Fukushima: Workers Re-Enter Reactor Building for First Time

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One of the most unnerving things about the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is that it just keeps going. As U.S. special forces prepared to raid a white house in Abbottabad, as Gaddafi’s forces and NATO remain mired in their deadly standoff, the workers at the stricken power plant have continued their Sisyphean task of keeping a nuclear catastrophe at bay, pouring water over damaged nuclear fuel rods until the utility finds a better alternative to the reactors’ damaged cooling systems.

Today, however, workers got at least an inch closer to Tokyo Electric Power Company’s stated goal of having this mess contained before the end of the year. For the first time since the March 11 tsunami wrecked the plant, workers went inside one of the reactor buildings to connect six ventilators intended to suck irradiated air out of the building so that yet more workers can go back inside to work on the cooling. Last month, robots sent into the Unit 1 reactor building reported radiation levels were still too high for humans to be exposed to, and so the crucial task of setting up alternative cooling methods has been kept on ice. Today’s work began after robots sent in last week reported that the levels had dropped somewhat.

TEPCO says the ventilator installation will take several days. Employees installing the ventilators and accompany infrastructure will be wearing full protective gear and oxygen masks while inside the reactor building.  If all goes according to plan and the utility is subsequently able to start cooling the reactor, the company says cold shutdown – in which coolant water around the rods falls below 100 degrees – will be achieved within days. (If you’re curious what things look like in there, here’s a video I posted on our Ecocentric blog that was taken on site on April 22 by a government employee.)

When the March 11 earthquake struck northeast Japan, there were over 6400 employees on site at the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant. Two workers will killed on the premises in the ensuing tsunami, after rushing into a building to secure equipment after the quake. Since then, hundreds of workers from the plant and other TEPCO sites in Japan have worked in shifts in the dangerous conditions. To deal with the disaster, the government raised the legal limit for the workers’ radiation exposure to 250 millisieverts per year. Three workers have been taken for treatment for burns after being exposed to radioactive water, and at least two female workers have been assessed as having surpassed the 5 millisieverts limit in a three-month period in the first days after the event. (Under Japanese law, women’s exposure limits are evaluated by month, not by year, taking pregnancy into consideration.)

The employee has not reported having any health problems, but it’s worth noting how this overexposure seemingly happened, according to Kyodo:

An employee of the plant operator… told Kyodo News that without informing some site workers, the utility, known as TEPCO, had started to vent radioactive steam on March 12 from one of the crippled reactors at the power station to depressurize its container. The first release of such steam in Japan is believed to have increased the risk of the workers being exposed to a huge amount of radiation, underscoring that the safety and health management by TEPCO has been sloppy.

After the reactor steam was confirmed vented shortly past 2 p.m., the radiation level, which began rising at 4:40 a.m. that day and reached over 70 times the usual level two hours later, more than doubled in 20 minutes to 180 times the usual level at 2:20 p.m. at the entrance of the nuclear plant, according to data provided by TEPCO.

‘Sloppy’ is one term that comes to mind. I can think of others. The Japanese courts will ultimately decide whether TEPCO was criminally negligent of its handling of this crisis. In the meantime, what I would really be interested in knowing is whether the workers who are going into this uncharted territory today feel like they can still trust their employer. I would have loved to have asked them myself when I visited Fukushima last week, but the workers are being cordoned off at J-Village, inaccessible to the press. That physical precaution makes sense, but the media outlets who have made contact with workers seem to keep having less-than-encouraging stories like not being alerted to major releases of radioactive steam. We’ll know a lot more when these employees are allowed to speak freely about the last three months, assuming some choose to. Until then, while the international spotlight shines somewhere else, they’ll be putting their suits and oxygen masks on, and going to work.

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