Japan Situation Update

Overlooking Japan's disaster in the snow
Good morning. Here’s the latest from Japan:
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OVERVIEW

  • Radiation Levels Still Safe | The Tokyo area remains free of harmful radiation levels. Updated Saturday 7 pm
  • Power Plant Struggling But Better | Efforts that have been criticized were not foolish, and better assets are coming online.
  • Evacuations Proceeding, Unnecessarily | The call to evacuate became shrill after a US official suggested a wider clear zone around the reactors, but there was no data supporting the need for that.
  • Worst-Case Scenario Not Cataclysmic | Even a meltdown would probably not expose the public to deadly amounts of radiation.
  • One Week Has Passed | As I wrote this, we reached the one-week anniversary of the quake — the longest week of my life.

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BRIEFING

1. Radiation Levels Still Safe

Begin Update: Saturday 7 pm

As of 7 pm Saturday (6 am EDT), radiation in Tochigi City near my office 178 km (111 mi) from the Fukushima Daiichi plant was down even farther since Wednesday’s report to only 0.148 microsieverts per hour (μSv/hr). Recent history of this measurement:

  • 0.224 μSv/hr Mar 16 at 12 pm
  • 0.216 μSv/hr Mar 16 at 4 pm
  • 0.195 μSv/hr Mar 17 at 10 am
  • 0.189 μSv/hr Mar 17 at 4 pm
  • 0.183 μSv/hr Mar 17 at 11 pm
  • 0.175 μSv/hr Mar 18 at 8 am
  • 0.172 μSv/hr Mar 18 at 10 am
  • 0.165 μSv/hr Mar 18 at 7 pm
  • 0.148 μSv/hr Mar 19 at 7 pm

Recent media reports have criticized the comparison of this low level of radiation to a typical X-ray’s exposure of 60 μSv, saying that a key difference is that X-ray exposure is one time but radiation exposure from Fukushima is per hour. Fine, but at current levels the exposure is on a par with one X-ray scan every 17 days — about two per month. That’s not good when the source of radiation is a reactor, but not cataclysmic, either.

End Update

At 7 pm, wind across Fukushima was heading east at 3-5 meters per second, still blowing emissions over the Pacific.

Radiation reports made Friday at 7 am in areas close to the plant, including their distance from the plant and readings in μSv/hr, were as follows: Iitate Village 40 km (25 mi) northwest 20.80, South Soma City 24 km (15 mi) north 3.11, Iwaki City 43 km (27 mi) southwest 1.20. Normal readings in these cities are about 0.05, so levels have increased in areas near the reactor but not to a point that threatens human health.

Located 225 km (140 mi) from the plant, the Shinjuku measuring station in downtown Tokyo recorded 0.049 μGy/hr between 1-2 pm. The unit used there is the microgray (μGy), a measurement that’s equivalent to the microsievert (μSv) used above. Thus, Tokyo’s radiation is at a normal level.

Here’s a map showing distances from the reactor:

Map showing distances from reactor

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2. Power Plant Struggling But Better

Japan’s news is focused on smoke or steam coming out of the No. 2 reactor, which is probably due to the waterless spent-fuel pool or from another explosion. Seven fire trucks succeeded in jetting water over the roof of the No. 3 reactor to replenish some of the water in the pool of spent fuel rods. Yesterday’s helicopter pouring operation raised doubts as much of the water blew away in the wind before hitting the pool target, but the idea of replenishing the pool from above was not without merit. The roof is gone, the pool is exposed, water going into it will help cool the reactor. At least today there’s more water than there was yesterday.

Other positive news is that Japanese teams restored electrical power to the No. 2 reactor with a one-kilometer cable — a significant step forward. Power should reach the other reactors soon, with all three powered up by Sunday. This will enable real cooling pumps to begin their work in earnest, and move the situation past helicopter drops and other hit-and-miss efforts. Also, diesel power units arrived for injecting water into spent-fuel pools.

Finally, the heroic Fukushima 50, the skeleton crew of workers who have risked their lives trying to cool the reactors, received more than 250 new members to reinforce their team.

I’m optimistic because the situation appears to be stabilizing as the days go by. That by itself is good news because radiation levels are low, as you read above. Flatlining where we are now for several days or a week will be fine. It buys time for a lasting fix.

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3. Evacuations Proceeding, Unnecessarily

On Wednesday, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko created a minor panic among American expats in Japan when he said that the risks of radiation exposure called for evacuating US citizens from within 80 km (50 mi) of the reactors. That sparked a greater interest in evacuating Japan entirely, with the first flight of US citizens leaving early this morning, Japan time, bound for Taipei. There were, however, fewer than 100 people onboard and most of them were related to government officials.

As my readers knew when Mr Jaczko made his announcement, radiation levels were not at a level that justified elevated concern. The dramatic call to evacuate far beyond the limit set by Japan looked unnecessary, judging by the radiation data shared in this letter. Indeed, the US nuclear-power industry thinks so. Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Steve Kerekes said the U.S. nuclear industry has “questions about the scientific basis” of the administration’s actions. What’s more, the 12-mile evacuation radius set by Japan looks “sufficient to minimize public-health impacts.” To understand why, see the first section of this briefing.

A few hours ago, a French atomic energy group added its voice of support to our view. Bernard Bigot of the Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique said on radio, “I think they have gained control. … There is no massive release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.”

That’s what our information says, too. Note to selves: Always go to the data.

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4. Worst-Case Scenario Not Cataclysmic

Utter the word “nuclear” in the same sentence with the word “meltdown” and you’re guaranteed to get everybody’s attention. With temperatures at Japan’s reactors fluctuating around 1,000 C (1,832 F), the risk of melting their steel containment vessels and increasing radiation emission is too close for comfort. Steel melts at about 1,500 C (2,732 F), but the vessels in Japan have probably been corroded by seawater and could therefore melt at lower temperatures.

Still, they haven’t melted yet and MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering information hub suggests there’s good reason to believe they won’t: “Thankfully, operating experience with melted fuel speaks favorably. At Three Mile Island, approximately 50 percent of the core’s nuclear fuel melted, and just 5/8 inch (out of 9 inches) of the reactor pressure vessel’s internal surface was ablated. During the corium’s contact with the bottom of the vessel, the vessel glowed red-hot for about an hour. The heat to which the vessel was exposed induced metallurgical changes in the steel, rendering it more brittle. Instrumentation penetrations in the lower vessel head also suffered damage. Nevertheless, the molten core was contained by the vessel.”

Also recalling Three Mile Island, University of Michigan Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences professor John Lee said the worst-case scenario would not involve deadly doses of radiation for the general public. “I don’t believe it would be much higher than two additional chest X-rays,” he told R&D Magazine. He and a colleague emphasized that a “meltdown” is not synonymous with a massive release of harmful radiation, and a Chernobyl type of explosion is impossible in Japan’s afflicted plants.

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5. One Week Has Passed

As I wrote this briefing, the clock reached 2:46 pm, precisely the time that the earthquake struck one week ago. I sat back and thought back to Day One, remembering the chaos in my office and the next ten hours that kicked off the longest week of my life. For a look back with me, please re-read In the Quake Zone.

Keep a cool head,
Jason Kelly

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14 Comments

  1. June T.
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    Jason,

    Our media in the states reported the Japanese were becoming mistrustful of the nucluear information they were receiving from their government….then our government declares a “50-mile” safe zone. That could have only added to the people’s fears in Japan.

    It was also reported yesterday that people in some areas were in dire need of food and that the possibilty of radiation exposure was slowing down efforts to reach them. I hope this situation has been fixed.

  2. VanquileX
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I think it’s great to be able to read an independent source of information from someone in Japan. Keep it up and I hope that everything gets better in Japan

  3. Al
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Jason – I am proud of the way you have gotten through this very difficult week with such class. I am also very impressed with the Japanese discipline and spirit in struggling through this terrible catastrophe. My own American Countrymen have a lot to learn! Good luck!

  4. joshua
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you brother, it’s of significant reassurance to hear these blessed sentiments of optimism coming from a member of Earth’s family now currently residing within the storm of Japan. Please keep up the wonderful work ,and continue to fill our spirits with hope for a better outcome. Be safe!

  5. Ben
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    You have probably seen these, click on one side of picture to move slider…..sheeeeezz!!!!!

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/13/world/asia/satellite-photos-japan-before-and-after-tsunami.html

  6. Ron
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Jason

    Thank you for the update.. and for taking the action in relaying the information
    to us.

  7. sanjay
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank god, every thing is under control.may god bless all the people of japan.

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