JAPAN | Radiation sleuths toil with borrowed counters

Posted on June 14, 2011

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JAPAN | JAPAN TIMES | Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Makoto Tonami starts his workday by slipping on a white surgical mask and then drives around with a borrowed Geiger counter, taking radiation readings. Three months ago, he was assisting people living in Minamisoma, a city north of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, with problems regarding garbage disposal.

News photo
Geiger sanction: Science ministry workers show their survey meters in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Saturday. BLOOMBERG PHOTO

“It’s usually two or three of us and we drive till sunset,” said the 43-year-old city official, who grew up in the coastal town. His group takes readings at 35 locations with equipment on loan from the Fukushima Prefectural Government, he said.

Masanori Monma, principal of the Kashima Elementary School in Minamisoma, borrowed a portable Geiger counter from the science ministry. Last month, he got a reading of 2.1 microsieverts an hour in a ditch next to a school flower bed, about 35 times higher than in downtown Tokyo and at the top end of the annual safety limit for radiation exposure.

Over three months after the biggest earthquake in Japanese history caused tsunami to virtually wreck the Fukushima power station, a picture has emerged of ad-hoc responses to the crisis. In the first days, Tokyo Electric Power Co. used fire hoses and makeshift pumps to try to cool the crippled reactors.

More than 100,000 evacuees are still sleeping on gymnasium floors, unsure if they can ever go home. Less than half of Minamisoma’s 71,000 residents now live there, with some carrying personal Geiger counters.

“The government’s action was inefficient, extremely slow and outdated,” said Sentaro Takahashi, a professor studying radiation control at Kyoto University. “Right from the start, Japan lacked the crisis management to cope with a disaster that requires quick plans and action.”

Radiation leaking from the Fukushima reactors has spread over 600 sq. km, Tomio Kawata, a fellow at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, said in a research report published May 24 and given to the government.

Radioactive soil in pockets of areas outside the 20 km hot zone around the plant has reached the same level as in Chernobyl after its reactor explosion 25 years ago, the report said.

Tepco failed to provide sufficient measures to prevent the disaster, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said last month.

On April 17, Tepco set out a road map to end the crisis in six to nine months, aiming to bring down radiation levels at the plant within three months and then achieve a so-called cold shutdown, where reactor temperatures fall below 100 degrees.

The chance of Tepco achieving that goal is 60 or 70 percent, William Ostendorff, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Efforts to bring the reactors under control have been marred by accidents and delays.

Tepco lost power to cooling systems at reactors 1 and 2 last week and the reasons for this have yet to be identified. A broken cooling pump at reactor 5 was not discovered and replaced for 15 hours on May 30, which allowed temperatures at the unit to more than double to 93.6 degrees.

The plant suffered a gas tank explosion on May 31 and oil leaking into the ocean was reported. And during a visit by an IAEA investigative team to the nearby Fukushima No. 2 nuclear station, a fire broke out in a distribution panel on May 27.

“If Tepco was operating this facility in the U.S., all of the reactors would have been shut down indefinitely and there would have been a complete changeover of management,” said nuclear engineer Michael Friedlander.

“In terms of the way they handled the accident, in terms of the way they let the information out to the press, the inconsistency in the data they have presented; words like ineptitude, negligence is the only way to characterize it,” said Friedlander, who spent 13 years operating U.S. nuclear power plants, including the Crystal River Station in Florida now owned by Progress Energy.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters gathered near Tokyo Tower to rally against nuclear power before marching on the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Tepco’s head offices, according to AP.

The government criticized Tepco last month for withholding radiation data, a move that was contributing to “public distrust,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters on May 27. The utility responded with a pledge to publish in August the combined figures of radiation released to the atmosphere and in contaminated water.

School Principal Monma disputes the results of official radiation tests in the city and says more needs to be done.

“The readings don’t represent the whole area around the school,” he said in a phone interview. “We want the city to run more radiation tests in ditches along roads and similar areas.”

Children and unborn babies are more sensitive to radiation than adults because their cells are dividing frequently as they grow. Radiation can disrupt that process, increasing the risk of birth defects, leukemia or mental retardation.

On June 6, the nation’s nuclear safety agency doubled its estimate of radiation released into the air by the No. 1 plant between March 11 and 16 to 770,000 terabecquerels. That is about 15 percent of the radiation in the Chernobyl accident.

People living in certain areas of Minamisoma will receive 23.8 millisieverts of annual cumulative exposure at current levels, exceeding the yearly safety limit of 20 millisieverts, according to a report by the science ministry earlier this month.

The ministry has 15 vehicles equipped with Geiger counters doing daily tests at 70 locations outside the zone and runs weekly tests at 50 areas inside it.

Less than half of Minamisoma’s companies are back in operation and rice farmers have been told not to plant crops this year after 10 percent of the city’s land was submerged by seawater by the tsunami, said Kiyotaka Yamaki, an official at the city’s disaster center.

Hiroko Yamada, 66, who owned a clothing boutique in Minamisoma before the quake, returned to the city over the weekend to mark the three-month anniversary. She last visited the city at the end of March after spending time in a shelter in Yamagata Prefecture. This time she brought with her a cellphone-size dosimeter that cost ¥50,000 online.

“I don’t trust the government or Tepco after they hid information,” said Yamada, who lost a relative in the tsunami. “But there’s nothing we can do until the nuclear crisis is resolved.”

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