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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thousands undergo radioactive screening after explosion in nuclear power station

By Richard Jones

-170,000 people evacuated from homes and buildings with 12-mile radius of the plant
-Number of people contaminated with radiation could reach 160
-Reports last night that the cooling system had also failed at the plant's number three reactor
-Three workers treated for radiation sickness after explosion in reactor building
-People offered iodine to help protect against radiation exposure
-Plant's cooling systems damaged by powerful earthquake

Journey into danger: Richard Jones surveys a devastated road on the way to Fukushima yesterday

This was, I realised in horror, nothing less than an exodus.

People terrified for their lives had abandoned their homes, possessions and pets, queued for the last drops of fuel on sale at petrol stations, and set off into an unknown future.

For them only one thing was certain last night: it was simply too dangerous to stay in Fukushima.

I watched as an endless stream of tail lights – all from family saloons and everyday hatchbacks – turned the piles of pristine white snow lying by the side of Highway 49 bright red.

I tried to speak to the fleeing families but faces grey with worry turned away from mine. No one wanted to talk. No one had time.

I arrived in Fukushima just as a vast explosion inside the town’s nuclear plant’s Number One reactor destroyed its exterior walls, exposing the metal skeleton beneath.

It tossed a gigantic plume of white smoke and steam hundreds of feet into the air and flung chunks of debris around the site. It threatened to be the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Japanese authorities declared a state of emergency and ordered a wholesale evacuation of the Tokyo Electric Power Company plant and a 12-mile radius around it.

Checks: Officials carry out radiation tests on children who were evacuated from the area near Fukushima

And last night there were reports that the cooling system had also failed at the plant's number three reactor.

Japan's nuclear safety agency said the number of people exposed to radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant could reach 160. Workers in protective clothing were scanning people arriving at evacuation centres for radioactive exposure.

They – and the rest of the world – desperately needed to know whether or not the reactor had gone into meltdown, whether its core was secure or was about to hurl toxic clouds of radiation into the atmosphere.

Devastation and despair: Terrifying pictures reveal full horror of Japan's worst quake

Such an event would compound Japan’s twin tragedy of an earthquake and a tsunami by making its deadly consequences felt across the globe.

What followed were several hours of confusion and dread as my mind filled with questions, not just as a journalist but also as a husband and father whose own life was now at risk.

Which way would a radiation cloud drift? How could I run from a killer I could not see, smell or feel? Why, when I already know of one colleague missing, had I come to this place?

Meltdown fears: An explosion destroyed the walls and roof of a building at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant

Radiation: Levels around the plant have already reached 20 times normal and there were fears the reactor could meltdown

The truth is that as I drove into Fukushima yesterday I had no understanding of the horrors which awaited me, nor that I was heading straight into mortal danger from a nuclear reactor on the edge of catastrophe.

As you head across the ‘Japanese Alps’ and drop down into the earthquake zone, it’s easy to see the devastation wrought on Friday.

But I did not realise I was caught in the middle of a newly unfolding horror until all around me emergency helicopters took to the sky and fleets of police cars, ambulances and fire engines rushed past me with sirens blaring, heading for the Fukushima plant.

What really made me fearful, however, was the reaction of the townspeople. Japan is a nation where manners are crucial and a sense of order and calm dominates daily life, but they were panicked.

Lines formed as petrol supplies ran out and diesel was rationed to 10 litres per vehicle.

Evacuation: Police wearing protective clothing head towards the Fukushima power plant after an explosion this morning

Exclusion zone: Thousands of people were evacuated from an area 12 miles around the damaged plant

I watched one Toyota people carrier pass me with two children about the same age as my own son peering out of the window. The little girl was crying.

I admit I considered turning my own car around and heading back up Highway 49 alongside them and all the other ordinary people fleeing this unquantifiable nuclear terror.

But I carried on with my journey to Fukushima because this is a global story that needs telling.

Conditions are terrifying for those of us willing to risk staying on. Fukushima shakes and judders constantly underfoot. The main highways around the town are torn in two. Communications are down. There are no hotel rooms and little running water.

What was a prosperous little place known only for the twin reactors which dominate both its economy and its landscape is now, in part, a ghost town.

I am now living in the restaurant where I stopped for my first meal after 36 hours on the road. That’s how long it took me to get here from Tokyo 160 miles away. Despite walls and a floor cracked and scarred by the quake, it’s still open for business. Yet in the first hour after I arrived there were four aftershocks, one lasting at least 40 seconds. I barely feel them now, they do not hold the same terror for me as the radiation.

The Japanese government has admitted there was a leak after the quake knocked out power supplies to the nuclear plant, cutting off its crucial cooling system. They described it as ‘tiny’ – but then they have been less than honest about nuclear accidents in the past.

At one point rumours here in Fukushima said the plant was belching as much radiation in an hour as the average person would face from the environment in a year.

Certainly, I know officials have distributed tablets to combat radiation sickness among those living closest to the plant. Residents have also been ordered to stay indoors and avoid tap water.

Four people injured in the blast remain in hospital – at least three have tested positive for radiation. The question on everyone’s lips is how many more will become victims of this explosion, how many more have already become unknowing victims?

Many are not waiting for the government’s answer, they are taking matters into their own hands and crossing the Japanese Alps to safety.

Just a few days ago, for the people of Fukushima their pine forests, meadows and cold, clear lakes were a national playground.

Today their switchback roads and mountain passes are nothing short of an escape route.

Why does Japan build so many nuclear power stations by the sea?


For a relatively small nation, Japan is disproportionately reliant on nuclear power.

In 2008, after the opening of seven new nuclear reactors, the country became the third-largest nuclear power user in the world with 53 nuclear reactors, behind only France and the USA.

Experts say this is because Japan lacks its own oil supplies.

For the past four decades, the country has made building up its nuclear energy a national priority.

However, imported fuel still provides about two-thirds of its energy needs, with nuclear power making up the final third.

Effects: A satellite image shows the post earthquake damage at the Fukushima Dai Nai nuclear plant

Nuclear expert John Large said: ‘Because Japan lacks indigenous mineral resources, it has gone down the nuclear route so it can become less dependent on others.’

Japan’s first nuclear power station was the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant, which was built in the early Sixties to the British Magnox design by the UK’s General Electric Company. It was decommissioned in 1998.

In recent years, accidents and cover-ups have eroded the Japanese public’s confidence in nuclear power. An accident at the Tokaimura plant in 1999 exposed dozens of workers to high levels of radiation and five workers were killed in 2004 in a steam explosion at the Mihama plant.

The operator of the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, has been implicated in a series of cover-ups. In 2002, the chairman and four other executives resigned after being accused of falsifying safety records.

Even though experts say Japan’s nuclear authorities have now developed very high safety standards, the latest incident will raise new questions.

Given that this is not the first time a nuclear power station has been hit by earthquake damage, some will ask why such stations are built on low-lying land near the coast, particularly if a seismically unstable area lies just offshore.

Experts say the primary reason is that many power stations use seawater to cool steam inside the reactor, adding that the designers could not have anticipated such a huge tsunami.

Kamran Nikbin, professor of structural integrity at the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, Imperial College London, said: ‘The Fukushima reactors are facing a scenario that theoretically should have been foreseen at the design stage since the plant is built in a known earthquake region.

‘However, the tsunami is unprecedented and might therefore be an event they would not have considered for in the design safety levels.’

This is serious, but NOT the Doomsday scenarioBy MALCOLM GRIMSTON

If the information coming from the authorities is accurate, then yesterday’s explosion was extremely serious – but it will not mean another Chernobyl, when radiation ultimately affected hundreds of thousands of people.

This is because Chernobyl was still operating when the explosions ripped the plant apart in 1986. At Fukushima, the reactors had already been shut down for 24 hours, reducing the amount of radioactive fallout.

Friday’s earthquake triggered the automatic shutdown of Fukushima’s reactors. But the quake caused a power cut which affected the water pumps that cool the reactor core.

Back-up diesel pumps came in, but were then put out of action, possibly by the tsunami. The battery back-up was only short term.

In reactor No 1, the water wasn’t circulating and the temperature began to rise. As the metal cans containing the fuel warm up, there comes a point when the cans, in effect, strip oxygen out of the water, just leaving hydrogen. Once that hydrogen comes back into contact with oxygen, it can explode. That was probably the cause of yesterday’s blast.

Although the plant was under huge stress, the authorities seem to have behaved calmly and efficiently. They had already evacuated the nearby area, so they could release some of the water that was causing the problem, but was lightly contaminated, into the air.

They still needed to control the heat, and their decision to fill the reactor with sea water suggests they do not plan to repair the plant. Sea water will keep the core cool but will cause corrosion in the long term, preventing the plant ever being used again.

It will take about ten days to cool the reactor core, after which they will need to assess the level of contaminates, especially iodine and caesium.

Iodine can concentrate in people’s thyroid glands and cause cancer. This was the major health problem after Chernobyl. Iodine has a very short half-life. Within three months at most it’s totally gone from the environment.

Caesium can be absorbed into our bodies as it is similar to potassium, essential to our diet. But caesium is radioactive. It has a longer half-life – about 30 years – but we’d expect much smaller quantities in the atmosphere.

Fukushima began operating in 1970, and whether its age was a factor is hard to tell. There may be few technical lessons to be learned as it’s such an old design. What it does in the public’s mind is another matter.

People may see it as good that a plant this old can get through an earthquake of this scale – or it may increase their fears I’ve been impressed with the Japanese response.

At this stage of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviets hadn’t admitted that there had been an accident at all. If this heralds a new era of openness, it is very refreshing.



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