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What TEPCO and the Media are Hiding

When did the radiation start to leak from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and how far has it spread?

About this our greatest interest, the Japanese Government announced nothing for several days (at least until March 17) after the earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011.  They just described the facts saying they “….happened” in the past tense, explaining neither the cause of the explosion nor its mechanism. They never talked about expectations of danger. What is “the worst scenario” that this nuclear accident might lead to? A reporter asked this of Edano Yukio, Chief Cabinet Secretary, at a news conference, but whether because Edano couldn’t answer or didn’t want to, he said nothing clearly.

Like the government, most of the media, rather than informing us of the dangers posed by this accident, kept claiming groundlessly that there was none.  The stock phrase used by both Edano and the TV “experts” – “no immediate effects to health” – means what?  That radiation effects start one year or 10 years later?  If the radiation was to have “immediate effects”, that would be a horror.  People would be dropping dead in the streets of acute radiation sickness as they did after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But that is not what we are talking about. The question is whether radiation taken into children’s bodies is really safe.

The “Experts” Who Were Unable To Foresee a Hydrogen Explosion

This is the first time a genpatsu shinsai syndrome occurred in Japan – or in the world. [Translators’ note: genpatsu shinsai is a new term to describe an unprecedented phenomenon: a combined nuclear power plant (genpatsu) earthquake disaster (shinsai). Rather that attempt an awkward translation, it is rendered here as genpatsu shinsai syndrome.] With the situation changing by the minute, people surely would want to know more about what was likely to happen next, and not just what had already happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant.

But was there any medium that was able to foresee what was coming?

On the afternoon of March 12, the day after the earthquake, a hydrogen explosion occurred in #1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Plant and the reactor building suffered severe damage.  This explosion should have been avoided at any cost, because a large amount of radioactive substances was carried away by the blast wind and spread into the atmosphere.

It is because neither the government, nor the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), nor the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), nor TEPCO was able to predict the explosion that they failed to avoided it.  I was watching this process on TV and thought of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. …. I was on edge, thinking “There’s going to be an explosion!”  I was praying those “experts” on TV would raise the alarm and that the danger could be avoided.  But no one said a thing.

The cause of the hydrogen explosion is simple.  In #1 reactor the cooling system stopped working just after the quake, and after a full day with no cooling most of the uranium fuel rods in the core must have melted down. Uranium fuel is processed into the shape of pellets and encased in zircalloy (an alloy of zirconium) pipes.

If the core starts to melt, the zirconium, making contact with water, reacts, and oxidization begins.  If the metal oxidizes in the water (removing the O from the H2O), more and more hydrogen is generated.  If enough hydrogen is produced, explosion occurs.

Just when I was getting more and more irritated watching the TV where no one was mentioning this, the phone rang.  It was a newspaper reporter asking for my comments.

I said, “Go immediately to the NISA press conference and ask them about the danger of a hydrogen explosion.”

Right after that, the explosion occurred.

After the explosion those “experts” were on TV again, giving plausible explanations of what had caused it.  This is what we call showing up for the fair a day late.  Real experts would be ashamed of not being able to explain the danger of the explosion before it happened.

At the press conference after the explosion, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano said, “Even though #1 reactor building is damaged, the containment vessel is undamaged.  On the contrary, the outside monitors show that the [radiation] dose rate is declining, so the cooling of the reactor is proceeding.”

Both NISA and NSC insisted, “For this accident to reach the Chernobyl level is out of the question.”

Most of the media believed this and the university professors encouraged optimism.  It makes no logical sense to say, as Edano did, that the safety of the containment vessel could be determined by monitoring the radiation dose rate.  All he did was repeat the lecture given him by TEPCO.  I was persuaded that TEPCO, the government spokesmen and the TV commentators are a pack of amateurs.  I had a bad feeling that something even worse was going to happen.

It was on March 14, two days after the explosion at #1 reactor, that the hydrogen explosion occurred at #3 reactor.  Though it was the second explosion I had not seen any “experts” on TV who predicted it or warned about it.

I will explain the process of the hydrogen explosion at #3 reactor. The process was as follows.

It began on March 13, the day after the #1 reactor explosion. Just after 7 AM, the feed-water stopped and #3 reactor lost its cooling function completely.  With three-quarters of the fuel exposed meltdown began, and the hydrogen explosion occurred through exactly the same mechanism as that of #1 reactor. The time was 11:01 AM on March 14. It took about a day from the time the cooling function stopped until the explosion. That was about the same amount of time as it took #1 reactor.  But after the explosion the situation got worse than at #1 reactor.  The building was blown off together with its steel frame, and four TEPCO employees and three workers from partner companies were injured.

Was the Earthquake Really Magnitude 9? 

Aside from the way the genpatsu shinsai syndrome was reported, there was another thing I could not understand about the media report of the Great Tohoku Earthquake.  It is the expression “once-in-a-thousand-years earthquake” used by every TV station including NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation).  The expression is based on the figure “magnitude 9” announced by Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). But was it really that big an earthquake?

When an earthquake occurs, it is recorded by seismographs, and the amount of energy generated at the epicenter is called the magnitude.  ….  If the magnitude figure is 0.2 larger, that means the energy is about twice as great, so if the magnitude is greater by a factor of 1.0, that means the energy is 32 times greater (2 to the fifth power: 2x2x2x2x2).

In the Southern Hyogo Prefectural Earthquake (1995) which brought about the Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster, the magnitude was recorded at 7.3.  That would calculate out to mean that the energy of the Great Tohoku Earthquake was 355 times that of the Southern Hyogo Prefectural Earthquake.

When I talked with news people who reported on the disaster, they all said with one voice, the earthquake damage was not so great, but the tsunami was appalling.  I myself saw the enormous damage wreaked by the tsunami on TV and was terrified. However, the damage from the quake itself is not clearly known.  One reporter said that this time he did not see anything like what he saw during the Southern Hyogo Prefectural Earthquake, when the Hanshin Expressway was toppled off its foundations.

So I examined the data.

“Gal” is a unit for measuring the strength of a quake precisely.  It is an acceleration unit named after Galileo. One Gal indicates the amount of force which, when it acts on an object 1 gram in weight, will cause that object to accelerate at a rate of 1 centimeter per second. In time of earthquake this rate of acceleration indicates the momentary force that acts on people and buildings.

In the Great Tohoku Earthquake the strongest tremor, as far as I know, was the shindo 7 recorded at Tsukidate Kurihara City, Miyagi Pref. [again, the shindo is a unit used in Japan to measure the force of an earthquake at each specific site, not at the epicenter].  The ground acceleration figure there was 2933 Gal.  A big quake it is, but in the Iwate Miyagi Inland Earthquake (magnitude 7.2) in 2008, they recorded vertical acceleration of 3866 Gal and three-component synthesis maximum acceleration of 4012 Gal (the highest ever recorded) in Ichinoseki City, Iwate Pref. This would mean that while its magnitude was less than the 9 alleged for the Great Tohoku Earthquake, its force on the ground was greater.

Was the 3/11 earthquake really the most powerful earthquake in history?

Watching the process, it seemed suspicious.  At first JMA announced the magnitude of the earthquake provisionally as 8.4.  Then this was corrected to 8.8, and finally “upgraded” to 9.0.

Escaping Responsibility by Managing the News

The seismologist and geologist Shimamura Hideki (former Director of the National Institute of Polar Research) said, “This never-before-heard-of figure of magnitude 9 is was produced by JMA’s arbitrary altering of the magnitude scale.”

In fact a number of different scales have been used to calculate magnitude.  In Japan in the past the “JMA magnitude (Mj)”scale has been used. If we enter data of the Great Tohoku Earthquake into the Mj formula (omitted here as it is complicated), its magnitude would be 8.3 or 8.4 at most according to Shimamura. He continues, “It is because JMA recalculated the data using the ‘moment magnitude (Mw)’ scale, which has been used only by scientists, that the magnitude could be raised to 9.0.”

Note that in my book the magnitude of all the past earthquakes is shown by the customary Mj scale. If the scale is changed abruptly, it becomes impossible to compare with past earthquakes.  Why did JMA change the scale without explanation?  Here I can feel political intervention distorting a scientific truth.  If the magnitude figure remained at the original 8.4, that would mean that the earthquake fell within the range of a “predictable” disaster.  And if that were so, not only TEPCO, but also the Japanese government and the “experts” who have promoted nuclear power, would be held responsible.

The Chubu Electric Power Company (CHUDEN) has announced that its Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant is built to withstand an earthquake of a magnitude of magnitude 8.4. Advocates of nuclear power needed to raise the magnitude to 9.0, otherwise they would be in a pinch.  By announcing this unprecedented figure, they want to make people think the earthquake was “a once-in-a-thousand-years earthquake” and “beyond expectation” thus escaping responsibility.

Especially TEPCO has tried to avoid criticism by raising the magnitude to 9.0.  Even now their sales are decreasing sharply because of planned outages and electricity conservation measures by consumers. If they need to pay huge damage compensation for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant accident, it will be hard to keep the company afloat. They want to keep compensation costs as low as possible; that is their aim as a company.

Excerpted from Chapter 2 of Takashi Hirose’s just translated Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster (Kindle Books). 

Takashi Hirose has written a whole shelf full of books, mostly on the nuclear power industry and the military-industrial complex.  Probably his best known book is  Nuclear Power Plants for Tokyo.

Translated by Doug Lummis, who is a political scientist living in Okinawa and the author of Radical Democracy. Lummis can be reached at ideaspeddler@gmail.com

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