Tepco Struggles to Communicate Radiation Spike That Wasn’t

  • New readings from inside reactor prompt fears of rising levels
  • Tepco snapped photos of possible fuel debris for first time

Almost six years after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the utility in charge of the plant is still having problems getting its message across.

When Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. last week gave new radiation readings higher than any previously announced, it thrust the cleanup of the nuclear plant back in the spotlight, creating alarm in the process.

“Radiation levels are soaring,” tech blog Gizmodo said. Fox anchor Lou Dobbs tweeted to his 1.1 million followers that the mainstream media was ignoring the “worsening disaster.” Even China’s Foreign Ministry issued a safety alert to tourists visiting the country.

There was just one problem -- there was no rise in the radiation readings at all.

By putting a camera inside of the primary containment vessel of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 2 reactor, which experienced a meltdown in the 2011 disaster, Tepco collected data closer than ever before to what could be the source of radiation.

As well as capturing images of what may be the melted fuel, Tepco was able to estimate radiation levels, arriving at a figure of about 530 sieverts an hour, the company said last week. On Thursday, it said it recorded a reading of 650 sieverts per hour, according to Kyodo News. The utility aims to send a robot into the vessel as soon as this month to confirm if has located the fuel.

While these figures are much higher than the previously recorded peaks -- 73 sieverts an hour, taken in 2012 -- and many times greater than the lethal dose, the readings were taken closer to the source of the radiation.

“Very high radiation readings near any of the used fuel would be expected,” Peter Lyons, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said by e-mail. 

Continuing Fear

By comparison, a nuclear fuel rod a day after a reactor is halted has a surface radiation of several tens of thousands of sieverts an hour, Yukako Handa, a Tepco spokeswoman, said by phone. Tepco also notes that the 530 sieverts figure has a margin of error of 30 percent.

The alarm shows the struggles Tepco still faces communicating with a population afraid of the consequences of nuclear power, and suspicious of the utility after its obfuscation while the accident was unfolding. Last year Tepco was forced to apologize when reports emerged that management at the time of the disaster ordered staff not to use the word “meltdown.”

“There is a continuing fear regarding the effects of the accident, which was reinforced by poor information from Tepco and the Japanese government in the early days,” Azby Brown, lead researcher for Safecast, an independent organization that compiles radiation data, said by e-mail. “While it was clear to people who have been following the technical issues that they did not intend to suggest there had been a rise in radiation levels, we can see why some people misunderstood.”

Tepco graphic shows how readings were taken inside the primary containment vessel.

Source: Tokyo Electric Power Co., Jan. 30

Safecast’s readings, which are crowd-sourced from towns surrounding the Fukushima facility, have largely found that radiation levels have been falling. There were no spikes in radiation readings last week. Safecast was formed in response to a lack of information in the wake of the disaster. Radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear site outside the reactor buildings have fallen, according to Tepco spokeswoman Handa.

“For years now there have not been any fresh leaks from the facility to sea or air, as is constantly verified by the ongoing monitoring program,” David Hess, a communications manager at the World Nuclear Association, said by e-mail. “Radiation readings have been falling continuously in the areas surrounding the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant.”

Tepco aims to continue answering questions by the international media, hold press conferences and regularly releases information on its website and via Twitter, Handa said in response to questions on how it controls its message.

The readings still leave Tepco with a massive task ahead. This month, it plans to insert a “scorpion-like” robot into the containment vessel to take more accurate levels, but most of the technology it needs to remove the melted fuel hasn’t yet been invented. The high radiation levels will limit how long robots can operate close to the fuel before being disabled.

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