August 28, 2013

It is now official…this morning Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority raised the crisis level at Fukushima Daiichi to “level-3” on the INES scale. Level-3 means the situation can be called a serious incident. Included with the announcement, the NRA pointed out that the raised level, as well as the initial Level-1 assessment, is specific to the recently-discovered wastewater storage tank leak at the nuclear station. The Level-1 assessment was declared concurrent with Tepco’s initial announcement of their discovery of the suspect tank having lost considerable water level last week. The upgrade itself is because of Tokyo Electric Company’s recent admission that all 300 tons of wastewater that leaked out of the tank may have escaped into the surrounding environment. The NRA added that the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed that the crisis level should be upgraded the Level-3.

It is imperative that communication to the public on the upgrade be clear and decisive. Since the NRA’s announcement on August 22nd that they were considering an upgrade to level-3, the Press inside and outside Japan have provided grossly misleading information to the world, on two counts. First, the actual declaration did not occur until today, but the news media has said the upgrade has been official since August 22nd. Second, the not-yet-official upgrade has been reported to apply to the on-going groundwater contamination issues that have dominated the Fukushima headlines for nearly three weeks. The new crisis level rating has absolutely nothing to do with the groundwater issues, and neither did the initial level-1 rating. Both ratings apply only to the leak from the faulty wastewater storage tank…period! Tepco and the NRA must make the greatest-possible public information effort to correct what the Press has incorrectly posted since August 22nd. In addition, they must do everything they can to make sure that news reports concerning the level-3 declaration specify that it has nothing to do with the on-going groundwater contamination situation. As of this moment, most Japanese press reports specify that the upgrade is only due to the tank leak – but some do not.

It must be added that an August 23rd posting by Tepco concerning the radioactivity found in the two drainage ditches several tens of meters from the leaky tank, includes analysis of the seawater immediately adjacent to the ditch’s outlet to the Pacific. The total “all-beta” activity was 21 Becquerels per liter. Total Cesium activity was 0.0045 Bq/L. Although these are exceedingly low levels of contamination, it is the first time seawater samples taken outside the station’s barricade quay have shown any detectible radioactivity since December of 2011.

I must note that my above-stated imperative is also part-and-parcel to the IAEA. The IAEA has urged Japan to more clearly explain what is happening at Fukushima and avoid sending “confusing messages”. In an upgrade-confirmation document sent to the NRA, the international watchdog emphasized that while the tank leak is “the most recent of a number of events that involved leakage of contaminated water…previous similar events were not rated on the INES scale. The Japanese (authorities) may wish to prepare an explanation for the media and the public on why they want to rate this event, while previous similar events have not been rated.” In fact, there is no precedent for invoking an INES crisis rating for issues predicated on speculation and assumption with respect to groundwater. NRA Chair Shunichi Tanaka verbally conceded to the IAEA when he said the NRA should not be too quick to evaluate the problems at the Fukushima plant hereafter and should consider ways to efficiently distribute information on what is happening and how the problems could affect the environment.

I would add that both Tepco and the NRA need to swiftly and emphatically admonish any and all Press outlets that misinform their readers/viewers about the reason for the crisis upgrade. Such a pro-active approach can stanch the spread of misinformation and disinformation. It certainly won’t stop all of the deceptive rhetoric that will certainly transpire, but it will at least lessen the amount of irresponsible grandiloquence yet to come.