Fukushima: The first 24 hours

IEEE Spectrum has a big special feature online now about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its after-effects. It includes an interactive map showing the impact that Fukushima has had on evacuation of residents, contamination of soil, and contamination of food and water supplies.

It also includes a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the first 24-hours of the disaster. This solid investigative reporting by Eliza Strickland highlights several key points where simple changes could have lead to a very different outcome than the one we got.

True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.

On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.

The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public. And in the absence of information, the panicked public began to associate all nuclear power with horror and radiation nightmares. The owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has only made the situation worse by presenting the Japanese and global public with obfuscations instead of a clear-eyed accounting.

Citing a government investigation, TEPCO has steadfastly refused to make workers available for interviews and is barely answering questions about the accident. By piecing together as best we can the story of what happened during the first 24 hours, when reactor 1 was spiraling toward catastrophe, we hope to facilitate the process of learning-by-disaster.

I'm reading Perrow's Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies right now. I'm not very far into it yet, but it will be interesting to contrast the thesis I see him putting together— i.e., you're never going to account for all those simple-in-retrospect things that could have stopped a disaster and, in fact, trying to solve some of those lapses actually causes others—with Strickland's riveting account of the first day of Fukushima.

Image: Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant_27, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hige2's photostream


  1. I kind of want that control room for my bedroom. Of course the buttons and levers will control random things in my house, and will need to be reset or toggled once in a while- like to keep that lamp from shutting down in 5, 4, 3…

    China Syndrome was a snoozer. What’s a nuclear disaster movie without some form of irradiated zombie, plant, or lizard?

  2. I like the run down of what happened, but implying if they had done X instead of Y would have prevented a lot of this is like saying hindsight is 20/20.  With the information they had at that time what they did seemed logical and by the book.  Obviously the biggest problem here was the overall design of the facility, not just human error.

    1. One of the major problems, is that so few people even understand the nature of the facility, it’s overall design, and of course, it’s designers. The archaic-ass reactor was build by GE in the freaking 1420s (well, maybe a bit later)… it was supposed to be decomissioned… then wasn’t… and of course there’s the irony of anti-nuclear activists delaying the building of a modern reactor that could have withstood what happened on that terrible day… 

      All that aside, I think those within the facility did the best they could at the time with the knowledge that they had. 

      Not that they’ve appeared in this thread yet, but because I love shooting at strawmen, American ought to be cautious as well. Most of the US’s nuclear facilities are aging just as fast, have even shittier designs, and could barely withstand a scale 6 earthquake, let alone a 9+tsunami.

      1. You dont have to understand the nature of the facility.. You only have to understand the nature of the risks vs. the rewards. 

        Three risks. human control errors, forces of nature, materials or processes failures

        none of those three are airtight and we are talkign about risking the planets support of life

        take that to Vegas and see the odds you get.. 

  3. I read this a few days ago when it was posted on Slashdot. What really struck me (and annoyed me a bit), however, was the clinical attitude with which the engineer-authors approached not only the breakdown of the accident, but also it’s implications for nuclear power at large. Merely: “Because this happened, we now know how to build a better reactor”.

    I had a scientific upbringing, and as such I’ve more or less been a nuclear proponent. I’ve been fascinated by Chernobyl, as one can easily see that it was a perfect storm of bad design, slack management, and slipshod operational procedures. But Fukushima wasn’t nearly as badly-designed, and the IEEE account paints the operators as very bright and innovative in the face of disaster. 

    So for me, this begs the question: are human beings smart and/or responsible enough to run nuclear reactors? Complex systems fail, because they’re complex and tightly-integrated, and because we can neither forsee all the ways in which they interact nor completely control the environment in which they operate (ie: Earth).

    We can tolerate car crashes, some plane crashes, and plenty of computer crashes. But how many nuclear plant failures can we tolerate before we make a complete mess of our home? Are the risks worth the rewards? This is the question scientists should be asking themselves; Frankly, without panic or bias. 

  4. I would say the Tunguska event was inevitable., but I disagree on using the “inevitability” card for most accidents.  An single occurrence, such as a mechanical failure, may be inevitable, but the scope of the damage caused by the said accident is almost always predictable and controllable.
    The most curious feature of incident investigation reports is that they almost always read as if some invisible force had conspired so that individuals (often many) had neglected their duties both simultaneously and sequentially so that the incident or accident was allowed to happen. Upon analysis, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima demonstrate that simple measures could have prevented and/or contained the damage to minimal levels.
    It is often a simple mixture of coincidence, complacency, and a single unexpected factor (not incredible or unprecedented), that will allow an accident to happen.  Two of these are entirely preventable.

      1. Pretty sure they ruled out, “naturally occurring nuclear reactor” as the cause of the Tunguska Event.

  5. Maggie: As well as reading Perrow (a classic that should be widely read), I would also recommend Nancy Leveson’s book, “Safeware”, which focusses more specifically on the role of software in such accidents. It has a great set of appendices with detailed case studies.

  6. Large nuclear reactors are inherently capable of large nuclear accidents. Scale counts. Smaller reactors with more modern designs sited properly instead of on seismic fault lines COULD improve safety and limit disaster scale in case of accidents.

    There are no safe nuclear reactors, there are only “safer” nuclear reactors. When man discovered fire, I’m certain entire forests were burnt to the ground and many lives lost before it was understood and controlled.

    I don’t feel unsafe carrying matches or a lighter or having a flame lurking in my furnace or water heater. Perhaps someday we will feel the same about nuclear power, but smaller mistakes would increase the chances we live to see that day.

    Capitalism and safety appear to be mutually exclusionary. GE sold a crap reactor design to make  money selling fuel rods and to capture and monopolize a market. TEPCO cut corners, ignored flaws, poorly sited and maintained a reactor that was past its lifespan in order to make more money on embedded costs. TEPCO can go bankrupt as can GE, they can disappear and keep their ill gotten money, but the tragedy of a nuclear meltdown will remain as will the destroyed villages and farms and the lives of those who lived there.

    A tsunami only destroys once and allows rebuilding, a nuclear meltdown keeps on giving tragedy to all involved and in a world which shares oceans and atmosphere, we all get to participate in having our food, water and air poisoned.

    Perhaps there are safe reactors, but corporations and the media have destroyed any public trust with cover ups and lies. How can a safe reactor be built on a foundation of lies?

  7. Nuclear apologists, especially scientist, focus on which steps in the industrial processes or accident response chain were subject to human error and how they could be changed for the next time. The next disaster. Next nuke plant triple meltdown? Maybe if we have one more we will have it all figured out. Now I can rest easy with this clear eyed truthiness about the mistakes made.

    The nuclear apologist chooses to focus on scientific details and industrial process adjustments etc. because the simpler lay logic is unassailable.

    Here is simple logic for the kid in all of us.. It is no more anti-nuclear than science is anti-religion.

    Humans make mistakes. Nature is volatile unpredictable and in a profound way, completely unknown. Nuclear material at any level is inherently unsafe for living creatures. No matter how hard humans try, we can only make nuclear power generation incrementally safer from where it was one nuclear “accident” ago. Thus, using nuclear materials and reactions to boil water to make steam for electricity is not compatible with life on earth as nuclear pollution from “accidents” corrupts all life on a genetic level.

    Finally, to refer to the events at Fukushima as a “saga” is disgusting. Please. Its not a “saga” its a holocaust by any measure. Try calling it that as a scientist.

    1. Humanity’s greatest gift is an inexhaustible capacity for finding new ways to fail.

      And by the way, I think it’s pretty disgusting referring to it as a Holocaust.  As if TEPCO’s true objective was to kill off all the Shinto.

      1. @ lobster quick English Lesson

        the primary definition of holocaust is not intentional genocide
        hol·o·caust  (hl-kôst, hl-)n.1. Great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire.

      2. New conspiracy time: TEPCO and the Fukushima disaster were an Ainu plot to take back the archipelago from the Yamato. </massive-not-being-serious>

        But, yes, ‘Holocaust’ is… not really in good taste here.

        1. New conspiracy time: TEPCO and the Fukushima disaster were an Ainu plot to take back the archipelago from the Yamato.

          I’m in.

      3.  I think an appropriate phrase would be tragedy, as in ‘preventable human tragedy of errors’.

    2. Nuclear material at any level is inherently unsafe for living creatures? [Citation needed]!

      This assumption is based on the controversial linear non-threshold response model. For low doses of radiation, consistent with lower levels of contamination from such accidents, the model’s match to reality seems to be breaking down.


      And it *is* a saga. There is no large amount of fire, nor “extensive loss of life”. Therefore there is no sufficient reason for using an emotionally loaded word.

      1. @Shaddack:disqus
        The junkscience.com site you are referencing is a laughable GOP boot licking website. It promotes GMO’s as “safe”, is all about denying global warming, promotes DDT.. hahahahaha its an industrialist’s turf builder site with a sucker born every minute… I wonder if it is also trying to debunk evolution.

        For you to state that there is no extensive loss of life  in Fukushima displays a high level of ignorance as to the nature of death by radiation. Fukushima is a holocaust and Im sorry if its emotional to say.

        Below is a reference source from this millineum as opposed to your laughably obscure 1940’s link.

        The Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, comprised of radiology scientists in the United States, wrote a report titled “BEIR VII” in 2006 that says “the current scientific evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no threshold (LNT) dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.”

        then there is this..


        You hair splitting pro-nuclear power crossing you t’s and dotting you eyes with arguments of relativity, technical variables etc etc. are missing the simplest of ideas..

        Humans having accidents with nuclear power is unsustainable..

  8. people really need to get some perspective. All energy production carries risks to people. Fukushima is the worst nuclear accident for a generation, yet has caused less harm then a normally functioning coal power station.

    If we replaced all our fossil fuels with nuclear power it would save thousands of lives per year, even if they failed at the rate our current decrepit  nuclear plants. However new reactors would be safer and more reliable.

    “Nuclear material at any level is inherently unsafe for living creatures” –william shannon
    so is petrol/oil. explosions at rigs, refineries and pipelines kill huge numbers of people, even in ubersafe ‘nanny states’ like the UK. why don’t you campaign to stop oil usage?

    and “unsafe at any level”? what about the natural background radiation that we have been exposed to for ever? what about all the potassium 40 inside you? do you eat bananas?

    1. Just because there are many ways to die does not negate the addition of yet another.  Especially if that’s the one that gets you.

      I understand your point, that everything is dangerous, all technology has a cost, and that this is the price of progress.  You’re right that mistakes can and will happen.

      The difference here is that cleaning up an oil spill or putting out an oil fire – no matter how hazardous – is not the same as decontaminating the site of a nuclear disaster, or safely disposing of nuclear waste.  It’s a matter of scale and commitment: if we make a mistake with nuclear technology, it is a BIG mistake, and we need to live with it for a LONG time.  Even when nothing goes wrong, we still need to live with the consequences for a LONG time. 

      I support nuclear technology.  I just think we need to take it slowly and carefully, never get complacent, and solve potential problems before they become actual threats.  Because my friend, if you think pollution from an oil-based economy is rough, just imagine all the toxic waste we’d produce if we suddenly went nuclear.  We need to figure out what we’re going to do with that stuff, other than assume it’s “safeish” after a while and if we bury it no one will notice. 

      It’s better to get shot with a 9mm than with a 5″ cannon, but MAN does it still hurt.

      1. lobster you wrote,
        “I just think we need to take it slowly and carefully, never get complacent, and solve potential problems before they become actual threats.”

        I just want to say that to assume humans can identify and respond effectively to all known and unknown threat scenarios is patently absurd. There is no way “we” ( actually they ) can know this.
        Nuclear apologists will not discuss The Future of Nuclear Accidents because to even consider that there will be another accident is to admit that they have no ability to reach absolute control of all variables.

        1. Mr. Shannon, if the consequences are both unbearable and inevitable, then perhaps we should not invite them at all. 

          I am not demanding a perfect system.  All I want is a reliable way to clean up the mess when it fails.

      2. “cleaning up an oil spill or putting out an oil fire – no matter how hazardous – is not the same as decontaminating the site of a nuclear disaster, or safely disposing of nuclear waste.”
        Only because we have decided to be slackers on the standards of safe & clean for these equally toxic and dangerous materials. They are not inherently safer we’re just scared of them less so we let them slide more often.
        Radiation can at least be detected by anyone with a simple hand held technology but you need an expensive lab to know how much PCB has been leaking into your ground water for decades. If we held fossil fuels, heavy metals and chemical waste to the same zero tolerance as we do radiation we would have a cleaner safer world all round.

        1. I can’t argue with much of that, but I will say that by the time your radiation detector of choice starts chirping at you, you have already been exposed. 

        2. The argument that all pollutions emitted from “accidents” are equal we just hold them to different standards is just not true. How long will the disastrous consequences of Fukushima
          continue? A good estimate is about 4.5 billion years. That is the half life of uranium-238. The estimated half-life of a PCB is approximately 8 to 15 years depending on the specific chemical make-up of the PCB (D’Itri and Kamrin, 1980)

          1. The 238-U itself is not a problem. Its radioactivity is next to nothing, its main hazard is toxicity – which is roughly comparable with lead. In addition, there is quite a lot of uranium in such mundane materials as granite. And the uranium oxides are pretty insoluble and fairly weathering-resistant and nonvolatile, as many naturally occuring minerals witness. The particles released from the reactor are also fairly coarse and the airborne ones will settle close (couple miles) to the plant. (See Chernobyl.)

            Main longer-term problems with radioactive mishaps are related to Sr-90 and Cs-137, both volatile and fairly mobile. Caesium is more abundant but does not bioaccumulate much and has just a few months of biological half-life in human body. Both have half-life of about 35 years, and both (especially strontium) are significantly removed from the biosphere by being bound either as (relatively) insoluble compounds (in case of strontium), or adsorbed on clay particles in the soil (both Sr and Cs).

            You are also wrong with future nuclear mishaps not being publicized. There is a rather large amount of technological solutions for mitigation of trouble up to complete reactor core meltdown, and these designs are incorporated in newer facilities. If such things weren’t being discussed, the under-construction EPR reactors in Finland would not be equipped with “core catchers”, special design features for enhanced coping with full core meltdown and reactor vessel breach. That such discussions occur outside of the field of view of fearmongering mass media, making an impression that they do not occur at all, is just a perception issue.

            The dose-response relation linearity for low doses of radiation is pretty difficult to prove experimentally, as in the low doses the radiation effects are pretty much hidden in the other naturally occurring effects (aka “negligible” or “statistically insignificant”). See again Chernobyl (except thyroid issues, which is for more detailed explanation). Getting emotional over it won’t change it.

          2. Just try to remember that the Soviet Union scattered Chernobyl survivors all over Ukraine to dilute the mortality stats.  There are no good assessments of the damage caused to human health by Chernobyl.

          3. When strontium90 binds to your bones because your body thinks it is calcium, it may no longer be a viable pollutant in the biosphere, but I think the cancer it gives you is a poor trade off for the reduction in  free strontium90.

            Strontium-90 in deciduous teeth as a factor in early childhood cancer.

    1. Don’t jump the gun; IAEA reports that the Xeon amount numbers are consistent with the standard decay of plutonium. However on their news page they typo Pu 242 & Pu 244 into Cu 242 & Cu 244 ; that would be some funky copper.

  9. Just for a moment discount the health effects of massive releases of radiation and follow the money.
    The idea that Jane Fonda or “anti-nuclear activists” brought the American commercial nuclear power industry to a standstill in the 1980s is incorrect. Even before TMI, investors were fleeing the industry (and the utilities that employed nuclear) because of extreme cost overruns. When General Public Utilities had a billion-dollar asset turn into a $2 billion liability overnight at TMI, the industry was dead as far as Wall Street was concerned.
    TEPCO now faces that problem times four-plus, so it just asked for and got a $12.8 billion bailout courtesy of Japanese taxpayers to cover their losses.
    And since in the U.S., the nuclear industry is totally dependent on taxpayers, we have a right to demand our money be spent more wisely, like on energy efficiency and renewable sources.
    The only way to lower the cost of nuclear power is to deregulate it, and that’s going to be a tough sell.
    It is fun watching right-wing conservatives arguing for a socialist energy system, though. I especially like how they praise France now.

  10. I called family in Minamisoma, Fukushima when I heard about quake, they said they were fine with a photo, an hour later they said grandma, aunt,uncle, other uncle and dog killed by tsunami. they probably heard the sirens but they hear them all the time. humans and machines and nature and systems.

  11. If only we follow the fool-proof best practices of correcting old mistakes, maybe then we’ll be safe from the new ones.

    Here’s a thought: make the regulators and politicians live within the evacuation zones of operating nuke plants.

    1. If the reactors are that safe, make the entire board of directors and their families live on the reactor grounds. I’d love to see a country club next to a cooling tower or a containment dome. See its safe……Its way past time for corporate responsibility and actual meaningful criminal prosecution for fraud and malfeasance among other crimes like RICO and wire fraud.

      Storing spent fuel rods above a reactor containment vessel was a brilliant feature of the GE Mark 1 design, until the cooling system failed. Too clever by half and now they find fuel rod bits a half mile away, how could such a thing happen?

  12. I’m pretty certain that TEPCO just… does this. Accident happens, they do everything short of covering it up. Disclose the minimum possible, try and spin everything as much as possible, frantically flail about behind the scenes to fix things before the government and people find out. This isn’t the first time TEPCO has had a nuclear accident, unless I’m thoroughly mistaken.

    I’m for nuclear energy in the hands of competent and accountable authorities. TEPCO’s not really succeeding in either element.

  13. Well one your breaking news is not an engineering assessment and its 5 days old; the IAEA report is newer. Two a hole is not absolute proof of anything other than it’s a hole and  it has several potential causes especially if it’s on the wall of an already damaged building. Reactor building is not the same as reactor core containment vessel. The boron injection is done automatically just in case. Of course they were sampling. Would people rather they didn’t sample when something changed and ignored it. Of course fission is happening that’s what nuclear material does; that’s part of the decay chain process. Fission is not the same as criticality or recritcality. Wikipedia has a decent beginners beta decay chain of fission products chart if you would like to see the process.
    The source for the this stale breaking news is obviously not objective and has poor evidence standards. Show some verifiable data beyond blurry video, cherry picked quotes that don’t use the correct terms and anti nuke activist guess work.

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