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.
Iodine 131 in Seawater at 5 Million Times Legal Limit
But the ocean is already radioactive, even without this toxic soup leaking into it. Groundwater near the plant has been contaminated since last week. And on Tuesday, the Japanese government issued its first-ever radiation safety standards for fish. Last Friday, a sample kounago fish, or sand lance, caught between Fukushima and Tokyo included double the levels of radioactive iodine 131 per kilogram permitted under the new rules.
TEPCO also reported on Monday it had found iodine 131 in seawater at 5 million times the legal limit as well as cesium 137 at 1.1 million times the legal limit near the water intake of Fukushima Daiichi's No. 2 reactor.
The Japanese government is now considering the use of a tanker to take up the excess radioactive water from the plant. Some have also proposed digging a holding pool on the plant grounds, which would require speedy excavation work. An artificial island the size of a soccer field called the "Megafloat," normally used by hobby fishermen, is also headed for Fukushima. Tepco plans to pump some of the radioactive water from the plant into the island's flotation tanks, which the company said could hold at least 10,000 tons of water.
Even TEPCO and the Japanese government now expect the state of emergency to continue for weeks or even months. On Friday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told the nation that it would face "a long battle" over Fukushima.
90 Percent of those Exposed to Radiation Work for Subcontractors
The soldiers waging this battle are often ordinary contract workers of the sort Japanese electric utilities have always used to perform the dirty work in reactors. According to data from Japan's Nuclear Safety Commission, 90 percent of the employees exposed to radiation in Japanese nuclear plants work for subcontractors, not for the companies that own the plants.
Of the three men exposed to radiation the week before last when contaminated water leaked into their boots, two worked for a subcontractor. They were supervising the third man, who worked for a sub-subcontractor, according to the Japanese Kyodo news agency.
Many of the nuclear mercenaries have already been exposed to high levels of radiation. But despite their back-breaking, dangerous work, they aren't even being paid very well. One of the workers said that his pay ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 yen a day, or about €80 to €160 ($114 to $228). "It's a horrible job," says nuclear engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka, "but someone who works for a subcontractor can't afford to turn it down."
Even in Japan, more and more people are asking themselves when the helpless improvisation will end. Nuclear critic Schneider wants TEPCO to finally set up an international crisis group of the world's top experts to develop solutions. "They should include short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions," says Schneider. "They need specialists for electricity, nuclear physics and water. All of this unplanned activity has to stop."
Could a Chernobyl-Like Sarcophagus Work for Fukushima?
The experts would also have to address plans to seal off the reactors. On Friday, the government began test-spraying a resin solution over debris at the crippled plant to prevent radioactive particles from being stirred up any further. There is also talk of a concrete sarcophagus of the type that was eventually used to seal off the reactor at the wrecked Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Activist Schneider, however, feels that it's much too early to contemplate such measures. "You can't seal off a boiling pot with concrete," says Schneider.
On a positive note, more and more experts are arriving on the scene every day. They include a team of 155 specially trained US Marines to help with decontamination and measuring radiation. Last week, French nuclear utility Areva dispatched 20 specialists to the island nation, including some familiar with the disposal of radioactive water. Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon even traveled to Japan, where she sought to reassure her counterpart at TEPCO by telling him: "Consider me your employee."
Lauvergeon knows that what happens in Fukushima is also critical to Areva's survival. The company earns its money with nuclear power worldwide, including at Fukushima, where it supplied the fuel for Reactor 3. Areva's share price fell by 20 percent shortly after the accident.
The people living near the crippled plant are probably more interested in knowing when the fog of contradictory information will finally lift. They are flooded with new readings daily, with the data from hundreds of measuring sites throughout Japan -- on the edge of the restricted zone, at the plant site and in the ocean -- constantly being published on the Internet. Precise figures on the temperatures in the holding pools and the pressure levels in the containment vessels are updated daily. But what does all of this data mean?
TEPCO in the Hotseat
There is hardly anything TEPCO can do right at the moment. If the company doesn't publish its test readings right away, it is accused of covering up information. If it releases preliminary readings that later prove to be wrong, it is accused of sloppiness.
Last week Greenpeace measured radioactivity at the edge of the 30-kilometer evacuation zone. Although the environmentalists were using only an ordinary Geiger counter, their readings were roughly in line with the official results. However, the Greenpeace workers did encounter highly elevated levels in individual locations, like a valley road near Tsushima with heavy average rainfall and in a village called Iitate, where radioactivity levels measured in the soil were twice as high as the levels that led to the Chernobyl evacuation.
According to Edmund Lengfelder of the Otto Hug Radiation Institute in Munich, it is not enough to discuss the evacuation of a zone within a radius of 20, 30 or 50 kilometers of the power plant. Instead, he says, what is needed is a map that pinpoints levels of contamination with gamma rays, radioactive iodine and cesium. "Such maps ought to be the first thing that are made public," Lengfelder says with some outrage.
Even the Soviets did a better job of this after the Chernobyl disaster, says Lengfelder. Shortly after the accident, military dosimetrists and tracking teams created special maps that were then used as the basis for the evacuation.
Lengfelder believes that it is insufficient to simply declare a zone within a 20-kilometer radius to be off-limits. "When the Japanese government says that people outside this zone should leave voluntarily, it is shirking its responsibility," says the German expert, "because this means that it doesn't have to concern itself with providing shelter, food and other services to the people."
About half of the area residents are still sitting tight in the villages on the edge of the evacuation zone, reports Jan van de Putte, a Belgian nuclear expert with Greenpeace. But very few are venturing out into the streets.
It is even more deserted in the evacuated zone within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant. The only place with some activity is the J-Village athletic training facility, where the Japanese national football team once trained. Now the government's crisis response team is using the giant facility, with its 12 football fields, stadium and convention center, as its operations center.
Helicopters circle the grounds and there are tanks on the parking lot, as if the Japanese hoped to use artillery to shoot down the radiation. But they are apparently there to demonstrate one thing: That the country is at war.