PLUS: A glimpse at living conditions for the heroic plant workers...
UPDATES: Sea water radiation spikes again; TEPCO to improve working conditions; Co. president now hospitalized...
By Brad Friedman on 3/29/2011, 7:15pm PT  

As we noted in today's Green News Report for radio, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Parliament on Tuesday that the country remains on "maximum alert" in regard to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis as Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) workers and members of the country's Self-Defense Force continue to struggle heroically to prevent complete meltdowns at four of the plant's six reactors. They were each knocked out of commission by the March 11th magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Kan was, for the first time, publicly critical of TEPCO's inadequate safety measures for the plant where, as AP detailed in an investigative report on Sunday, the company had "dismissed important scientific evidence and all but disregarded 3,000 years of geological history," when planning safe-guards against tsunamis there.

"It's undeniable their assumptions about tsunamis were greatly mistaken," Kan explained on Tuesday. Engineers had designed the plant to withstand waves of up to 18 feet, while the wave that swamped the nuclear plant knocking out power and flooding back-up diesel generators in the basement was believed to be more than 40 feet high...

Work continues to try and pump out highly radioactive water discovered from the basements and adjoining tunnels at the reactor units, so that electricity can be fully reconnected and cooling pumps repaired and restored. That effort is now being hampered by a lack of available containers to pump the contaminated water into. The hope is to keep the water from flooding into the environment on land or into the sea. Workers have been piling sandbags (pretty low-tech, eh?) to keep the flooded tunnels from overflowing into the ocean. As the LA Times reports, "The water is highly radioactive and international law forbids its release into the sea."

Fear of those tunnels overflowing has meant that new water being injected into the troubled reactors has been slowed and, therefore, so has the cooling of the nuclear fuel rods in those reactors where, officials believe, partial meltdowns have already occurred.

Radiation in sea water around the plant was as high as 1,850 times above normal levels over the weekend, though in the last 24 hours or so, that level has begun to subside a bit. For now. The latest levels of iodine-131 detected in the nearby sea water was "only" 1,150 times the maximum allowable levels. Radioactive cesium-137 has also been measured off shore, some 1,000 feet from the plant, at 20 times normal levels, approximately what it had been a week ago.

[Update: Just after publication of this article, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced new readings of radiation in sea water near the plant had spiked to 3,555 times the legal limit.]

Officials maintain that the high levels of radiation in the ocean have, so far, only been found within the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the plant. NYTimes reports that the deputy director of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) Hidehiko Nishiyama "said there were no health concerns because there would be no fishing in the evacuation-designated area within about 12 miles of the plant."

About that claim, an emailer to The BRAD BLOG with expertise in nuclear reactors (but who wished not to be identified here) wonders how "Nishiyama and his agency intend to stop fish from swimming into and out of the evacuation zone."

Good question.

In our last detailed report on the nuclear crisis at Fukushima, we discussed the continuing errors and apologies from TEPCO officials, including the whopper that led them to announce radioactive iodine-134 levels of 10 million times that which is safe in water found in the basement of Unit 2. A few hours later, after workers were forced to beat a hasty evacuation from the area, the officials announced they had miscalculated and the water was "only" 100,000 times normal levels.

At around the same moment we filed that story, AP filed their own piece detailing even more of the "bungling [and] cover-ups [that] define TEPCO."

TEPCO, as it turns out, is Japan's largest energy supplier, and one of the largest companies in the entire nation. Today, Washington Post has a piece on the "vanishing act" by its president Masataka Shimizu who has not been seen publicly since a late-night press conference on March 13 when he admitted that the tsunami had "exceeded our expectations."

WaPo reports that there have been rumors Shimizu "had fled the country, checked into a hospital or committed suicide," but the company said only that he "had suffered an unspecified 'small illness' because of overwork" after the March 11th twin-disasters struck. Company officials say he is now back at work, though few, apparently, have actually seen him.

[Note: See UPDATE at bottom of article for late details tonight on Shimizu's condition and whereabouts.]

Since the quake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, TEPCO has lost some two-thirds of its value on the Tokyo stock exchange, and anonymous sources were quoted in Yomiuri Shimbun that the company may be temporarily nationalized by the government to help pay for the enormous damages they're now facing. The government's chief spokesperson Yukio Edano, however, denies the report, saying "we're not currently considering that."

"In just over two weeks," WaPo notes, "Tepco has gone from being an economic and political powerhouse to a basket case. It is seeking two trillion yen ($25 billion) in emergency loans just to stay afloat."

Too big to fail? It all sounds familiar. Though WaPo draws this noteworthy distinction between the pay scale for TEPCO executives, versus their corporate powerhouse counterparts in the U.S.:

Compared with the chief executives of major U.S. or European companies, Shimizu earns a pittance. Tepco won't give his salary, but total remuneration for the president and 20 other directors came to $8.9 million in fiscal 2009, the last period for which figures are available.

But it is the workers at the plant, not the company executives, who have, justifiably, earned the admiration of Japan and the rest of the world. Unlike Shimizu --- where ever he may be and whatever he may be doing --- the nameless, faceless workers continue to have their lives on the line in cleaning up after TEPCO's, and the Japanese government's, mistakes.

Reuters' Kazunori Takada offers us one of the first glimpses of the daily lives and horrible living conditions of the tireless workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where their Herculean task may have to continue, according to officials, for months or even years...

Biscuits and vegetable juice for breakfast, no lunch, and a packet of rice with canned fish or meat for supper. No showers, no beds and virtually never a change of clothes.

That's the grim lot of hundreds of workers toiling in perilous conditions to avert a catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Japan's earthquake-wrecked Fukushima power plant.

"This is similar to a war zone and things need to be addressed, including providing proper back-up for the workers who are under immense stress," said Hirotada Hirose, professor of disaster psychology at Tokyo Woman's Christian University.

"If this continues, productivity and morale will fall and workers will become likely to make mistakes. We cannot afford that," Hirose told Reuters.
The air around the plant is so contaminated by radiation that the men have to wear masks even when they are huddled inside the so-called safe room where they eat and sleep. They eat only packaged food, ramming it quickly into their mouths as soon as it is opened to avoid contact with radiation.
Early in the evening, they gather around to raise their spirits before wrapping themselves in blankets to sleep on the floor.

UPDATE: Not long after we filed this report, comes this from Kyodo: "TEPCO to improve tough working conditions at Fukushima nuclear plant"

UPDATE 9:31pm PT: Daily Yomiuri tweets Shimizu has been hospitalized: "TEPCO says its president has been hospitalized due to dizzy spells, high blood pressure. He was due to hold a press conference today." | More details now here...

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A 3/28/11 report from ABC News, on TEPCO's failures, including design flaws at the plant, follows below...

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Today's six-minute Green News Report for radio, detailing disturbing news revealed at Congressional hearings this week on U.S. plans for evacuations around nuclear power plants in this country, and much more, is right here.

Our most recent detailed report in our more than two weeks of nearly non-stop coverage of the Fukushima crisis is here.

Please follow our 24/7 coverage of noteworthy breaking news on Fukushima via Twitter: @TheBradBlog.