FUKUSHIMA FALLING APART
Almost thirty years ago, when I worked in an industrial setting, I came across my first pop off valve. We’d had a call that steam was escaping in an area, and were dispatched to go inspect it. My mentor explained that pop off valves were installed in the system for times when the steam pressure had exceeded the setting, and then it released the pressure in order not to cause damage.
It was an interesting concept, one that has carried over into my own life: a visible analogy of the pressure we carry inside us all the time; the good that comes from releasing that pressure; the danger of not releasing pressure when it exceeds our ability to cope.…It’s been a month since the 9.0 Earthquake, tsunami, and the first of a series of explosions at the Daiichi reactors. Since that time, Japan has received 980 earthquakes and aftershocks: a number so staggering that it is almost incomprehensible. Numerous explosions have occurred as well, and every day it seems the Japanese nuclear and government official reveal a little more about the true nature of the on-going tragedy at Fukushima.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone that the disaster didn’t just happen at Fukushima. Although the brunt of the radiation occurred within the 30 km radius, clearly the entire country of Japan is reeling from the economic, political, social, and public health effects of the upheaval. The earthquake / tsunami destroyed whole villages like Onagawa. Many untold numbers of the dead are from other prefectures along the eastern coast of Japan. It may by three or more months before we have a better idea of the impact and the human cost.
Initially the stoic Japanese were quite reticent to explain their own inner perceptions of the tragedy. “Shigata ga nai.” is an oft-used phrase in Japan. It means, it cannot be helped. Their ethos and manner of dealing with the disaster is quite different from an American one. Due to their high population density and ability to subside on only 25% of the land mass, and given their culture’s 4000 year old history, they’ve adapted to different methods of expression.
One source below helps explain the phenomena of honne versus tatemae. “Honne means truth. Tatemae means facade.” All cultures have something similar. We cannot often express the pressure we feel within. If we’re with people we are intimate with, if we’re with people we inherently trust, we might tell them a little portion of our reality. Maybe we might even express our heart-felt feelings, but it’s rare to risk so much.
Usually at times of great tragedy, and only later upon reflection of it, do we allow the pressure to be released. It helps to do it communally. As they say in the West, “Misery loves company.” Like the pop off valve, the risks of holding the pressure within exceed the risk of release.
A few hours ago, NISA (the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) has upgraded the situation at Fukushima to a level 7 equally the 1987 Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine. Although nuclear experts in the West considered them to be equivalent as early as March 12, it took time for NISA to raise the level, and as yet, the IAEA has not officially raised the level. Political agencies are like that. They don’t raise the threat level for awhile, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, until political pressure forces them to re-assess the situation. The JAIF as well has issued a press release showing the geographic region affected by radiation, and the cities and villages affected. Who knows if those people can continue to live there, or if the ones immediately within the new 30 km evacuation zone can ever return?
A second JAIF press release is more concerning and revealing. If we read the fine print, we can note that “NISA announced that the reactor pressure vessel of Unit 2 and 3 may have lost air tightness because of low pressure inside the pressure vessel. NISA told that it is unlikely that these are cracks or holes in the reactor pressure vessels at the same occasion.Nitrogen gas injection into the Unit 1containment vessel has been continued to reduce the possibility of hydrogen explosion since Apr. 6th. The pressure of the vessel has hardly risen for the past a few days and leakage of the vessel is suspected. The same measure will be taken for Unit 2 and 3.” (my emphasis). It appears that the reactors are continuous leaking, not too surprising given the hydrogen explosions that have rocked the reactors, but here a first confirmation of cracks within the reactors.
While the NHK and the Japanese Educational site on the Nuclear disaster keep us updated on #1 reactor’s pressure, their perception of it is that is has flat-lined. That perception is in sharp contrast to our own view. The current reactor pressure for #1 is 0.908 Mega pascals: a number nine times atmospheric pressure. If it’s cracked, as they Japanese say it is, it may be a double-edged sword. Pressure is being released, but it’s also massively building up.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesperson for a nuclear agency seems to continue to be wildly optimistic given the circumstances. “Even though some amount of radiation keeps leaking from reactors and their containment vessels, they are not totally destroyed and are functioning” I’m glad that other Japanese are being more transparent in their assessment. I can’t imagine anyone taking the view that they are functioning. In what possible way?…Like the cracks in the reactors and the release of new statements from political officials, Japanese citizens are starting to be more open about their perceptions of the disaster. This latest CNN video shows the village of Futaba, and the destruction that happened as a result. The tori gate proudly displays, “Nuclear energy: our town’s future.” Villagers from the town realize that they’ve lost their town, and that Fukushima has become a repeat of the Chernobyl disaster. Their hopes dashed by a grim reality.
The BBC also ran a story from the evacuees from Futaba. Their homes were not damaged by the earthquake or tsunami. Initially they must have felt relief, as if they had been miraculously saved from the disaster. That is until the realization that their homes and property have been irreparably damaged from the radiation levels. Like the residents of Chernobyl, they may never be able to return and live there again.
The Japan Times released a highly critical report on Fukushima, the first hard hitting article to openly complain about the government response. A former member of the Japanese Self Defense Forces remarks, “If the government gave out information on where the radiation was likely to spread and told farmers to cover their vegetables with plastic sheets, the contamination level could have stayed within the government limit,” said Inoue. “It’s a man-made disaster.”…The latest radiological assessment from a spokesperson from MEXT, a Japanese Science and Industrial agency reveals that Strontium radioactive isotopes have been detected. NISA has not released seawater and air analysis that was completed on 3/23 which details the full range of radioactive isotopes released. While we wait for it, we shudder at the implications of Strontium entering the food chain. It happened post Chernobyl and severely damaged the dairy industry of the surrounding region.
Revelations of the depth of the tragedy continue each day. They are slowly released by the by spokespersons and citizens of the suffering nation of Japan. We will continue to provide coverage on the new information as new developments occur.