17 Mar 2011

Japan: battle to cool Fukushima as world’s alarm grows

Watch video of the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, filmed by military helicopters dumping water on it, as a nuclear expert tells Channel 4 News elements of the response are “shambolic”.

After a series of fires and explosions at the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the authorities are now fighting to prevent the nuclear crisis from escalating using helicopters and water cannons to cool the reactors.

Remarkable video, above, shot on Wednesday by the helicopters and posted on YouTube, shows close-up the huge amounts of damage the plant has sustained in the blasts.

Already more than 140,000 people have been evacuated amid radiation warnings and exclusion zone of 30km.

On Thursday helicopters dumped 30 tonnes of seawater onto one of the damaged nuclear reactors in a last-ditch attempt to cool it. Engineers are also working on restoring power to try and get the cooling systems back online. Water cannons also trying to tackle the heat had to pull back as a result of high radiation levels.

The EU’s energy head, Gunther Oettinger, echoed the view of the French that the situation was “out of control”.

Get the latest on our Japan live blog

He said: “We are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster. There could be further catastrophic events, which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island.”

He said it was wrong to “exclude the worst”.

“There is talk of an apocalypse, and I think the word is particularly well chosen.”

On Thursday, the USA said it was sending a nine-member team specializing in biological and nuclear hazards to advise Japan’s military.

Health concerns
The UK's Chief Scientific Officer, Sir John Beddington, says there is no reason to be concerned over radiation risk to humans - even in a "worst case scenario" of meltdown.

"What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air.

"Now, that's really serious, but it's serious again for the local area. It's not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down, do we have a problem?

"The answer is unequivocally no...The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That's not going to be the case here."

The US said it was sending aircraft to help Americans leave the country, and in the UK the Foreign Office upgraded its advice to tell Britons to leave Japan and the north of Tokyo.


Concerns now centre on two of the reactors at Fukushima, No 4 and 3. The US is concerned that the cooling pool for spent nuclear fuel rods at Reactor No 4 is dry, meaning nothing is cooling the fuel. Meanwhile the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), said its main concern was the spent fuel at No 3 reactor.

High radiation levels prevented helicopters from dropping water on the reactors on Wednesday, but it appeared they had been at least partially successful on Thursday. Water is also being poured into reactors No 5 and 6 as workers, dressed in protective suits, toil to avert catastrophe.

Latest from the IAEA

Graham Andrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency said: “The situation remains very serious, but there has been no significant worsening since yesterday.

“The current situation at units 1, 2 and 3, where cores have suffered damage, appears to be relatively stable.

“Seawater is being injected into all three units, using fire extinguishing hoses, but the containment pressures are fluctuating.

“Military helicopters have carried out four water drops over unit 3 since yesterday.

“Unit 4 in particular remains a major safety concern. No information is available on the level of water in the spent fuel pond. No water temperature indication from the unit 4 spent fuel pond has been received since March 14, when the temperature was 84C.

He added: “The water levels in the reactor pressure vessels of units 5 and 6 have been declining.”

Mr Andrew said the IAEA was now receiving information on radiation levels across Japan. He said: “In Tokyo there has been no significant change in radiation levels since yesterday and remain well below levels which are dangerous to human health.”

The so-called “Fukushima Fifty” are working in short shifts to minimise their exposure to the radiation. Around 180 remain close to the plant, with around 50 thought to be working at any one time.

The IAEA said two Tepco employees were missing, and two had been “suddenly taken ill”.

Two more have minor injuries, and two sub-contractors have more serious injuries – one with broken legs and one whose condition is unknown. Both were transported to hospital. A further two were taken to hospital during the time of donning respiratory protection in the control centre.

Japan's battle to cool Fukushima nuclear plant as world looks on (Reuters)

The photograph above, released by Tepco, shows the extent of the damage to these two reactors.

Lone voice

One of the team who initially battled to get Fukushima under control has spoken up for colleagues who have risked their lives by remaining at the plant.

Michiko Otsuki wrote on her blog: “I was dealing with the crisis at the scene until Monday. In the midst of the tsunami alarm, at 3am in the night when we couldn’t even see where we going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realisation that this could be certain death.

“The machine that cools the reactor is just by the ocean, and it was wrecked by the tsunami. Everyone worked desperately to try and restore it. Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work.

“There are many who haven’t gotten in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard.”

She added: “There are people working to protect all of you, even in exchange for their own lives.

“Watching my co-workers putting their lives on the line without a second thought in this situation, I’m proud to be a member of Tepco, and a member of the team behind Fukushima No. 2 reactor.”

“What we believe we have seen so far in Japan is people arguing, a shambolic overreaction, and helicopters hovering around,” nuclear expert John Large told Channel 4 News.

“They are taking a chance, a risk with the helicopters and water. I suspect in the end someone will come up with a solution, like Chernobyl, but its about the cost of the solution in terms of the radiological impact to the public.

“I expect somewhere they are sitting down and discussing what options they have. What people need to understand is how the nuclear industry establishes its safety culture. It looks at what is acceptable risk and the tolerable consequences of an accident. If it is less than one in a million event, that is seen as such an incredible event that there is no need to plan for it – so the iceberg will never hit the Titanic, so no need to make it unsinkable, or put life rafts on.

“What this means is, accidents like we are seeing now where there are two breaches – one involving the reactors, and one involving fuel ponds outside the reactors – they don’t have any plans for it. They don’t have a procedure in a book to turn to – that’s why there is some turmoil. Taking a water cannon and spraying it in may not work. This shows the fundamental omission in nuclear safety culture. What this shows is the basic confidence of nuclear engineers and operators is flawed.”

Four people sustained minor injuries due to the explosion on 11 March and were taken to hospital. Eleven people – four Tepco employees, two subcontractors, and four Japanese civil defence workers) were injured by the 14 March blast.

In total, 17 people have also suffered from “deposition of radioactive material to their faces”, but were not taken to hospital because of the low doses, the IAEA said. One worker suffered significant exposure during vent work, and was transported to an offsite centre. Two policemen who were exposed to radiation have been decontaminated, and firemen exposed to radiation are under investigation.

Channel 4 News Science Correspondent Tom Clarke warned that the situation could be even more serious than it seems.

Read more on the dangers as a result of the danger of going “critical” at Fukushima, by Tom Clarke.

Japan said the US would fly a high-altitude drone over the stricken complex to gauge the situation, and had offered to send nuclear experts.

Humanitarian crisis

While the nuclear situation continues to develop, Japan remains crippled by the devastating after effects of the earthquake and tsunami which struck almost a week ago.

Heavy snow and freezing temperatures have added to the misery of those who remain homeless.

Many towns remain completely buried in debris and untouched by rescuers and recovery teams struggling to cope with the extent of the destruction.