Today it has been reported that thousands of people have been evacuated from the area around the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant with 3000 people from within a 2-mile radius of the plant being moved for their own safety.
It seems very unclear at the moment where this is going to stop; as we go to press one article at Business Insider has stayed on top of the updates and situation.
Speaking today on BBC NEWS; Nuclear Physicist and Expert Walt Patterson provided a summary of today's problem:
It sounds as though they have a serious problem - this is the sort of thing Nuclear Engineers have nightmares about. The problem is that you can shut down the chain reaction in the reactor; but if it has been running for any length of time, it has a huge inventory of radioactive waste material from the reaction, which keeps pumping out heat. Anything up to 10% of the heat in the reactor is from these 'so called' fission products. And you can't shut it down. You HAVE to cool it. They are systems which are designed to fail-safe; as long as they all function the way they are supposed to function - the difficulty is here that we don't have any significant information about the problem in the cooling water. There is a finite probability that it will not be contained. That is the alarming possibility. I am sure that they will be doing everything concievable to ensure that the core is not uncovered."
The problem was; today, the fail-safe systems did not function the way they were supposed to function. Today's events pose the question; are Nuclear Power Stations -- with their many multiple modes of failure -- and reliance on a sequence of complex controls perfectly executed in order to maintain safe operation just too 'complex' to operate with a level of reliability that guarantees acceptable human safety?
What makes today's announcement all the more concerning, is that the future had already been foretold; not only by the critics of the nuclear industry -- but also by past events and the locals themselves. It has been known for some time that the Japan's nuclear industry's safety claims have been based on shaky foundations.
Some of these people will be the same residents, who in 2005 had their lawsuit to the Tokyo High Court thrown out -- after petitioning for the plant to be shut after highlighting the vulnerability of building nuclear power stations on active fault lines. The rejection of their case, highlighted in the Japan Times, now appears gravely flawed:
The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that an active fault exists near the station, saying that what they claimed to be an active fault did not even amount to a fault and could not cause a quake.
In July 2007, there was the Chūetsu offshore earthquake; with a much lesser magnitude of 6.6 (and remember the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale, so today's 8.9 magnitude quake had a shaking magnitude 100 times greater).
Tepco's own website, even today [viewed after the quake 11AM BST], brazenly states:
Designed for the Largest Conceivable Earthquake: Before constructing a nuclear power plant, the site is carefully studied for previous earthquake records and geological features. This study establishes that there is no active fault under the site.
These claims today, appear downright deceitful -- although arguably Tepco are preoccupied with many more critical issues than managing their website.
Back in 2007 a Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) representative reported: "We did not assume an earthquake of this magnitude at the time of designing the nuclear power plant,"
(And that was at the time of the much lesser 6.6 magnitude quake!) "After looking at aftershock location data, we have come to realize a fault lies right below the plant."
Greenpeace put it succintly: "The world's biggest nuclear power plant was built bang on top of an active fault line."
Back in 2007, the Mayor of Kashiwazaki, Hiroshi Aida stated that his"staff's own investigation had found that the ground on which the plant was built had been distorted and suffered several cave-ins." Less than reassuring. The 2005 ruling was already criticised back in 2007, when Tetsuji Imanaka a professor at Tokyo University Reactor Research Institute said: "The troubles in the power plant by the latest earthquake (then 2007) revealed that the government's safety checks as well as a Tokyo High Court ruling are not sufficient,"
The grid failed, leaving the plant without power to start the reactor cooling system. It is lucky therefore, that the Japanese are masters at Just-In-Time delivery. In a muddled statement from Hillary Clinton; what was initially thought to be a speedy delivery of coolant, later turned out to be generators to provide power to run the cooling systems in the absence of the grid.
After initially saying there had been no release of radiation and levels were normal, later in the day technicians had to release vapour from the plant in order to reduce the pressure; and levels of radioactivity inside the NPP control room are reportedly 1000 times greater than they should be.
The Onion's 2007 parody now looks terrifyingly accurate: "What a shame. In every other respect, that earthquake zone was the perfect place to build a nuclear reactor."
In 2007, seismologists recommended that a third of the countries nuclear power stations were closed; pending safety inspection. A big ask, as Japan then generated 33% of it's electricity supply from nuclear power; with the aim of increasing it's share further. This now looks like a vulnerable strategy.
Whilst the press release statements today were quick to reassure the public; the nuclear industry's past track-record of pernicious half-truths means that the full extent of the damage may not be revealed for some time yet. In 2007 Tepco reported 'No Harm' had been done, and a mere 1.5 gallons of radioactive water had leaked from the past. The true figure was later revealed to be 243 times more! This was only topped by the fact that despite several orders of magnitude difference in the reporting of the quantity of leaked water; the water was found to be 50 times more radioactive than initially reported.
It later emerged that a hundred or so barrels of low-grade nuclear waste had fallen over in the quake. Luckily only a "mere" couple of dozen lost their lids.
This incident undoubtedly will refocus public attention away from the industry's PR gloss and hollow safety claims. Most likely it will have seismic implications for the nuclear industry. As the spectre of Chernobyl fades in public memory an uneasy complacency has begun to permeate the corridors of power. It is easy to be seduced by the nuclear industry's silver tongue when faced with rising fossil fuel prices and the need to combat climate change - but memories are short. Lack of technical competence amongst politicians in government's worldwide leads to a poor understanding of the problems we face. Coupled with a dangerous Nuclear Amnesia this is a poor recipe for sound policy.
Today's disaster shows the danger of government's ignoring inconvenient facts about nuclear power for their own politicial gain. Japan's over-reliance on nuclear technology now looks like a decision which will cost the country dear.