March 7, 2014

A Fukushima Third Anniversary “What If” Scenario

(Naoto Kan’s crime against Japan; Part II)

My March 1st commentary, Naoto Kan’s crime against Japan, left some interesting questions on the table – what if Kan had not ordered the crippling delays of March 12, 2011? Where would we be today, three years later? If I might be allowed to speculate…

At midnight on 3/12/11, the management team at Fukushima Daiichi knew they would have to depressurize unit #1’s containment. If allowed by Tepco/Tokyo, the plant’s staff would have quickly begun preparing for the manual initiation of the “vent” operation. The radiation levels inside the unit #1 reactor building would not have been as extreme as they were nine-plus hours later with the actual venting. The work to get the depressurization ready could have been finished in a comparatively quick fashion. The wind was blowing out to sea, so there was no risk to the local public. Weather forecasts said the sea-ward air flow would probably not fully shift for at least two days. We can thus conservatively speculate that without Naoto Kan’s interference, the depressurization could have begun on-or-about 1:30am with no risk to any member of the public.

The “venting” would have depressurized the inner Primary Containment Vessel, likely averting compromise of its physical integrity. The accumulating hydrogen gas would have been blown out to sea along with the airborne radioactivity, averting a hydrogen explosion. By allowing the venting to occur until the mobile diesel was feeding electricity into unit #1 (at ~3pm), a sequential re-energizing of some, if not most of the emergency cooling systems would have ensued. At the time the diesel began operation, the staff was preparing to send water into the core via the Standby Liquid Control system. All they needed was electricity to run the SLCC pump. The high pressure SLCC pump would probably have been feeding the reactor fuel core no later than 4pm, avoiding severe melting of the fuel inside its core.

Since units #1 and #2 were tandem, they shared the auxiliary electrical system. It is probable that unit #2 would have been repowered before six pm. Venting of unit #2 would have been un-necessary. By sundown of March 12, 2011, both units #1 and #2 would have been in a safe condition and steadily progressing toward cold shutdown.

The team that found an operational switchboard inside unit #1 and spliced half of the available cable between it and the mobile diesel, could have set to work with unit #3 after their work was done ~4pm on March 12. A second diesel was slowly making its way down from units #5 and #6 located on the bluff overlooking the four lower units. There is every reason to think plant manager Yoshida would have set every available person to the task of getting that second diesel to unit #3 a quickly as possible once units 1 & 2 were out of the woods. While additional personnel would be clearing the access road for the 2nd diesel, an operational switchboard inside unit #3 reactor building would have been found. There is no reason to think the one found inside unit #1 was a singular discovery. The remaining cable from unit #1 could have been spliced into the switchboard and laid out to the outside, awaiting the mobile diesel’s arrival.

Operator records say the level of water in the #3 reactor did not reach the top of the fuel core until ~4:45am on March 13. Thus, plant staff would have had about 12 hours to repower the blacked-out unit and prevent the core inside unit #3 from losing its water cover. It is quite possible that the second diesel would have arrived at the scene, been spliced into the cable, and been feeding power into unit #3 in plenty of time to save the core from severe meltdown. If there would have been a need to vent unit #3 before power was restored, it would have occurred while the wind was still blowing out to sea. The wind did not shift on-shore until early morning of March 14, so any venting of unit #3 on March 13 would have placed no member of the public at risk. More importantly, it is likely the #3 hydrogen explosion at ~11am on March 14 would have been averted if the unit had been repowered early in the morning of March 13.

By averting the three hydrogen explosions and making all venting operations while the wind was blowing out to sea, the situation three years after would be much, much different. To begin, the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around F. Daiichi, and the evacuation “corridor” stretching to 40 kilometers northwest of the nuke station, would not exist. It is possible that the initial 3km evacuation radius would have remained as such for a time, at least until all three affected units reached cold shutdown condition. However, it is unlikely that the relatively small number of people inside the zone would have been kept from their homes for an extended period. There would not have been 85,000 people forced by the government to leave their homes. In fact, nearly all of the currently mandated evacuees would have been home for the last three years.

Second, the unit #4 reactor building would not have exploded, and nothing inside would have been damaged relative to the reactor, safety systems or spent fuel pool. The damage to the unit was due to hydrogen gas that migrated from unit #3 through the tandem-unit air-conditioning system. There would have been no explosion, no unit #4 containment building “tilting and in danger of collapse” speculations, no American government panic due to thinking the water in the spent fuel pool had boiled away, and no confabulated prophecies of apocalypse due to the 1533 fuel bundles in the SFP.

Third, there would be no explosion-spawned rubble for the staff to cart away and bury, and wastewater storage issues would be many times less severe than we find today. There would certainly not be a thousand huge tanks holding a thousand tons of contaminated water each. There might not be any external storage tanks at all! Plus, there might not be any contaminated groundwater to speculate as flowing into the Pacific on a daily basis.

Fourth, the decommissioning of damaged unit #1 (and perhaps unit #3) would be several orders of magnitude less daunting, and occur with much less exposure to the decommissioning staff than is now the case. There would be no leaks out of the containments, thus the PCVs would already be flooded with water, drastically dropping the radiation fields inside and outside the buildings.

Fifth, Tepco’s required evacuee compensation outlays would be much less. Let’s assume the government would have mandated the current $1,000 per month/per person payment for psychological damage and stress, for all 85,000 of the current evacuees, regardless. This would make the total about $85 million per month. Tepco is currently paying out more than $1 billion per month for a buffet of compensations.

Sixth, Fukushima Prefecture’s agricultural business would probably have continued without a significant glitch. The reason for consumer aversion to Fukushima Prefecture’s produce is the possibility of it containing a trace of radioactive material from the accident. But, if there were no “fallout” (the Press’ term…not mine), only the most paranoiac radiophobes would be reluctant to eat Fukushima produce.

Seventh, there would be no rational basis for fearing an increase in child thyroid cancers in the prefecture. All the Iodine would have been blown out to sea. Without the rural Iodine contamination, there would be no child thyroid cancer scare.

Finally, nearly all of the several million tons of tsunami debris that remains along the prefecture’s coastline would probably have been removed, at this point. By the end of 2013, Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, which were more severely pummeled by the tsunami than Fukushima, had removed more than 95% of their coastline debris. In Fukushima, there is still about 40% of the tsunami residue to be handled. The delay is largely due to radioactive contamination fears. It is safe to assume the debris removal along the Fukushima coast would be much the same as with the two other Prefectures, were it not for Fukushima contamination.

On the other hand, there would still be some downsides. As mentioned above, unit #1 at F. Daiichi would still have to be decommissioned due to a severe partial meltdown.  It is possible unit #3 would be decommissioned, as well, since it is possible that some fuel damage would have occurred before being repowered on March 13. The decommissionings, however, would not take 30-40 years. It would be more like the time-frame America experienced with Three Mile Island in the 1980s… ten years… maybe.

Next, there probably would have been a considerable “voluntary” evacuation worse than with with Three Mile Island in 1979. We should keep in mind that Japan had what was probably the most radiation-averse population on the planet due to the bombings of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The massive differences between reactors and bombs, as well as the great dissimilarities between bomb fallout and nuclear plant accident airborne releases, were virtually unknown to the population of Japan on 3/11/11. All they knew was nuclear bombs, and most (except the current populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) believed the misconceptions that a nuclear reactor is just like a bomb and a fission is a tiny nuclear explosion. There was probably no worse place on Earth for a reactor plant accident than post-WWII Japan. Regardless, a significant voluntary evacuation would probably have been the case, with a small but significant fraction refusing to ever go home out of fear of nuclear energy. Such is the case with the Hiroshima Syndrome.

Also, Fukushima Prefecture’s fishing industry would still have been harmed because all of the released Iodine, Cesium, Strontium, and etc. which would have fallen into the Pacific Ocean from the depressurizations. Reluctance to eat the catch off Fukushima’s coastline would have happened anyway. Asian nations would probably have reacted just a radiophobically as they did after the actual nuke accident. In addition, the Fukushima radiation paranoia now surfacing along the Pacific coast of North America would still have occurred.

Finally, we should not overlook the loss of life and the extreme damage caused by the 3/11/11 tsunami. Fukushima Prefecture says more than 1600 people were killed by the black water surge…about 8% of the total for the entire coastline. While no official numbers have been posted by the Press, it is safe to assume that at least 10,000, and perhaps as many as 25,000 tsunami survivors lost everything – their homes and all belongings – on that fateful day. These unfortunate Fukushima residents would still be disaster refugees, without a doubt.  They would be part of what the current tsunami refugees call themselves – Kimin; Japan’s forgotten people.

What you have just read is speculation, of course. But one cannot honestly deny…if Naoto Kan had not interfered with the emergency actions of the trained and experienced staff at Fukushima Daiichi, the situation today, three years after the fact, would be very different and much less gloomy.

* Addendum – Reader J. W. pointed out there would be at least two other important differences for Japan. Japan’s 50 other nuclear power plants would have continued operation, perhaps with pauses for upgrading in the light of Fukushima lessons. As a result, the Japanese economy would be in much better shape. Very true, J.W. Thanks for the input.