Fukushima, Again

Yet again this week there has been another round of scare stories about what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant which was so catastrophically crippled by the tsunami following the 11 March 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake.

We had headlines and comments like:

Radiation levels in the Fukushima reactor are soaring unexpectedly [Science Alert]
Radiation In Fukushima Is Now At ‘Unimaginable’ Levels [Huffington Post]
The situation has suddenly taken a drastic turn for the worst [EcoWatch]
Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation at highest level since 2011 meltdown [Guardian]
Blazing radiation reading [Japan Times]
Radiation Levels Are Soaring Inside the Damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant [Gizmodo]

As I suspected when I first saw the stories, and has been confirmed by Jonathan O’Callaghan at IFLScience and Azby Brown at Safecast, this is the usual sloppy, not to say totally misleading, reporting. (Both these reports are worth reading; neither is especially long or difficult.)

Yes, TEPCO (who are responsible for the plant) have measured incredibly high radiation readings (530 Sieverts an hour — with an error of +/- 30% — that’s enough to kill a human in seconds) inside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2. To do this they have used a 10.5 metre robotic arm to image further inside the Unit 2 containment vessel that they ever have before. The images appear to show a 1 meter square grating melted by exposed fuel rods. From the data obtained TEPCO have estimated the radiation level. But this does NOT mean radiation levels there are rising. That is not what the data are indicating — they can’t say that as this area has not been measured before, so there is only this one reading.

As IFLScience reported:

Measurements in new locations … pin-point hot-spots and understand the nature of the radioactive materials within the reactor complex and to better inform us on suitable strategies for long-term decommissioning and clean-up … The purpose of this was to plot out a route for a robot [TEPCO] is planning to send into the reactor … But the robot is only able to survive an exposure of up to 1,000 Sieverts. At 530 Sieverts per hour, it would be destroyed in just two hours. Thus, this latest finding is likely to complicate [the decommissioning] even further.

They also point out:

While a higher level of radiation has been found inside the plant, levels around it are continuing to fall. This suggests no radiation is escaping from Fukushima into the surrounding environment … There are many people wandering around in Japan with radiation monitors and it would be very easy to see if there was an increase in radiation coming from the plant.

So note carefully: that despite all the problems and the environmental contamination, the various levels of containment vessels in the reactors essentially did their job. They have contained the vast, vast majority of the radioactive material under conditions which were way beyond their design.

That doesn’t take away from the human disasters nor from the unimaginable work which will have to be done over the next, probably, 50 years to decommission the site. But it does show that this was not the immense catastrophe so often painted by the media and environmental groups.

In a classic piece of understatement IFLScience conclude with:

So radiation levels aren’t soaring, but it’s a grim picture all around really. As the latest announcement from TEPCO shows, the clean-up of Fukushima is going to be anything but easy — and there’s a long, long way to go.

Time to stop panicking and enjoy the weekend!