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Japan against anthropogenic disaster

The sixth year in a row, Japanese citizens and scientists are fighting the consequences of a nuclear accident at a nuclear power plant.

Since the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, six years have passed – it is one of the most large-scale man-made disasters, depriving homes of 180,000 people, causing damage to 220 billion dollars and leaving a terrible mark on the environment. For Japan, the accident was the hardest test of the people’s will and technological power, which was sent to fight the consequences of the second “Chernobyl”.

Elemental Attack

In 2002, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), Japan’s largest power company, explored the dangers of a tsunami. The company managed the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, which supplies half of the country with electricity. It is located off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and therefore the risk of tsunami management of the station had to be studied. The study revealed that in the next 30 years in Japan there will not be an earthquake with a tsunami that could seriously damage a nuclear station.

After nine years, this erroneous conclusion led to the largest nuclear catastrophe in the history of Japan.

March 11, 2011 at 14:46 local time (08:46 in Moscow) in northern Japan, there was an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 – the strongest in the history of the country. Its power was felt even in Tokyo, located 370 kilometers from the epicenter.

The inhabitants of the capital claimed that they were hardly standing on their feet and saw deep cracks spreading through the buildings. Human victims were avoided due to the quick reaction of the authorities, prompt warning on TV and preparation of the Japanese for such incidents.

However, the incident was only the first step towards a Japanese catastrophe. As it turned out later, seismic activity moved part of northern Japan by 2.4 meters towards North America. Such global geographic changes probably triggered the tsunami that hit the country after the earthquake. In different parts of Japan, waves reached 40 meters in height.

The main shock of the tsunami occurred in four prefectures, including Fukushima, where the waves demolished the dam and overwhelmed the city. The element destroyed more than 160,000 homes in different cities and caused the death of 16,000 people. She also launched a chain of events that led to an accident at the nuclear power plant.

Emergency plan

When the system of the station “Fukushima-1” recorded an earthquake, the epicenter of which was 170 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, it automatically shut down the reactors. To cool the rods the water supply to the power units started. Workers of the station had no reason to worry: the procedure was regular.

A few minutes later, a powerful push near “Fukushima” brought down the power tower, interrupting the supply of current to the station. The building system included emergency generators located in the basement. At the same time, employees of Fukushima were ordered to evacuate. Out of 750 employees, 50 people opposed, remaining to stabilize the “Fukushima”. Later, a group of brave men became famous in the press as “Fukushima 50”.

Workers of the nuclear power plant reached the shelter before the wave struck the prefecture and the station. Back in the early 2000s, to protect against the tsunami, the building was fenced with a dam 15 meters high, and it never failed.

However, the waves of 2011 easily overtook the barrier and hit the lower compartments of the station. The shock of the waves immediately killed two workers, and the spare generators went out of order. “Fukushima” plunged into the darkness, and with it the water that cooled the nuclear rods ceased to flow into the reactors.

School in Fukushima. One of the inscriptions on the board: "We stand, Fukushima!". Photos of Shutterstock
School in Fukushima. One of the inscriptions on the board: “We stand, Fukushima!”. Photos of Shutterstock
The Japanese authorities, led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, ordered to bring new generators to the station, but the destruction after the tsunami seriously delayed the delivery. When the equipment was brought, it turned out that it did not fit the Fukushima system.

By this time engineers at the station had already put on protective suits from radiation. They did not need electricity to understand how rapidly the building radiated toxic radiation. When the tsunami was over, several engineers took to the streets and took out the batteries from the broken cars. Specialists connected them to the station’s system to monitor the sensors: the pressure in the reactors increased, threatening to explode.

At that moment, the Prime Minister believed that the situation could still be settled without panic. When the rumors of an accident at the nuclear power plant leaked to the press, the authorities denied everything. However, the panic in the prefecture developed as rapidly as the situation at the station. People could not leave Fukushima because of the flooded roads.

By night of March 11, the authorities ordered the engineers at the station to manually open the reactor valves and vent steam to atmosphere to relieve pressure. The management of the nuclear power plant demanded to find another way to resolve the situation, fearing the release of a nuclear cloud into the atmosphere. But the Prime Minister insisted on a decision that led to irreversible consequences.

Catastrophe

15 hours after the order to open the valves, the engineers found the valves and completed the task. But when they looked at the sensors, it turned out that the radiation level continued to grow. The specialists could not understand what the problem was.

When this was reported to the Prime Minister, he realized that the situation got out of control. In the prefecture declared a state of emergency and the evacuation of 180 thousand people. The authorities for the first time since the beginning of the incident have raised their voice on specialists by phone, asking why the situation is deteriorating and the radiation level has exceeded the standard one thousand times.

Computer office in the exclusion zone. Photos of Shutterstock
Computer office in the exclusion zone. Photos of Shutterstock
Specialists of the NPP were right, saying that together with the steam, radiation would pass into the atmosphere. But the main threat of opening the valves lay in the vulnerability of the reactors.

For protection from radiation, they are covered with zirconium, a metal that forms explosive hydrogen in a liquid form in combination with water. When the station system stopped cooling the reactors, the zirconium-coated rods melted. And when the liquid metal came in contact with the steam, it was enough to form hydrogen.

When the valves opened, hydrogen rose above the station. Enough of the accidental spark that an explosive element exploded, destroying the roof of one of the reactors, wounding four people and irradiating the crew of the US aircraft carrier, who watched the situation with the “Fukushima” off the coast of the Pacific.

Within a few hours, all tickets from Japan at the airport of the prefecture were bought. Panic spread to other parts of the country: no one wanted to become a victim of a new “Chernobyl”.

On March 14, the second of six Fukushima reactors exploded, wounding 11 people. After that, the level of radiation around the station reached a deadly level of 750 micro-roentgen per hour for a person. Inside the nuclear power plant, a level of 1050 units per hour was recorded.

The next day, a third reactor exploded, a strong fire began inside it. Afraid that the fire will move to other power units, the Ministry of Defense began dropping water from helicopters, aiming at the blown up reactors. So the military wanted to stop the melting of the rods and cause corrosion mechanisms. However, strong gusts of wind blew the water past the target, and the soldiers were ordered to return to the base.

The authorities quickly formed a special fire brigade, which was ordered to go to the station and put out the fire. Thanks to protective suits firemen went inside the station, but the fire was extinguished only after two hours. As participants recalled, they were constantly tormented by thirst and fatigue because of stuffy work clothes. It was so hot inside that the sweat filtered through the respirators.

Most of the water spent on extinguishing fire, glass in the ocean. After it, according to the decision of the authorities, another 11,000 liters of contaminated water went into the ocean.

When the press told about it, panic began. People were frightened that problems with clean water would start in the country. The Prime Minister was considering a plan for the evacuation of 30 million people, including Japanese residents, but two weeks later the accident was localized.

At the request of the Japanese authorities, the United Nations sent experts in the field of nuclear technologies to the country, led by the inspector of nuclear reactors of Great Britain Mike Veitmanom (Mike Weightman). He was one of the first to state the theory that the main cause of the disaster was the low dam threshold and a gross error with zirconium.

However, the specialist stated that the decision to open the valves was correct: if the steam were not released, the reactors stuffed with plutonium and uranium could burst from within, which would lead to far more global consequences.

Effects

In February 2012 when, when the authorities and Tepco counted the billions of damages, the infected prefectures remained destroyed . The roads were filled with rubble, most of the buildings were in ruins, the animals left the radioactive territory, and sad silence in the exclusion zone was only occasionally interrupted by birds.

More than three thousand specialists and volunteers arrived in the contaminated areas. They carried off from the road fragments of reactors that had spread over a long distance, cleared the rubble, sometimes glancing anxiously at the towering towers of Fukushima.

The zone of alienation stretched for 20 kilometers from the epicenter of the accident, and workers were allowed only in tightly closed overalls. Neighboring station “Fukushima-2” was closed because of fear of a new catastrophe. Such a drastic decision led to power outages in Tokyo and discontent among residents.

The fear of a new catastrophe spread to Europe. In the fall of 2011, the German government announced plans to close all nuclear power plants in the country until 2022 and switch to renewable energy sources. Later, plans to abandon nuclear power plants until 2050 were announced in Denmark, Switzerland and Spain.

However, the Japanese authorities did not support this strategy. When Naoto Kan left the post of prime minister in late 2011, his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, said that the country would not give up nuclear power. Although Yoshihiko lasted only one year, the current government of the country, where nuclear power plants supply 30% of all electricity, does not plan to switch to renewable resources.

In an interview with RBC in March 2016, a member of the WWF-Russia Board of Trustees, Leonid Grigoriev, said that with the current technological development, advanced countries will not be able to live only on renewable energy.

He cited Germany as an example, where industrial leaders are forced to switch to renewable energy. Many are opposed to this, claiming that environmentally safe energy is not enough to support the operation of huge plants. Grigoriev added that by 2040 75% of the energy will still be received from coal, gas and nuclear power plants. Perhaps, the Japanese authorities adhered to the same position.

Protest against the nuclear industry in Bucharest, March 5, 2012. Getty Photos
Protest against the nuclear industry in Bucharest, March 5, 2012. Getty Photos

In the first year after the disaster, about 176,000 residents of the contaminated areas were evacuated to temporary homes. With two rooms of seven square meters, a small kitchen and a bathroom.

Loss of homes mainly farmers, fishermen, pastoralists. Because of radiation, they lost the opportunity to continue the family business: irradiated soil was not suitable for growing food, and the demand for fish fell because of the fear of consumers to receive a dose of radiation. The Fukushima operator Tepco paid $ 900 each month to each victim, but hardly enough to compensate for the damage.

In March 2016, The Guardian reported that many residents refused to talk about earthquakes, tsunamis and technological catastrophe for several years. For the calm and restrained people of Japan, these disasters became a serious psychological blow. 230 children became orphans, about 1580 lost one of their relatives.

Many victims of the accident at the Fukushima refused to accept the mistake that the government and Tepco accused. In October 2012, the media found outthat out of the $ 150 billion allocated to restore the consequences of the accident, the Japanese authorities secretly spent a quarter of the funds for road construction in other regions.

After that, rallies were held in the country against Tepco and the authorities, reinforcing the view that the government hides important information from citizens about radiation in the prefecture. Residents of the contaminated areas began to file a large-scale suing the company. This led to the fact that the amount allocated for reconstruction after the accident and payment to the victims amounted to 220 billion dollars.

Abandoned supermarket in the exclusion zone. Photos of Shutterstock
Abandoned supermarket in the exclusion zone. Photos of Shutterstock

In March 2016, the international environmental organization Greenpeace prepared a report “Atomic Scars” on the consequences of the catastrophe in Chernobyl and Fukushima. The researchers collected information for over a year, visiting the Japanese exclusion zone about 20 times.

It follows from the publication that “Fukushima” can not be compared with the Chernobyl accident due to completely different levels of damage inflicted. However, if the catastrophe in the Ukrainian SSR for the world community was proof of the errors in the nuclear sphere of the USSR, the accident at Fukushima showed a global danger to the nuclear industry. Experts noted that in both cases the consequences of the disaster can not be eliminated to the end.

For the people of Japan, these disasters have become a serious psychological blow. 230 children became orphans, about 1580 lost one of their relatives.

According to experts, for many years the inhabitants of the infected regions will not be able to return home without fear of receiving a fatal dose of radiation. The soil in the prefectures has lost fertile properties, and the radiation accumulates in trees, mushrooms, affects the circulation of water, damaging the animals.

Since only five years have passed since the Fukushima accident in 2016, specialists have not cited data on cancer and other diseases, on the basis of which it could be concluded that the impact of the disaster on the health of those who were exposed to radiation. However, after the accident, 280 children from the Fukushima Prefecture were examined: 90 patients were diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Counteraction

From Tokyo to the exclusion zone can be reached in an hour and a half by train. And in the presence of a sports car, you can rush through once-closed areas much faster, at worst, bored, moving on quiet and empty townships. So in November 2016, journalist Vice James Grapes (James Grapes) entered .

James Graips in the exclusion zone. Photo of Vice
James Graips in the exclusion zone. Photo of Vice
On a white Porshe, he drove through a police cordon, where he was asked a name and wished good luck. For navigation, he used the map of Fukushima, which identified the most polluted areas. For safety, Grape put on a light overall and wore a gauze dressing to slow down the entry of radioactive elements into the lungs.

According to the journalist’s observations, most cities were as clean as possible in the absence of people. The stores were littered with products that remained after the earthquake in 2011. Somewhere there were debris and debris, several buildings squinted after the tsunami.

The journalist was surprised when, in one of the abandoned schools, he met with policemen in standard form and without protective clothing. Law enforcement officials in response were surprised why they need special equipment at all.

Stray dogs in the exclusion zone. Photo of Vice
Stray dogs in the exclusion zone. Photo of Vice
Just like freedom about security, Justin McCurry, the journalist of The Guardian, noted in March 2017. The reporter said that the houses destroyed after the tsunami were restored, and the rubble on the roads was cleared.

“Fukushima”, according to the journalist, worked more than six thousand workers: they wore light overalls and covered the airways with a doctor’s bandage. The dining room was set up near the station for workers, so that they did not have to go far.

However, if the zone of alienation seems safe after six years, in reality the situation is much more complicated. The allocated 220 billion dollars for the reconstruction of the country after the “Fukushima” were divided into several projects, but by the sixth anniversary of the accident, none of them is complete.

When in 2011 the authorities realized that the water from the Pacific absorbed into the soil of the contaminated station, they began to pump out radioactive water. At first tankers weighing 100 tons were loaded daily onto tankers, but this was not enough to drain and prevent further destruction of the soil. In 2014, tankers daily poured into the Pacific Ocean to 300 tons of contaminated water, spending huge amounts of fuel.

In Tepco realized that such a strategy can not last forever. The company invested $ 323 million in the project “Ice Wall” – a barrier that, in the company’s opinion, will shield the soil of “Fukushima” from ocean water.

Hundreds of pipes were dug into the ground near the shore, and chilled liquid was poured over them. Frozen, the pipes created something like a protective wall with a length of 1,5 thousand meters.

The construction should restrain the radiation inside the station and prevent the clear water from the ocean from soaking into the contaminated soil. To maintain the wall during the year will require an energy reserve capable of providing electricity to 16,000 homes.

The former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Tepco’s senior adviser, Dale Klein, was skeptical about the idea of ​​the “wall”. He said that the authors of the construction should better plan the work plan.

According to data for March 2017, the “Ice Wall” is only partially completed. About 150 thousand tons of contaminated water, contrary to the barrier, penetrate the soil daily. Completion of the work is planned for 2020, when the Olympic Games will be held in Japan.

Scheme of the "Ice Wall"
Scheme of the “Ice Wall”
Large-Scale Project

Six years after the disaster, workers in the exclusion zone achieved a lot. Clearing roads and streets, they retired to abandoned houses, collecting a large amount of nuclear waste.

In the forests, specialists replaced the contaminated soil with fresh ones. With the help of cranes, workers installed on the shore of the “Fukushima” structures that looked like anti-tank hedgehogs. This is a temporary protection of the station from the tsunami, until a new dam is completed.

Thanks to the work of specialists, the radiation level in the epicenter close to the epicenter decreased five-fold. But with this a new problem arose.

In September 2015, the number of nuclear waste collected by employees amounted to nine million cubic meters. The company did not have time to prepare a site for their placement. Tepco estimates that 22 million square meters will be needed to accommodate all nuclear waste from Fukushima. For a small Japan, this is a huge space given to a garbage depot.

Tepco has developed a plan to build 12 kilometers from the station underwater nuclear waste storage. It will connect to the land through the tunnel, so as not to violate the international treaty on the disposal of harmful objects, but the waste will be far enough not to affect the atmosphere, according to Tepco.

The company did not announce the end date of the project , but it is required now. Nuclear waste on average begins to decay in three years. In addition, bags located in the open space, often washed into the ocean during storms and typhoons. In the Greenpeace report , it was argued that because of the poor protection of bags, children often play with them.

In May 2011, a person could no longer get to Fukushima without being poisoned with a lethal dose of radiation. At the same time, scientists began to express the theory that, perhaps, the nuclear liquid had leaked from the reactors, melted the floor of the station and burned the soil. Such an outcome of events in the long term can harm the earth much more than contaminated water from the ocean. Specialists began to look for a way to get to the station and see what is happening there.

Scientists came up with the idea of ​​sending robots. It was assumed that expensive French and German models would be able to stay inside the station for about 10 hours – that would be enough to look at the molten reactors and see how far the radioactive liquid had gone.

Microcircuits robots shorted after three hours of stay on the “Fukushima.” The camera of the device captured the insides of a quiet station, which once provided the country with electricity. Because of the weak illumination in the rollers, it is difficult to discern anything specific, but scientists have had enough to confirm the conjecture – nuclear fuel melted the station floor and slowly leaves in the soil.

Although often the lifespan of robots at the station was three to four hours, they were the eyes of scientists and extracted valuable information for them. That is why the responsibility for the most ambitious project to clean the station Tepco laid on expensive technology.

By 2021, the company promised to ship upgraded robots deep into Fukushima to eliminate reactor leaks. The cost of the operation was estimated at $ 20 billion. It is not known what kind of armor to equip the robot, so that it will withstand the level of radiation in the nuclear power plant and fulfill the goal.

In February 2017, Tepco sent a new robot company Toshiba
to stop the leakage of fuel from the reactors. Equipped with a powerful cutter and manipulator for capturing objects, the robot disconnected after a few hours, without having had time to start the task.

In addition to robots in the plans of Tepco and the authorities for 2017, there is another project: the return of settlers home. Until the end of the year, the government plans to forcibly transfer people to areas they left in a panic six years ago.

According to Greenpeace, only 15% of immigrants agree to return to the contaminated prefecture. Many asked the authorities to send them to safe areas, but the country’s leadership ignored the request. Tepco announced that it will stop paying monthly payments to the settlers when they return home.

To accommodate all nuclear waste from the “Fukushima” will require 22 million square meters. For a small Japan, this is a huge space given to a garbage depot.

The UN Human Rights Council criticized the project of forced return of residents to dangerous areas and called it a direct violation of human rights. Representatives of the council pointed out that the roads, medical and educational infrastructure have still not been restored in the regions.

Officially, Tepco promised to complete all the restoration work on Fukushima by 2040. Greenpeace member and senior nuclear specialist of Germany Shaun Burnie believes that the cleaning will take about 80 years. Burney argues that all of Tepco’s promises and joint projects with the government is a political maneuver, through which the responsible try to escape from the response for the accident, thereby exacerbating the consequences of the disaster.

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