September 7, 2013

Often hailed as satirical, Murphy’s Law occasionally hits the nail on the head. It tells us anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. One corollary adds that it will happen at the worst possible time. Unfortunately, the Tokyo Electric Company has suffered Murphy’s Law…big time! Back in late July, Tepco succumbed to continual news media complaints that they always underestimated risk. Rather than let it roll off their backs, Tepco decided to add a worst-case scenario to every discovery of a problem with Fukushima Daiichi. Although not stated, it seemed that Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority followed suit. For more than a month reports of problems with contaminated water at F. Daiichi were presented in the worst-case scenario mode in every instance. The repercussions have been devastating.

Discovery of a few groundwater observation wells testing positive for contamination resulted in the NRA and (by proxy) Tepco stating that 300 tons of contaminated groundwater might be flowing into the Pacific every day. The subsequent discoveries of highly contaminated water in two equipment tunnels and a 300 ton loss of water from one of the site’s storage tanks were also presented with the possibility they might have resulted in releases to the Pacific. Tepco eventually estimated that, though undetected, 30 trillion Becquerels of radioactive Cesium and Strontium might have seeped into the Pacific since May, 2011, even though Tepco’s Yoshimi Hitosugi admitted, “So far, we don’t have convincing data that confirm a leak from the turbine buildings.” The Press treated these wholly-speculative, worst-case disclosures as if they were of actually occurring events. In each case the headlines were rife with the certainty that “toxic”, “highly radioactive” water was pouring into the ocean at a rate of 300 tons per day. The Fisheries on the Fukushima coastline and a few in nearby Prefectures stopped fishing, ended their “test” catches to prove the fish were safe to send to market, and condemned Tepco for what might be the case. The outcry inside and outside Japan was terrific – all because of multiple worst-case scenarios being reported to the world.

The last week of August, the NRA seemed to realize the worst-case scenario notion is a losing proposition, perhaps due to a small barrage of criticisms from international experts. One expert, Gerry Thomas of Britain’s Imperial College, said, “Worrying about what might happen can have a very bad effect on quality of life, and can lead to stress-related illnesses.” Chair Shunichi Tanaka felt the pressure and conceded, “From what we can see from existing data… so far there is no meaningful effect” on the Pacific. He has also turned on Tepco, saying their reports are “not scientifically acceptable”. He called Tepco’s statements that recently discovered wastewater tank radiation levels of 1,800-2,200 millisieverts per hour are giving the wrong impression. If the readings were for Gamma radiation, the result for 4 hours of exposure would be lethal. The Press reported the potential exposures would be lethal. However, the radiation being detected was not Gamma. It was Beta, which loses intensity rapidly with distance and cannot penetrate clothing. Tanaka said Tepco should use the Becquerel units of activity for the tank radiation levels and not the millisievert units of exposure. He called it “describing how much something weighs by using centimeters.” Industry Minister Tatsuya Shinkawa added to the mix when he said most of the contamination is contained inside the station’s inner break-wall (quay), and radioactivity outside the harbor is no different than levels occurring before the 2011 accident. The international community of radiation experts has supported Tanaka’s current position. But, this has done little to deter the bad Press spawned during the previous month.

Now, the situation has exacerbated considerably over the past two days. First, Japan’s representatives at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Buenos Aires have been besieged by questions about the contaminated water leaks from Fukushima, based on the exaggerated Press reports. Senior representative Tsunekazu Takeda said there were no radiological problems in Tokyo, the games will be 250 kilometers from Fukushima, and the nation’s food contamination limits are the strictest in the world. The mayor of Tokyo addressed the IOC and blasted the international Press for posting scare stories. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe added, “This contaminated water covers an area of 0.3 square kilometers and we will be able to see the direction it takes. So much rumor has been conveyed by the media.” However, most of the reporters and many IOC members seemed dissatisfied. Friday, an informal poll of those who will vote on Japan’s bid to hold the 2020 Olympics said they lean towards Madrid. Loss of the games could cost Japan’s struggling economy as much as $30 billion.

Next, South Korea has thrown Japan another blow to its economy by banning all seafood from the eight Prefectures along the Northeast coast of Japan, including Chiba which neighbors Tokyo and is more than 250 kilometers from the nuke station. South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries says, “The measure comes as our people’s concerns are growing over the fact that hundreds of tons of radiation contaminated water are leaked daily from the site of Japan’s nuclear accident in Fukushima.”

The question remains – is the Pacific actually being contaminated? Or, is this all a terrible black comedy of exaggeration predicated on assumption? Here are the facts. None of the samples run by Tepco on Pacific seawater since December 2011 – both inside F. Daiichi’s harbor break-walls and out to as far as 15 meters beyond, show nothing detectible. But can Tepco be trusted? The NRA’s latest testing on the seawater inside and immediately outside to the F. Daiichi break-walls also reveals nothing detectible. Obviously, the Pacific Ocean is not being contaminated, the seafood off the northeast Japan coastline is not being tainted, and all the Press reports of tens of thousands of gallons of “toxic”, “highly radioactive” water pouring into the Pacific are devoid of factual evidence. Tepco and the NRA producing a steady stream of “official” worst-case scenarios for more than a month is the root cause of the problem. The Japanese Press doesn’t trust anything Tepco says and has considerable skepticism of information given by the government. What was Tepco thinking? Did they expect the Press to back off their incessant Tepco-bashing. If they did, they were only fooling themselves.

I said in an earlier Commentary (August 24th; Japan’s Disastrous Flirtation with the Worst-Case Scenario), that Tepco was making a mockery of transparency by “waltzing with the worst-case scenario”. At the time, I pointed the same criticism at the NRA, which seemed to be doing the same thing. I had hoped the flirtation with the worst-case scenario would not produce horrid, irreversible results. But, I forgot about Murphy’s Law. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. Have Tepco and Tokyo dug themselves into a hole too deep to climb out of?  How they might recover from this public relations disaster is anyone’s guess.