Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan Continues Dealing With Nuclear Emergency With Little Solid Information

The New York Times reports that the US is sending flights of specialized aircraft over Fukushima to get a better sense of what's going on at the stricken reactor complex.

The US has a radically different take on the dangers and status of the reactors from the Japanese and the reactor operator, Toyko Electric (TEPCO). Apparently, the Japanese government has been relying on TEPCO, and the US has been warning the Japanese government that the situation may be far worse than TEPCO was letting on and that the action plan wasn't moving fast enough.
The data was collected in the first use of the Aerial Measurement System, among the most sophisticated devices rushed to Japan by the Obama administration in an effort to help contain a nuclear crisis that a top American nuclear officials said Thursday could go on for weeks. The data show harmful radioactive pollution in the immediate vicinity of the stricken plant — a different standard than the trace amounts of radioactive particles that make up the atmospheric plume covering a much broader area.

While the findings were reassuring in the short term, the United States declined to back away from its warning to Americans to stay at least 50 miles from the plant, a far larger perimeter than the Japanese government has established.

In interviews, American officials said their biggest worry was that a frenetic series of efforts by the Japanese military to get water into the four reactors — including water cannons and fire-fighting helicopters that dumped water but appeared to largely miss their targets — showed few signs of working. Another effort by the Japanese, to hook electric power back up to the plant, only began on Thursday and was likely to take several days to complete — and even then it was unclear how the cooling systems, in reactor buildings battered by the tsunami and then torn apart by hydrogen explosions, would work, if at all.

“What you are seeing are desperate efforts — just throwing everything at it in hopes something will work,” said one American official with long nuclear experience, who would not speak for attribution. “Right now this is more prayer than plan.”

After a day in which American and Japanese officials had radically different assessments of the danger of what is spewing from the plants, the two governments attempted Thursday to join forces. Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Officials say they suspect that company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowing to contain the damage.

Aircraft normally used to monitor North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities — a Global Hawk drone and U-2 spy planes — were flying missions over the reactor, trying to help the Japanese government map out its response to the quake, the tsunami and now the nuclear disaster.
It would appear that the Japanese and US are finally beginning to gather data independent of TEPCO, and while there's significant radiation in the vicinity of the stricken reactors - airborne radiation is minimal.

For the first time, it seems that the Japanese government might get a better handle on the nuclear crisis - gathering information that it needs to make critical decisions.

But those workers at the plant are risking their own lives to get the reactors under control.

The WHO has issued guidelines for exposure.

Curiously, the Japanese have not deployed special robotic systems to deal with the monitoring of the crippled reactors. That's a dangerous oversight, and means that the plant operators are putting their own lives in danger to take measurements that could potentially expose workers to lethal doses.

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