended only to provide an agreed-upon set of facts for further study. In that way the document might be more useful for the nuclear industry than for Japanese citizens still hungry for assurances that they are no longer in danger and angry over missteps, documented in the news media, that led to more people being exposed to more radiation than was necessary.

One aspect of the disaster that American companies are likely to focus on is Fukushima’s troubles with its venting system, meant to reduce pressure and avert explosions when crucial cooling systems fail. Another focus is likely to be the extreme difficulty workers had in getting emergency equipment to the reactors where they were needed.

The report is likely to reinforce the conviction of American companies that operate reactors of the design used at Fukushima that venting from the containment vessels around reactors early in an accident is better than waiting, even though radioactive material will be released. The delays in Japan appear to have contributed to explosions that damaged the vessels and ultimately led to larger releases of contaminants.

It has been clear for months that Fukushima operators delayed venting for hours, even after the government ordered that the action be taken. The chronology, however, suggests for the first time that some delays were because plant executives believed that they were required to wait for evacuation of surrounding areas.

Because the chronology is based mainly on accounts by Tepco and its workers and company data, it is by nature limited. It does not, for example, relate that there was tension between Tepco and the government over when to vent, as the news media have reported.

The report is also likely to incite more debate about how emergency equipment and material are stored and what types of contingency plans need to be made to ensure equipment can reach reactors in a disaster. Nuclear critics in the United States have long complained that American emergency rules do not take into account that a natural phenomenon could cause an accident at a plant and make it hard to get help from outside.

For example, although the plant had three fire engines that could have pumped in vital cooling water, one was damaged in the tsunami and another was blocked by earthquake damage to roads. Inspections at some American reactors after the Japanese quake and tsunami found that they were storing emergency gear in a way that made it vulnerable to the emergency it was intended for.

The report was perhaps most vivid when it was describing workers’ often unsuccessful efforts to salvage the situation. In one case, plant workers are said to have broken through a security fence to take a fire truck to unit 1 so it could pump water to cool the reactor. (The plant’s cooling system by that time was unusable, and without it, reactors and fuel pools can overheat and cause meltdowns.)

But as often happened during the disaster, the workers’ struggles only partly paid off. Increasing heat caused the pressure inside the containment vessel to build. By the time the fire truck started pumping, workers were able to force in less than 10 gallons per minute, not much more than a kitchen faucet puts out. That was far too little to cool the nuclear fuel and reduce pressure.

The report also takes note of the human toll the disaster took on workers.

It points out that many plant workers had lost their homes and even their families in the tsunami, and that for days after the quake, they were sleeping on the floor at the plant, soaking up radiation doses even in the control room. Because of food shortages, they were provided with only a biscuit for breakfast and a bowl of noodles for dinner.

Working in darkness and without electricity, even simple tasks became challenging. At one point, control room operators formed themselves into teams of two, to dash into high-dose areas to try to open a crucial vent. One would hold the flashlight and monitor the radiation dose, while the other would try to get a valve to move. But there was no communication once the team was in the field, so the next team could leave for the reactor only after the first had returned.

Eventually, the radiation levels got too high, and they gave up. The first explosion rocked the plant soon after, belching clouds of radioactive materials and giving the world its clearest sense of the scope of the catastrophe unfolding in Japan.

Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting from Tokyo.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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