Update on Fukushima — Japan nuclear reactor in an information vacuum

There is an update on the situation at Fukushima’s nuclear reactors as of today by the Wall Street Journal here:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704425804576221732000955352.html?mod=mktw

Although the attention of the media has, understandably,  gone on to other topics as the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plants drags on, the situation really warrants two-inch high front page headlines in that it is still at an edge-of-the-cliff status.   Information available two weeks out still doesn’t yield much knowledge about what has happened there, and what the future may hold.

Besides an information vacuum, there seems to be an enforcement vacuum, too (again, while perhaps understandable from the standpoint of the limitations of humans, still immensely regrettable and dangerous).  I think the statements from Hidehiko Nishiyama, spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency quoted in the cited WSJ article, illustrate both:   First, Mr. Nishiyama said that  “officials weren’t sure what caused the latest surge. ‘Radioactive substances may have been transmitted through the air, or contaminated water could have drained from the plant somehow,’ [and] ‘I don’t have further ideas.’ “,  which indicates an information vacuum.

Then, when he spoke about officials “crafting a plan to deal with the poisonous puddles”, it struck me that the agency is in a pretty pathetic situation, for he said:  ” ‘I have heard that [the operator] has an idea about a place to store water and is preparing’ for drainage.”   Pretty vague, very hands off.  This suggests an enforcement vacuum as well.

One comment:  some op-eds are blaming Japanese culture for the situation, especially for some of the regulatory lapses.  I don’t agree with that at all.  We are looking in the mirror here.   The U.S. has had similar problems being hesitant to admit problems.  Here, too, reluctance to be too harsh morphed into actual refusal to enforce regulations.  An example is the very corroded reactor vessel head at Davis Besse (in Ohio) about seven years ago — there was a lot written about it.   NASA used the example in its leadership training, and the slides, with photos, are still online, here, if you want a brief overview:  http://pbma.nasa.gov/docs/public/pbma/general/9_11_06.pdf     Note that this was PWR, not a BWR.  The NRC official “Lessons Learned” report on the Davis Besse problem is supposed to be available here:  http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/ops-experience/vessel-head-degradation/lessons-learned/lltf-report.html   Greenpeace has posted an unedited version of it on its site.

So I don’t think it is a matter of which technology or plant design to choose, either.  There are examples of failures of monitoring and enforcement across cultures, countries, and plant designs.

The conclusion I cannot seem to evade is that I think there is a genuine question about whether we are evolved enough as a society to properly monitor and regulate this technology.

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