Despite the scaled-back coverage of the Fukushima crisis (both domestically, and internationally), last week was actually quite eventful, with three significant developments.
Workers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant confirmed the meltdown of a ‘large part’ of the fuel in reactor number one. Their suspicions were aroused after a post-adjustment reading on water level gauges came back lower than expected. Fortunately, water in a reservoir at the bottom of the pressure vessel seems to have halted the meltdown. The situation remains precarious though, as the further meltdown of the fuel—past the pressure vessel and through the concrete base—remains highly possible.
What’s perhaps surprising is that this information was even released in the first place. Considering the delay between this official announcement and what people have purportedly known for weeks, the release of this information won’t help TEPCO's public image at all.
In response to the continued release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, TEPCO may soon erect steel scaffolding and cover the reactors buildings with giant polyester covers. The first reactor to be covered will be reactor number one, with similar units being installed over reactors three and four. Although not as complex as the concrete sarcophagus surrounding Chernobyl, the polyester ‘tents’ will still take some time to finish, with completion projected for the end of the year.
Given the fact that explosions have already dispersed debris and radioactive materials around the plant, this measure could be too little too late, though. Some commentators continue to push for full concrete entombment, and even the construction of a trench filled with zeolite to mitigate contamination of the groundwater beneath the plant. The fact that reactor three used MOX fuel has prompted a Russian Chernobyl expert to even assert that ‘(the) release of plutonium will contaminate that area forever and…is impossible to clean up.’ The worst may already have happened.
Worker at Fukushima Dies
The man, a contract worker in his 60s, was carrying equipment when he collapsed. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. This isn’t the first death at the plant—two workers were found dead last month, trapped in a turbine room when the tsunami struck. But unlike the two priors, TEPCO said it doesn’t know the cause of the contract worker's death. Although they indicated that the man wore protective gear and a second worker nearby suffered no ill-effects, TEPCO's announcement has nonetheless opened the floodgates of speculation.
Clearly, TEPCO is trying to avoid concluding that radiation was the smoking gun here to avoid triggering undue panic. And admittedly, being in his 60s, the contract worker's death may quite plausibly be explained away by other factors. Still, the untimely and cryptic nature of TEPCO and government press releases, reports of slipping safety standards, ongoing radioactive leaks at the plant, and now this worker's death should all be a reminder that there’s no room for complacency. The nuclear crisis has been pushed aside by other news, but the crisis isn’t over yet.