August 24, 2013

On July 26, Tepco’s president Naomi Hirose vowed to improve Tepco’s public disclosure policy, saying “even if the evaluations do not show enough evidence, we will swiftly and honestly mention risks and worst-case scenarios without fearing the impact.” Following Tepco’s admission that there was contamination found in a groundwater observation well at Fukushima Daiichi, the company was immediately hit with a barrage of “non-transparency” criticisms in the Press, by the Tokyo government’s watchdog (NRA) and even their own in-house PR consultants from abroad, Dale Klein and Lady Barbara Judge. In effect, Hirose was saying that if everyone wants worst-case scenarios, that’s what they will get. It seems the NRA has decided to join Tepco in bringing worst-case speculations to the Press as well, spawning shocking news articles world-wide.

Although extreme Tepco and NRA speculations have been tempered with terms like “might”, “may” and/or “possibly”, the Japanese Press reported them as statements of certainty. In turn, the historically-nuclear-adverse Press outlets outside Japan have taken these news reports, added a few scary “spins” of their own, and have created an international nuclear brou-ha-ha. Both inside and outside Japan, most of the news-hungry public has no idea of the realities involved. In many ways, it’s as bad as the first week’s Press concerning the Fukushima accident. Speculations wrapped in embellishment abound, and it can be traced back to Hirose’s worst-case scenario promise.

Let’s look at the record since July 26. We begin with August 7th when the NRA estimated that as much as 300 tons per day of radioactive contamination may be flowing into the Pacific Ocean due to groundwater flow. Subsequently, the Press reported that 300 tons of toxic, highly-contaminated groundwater is pouring into the ocean daily. However, there was and still is no evidence of the Pacific actually being polluted. If contamination were coming out with the groundwater, the only place it could be happening is inside the station’s quay (F. Daiichi’s inner port). The radioactive isotopic concentrations in the quay’s salt water have remained essentially constant for a year-and-one-half. One of the many sampling points in the quay…just one…showed an increase of one isotope (Tritium) three weeks ago. It has since dissipated. In hindsight, it was probably a singular event. Regardless, this statistical outlier has been used as proof that the Pacific-itself is being polluted. The exception should never be taken as a rule. In this case it is especially true.

Here’s why.

The quay is completely barricaded from the station’s outer harbor area. Although often called “makeshift” by the Japanese Press, the barricading has worked extremely well. The water-proofing of the quay’s stone break-walls was completed and the quay’s access-opening was closed by a silt dam in January, 2012. The silt dam was briefly opened a few times through the early spring of 2012 to allow equipment barges to be brought in, but has remained shut since. The quay has been isolated from the open sea by these barricades for about a year and a half. Thus, it is likely that any Cesium or Strontium that may have leaked into the quay since the spring of 2012 has remained in there and naturally precipitated onto the mud bottom. Beyond the quay, samples have been routinely taken within the outer port’s break-wall, at 5 kilometers distance, and as far away as 15 kilometers. Tepco records of sea-sampling at all these locations date back to mid-December, 2011. There has been no detectible contamination at any of these sampling points over the 20 month period.

In other words, there is no evidence supporting the headlines purporting that the Pacific Ocean is being polluted with huge amounts of toxic, highly radioactive contamination. On August 11, Japan’s Industry Ministry (home-base of the NRA, for all administrative intents and purposes) admitted the statement of highly-contaminated groundwater flowing into the sea was an assumption. The Ministry official who made the announcement further qualified the Ministry’s position when he said, “But, we’re not certain if the water is highly contaminated.” In addition, yesterday the NRA said the contamination might be moving toward the shoreline at a rate of four meters per month and it may reach the sea the next month…but it hasn’t reached there yet. Both statements show the government watchdog knows that, up to this point, the Pacific has not been “tainted” with groundwater contamination. The only Japanese Press outlets to point this out have been NHK World and The Japan News (nee Yomiuri Shimbun).

Next, on August 6th, the head of the NRA’s Fukushima Task Force, Shinji Kinjo, said that in his estimation the F. Daiichi station was in a “state of emergency”. He based this on the “rather high possibility” that contaminated groundwater was entering the station’s quay. Kinjo’s personal speculation was spun by the Japanese Press into a firm conclusion issued by the NRA-itself. But, it wasn’t. Back in Tokyo the NRA’s response was…nothing! I was stunned. How could such a sensational, headline-spawning statement made by anyone other than an NRA commissioner result in no comment by the home office?

I remained incredulous until a few days ago. On August 21, the NRA said they might declare a level-3 state of emergency (on the INES scale) at Fukushima Daiichi because of the recent discovery of a tank leak, plus the possibility that some of the other several hundred similar water-laden tanks might also be leaking. Regardless, the Japanese Press took the NRA’s statement to mean that they have actually done it. It has subsequently been reported as a “fact” in many international news reports. As of this posting, F. Daiichi officially remains at INES level-1 (an “anomaly”).

INES level-3 means “severe incident”, define as the contamination of an area not expected by design, with a low probability of ­significant public exposure. Groundwater never flows inland along the ocean’s coast, so there is no risk of public exposure in Fukushima Prefecture. Further, actual Pacific Ocean contamination seems unlikely given the barricading of the quay, if Fukushima’s contamination ever actually gets there. The Pacific is currently as clean as it gets. Unless any future contamination gets into the quay and then somehow spreads into the open sea, there will be no rational reason to go to INES level-3. If the NRA must upgrade, a level-2 declaration (classified as an “incident”) makes much more sense at this point in time.

The most recent use of a worst-case scenario occurred on August 22nd when Tepco announced that 30 trillion Becquerels of radioactive Cesium and Strontium may have leaked into the Pacific Ocean since May 2011. The company has not posted a record of these release estimates during the last 20 months in order to show the trends involved. I think it is because no such record exists. It seems Tepco assumed that the persistent, albeit very low levels of Cesium and Strontium detected inside the Fukushima Daiichi quay since late 2011 are not due to residuals from the accident itself, suspended in the stagnant water. Rather, it appears the company assumed there has been a perpetual flow of contamination into the quay for the past 20 months, with the quantities of invading radioactive isotopes unwavering from day-to-day, in order to keep the inner port’s concentration astonishingly constant for more than a year-and-a-half. This would be a record of relentless constancy within the ever-changing natural environment which defies words to describe. In fact, Tepco admited they are literally grasping at straws. Tepco spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi says, “So far, we don’t have convincing data that confirm a leak from the turbine buildings. But we are open to consider any possible path of contamination.” Thus, Tepco is reporting another worst-case scenario, based on assumption taken to the extreme.

Cleverly-created worst-case scenarios relative to nukes have historically been the domain of hardened nuclear critics. To date, none of their tacit “guarantees” have come to fruition. Regardless, the Tokyo Electric Company and Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority have joined them in waltzing with the worst-case scenario. Transparency means “telling it like it is” in a timely fashion. The “official” creation of worst-case scenarios makes a mockery of transparency.