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:
- Nuclear issue expert from the Czech Republic
- Radiation expert from the Netherlands with a PhD in physical
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
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
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.
- 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.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) visitor
centre at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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!
Surveying for radioactivity with the Exploranium
GR-135 (radioactive isotope identification device).
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
Earthquake, fire and nuclear leak in Japan.
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