A Hapless Fukushima Clean-Up Effort: 'We Need Every Piece of Wisdom We Can Get'

By , and Thilo Thielke

The lack of an effective emergency crisis management has underscored how poorly prepared TEPCO and indeed the Japanese authorities were for a nuclear disaster. Engineers seem helpless in their efforts to cope with radioactive water and workers aren't even getting proper meals.

Photo Gallery: Japan's Radiation Crisis Photos
REUTERS/ Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via Kyodo

When the first reactor sustained damage in faraway Japan, experts in France, a country that relies heavily on nuclear energy, immediately made a number of special robots available. The machines can be operated by remote control in places where radiation levels are too high for human beings to work safely.

The high-tech helpers have been standing at the Chateauroux airport, boxed up and ready for shipment, for the last two weeks.

The Japanese had initially turned down the French offer, because it was coming from a company that is partially owned by Areva, the world's largest nuclear supplier. They felt that the government in Paris should have offered them the robots instead.

Japan, a leader in the development and use of robots, was also reluctant to accept offers of machinery from the United States and Germany, and even the equipment it did accept hasn't been put to use yet. But anyone listening to the reports coming from emergency workers quickly realizes that the Japanese need more than robots. In fact, the workers at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant lack some of the most basic things, like radiation suits, clean underwear and hot meals.

The roughly 400 men risking their lives to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further at the wrecked plant sleep in a building on the plant grounds. They lie on the floor in hallways, in stairwells and even in front of the clogged toilets. Each man has been given a blanket.

There are two meals a day: rationed biscuits in the morning and instant rice and Caloriemate, an energy supplement wafer, in the evening. Initially, each worker received only one bottle of water a day. Now they receive two. The men on whose shoulders the fate of the entire country of Japan rests are not even being given fresh underwear. "Everyone is dreaming of a cup of tea," one worker told the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri.

Workers without Dosimeters

Most of the men wear white protective suits made of Tyvek, a paper-like synthetic material normally used in painters' gear. Neither he nor his coworkers have worn dosimeters, complains worker Masataka Hishida. It is one of the few inadequacies the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency has felt the need to point out. The men were not even given special shoes, says Hishida. The supervisors apparently told them to simply cover their shoes with plastic bags.

Their work begins at 6 a.m., and their most important task is to pump water out of the badly damaged reactors. As long as the site remains flooded, it will be impossible to adequately restore the power supply.

In some cases, the men are groping their way around the pitch-dark interiors of buildings filled with debris. "To a layman, you'd be scared to death," Lake Barrett, an American nuclear engineer who headed the cleanup activities after the accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post. "You're working with salt water around your feet. This is not the way electricians usually work."

Three weeks have passed since the beginning of the disaster in Fukushima, and it is becoming increasingly clear how helpless and casual the plant's operator, TEPCO, is in its efforts to cope with the accident. To this day, the company hasn't even put forward a strategy to regain control over the situation in the reactors. "They are improvising with tools that were not intended for this type of situation," says Helmut Hirsch, a German physicist and nuclear expert.

"TEPCO still seems to be living from hand to mouth," says nuclear critic Mycle Schneider, winner of the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. "There is nothing systematic about their approach." But this also comes as little surprise, given that TEPCO's disaster plan is a catastrophe in itself. One need look no further than sentences stemming from the company like this one: "The probability that a serious accident will happen is so small from an engineering standpoint that it is practically inconceivable."

A Failure to Prepare for the Worst

This attitude is reflected in TEPCO's level of preparation, as well. There were all of 50 radiation suits available for an emergency at Fukushima, and TEPCO's plans called for notifying the authorities by fax -- in high-tech Japan. They did not call for enlisting the aid of the Japanese military or the Tokyo fire department.

Now TEPCO is improvising by necessity. Its engineers lack even the basic data on the scope of the disaster. Some 20 years ago, Japanese nuclear regulators advised the operators to install important measuring devices and instruments in such a way that they would still operate in the most serious of accidents. But TEPCO felt that such precautions were unnecessary.

As a result, there are now no sensors measuring radiation levels at the site. Instead, two TEPCO employees rushed around the site in a white Toyota, using a portable device to obtain the horrific readings reported by news agencies around the world soon afterwards.

Sometimes improvisation enables the workers to avert even more serious calamities, but at other times it creates the worst of the problems.

For example, the idea to pump seawater into the reactors using fire trucks may have averted an all-out meltdown. But then so much salt accumulated in the containment vessels that the crystals had to be flushed out again. United States Navy tanker ships eventually brought in the necessary freshwater.

Water has since become the workers' biggest obstacle. TEPCO engineers had initially pumped up to a ton of water a minute into the holding pools for spent fuel rods and into Reactors 1, 2 and 3. Now that it is leaking out again, the turbine rooms, lower floors and hallways and are up to a meter deep in standing water.

It is a messy Sisyphean task. First the TEPCO men struggle to pour fresh water into the plant from above, and then they struggle to pump out and somehow dispose of the highly radioactive water dripping from below -- a method called "feed and bleed." But the method is reaching its limits, because the tanks being used to hold the radioactive water are full.

"There is a huge amount of water," says Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). "We need every piece of wisdom we can get." The question of what to do with the water is becoming more and more urgent. The radiation levels are extremely high in some places. In Reactor 2, for example, where it is highly likely that the core is leaking, readings show levels of more than 1,000 millisievert per hour. A person remaining in the vicinity of the reactor for six hours would face almost certain death.

Flooding in the trenches and tunnels surrounding the reactors gives rise to fears that the contaminated water could leak into the ocean. The Japanese news agency Jiji reported last week that TEPCO workers have desperately piled up sandbags in front of the tunnel exits, which are less than 100 meters (328 feet) from the shore.

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