Kashiwazaki nuclear plant - report from the scene

Feature story - July 24, 2007
After last week's earthquake rocked the world's largest nuclear plant, we were hearing conflicting information from the industry. Quickly, we put together a team to help our Japan office make sure the radiation leak was not worse than official reports were saying.

Greenpeace radiation expert Rianne Teule, assisted by Stan Vincent, check for nuclear contamination on the beach beside Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant.

Here's the diary updates from two members of our team:  

Jan

-  Nuclear issue expert from the Czech Republic

Rianne

- Radiation expert from the Netherlands with a PhD in physical chemistry.

Jan

- After the earthquake, TEPCO, the utility that operates seven largereactors on the site, first said that there was only a fire at onetransformer, and that no radioactivity had escaped. Later that day,they said that about 1.5 liters of contaminated water had escaped intothe ocean. A few hours later it was revealed the volume of water wasactually a thousand times larger.

At this point it became clearthat the whole thing was worth active investigation. Next night, I setmy alarm clock to 3am so I could make some phone calls to Japan overseven time zones. I spoke to several organizations and grassrootscontacts in the region. The basic input from their side was that theywere also missing information, but they were very concerned because thestrength of the 6.8 quake was two or three times bigger than what thereactors were projected to withstand.

Second thing was thatlocal people were very nervous. They did not trust the officialstatements, and were worried about the possibility of a seriousradioactive spill. They had no means to get any data.  Theinformation from the official monitoring network disappeared from theTEPCO website, and no other independent institution had stepped in tomake checks. (TEPCO later said that lack of data on the website was dueto a damaged server, but this was not exactly reassuring.)

Whatthen followed was an example of the best qualities Greenpeace has:Gathering experienced and dedicated experts and preparing specialmeasuring equipment took only few hours.

Damaged house.

Earthquake damage in the nearby town.

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Rianne

- Monday morning, 9 am: Dutch television shows a fire at a nuclearpower plant in Japan caused by a serious earthquake. Thirty-six hourslater I sit on a plane to Tokyo, accompanied by my colleague Jan fromGreenpeace International and my favourite radiation 'toys' (measuringequipment). An 11-hour flight and 6-hour drive bring us to Kashiwazaki,ten kilometres from the shaken nuclear reactors. Our team with a totalof ten colleagues from Japan, UK, Czech Republic, Australia and theNetherlands gather for their first meeting. My first rapid 'rapidresponse' Greenpeace expedition has started.

People around thenuclear facility are terribly worried, and no wonder! I am here toanswer their urgent question: Are there radiation risks in theimmediate vicinity of the plant?

Jan

- Our office in Tokyo, in the same short time, hired additionalhardware and provided people to translate, drive us to the location anddocument the story - including arrangements to operate in a regionwhere most of the infrastructure was still not working and movement onroads was limited both by damage and police.

The Japan officeeven managed to find us accommodation directly in the city ofKashiwazaki, some 10 kilometers from the plant, in a hotel that had nowater supply but provided a slow but functioning internet connection.

Longstories can be told about the damaged city, demolished houses that wepassed on the way to the nuclear site, and big cracks on bridges androads were we drove.

Rianne

- So three days after the earthquake I take my favourite radiation toy,the Exploranium gammaspectrometer, for a stroll on the beach. TheExploranium is the Rolls Royce of radiation monitors: it not onlydetects if there is radioactive contamination, it also tries toidentify which radioactive isotopes are there. Heaven for radiationgeeks like me!

Greenpeace Netherlands bought this expensivepiece of equipment last February, and it has since identifiedamericium-241, cobalt-60 and cesium-137 near a nuclear facility inBelgium, and measured dose rates near the uranium enrichment plant inThe Netherlands. This is its first job overseas.

TEPCO building.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) visitor centre at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.

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Jan

- While our experts were checking the field, I took the opportunity tomake an official visit to the TEPCO propaganda center next to theentrance to the site (nobody was allowed to get really inside the plantitself). Outside strange smiling 'atom-dwarfs', inside chaos includinga scene with large broken aquarium. After few minutes we were asked togo out because it was not safe to stay in the building.

Thenervous men with TEPCO badges were handing me colored brochuresexplaining how safe and nice the reactors are. I guess they were stillsuffering post shock trauma, and tried to follow old patterns of theirpublic relations without actually realizing how bizarre it was.

Rianne

- Together with Stan, Pete, Ryo and Toru and protected by our personalelectronic dosimeters that emit a seriously annoying sound whenradioactivity is detected, we do a rough survey of the beach areas nearthe fence north and south of the nuclear plant. At first glance, wedon't detect any alarming levels of radiation.

We, on theother hand, are detected by TEPCO's security service, and are kindlyrequested to increase the distance between the fence and ourselves. Weobediently follow their orders, after finishing a five-minutemeasurement next to the fence.

Jan

- The first booklet has an English motto on the front saying, "Coveredwith many green plants and flowers". The second is even moreinteresting. Printed back in 1992, it illustratively educates reader'that there is no risk of a big earthquake in the area because detailedresearch was done both from historical evidence and of geologicalfaults'. It also says (in a very 'scientific' tone) that the biggestearthquake that which could theoretically hit the site is a 6.5 scaleone, which the reactors are designed to withstand. Oh, but, oops...this week they were hit with a 6.8.  And it is a logarithmicscale, which therefore means about three times stronger trembling; andyet, it could have been worse!

High tech.

Surveying for radioactivity with the Exploranium GR-135 (radioactive isotope identification device).

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Rianne

- Of course, time is of the essence in a situation like this.Naturally, people want some answers sooner rather than later.  Buta survey of the area takes time, and sometimes interpretation of themeasurements involves some serious thinking.

What we are tryingto find is an increase of radiation levels relative to thebackground.   Alarming sounds on our radiation monitors wouldinstantly reveal a dangerous situation. But much more time is needed tobe able to say that there is no immediate health risk.

Jan

- Apart from that surrealistic visit of TEPCO, second unforgettablemoment for me came when we met with Takemoto-san, a man who lives inthe village of Kariwa literally above the hill from reactors. He showedus that his part of the village has highest percentage of collapsedhouses, more than half of them fell down or were seriously damaged andmost of families had to leave. Following governmental inspections doorto door, his own house got status of "limited access" which means thathe cannot stay or sleep there but can at least use it as a storage ofhis belongings. Mr. Takemoto, a long time critic of the plant,concluded that earthquake was strongest at this location and thereforehit the reactors with full force.

Rianne

- It takes us two days and many hours in the field to state that thereis no immediate radiation risk for the people living near the damagednuclear reactors. We found some places with slightly increasedradiation levels, but our equipment identifies thorium and radium, bothnatural isotopes. No iodine, chromium or cobalt, which TEPCO admittedwere discharged into the air.

For a nuclear expert, findingradiation is part of the fun, and I'll admit that a part of me wouldhave been excited to find something more.  But mostly I amrelieved that I can ease the local people's minds.

Jan

- Now we are on the way back home, after finding out that most placesthat we checked around the plant did not indicate increasedradioactivity. (Sometimes the radiation level doubled against naturalbackground, but our gamma spectrometer showed it was caused only bynatural isotopes of thorium and radium.)

I was more than happyto explain to local people that there is no immediate radiation danger,they can for the moment relax and focus their efforts to rebuildingtheir households.

However, there is an obvious need for moresystematic and deeper monitoring.  The damaged structures at theplant could leak more radioactivity in coming weeks and months.

Wemust also hope that the reactors will never be restarted.  Thatwould obviously be like playing Russian roulette with futureearthquakes.

Afterword: 

On 22 July, the government of Japan agrees to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) to inspect the Kashiwazaki reactors.  

IAEA'srole as a promoter of nuclear power compromises it somewhat as awatchdog institute.  However, they are the best internationalinstitution to conduct a thorough inspection of the plant. 

Previous story: Earthquake, fire and nuclear leak in Japan.

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