Beyond the earthquake itself, a well understood series of events and external factors contributed to the meltdown of three of Fukushima’s six reactors, an incident that has been characterized by nuclear authorities as the world’s second worst nuclear power accident only after Chernobyl. It’s a label that warrants context, given the scale, complexity, and expense of the decontamination and decommissioning of the plant.
How does a plant and its engineers move on from such devastation? The recovery initiatives have faced major challenges, constantly being confronted by issues involving radioactive contamination of everything from dust to groundwater. And those smaller issues ultimately complicate the remediation effort’s long-term goal: to locate and remove the nuclear fuel that was in the reactors.
A sense of scale
Jonathan Cobb, spokesperson for the World Nuclear Association, spoke with Ars about the scale of Fukushima, explaining that radioactive releases in Japan were much smaller than at Chernobyl, and the accident resulted in no loss of life from radiation: “Of course, this doesn’t take away from the enormous task currently being faced at Fukushima.”
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported in May 2013 that radiation exposure following the Fukushima accident didn’t cause any immediate health effects and that future health effects attributable to the accident among either the general public or the vast majority of workers are unlikely. A 2017 paper from UNSCEAR reports that these conclusions remain valid in light of continued research since the incident.
Even the most at-risk citizens, those living in Fukushima prefecture, are only expected to be exposed to around 10mSv as a result of the accident over their lifetimes. “For reference, the global average natural background radiation tends to be around 2.4mSv/year, but even 20mSv/year isn’t exceptional,” said Cobb.
Still, the accident was rated a 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), which is the highest rating possible, and designates it a Major Accident due to high radioactive releases. Estimates vary slightly, but Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission report puts total releases at 570 petabecquerels (PBq) iodine-131 equivalent. (For comparison, Chernobyl released 5,200PBq iodine-131 equivalent.)
But the severity of the accident is probably most keenly felt in the scale of the cleanup. The incident has necessitated the ongoing cleanup and decommissioning of the plant—something that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s owner and operator, is responsible for. Even though the plant is seven years into the cleanup and has accomplished a great deal, we won’t see a conclusion for decades yet.
Meltdowns and immediate priorities
Remarkably, seismic shocks of the magnitude 9 earthquake didn’t cause any significant damage to the earthquake-proofed reactors; rather, the tsunami knocked out power that precipitated reactor meltdowns in Units 1, 2, and 3. Subsequent explosions caused by hydrogen buildup (from zirconium cladding of fuel assemblies melting and oxidizing) in Units 1, 3, and 4 then expelled radioactive contamination, most of which fell within the confines of the plant.
Cobb explained that in the aftermath of this, the ongoing risk posed by radionuclides (notably, iodine-131 and cesium isotopes 134 and 137) depended on their half-lives. Iodine-131, with a half-life of just eight days, posed virtually no threat at all after just several months. It has been cesium-134, with a two-year half-life, and cesium-137, with a 30-year half-life, that have been the major focus of decontamination efforts. “Radioactive decay means that we’ve seen a reduction in contamination simply through time passing; at the plant, however, my expectation is that the majority of reduction has been due to efforts of TEPCO. Conditions have improved markedly and a sense of normalcy has returned.”
It’s useful to take stock of what TEPCO had to contend with from the outset. Lake Barrett, a veteran of the US nuclear energy industry who spent several years at the helm of decommissioning work at Three Mile Island reactor 2, is currently an independent special advisor to the Japanese Government and TEPCO board of directors. He told Ars, “When everything goes to hell on you, you go back to basics. You’re concerned with accident response and immediate recovery of the situation. Over the longer timeframe, the decontamination & decommissioning (D&D) focus shifts to a more deliberate approach to major technical challenges.”
Barrett explained that reactor stabilization at Fukushima—an imperative of the immediate recovery—has long since been achieved. Temperatures within the Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) and Primary Containment Vessels (PCVs) of Units 1-3 are stable at between 15 to 30ºC, and there have been no significant changes in airborne radioactive materials released from reactor buildings. This qualifies as a ‘comprehensive cold shutdown’ condition.
Barrett explained how the issue of cooling is mostly non-existent at this point: “The three melted reactor cores emit less heat than a small car. Decay heat was a huge issue in the first weeks, but it’s no longer an issue. And while TEPCO still injects water onto the cores, this is more for dust suppression than anything else.”
With the reactors stable, early phases of TEPCO’s work simply involved debris clearing and restorative efforts throughout buildings and across the 3.5 square miles of the plant—both having been ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami. In the most contaminated places, remotely operated machines undertook most of the work. To reduce environmental contamination, they also removed top soils and vegetation, deforested the site, and then applied a polymer resin and concrete across much of the plant complex. This has locked contaminated material in place and limited the flow of groundwater through the site.
Other work has been more substantial. Units 1, 3 and 4 were blown apart and have had to be reinforced and encased, both for safety and to prevent spread of radioactive material. Although Unit 2 retained its roof, TEPCO decided to dismantle the upper building nonetheless, as it will facilitate removal of fuel from the reactor.
At the peak of these operations, some 7,450 persons worked at Fukushima. As operations have evolved, the workforce has declined to a not inconsiderable 5,000 daily personnel. With such levels of permanent staffing, it’s little wonder that a new rest-house, cafeteria, shops, and office building have all been built.
The efforts have, in a practical sense, meant that the majority of the site has transitioned to a stable, relatively risk-free environment. Describing the decommissioning as an “enormous challenge never before undertaken by humanity,” Seto Kohta of TEPCO told Ars: “We have overcome the state of chaos that ensued after the accident and have succeeded in reducing site dose levels to an average of less than 5μSv/h, with the exception of the vicinity of Units 1-4.” (Global background levels are <0.5µSv/h.)
TEPCO reports that the additional effective dose (i.e. additional to natural background radiation) at the plant’s boundary has declined to the target value of less than 1mSv/y.
This is not to say the plant is without signs of past problems—far from it. Felled trees sit waiting for incineration; huge mounds of soil lie under tarps; buildings retain marks of past trauma; and with environmental dosage a perennial concern, close to a hundred dose-rate monitors are positioned around the site.
Kohta also noted that while “95 percent of the site no longer requires the donning of full- or half-face masks or coveralls,” some level of protection is still required for working around the plant according to three levels of contamination. The vast majority of the plant grounds are in what’s termed Zone G, which requires just generic coveralls and disposable medical masks. Zone Y provides a perimeter around the Units 1-4 and necessitates heavier-duty coveralls and either full- or half-face masks. And lastly there is Zone R, closer to and including the reactor buildings, requiring double-layered coveralls and full-face masks.