On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit with a massive earthquake and tsunami. Sixteen thousand people were killed. The destruction of the nuclear complex Fukushima Daiichi was noticed, but just one of many disasters that day.
THE INITIAL DISASTER
As Japan began to dig out from the horror, it became apparent that the Fukushima disaster was ongoing. The events of that first month are still being analyzed, four years later. Experts are discovering that the meltdowns were more severe, the radiation release more prolonged, widespread and intense, than first believed or publicized. Fukushima is now considered to be worse than Chernobyl, especially as it sits on a floodplain which drains directly into the Pacific Ocean.
Of the six reactors on site, 1, 2 and 3 experienced melt-downs, melt-outs, and melt-throughs, so that the cores broke through the containment vessels, coming into direct contact with groundwater. Reactors 1 and 2 are still so radioactive that no one can get within 500 feet of them, and even robots are disabled by the radiation. Building 3 is less radioactive, but still dangerous, and the spent fuel pool on the roof contains some plutonium fuel.
Building 4 was the most immediate concern, although it was shut down at the time. The building itself was damaged to the point of instability, and the spent fuel pool on the roof, 100 feet in the air, contained twice as many rods as usual. The fear was that another earthquake could tilt the pool and start an unquenchable fire.
The atmospheric plume from the explosions spread across northern Japan, and quickly crossed the Pacific to blanket the western half of the US and Canada for a few days. The oceanic plume is slowly arriving at the West Coast; so far the levels are not dangerous. However, the radioactive groundwater continues to spew into the Pacific from the Fukushima site, at the rate of at least 350 tons/day.
THE JAPANESE RESPONSE
About a month after the disaster, on April 19, 2011, Japan chose to drastically increase its official "safe" radiation exposure levels from 1 mSv to 20 mSv per year -- 20 times higher than the US exposure limit. This allowed the Japanese government to downplay the dangers of the fallout and avoid evacuation of many badly contaminated areas.
Japan minimized the extent of the disaster and refused outside aid at first, although foreign companies and experts are now helping. Japan allowed the company which owns the plant, Tokyo Electric Power- TEPCO- to take charge of the containment and cleanup. TEPCO has never dealt with a nuclear accident before, and its management structure was ill-suited for the job. All functions were subcontracted, down 7 or 8 layers, with poor coordination. There was no overall project manager, and mistakes have been frequent.
The government keeps throwing billions of dollars at TEPCO. There has been little financial oversight, and subcontractors at every level take a percentage. Much of the money has been spent on trying to restore the surrounding countryside to a liveable state. This has involved removing radioactive debris, topsoil, rooftops and even treebark in the area, and bagging it; the "hot" bags then sitting by the roadside, or being incinerated, spewing radiation into the air.
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