The Fukushima Daiichi Reactors Were in Meltdown After the Earthquake, But Before the Tsunami Hit
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David McNeill and Jake Adelstein
It is one of the mysteries of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis: How much damage did the March 11 earthquake do to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors before the tsunami hit? The stakes are high: If the quake structurally compromised the plant and the safety of its nuclear fuel, then every other similar reactor in Japan will have to be reviewed and possibly shut down. With virtually all of Japan’s 54 reactors either offline (35) or scheduled for shutdown by next April, the issue of structural safety looms over the decision to restart every one in the months and years after.
The key question for operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) and its regulators to answer is this: How much damage was inflicted on the Daiichi plant before the first tsunami reached the plant roughly 40 minutes after the earthquake? TEPCO and the Japanese government are hardly reliable adjudicators in this controversy. “There has been no meltdown,” top government spokesman Edano Yukio famously repeated in the days after March 11. “It was an unforeseeable disaster,” Tepco’s then President Shimizu Masataka improbably said later. As we now know, meltdown was already occurring even as Edano spoke. And far from being unforeseeable, the disaster had been repeatedly forewarned.
Throughout the months of lies and misinformation, one story has stuck: “The earthquake knocked out the plant’s electric power, halting cooling to its six reactors. The tsunami – a unique, one-off event – then washed out the plant’s back-up generators, shutting down all cooling and starting the chain of events that would cause the world’s first triple meltdown. That line has now become gospel at TEPCO. “We had no idea that a tsunami was coming,” said Murata Yasuki, head of public relations for the now ruined facility. “It came completely out of the blue” (nemimi ni mizu datta). Safety checks have since focused heavily on future damage from tsunamis.But what if recirculation pipes and cooling pipes burst, snapped, leaked, and broke completely after the earthquake — before the tidal wave reached the facilities and before the electricity went out? This would surprise few people familiar with the nearly 40-year-old reactor one, the grandfather of the nuclear reactors still operating in Japan.
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Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistleblower allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them, including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Sugaoka Kei, a General Electric on-site inspector first notified Japan’s nuclear watchdog, Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. The government of Japan took two years to address the problem, then colluded in covering it up — and gave the name of the whistleblower to TEPCO.
In September 2002, TEPCO admitted covering up data about cracks in critical circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center writes:
“The records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.”
The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the simple wear and tear of long-term usage. On March 2, 2011, nine days before the meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) warned TEPCO of its failure to inspect critical pieces of plant equipment, including the recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs if needed and report to NISA on June 2nd. It does not appear that the report has been filed as of this time.