Translated by Shinji Takaramura
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station - 5 Things We Learned
What is happening at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station post-March 11, 2011? MATCHA traveled with two foreign residents to Fukushima to find answers about the site and its surrounding communities.
Written by MATCHA-PR
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station
Do you recognize this location?
This is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where that accident occurred.
On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku Region Pacific Coast Earthquake (also known as the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake) occurred, followed by a radiation leak at the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (NPS), which is located on the coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture.
Amid a large amount of information broadcasted through television, newspaper, and Internet, there were also inaccurate reports about the radiation levels. The citizens did not know what to believe.
Eight years have passed since that day. What is going on in Fukushima and the Daiichi NPS now?
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station through the Eyes of Two Reporters
Cole (left) and Frank (right)
Cole, an American, and Frank, from the Netherlands, both living in Tokyo, offered to head to Fukushima for this coverage and report on what they've seen.
Cole is working in Japan, and Frank is a university student. Both of them have learned about Fukushima through the news, but they are not specialists on nuclear power plants or radiation. This is their first visit to the site.
To Solve an Indefinable Anxiety
Both of them had some questions about this tour. Is it safe to visit Fukushima Daiichi NPS? What is the condition of the site? What will happen from now? The current situation, as well as the future, is uncertain. To learn about the current situation in Fukushima, MATCHA made a visit to the site.
*MATCHA was allowed to enter Fukushima Daiichi NPS under special permission. This article is based on a two-day visit to the site, on January 15-16, 2019.
Part 1: Five Things We Learned at the Fukushima Daiichi NPS
- 1. Is it Safe to Visit Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
- 2. What Happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station?
- 3. What Is the Current Situation?
- 4. What Is Going On at Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
- 5. What is the Future of Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
Part 2: The Area Surrounding Fukushima Daiichi NPS
- 1. Namie - A Dental Clinic Re-Opens after Seven and a Half Years
- 2. Minamisoma City, Odaka Ward - A Frontier within 20 Kilometers of the NPS
1. Is it Safe to Visit Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
Fukushima Prefecture is located in the Tohoku Region. The prefecture is very expansive and is the third largest prefecture in Japan.
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is located in the coastal area of the prefecture.
The Mandatory Evacuation Zones: 2.7% of the Prefecture
This map shows the mandatory evacuation zones still remaining in the prefecture. At the time of the accident, an evacuation order was issued to all the areas within 20 kilometers radius of the NPS site. That order has been called off in most areas.
Although there are still mandatory evacuation zones in the areas near Fukushima Daiichi NPS, the evacuation order has been called off in most areas.
The total area of Fukushima Prefecture is 13,783 square kilometers. As of April, 2017, the mandatory evacuation zones totaled to approximately 370 square kilometers, which is about 2.7% of the whole prefecture.
Residents Returning Home
Machi Nami Marche, a temporary shopping mall in the town of Namie that also acts as a meeting space for residents. Restaurants and shops line the mall.
The evacuees totaled 160,000 at its highest in May 2012, but the number has decreased to about 45,000 as of July 2018. The number of citizens returning to their homes is increasing.
The radiation dose, a major concern, has also decreased. According to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the air dose rate within an 80-kilometer radius from the Fukushima Daiichi NPS is about 74% smaller than in 2011 (*1).
MATCHA also visited the Odaka Ward in the city of Minamisoma, where the evacuation order was called off in 2016, as well as the town of Namie, where the evacuation order was called off in 2017, to interview the returning citizens. Be sure to read part 2 of this article.
*1: The air dose rate was measured at one meter above the ground, in September 2017.
The Traffic in the Area
We headed to Fukushima Daiichi NPS on a bus.
The bus departed from Tomioka, a town located to the south of the nuclear power station, and entered Okuma Town, where the NPS is located. An evacuation order is still effective in parts of Tomioka, and most areas in Okuma.
The picture above shows Tomioka River running through the areas in Tomioka where the evacuation order has been called off. The water flows from the mountains, and salmon swim upriver in autumn.
Okuma, where the Fukushima Daiichi NPS is located.
We passed many vehicles working at the decommissioning site, as well as trucks for the decontamination work.
"I thought that there wouldn't be any people in the area, so this traffic is a surprise," said Cole.
The bus turned off the highway and headed for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Checking Body Radiation Levels
We arrived at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. You can see the grounds from the window at the Large Rest House located at the facility.
We are eager to start the tour, but first, we need to check the radiation levels in our bodies.
A machine called a whole body counter is used to measure the values. The procedure is conducted before and after the tour to measure and make sure that the numbers do not change significantly.
The whole body counter measures the amount (per minute) of gamma rays. If there is an increase of more than 1,500 cpm (counts per minute) after the tour, it is highly probable that the person was affected by radioactive materials.
On this visit, Cole's radiation level was 907 cpm before the tour and 954 cpm after. Frank's numbers were 1,488 cpm before and 1,339 cpm after. Although the numbers vary between individuals, the difference between before and after was small enough.
A Comparison with Radioscopy
But is there really no problem with the radiation levels on the site?
Let's take a look at the numbers. The picture shows a 0.008 mSv/h (*2). This value was measured during our visit near Unit 4, one of the reactor buildings.
This value is less than one-seventh of the radiation amount of a chest radiograph (X-ray), as the regular dose for a radioscopy would be about 0.06 mSv. A person standing at this spot for one hour would receive 0.008 mSv, which is a very low amount.
For reference, see the following list of natural radiation sources.
*2: Although the counter in the photograph displays numbers using the μSv/h unit, all the numbers in this article are based on the mSv/h unit (1 mSv/h is equal to 1,000 μSv/h).
|A Comparison of Radiation Exposure||Unit (mSv)|
|One year of natural exposure (world average)||2.4|
|Round trip flight between Tokyo and New York||0.11 to 0.16|
|A chest radiograph (X-ray)||0.06|
|A Visit to Fukushima Daiichi NPS (about 5 hours)||0.04|
|A one-hour stay at Fukushima Station, in the prefectural capital (*3)||0.0002|
|A one-hour stay in New York (*4)||0.00005|
Our tour inside the grounds totaled five hours, and the final, integrated dose was 0.04 mSv, which is about two-thirds of the radiation exposure during chest radiography.
*3: This value was measured on January 23, 2019, at Corasse Square near Fukushima Station. The fifth decimal place is rounded off. Reference: http://fukushima-radioactivity.jp/pc/
*4: This value was measured on January 23, 2018. The sixth decimal place is rounded off. Reference: https://www.jnto.go.jp/eq/eng/04_recovery.htm
Is It Okay to Visit Wearing Regular Clothes?
Certain items are required for the power plant tour. We received helmets, masks, socks, gloves, and vests. We put them on over our clothes.
As shown in the picture on the lower right side, a compact dosimeter is placed in the vest pocket. This is to check the radiation exposure during the tour.
Some people may be surprised that the tour is performed with minimal accessories. The radiation levels on the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi NPS is declining each year due to the decontamination progress. This is the required gear for a tour as of January 2019.
No Need for Masks
Currently, workers and visitors can enter 96% of the grounds without hazmat suits. It is also possible to walk around without wearing masks depending on the area.
The grounds of Fukushima Daiichi NPS
The picture shows Sakura-dori, a street located in front of the Large Rest House, approximately 1,500 meters away from the reactor buildings.
2. What Happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station?
The Events of March 11, 2011
Fukushima Daiichi NPS is run by TEPCO. The station provides electricity to the Kanto Region, about 200 kilometers away from the site.
On March 11, 2011, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake occurred, causing a fifteen-meter-high tsunami that struck the station.
From left to right, Units 1 to 4, on March 15, 2011/Picture courtesy of TEPCO
Due to the tsunami, the four reactor buildings housing Units 1 to 4, located at 10 meters above sea level, all lost their alternating current power.
This resulted in the loss of cooling powers, causing a meltdown of nuclear fuel at Units 1 to 3. (*5)
*5: There was no meltdown for Unit 4, which was under maintenance at the time.
Unit 3 (left) and Unit 4 (right), after the hydrogen explosion on March 15, 2011./Picture courtesy of TEPCO
Furthermore, a hydrogen explosion occurred at Units 1, 3, and 4. The meltdown, followed by the explosions, caused radioactive material to scatter, contaminating the air, soil, and seawater.
Some of you may have seen the picture above, which shocked the world. What does the scene look like now?
Mr. Abe and Mr. Kimoto, who work at the public relations office of TEPCO, gave us a tour.
3. What is the Current Situation at Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
Our first stop was the reactor building, the place of meltdown and the hydrogen explosion.
Due to the large size of the station grounds, the tour is by bus.
A Neat, Orderly Site
Cole was surprised when he saw the grounds. "This is orderly beyond my imagination. It looks well-maintained."
Frank nodded. "It looks like an ordinary construction site or an industrial area."
Only the sight of the workers in hazmat suits reminded us that this is the Fukushima Daiichi NPS.
A Hundred Meters to the Reactor Buildings
From left to right, Units 1 and 2
After a five minute ride, the bus stopped at a hill. The reactor buildings loom in front of us.
Unit 2 (left), Unit 3 (with the domed covering) and Unit 4 (behind Unit 3).
The distance to the buildings is about a hundred meters. "The damages can be seen from here. This really is where the accident took place," said Frank.
Mr. Abe from TEPCO suggested moving closer to the buildings. Both Cole and Frank were surprised. "Is that possible?"
A Few Meters from the Reactor Buildings
Unit 3 can be seen in the background.
We arrived at a corridor located between Units 2 and 3. This is only a few meters away from the reactor building. The upper part of the building has been blown away by the hydrogen explosion, and the wall near the ground was severely damaged by the rubble in the tsunami.
Is it safe to be standing here?
Mr. Abe on the right, with unit 2 in the background.
"Since May 2018, the requirements for uniforms and gear in this area have become relaxed," explained Mr. Abe.
"Steel plates were placed on the ground to contain the particles, and the radiation dose has decreased in accordance with the removal of rubble. We are also managing the dust which contains radioactive materials, and monitoring its radiation."
The area where the workers move around in light gear is gradually expanding.
4. What is Going On at Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
Then what is currently going on at the site?
There are two major operations happening to decommission Fukushima Daiichi NPS.
A: Removal of Spent Fuel and Fuel Debris from the Reactor Buildings
B: Management of the Contaminated Water
A: Removal of Fuel and Debris from the Reactor Buildings
A crane is used to remove the rubble at Unit 1.
The spent fuel left in the reactor buildings will not be used any more, so it is being removed as a step towards decommissioning.
The radiation dose in Units 1, 2, and 3, where the meltdown occurred, are still high. Careful decommissioning work is being carried out in the units are all going through different phases.
A remote-controlled crane is used to remove the rubble from Unit 1. Although there was no hydrogen explosion at Unit 2, radioactive material has accumulated in the building, which has to be examined.
Unit 3 on March 21, 2011 (left), after the hydrogen explosion, and on February 21, 2018, after the domed covering has been set (right). Pictures courtesy of TEPCO
The removal of rubble and the decontamination of Unit 3 is complete. A domed covering (right picture) has been attached in order to remove the spent fuel.
As of January 2019, Unit 4, shown in the picture above, is at the most advanced phase of decommissioning. Although there was a hydrogen explosion, the reactor was under maintenance at the time and no meltdown occurred, making it easier to start the process.
The fuel was removed in 2014 and safely contained in a pool located nearby. All the necessary decommissioning work has been completed in Unit 4, and it is in a stable condition.
The fuel debris, the result of the meltdown, must also be removed from Units 1 to 3. Robots are used to scout the inside of the buildings.
The search inside Unit 3, conducted in July 2017, can be seen on this page. Also, the rubble at Unit 2 was examined in February 2019.
(Left) The two-fingered machine used for the examination. Picture courtesy of Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation./(Right) The rubble examined with the machine at Unit 2, in February 2019. Picture courtesy of TEPCO.
B: Management of the Contaminated Water
The grounds are covered with asphalt in order to reduce the radiation levels, and also to prevent rainwater from seeping underground.
Management of the contaminated water is another ongoing operation at the Fukushima Daiichi NPS.
In 2011, radioactive materials dispersed into the air as well as into the ocean and soil.
Although the radioactive materials in the seawater near the NPS were low at the time of our visit in January 2019, various measures are taken to further lower the contamination risk.
An "Ice Wall" Surrounding the Reactor Buildings
The reactor buildings are surrounded by underground piping, which supports the ice wall, reaching down to 30 meters below ground level.
The soil beneath the reactor buildings is still contaminated by radioactive materials. To contain the contamination, an ice (frozen) wall which spans 1.5 kilometers, surrounds the buildings.
Picture courtesy of TEPCO
Also, there are steel walls on the seaside, shown in the picture above, to prevent the leakage of contaminated water into the ocean.
Multi-Nuclide Removal Equipment (ALPS)
"What happens to the contaminated underground water below the reactor buildings?" asked Cole.
"The water is being treated in various facilities in the station, one of them being the Multi-Nuclide Removal Equipment (ALPS). Cesium and strontium, which are both hazardous to humans, are being removed during the purification process," said Mr. Abe from TEPCO.
The Water in the Tanks
Tanks containing treated water.
Tritium is the only radioactive material which cannot be removed by modern technology. The treated water, with tritium, still left, is stored in the tanks set inside the grounds.
The tanks lined up in the station grounds.
"What will you do with the water in the tanks?" asked Frank.
As of January 2019, there are about 940 tanks at Fukushima Daiichi NPS, which totals to 1.1 million tons of water. It is estimated that the station grounds can store up to 1.37 million tons.
"We are actively discussing and working with the national government and local municipalities on how to manage these waters," answered Mr. Kimoto, TEPCO.
The Workers at Fukushima Daiichi NPS
The removal of spent fuel and fuel debris, along with the management of contaminated water are important operations going on at Fukushima Daiichi NPS. About 4,000 to 5,000 workers engage in this work every day.
"This is also a surprise. I imagined that the buildings were left as they were at the time of the accident, or the number of workers would be much, much smaller. There are so many people working on the grounds," said Cole.
Eight years have passed since the accident and the working environment has improved dramatically.
For example, in 2015, a restaurant was built on the grounds to provide warm meals to the workers. Until then, the food had to be brought from outside, and they were all cold meals.
"For Japanese people, eating from the same pot is very important when they work as a team," Mr. Abe, who was at the site in 2011, talked emotionally about the working conditions.
Fixing the Fukushima Daiichi NPS
Mr. Kimoto, seated to the right, was our tour guide. He was also at the site in 2011. When the earthquake occurred, Mr. Kimoto was stationed at Fukushima Daini NPS, located about twelve kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. After the accident, he has been working in public relations and is currently in charge of press conferences.
"I had faith in nuclear energy, but the accident occurred and it was a huge shock. Now, I hope for the damage to be repaired as much as possible. That sense of duty is my motivation."
Mr. Abe, also from TEPCO, added honestly: "We could not prevent the accident, and I feel ashamed for that. We have to admit our mistakes, and disclose them, over and over again. This is what we must do now."
5. What is the Future of Fukushima Daiichi NPS?
Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi NPS is estimated to take thirty to forty years.
There are still many problems to solve, from removing the rubble, the spent fuel, and fuel debris, and also managing the contaminated water.
There is a facility where the visitors can learn about the decommissioning process and the disasters on March 11, 2011.
Picture courtesy of TEPCO
The TEPCO Decommissioning Archive Center is located in Tomioka, about ten kilometers south of Fukushima Daiichi NPS. It opened in 2018 and is where visitors can see information and materials accident and the decommissioning process.
Gathering Information on Fukushima
After the visit to Fukushima Daiichi NPS, Frank said "I was amazed to be able to go that close to the site of the accident, and the station was a lot better managed than I imagined."
Cole added "I also felt that the decommissioning process is being well-managed. However, there are some uncertainties about the contaminated water, and I think modern technology has its limits regarding radiation, which can't be seen. Still, the people working at the site are all professionals and are doing all they can to improve things."
"Radiation is invisible, which makes it difficult to understand, and we become anxious. After visiting the site and gaining more knowledge, I feel less anxious and uncertain," said Cole.
What we cannot see makes us afraid. But by learning about what we fear, the fear gradually fades.
To get a better understanding of Fukushima, the tour headed to another location after Fukushima Daiichi NPS.