Japan Nuclear Crisis: Sawdust, shredded newspaper, “diaper absorbent” fail to soak up radioactive water

0403035-thumb450x.jpgWould that this were a joke. Highly radioactive water is leaking into the sea at the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan. Workers there have tried to stop the flow with polymeric water absorbent, the stuff used in baby diapers, that can soak up 50 times its volume in liquid. At left, a snapshot of the material (photo: Kyodo News).

They’re also using sawdust and shredded newspapers. But Japan’s nuclear safety agency, NISA, says so far none of this is working. And the government’s top spokesperson says it will likely take several months before radiation stops leaking from the plant.

Engineers put 8 kilograms of the polymeric water absorbent together with 60 kilograms of sawdust and three bags of shredded newspaper into pipes leading to a pit connected to the No. 2 reactor building where a 20-centimeter crack has been found to be leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, the agency said.

However, those materials injected at a point 23 meters away from the seaside pit have not been sucked into the water flow, leaving no impact on the rate of leakage, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the governmental Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Nishiyama said the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. will keep monitoring the situation until Monday morning to examine the effects of the water-absorbing mission. The firm will also try to trace the route of the radioactive water leakage from the pit by draining colored water on Monday, he added.

Absorbent yet to soak up radioactive water at Fukushima plant(Kyodo News)

Japan: Seawater contaminated near Fukushima; removal of radioactive water inside plant hits new problems

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PHOTO, CLICK FOR LARGE: An aerial view from a height of some 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) and distance of more than 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, March 29, 2011. From right are the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. (REUTERS/Kyodo)


The government of Japan today announced that levels of radioactive iodine-131 in a seawater sample near the Fukushima plant were measured at a concentration of 3,355 times the maximum level permitted under law.

The leak is believed to be ongoing, and to have originated from the cores of nuclear reactors (probably in buildings 1 or 2, if I’m reading this right) where fuel rods have partially melted.

From the English edition of the Mainichi Daily News:

Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said the exact cause of the high iodine concentration remains unknown but that data collected by the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. indicate radiation that has leaked at the site during the ongoing crisis “somehow” flowed into the sea. He reiterated that the polluted seawater does not pose an immediate risk to health because fishing is not being conducted in the evacuation zone within 20 kilometers of the plant and radiation-emitting substances would be “significantly diluted” by the time they are consumed by marine species and then by people.

In related news, workers inside the Fukushima plant are today struggling to drain thousands of metric tons of water highly contaminated with radioactivity from the basements of turbine buildings.

Plutonium in low quantities has also been detected in the earth near the plant, and is presumed to come from “at least one” of the reactors there, according to news reports out of Japan:

“Considering the ratio of radioisotopes, it undoubtedly came from nuclear fuel,” said Kazuya Idemitsu, professor of nuclear fuel engineering at Kyushu University.

Japan Nuclear Crisis: New criticism of safety measures, lack of radiation testing for Fukushima workers

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Photo: A handout photo from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency shows Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers refueling a portable power generator at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture northeastern Japan March 23, 2011. Picture taken March 23, 2011. REUTERS/Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via Kyodo.

Mizuko Ito (a cultural anthropologist, and a friend whose observations of the current Japan stories I’ve been following closely) points us to an article in the Mainichi edited after publication to remove critical comments by a physician who treated workers exposed to radiation from a nuclear accident in Japan in 1999.

Mizuko writes:

[Tokyo University Professor Emeritus Kazuhiko Maekawa] is probably the most pre-eminent specialist in Japan on health effects of radiation exposure. The original article was edited to remove his comments a few hours after it was posted.

The “Tōkai Village JCO Criticality Accident” in 1999 involved high rates of radiation exposure to three workers, where two died. As a result of the incident there were many new training and safety measures put in place for nuclear plant operators and workers. Maekawa has written extensively on the effects of radiation exposure and emergency response, and he was taking to task the lack of safety measures and proper radiation testing on site.

Here’s the current version of the article, and here’s the version that someone found on the google cache for me.

Here is the now-missing critical graf, translated for Boing Boing by Mizuko:

JCO事故の被害者の治療に当たった前川和彦・東京大名誉教授は「(被ばくが)局所的なら、命に別条はないが、そもそも放射線管理員が現場にいないなんて犯罪的だ。東電はJCO事故の教訓を何も生かしていない」と指摘した。

Tokyo University Professor Emeritus Kazuhiko Maekawa, who treated the victims of the JCO accident, pointed out that “If the [radiation exposure] is localized, there should be no risk of death, but in the first place, it’s criminal that there is no radiation management specialist on site. Toden [ “Tokyo Denryoku” = Tokyo Electric Power Company ] is not making use of any of the lessons from the JCO accident.”

And Mizuko updates this morning,

Today the Asahi is reporting that ‘various experts’ are criticizing TEPCO’s sloppy safely procedures and failure to monitor radiation levels for the workers. They quote two faculty from Kyoto University.

Here’s the link to today’s new Asahi item in Japanese, and here’s a Google Translate version in (robot) English.

At Fukushima nuclear plant, concern and confusion over state of #3 reactor

RTR2KD5D.jpgClick for larger photo. Japan Self Defense Force members in protective clothing prepare to transfer to another hospital workers who were exposed to radiation at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, at a hospital in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan on March 25, 2011. About 300 engineers have been working around the clock to stabilize the six-reactor Fukushima complex since an earthquake and tsunami struck two weeks ago. (REUTERS/Kyodo)


Two of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are now in cold shutdown. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Reactor #3, the one that uses recycled fuel, isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s giving people in Japan some new worries.

The temperature and pressure in the core of that unit are stable now, and the temperature is low enough that the core shouldn’t melt any more than it already has, according to the AP. But three workers were burned yesterday when they were exposed to very high levels of radiation in contaminated water, which they’d had to wade through as part of the work of keeping Reactor #3 under control. The doses they received are high, but well below the World Health Organization’s limit for worker exposure during emergency situations.

The cause of those elevated radiation levels is the source of a lot of confusion and concern right now. There are several possible causes, but the one that’s got people worried is this: The elevated radiation levels in that water could be a sign that there’s a physical crack or hole in one of the layers of steel and concrete surrounding either the core, or the spent fuel pool. If that is actually what has happened, it would mean that a lot more radiation is likely to be released compared to what we’ve already seen, and it would also likely mean that the groundwater has been contaminated.

It’s really hard to tell what’s going on exactly. The AP and Reuters are giving slightly different accounts of the same information. World Nuclear News says that the fact that pressures and temperatures are stable in Reactor #3 is evidence that the containment probably hasn’t been breached. But, again, they’re a potentially biased source.

It’s a little weird for me to pop on here and tell you that I don’t really know what’s going on. But I think it’s also important to do just that. When the information available isn’t as clear, cut-and-dry as the headlines make it sound, you need to know about that. In a nutshell, here’s what we do know: There are higher-than-expected radiation levels in one part of Fukushima Daiichi #3. Nobody knows what’s causing it yet, but they’re working on figuring it out. One of the several possible answers—a breach of the core—would be very bad. Hopefully, that’s not what’s going on.

Japan finds radiation contamination of milk, spinach; water in Fukushima contaminated, Tokyo water shows trace

RTR2K3I3.jpgPHOTO: An employee of Yamagata city office holds a Geiger counter to detect radiation when evacuees from the vicinity of Fukushima nuclear plant wish to be screened upon their arrival at an evacuation center set in a gymnasium in Yamagata, northern Japan March 19, 2011, eight days after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao.

Steve Herman at Voice of America reports that Japan’s chief government spokesman said today “elevated levels of radiation have been found in milk and spinach near the crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture.”

While the levels are higher than government safety standards, the tested food does not immediately pose a health risk, according to officials. But this is the first time radiation has been detected in food since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear crisis. More at VOA, here.

In that same press conference, government spokesperson Yukio Edano said conditions at the plant’s No. 3 reactor unit, which were of greatest concern, have probably become more stable after “firefighters threw some 60 tons of water at a boiling spent fuel pool there shortly after midnight from outside the damaged building housing it.”

Separately, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said surface temperatures at the No. 1 to No. 4 reactors were found in the morning to be “100º C or lower by a Self-Defense Force helicopter,” and that their state is more stable than expected. More at Kyodo News.

Related, NHK reports:

Gakushuin University Professor Yasuyuki Muramatsu says it was predicted that high levels of iodine and other radioactive substances would be detected in spinach and other leafy vegetables, as well as grass. He says washing vegetables thoroughly will help to remove the radioactivity to some extent. Muramatsu says consumers should not eat the spinach as the detected levels of radiation are well above the legal limit.

Japanese officials today say radioactive iodine above the government-recommended threshold have been measured in the drinking water in Fukushima prefecture, where the plant is located.

And on the official Twitter stream of the Prime Minister’s office today, advice on how to avoid radioactive rain. Yes, that is what I just typed.

It’s possible that rain can contain a small amount of radioactive substances when it rains in Tohoku and Kanto regions. Even if you are exposed to rain, it doesn’t impose any threat on health. If you are concerned, follow these instructions.

1) Try not to go out unless it is an emergency.
2) Make sure of covering up hair and skin as much as possible
3) In case your clothes or skin is exposed to rain, wash it carefully with running water.

Small traces of new radioactivity have also been measured in tapwater in Tokyo and surrounding areas, but consensus at this time is that the levels do not pose an immediate public health threat.

Continue reading “Japan finds radiation contamination of milk, spinach; water in Fukushima contaminated, Tokyo water shows trace”

Japan TV dioramas of stricken Fukushima nuclear plant are dissonantly adorable

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(screengrabs from NHK, courtesy IZ RELOADED)

During a live broadcast yesterday, the Japanese television network NHK unveiled a hand-crafted scale model of the damaged Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant. Like the cardboard infographics their nuclear experts have been pointing to on-air since the nuclear crisis began, this diorama is a key part of their news presentation, a visual aid of sorts.

There is nothing cute or cool about the multiple disasters that have struck Japan: the earthquake and tsunami have already claimed at least 5,000 lives and perhaps many more; tens of thousands are already known to be missing or displaced. The still-unfolding nuclear accident is serious, and could have grave consequences for Japan.

But the miniature models of Fukishima, a word that now inspires fear and iodide pill hoarding in people around the world–well, they are so cute, as one person said on Twitter today, you almost want to adopt one. As Matt Alt tweeted from Tokyo during the broadcast, “I’d just like to say ‘mad hugs’ to NHK for debuting the helicopter model on the reactor diorama.”

There is something comforting about them. Comforting like the calm voice of the female translator I listened to on NHK English last night, while helicopters flew into the mouth of the radioactive beast, as it were, to drop water on reactor number 3. Comforting, perhaps, because they seem so tiny and familiar, while what is at stake is so huge and unknown.

I.Z. Reloaded from Singapore blogs a bunch of screenshots here: “Diorama of damaged Japanese nuclear station shows how cool Japanese TV really is
(Thanks, Matt Alt)

Japan: Emergency water drop operations begin at Fukushima; new photos show damage at stricken nuclear plant

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(screengrab of NHK TV coverage of the third helicopter water drop in the current operation, around 10am local time in Japan.)

Two helicopters, modified to help protect pilots from radiation, have just begun missions to drop tons of sea water on the quake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima 1 plant in Japan. The live TV coverage of the water drops has been chilling to watch, knowing what is at stake both for the pilots and the population they hope to protect.

Separately, according to reports in the US and from news agencies in Japan, the US military will also soon fly unmanned aerial drones over the plant to take photos of the inside of the building that houses the No. 4 reactor.

“The water is depleting rapidly at the number 3 and number 4 units, and the government is placing urgent priority on providing water now,” says a senior commentator on NHK right now, as I type.

An explosion occurred at reactor No. 4 on Tuesday, and was believed to have been a hydrogen explosion. White smoke has been rising from this site on Wednesday, and the spent fuel is believed to be heating up. The status of the spent nuclear fuel there is of greatest concern right now.

Currently, Japan ground self-defense force (GDF) helicopters are scooping water from the ocean and dropping it over the reactor, 7.5 tons at a time. The helicopters spraying water onto these reactors are protected by lead mats underneath, and the pilots are wearing protective suits and carrying dosimeters. In a press conference just now, a Japan nuclear safety agency official explained that the flights are limited to a certain minimum altitude, and no more than 40 minutes per helicopter per day, to limit exposure for pilots. The maximum permissible exposure level for Japan’s self defense forces is typically 50 millisieverts; during this operation, the level has been raised to 100 millisieverts. When the pilots reach the limit, they have to leave. Normally, they would hover in one spot; given the extremely high risk of radiation exposure, they must move.

Given the dimensions of the spent fuel pools, and the fact that that not all the water dropped will actually make it into the pool, they will need to make hundreds of these water drop operations.

Tokyo police force water cannon vehicles carrying 4 tons of water at a time have also arrived at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The water spray they shoot will target the storage pool that holds spent fuel rods; again, this is the focal point of grave concern at this time.

If these efforts fail and current conditions within the spent fuel pool continues, officials on NHK are saying the spent fuel rods in the storage pool would likely become more exposed and damaged, and release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

Continue reading “Japan: Emergency water drop operations begin at Fukushima; new photos show damage at stricken nuclear plant”

Japan: TEPCO reports a new fire at Reactor No. 4

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Reuters: “Breaking news from NHK, quoting Tokyo Electric Power: Fire breaks out at Fukushima Daiichi No. 4 reactor.”

From NHK broadcast now: Fire detected on NE upper corner of the outer structure of No. 4 reactor, they are trying to extinguish now. NHK analyst says it looks like another hydrogen explosion/fire. Flames now rising from reactor. Cause not yet known (or disclosed). NHK report in Japanese, online.

Government officials are again urging survivors in the area to stay indoors. On NHK TV right now, the mayor of a town in the high-risk zone is pointing out that residents cannot even go out to bury the dead from the quake and tsunami (and there are many, many dead) because they are fearful of radiation exposure.

Japan: Third blast at Fukushima nuclear plant, fire at reactor 4, workers leave plant, crisis worsens (UPDATED)

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Image (Reuters): Tokyo Electric Power officials hold an illustration of a nuclear plant as they answer reporters’ questions at the disaster center in Fukushima, northern Japan March 15, 2011. A fresh explosion rocked a damaged Japanese nuclear power plant on Tuesday where engineers have been pumping sea water into a reactor to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Some plant workers were ordered to leave the site, a sign that the situation may be getting more serious at the complex that was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

A third explosion has struck Japan’s beleaguered Fukushima nuclear power plant in as many days, after Friday’s 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. This time, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) says radiation levels reached 8,217 microsieverts per hour near the plant’s front gate, roughly two and a half hours after the blast.

NHK News:

Anyone in this kind of environment would be exposed to more than 3 years’ worth of naturally occurring radiation within a single hour.

At the time of this blog post, Japan’s Prime Minister is expected to address the nation on national TV shortly (NHK live stream here).

[ UPDATE, 710pm PT: Prime Minister Kan is on now, and saying that the possibility of nuclear leaks is increasing [corrected from earlier, erroneous Reuters item]. Residents within 20 km of the site are asked to evacuate ASAP; those between 20 km and 30 km are requested to stay inside. The blast damaged an essential steel containment structure, and larger leaks of radioactive material are now believed to be immiment.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano followed the Prime Minister, and said a fourth reactor at the damaged nuclear plant is now on fire, with even more radiation released. Reactor No. 4 was not in operation at the time of the earthquake. The reactor contains spent fuel, not fuel rods. As was the case with the explosions at the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, a Hydrogen explosion seems to have taken place with No. 4. Some foreign objects fell into reactor No. 4, which caused problems.

We’re seeing radioactive substances being released, says Edano, and reactor No. 4 is now exposed. The blast at No. 2 reactor came 30 minutes after the incident at No. 4. A hole has been observed in the No. 2 reactor; there is a high possibility of container vessel damage for this reactor.

The monitoring levels they are dealing with are now in millisieverts, not microsieverts as previously discussed. The radiation levels being released now can impact human health, Edano says, but the danger should decrease with distance from the site. 800 plant workers were evacuated at Fukushima Plant 1. Fifty workers are still working on emergency cooling efforts. Water injection operations are continuing at reactors No. 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima Plant 1. These operations are going smoothly, Edano says, and they beleive the cooling process is effective, but the problem is how to maintain the cooling. “At the site right now, workers are trying to take corrective action to put out the fire. We will continue injecting seawater.”

Edano urged the public to stay calm, and go about their daily lives. He was asked whether there is a possibility of radiation danger spreading to Tokyo. He replied that “minimal” amounts of radioactive material could spread to far locations, but the levels should not be harmful to human health. ]

[UPDATE, 8:26PM PT: Kyodo News reports that the fire at Reactor No. 4 has been extinguished.]


[Video Link]

Earlier version of this blog post pre-press conference follows below.

Continue reading “Japan: Third blast at Fukushima nuclear plant, fire at reactor 4, workers leave plant, crisis worsens (UPDATED)”

Aftershock: A New Yorker on the dark side of Japan (eyewitness account of quake, from Tokyo)

[Photo: Citizens of Tokyo evacuate the city on train tracks, after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011. REUTERS]

The only thing more disconcerting than the typical calm Japanese people so often exhibit in the face of all manner of outlandish occurrences is actually seeing the normally buttoned-up, retrained populace lose their cool en masse. That is truly scary. And that is what I saw happen Friday afternoon, when Japan experienced what some seismologists are calling the strongest earthquake to hit Japan in a thousand years.

How strong was the earthquake? I would like to now point out that even as I’m writing this at 1 a.m. Tokyo time (the major quake hit at 2:46 p.m.) we are still experiencing very strong aftershocks about once an hour. So excuse me if my observations are still tinged by frantic concern that the ceiling may still come falling down around my head.

It began as a light tremor, something that one becomes oddly accustomed to when living in Japan. But then the deceptively gentle tremor kept going… and going… and going. Until the bemused giggles of my Japanese office mates gradually turned into full on screams of fear as everyone tried to duck under the nearest desk. But what really brought the thought that this might be my last Friday was the fact that the quake didn’t obey the rules of good luck and suddenly stop once we all ducked under the desks. No. The quake lasted a very, very long time. Not unlike an animal’s howl, the quake went from a deep rumble and gradually built up to a thunderous and sustained wave of rhythmic, humming, physical chaos. It lasted about five minutes by my guess. And if you’ve ever experienced an earthquake, you know that five minutes is an eternity compared to the run-of-the-mill quake. It was scary.

Continue reading “Aftershock: A New Yorker on the dark side of Japan (eyewitness account of quake, from Tokyo)”