Sunday, October 14, 2012

3 cable layers assigned to restore power to stricken 4 reactors of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) were exposed to severe radiation. In itself it was no news. What else one would expect when one is entering a nuclear facility severely crippled by the giant tsunami that rolled over in the wake of magnitude 9 temblor and the subsequent series of events it triggered. Plant operator TEPCO is under severe pressure to contain the radiation that has already rang alarm bells not only in Japan but across distant shores. Japanese workers may have accepted to commit themselves to this “harakiri”, one would be forgiven if it was so construed, for greater good of Japanese society. But when Tepco was forced to admit that the workers had not tested the radiation levels before commencing work on Thursday, 24thMarch, and had stepped into highly contaminated water – two of them without protective boots -; the initial concern should have turned into severe censure. FDNNP “accident” was elevated to level 6 on International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) of IAEA almost 10 days earlier, just below the 7 rating given to the worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Safety and security considerations should have been highest on the minds of TEPCO team in charge of containment and clean up. Yet such shoddy work practices were followed in a nation famed for its technological prowess and sophistication. But what may be explained off as “human errors” triggered by pressure of a grave crisis, actually are embedded in the character of TEPCO Company in particular, and nuclear power industry in general. Just 10 days before the earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO had admitted to faking repair and maintenance records.  Japan’s regulatory watchdog, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), concluded 2 days later : “Long-term inspection plans and maintenance management were inadequate, The quality of inspection was insufficient. We can’t say that the lapses listed in the report did not have an influence on the chain of events leading to this crisis”. Obviously, the Regulator is soft, Operator is lax and not diligent; and given an opportunity, suitable environment, & sufficient time, Human Errors are bound to happen. Already efforts are underway around the world in the Nuclear Industry to distance itself from “these acts” by branding them as “Japanese” in nature the way Chernobyl was “Soviet”. But there is nothing location specific about them; they all flow from the “nature of atom”.
Japanese health regulations stipulated an upper limit of 100 millisieverts (mSv) per year of radiation exposure as legal limit. This was so until the tragedy struck. TEPCO during the course of last week decided to raise the “acceptable limit of exposure” for its emergency teams to 150 mSv and regulator NISA went a step ahead to relax it to 250. Were such revisions mandated by some fresh medical evidence that showed increase in human tolerance to radiation? Did the new “limits” have some “quantitative” sanctity or sanity? Or were these simply a matter of expediency? The two hospitalised men, reportedly exposed to ? rays, were part of a six member crew that was assigned to restore power to cooling pumps, and had to wade in a puddle, whose radioactivity was later measured at 400 mSv/hour and air above at 200 mSv/hour. It has not been made explicitly clear in any report, if the new exposure limits are on per year or per hour basis. Radiation levels on the other hand are all being reported on per hour basis. This would mean that at least these six workers have already received their yearly maximum dose of radiation during the few hours they would have spent working on their task. It seems that nobody knows or wants it to be known as to the grave radiation risks facing the crews at FDNPP facility. If standards are changed in such cavalier manner, then it indicates a battlefield like do or die situation. But has anyone heard this being admitted to in so few words? Crisis of such grave proportions should have seen swarm of robots assigned to do these extremely hazardous tasks, which have been pushed onto mortal beings. Didn’t one hear the fabled Japanese prowess in robotics or for that matter of technologically most advanced power in the world, USA, who boast of such Sci-Fi gadgets like “Disaster Recovery Vehicles” that can operate in a nuclear or biological warfare scenario? If these are not needed now, then when would their time come? Or are these hi-tech wonders simply fictional?

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