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Total failure

May 26, 2011

A study by Greenpeace Germany says Japanese operator TEPCO failed totally in its handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The company is also accused of having tried to cover up the true dimensions of the accident.

Fukushima nuclear plant
A meltdown occurred in three of the six Fukushima reactorsImage: Tepco/Kyodo/AP/dapd

Greenpeace Germany on Thursday released a new study into the Fukushima nuclear accident, and placed heavy blame on operator TEPCO for its largely uncoordinated response and cover-up of the actual severity of the accident.

According to the NGO, the information provided by TEPCO and the Japanese as well as international nuclear power agencies was insufficient and irresponsible.

The report suggests that, just a few hours after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO was already aware of the nuclear meltdown at the plant but chose not to alarm employees or residents in nearby towns and villages.

"No one lies without a reason," Heinz Smital, nuclear expert with Greenpeace Germany told reporters at the presentation of the study in Berlin.

"The excuses and cover-ups by TEPCO and the repeated downplaying of the incident by international agencies have only one goal: To make people believe that nuclear energy is – despite accidents like Fukushima - still controllable. But this is the biggest error you could make."

Greenpeace said it would pass the results of the study on to the German ethics commission which is due to to give its recommendations by Saturday on whether or not Germany should entirely phase out its nuclear reactors.

"Germany, like Japan, is not prepared for a worst case scenario," Smital said. "The Japanese helplessness in the face of disaster has made that clear."

Worse than Chernobyl?

The study was commissioned by Greenpeace Germany and conducted by British nuclear power consultancy group Large & Associates. The London-based company describes the actions by the Japanese operators as highly contradictory and confusing.

"As an engineer, and in hindsight, I can say 'wow!' there were some real mistakes made here," John Large, head of the consultancy, told reporters in Berlin.

He said that while the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami were unprecedented incidents, the mistakes made by the Japanese engineers to cope with the accident also belonged in that category.

"They were acting in a most unplanned and highly irrational manner. This is much worse, in my opinion, than Chernobyl."

flag reading 'Nuclear power? No thanks!'
'Nuclear power? No thanks!' is what Germany's Greenpeace is campaigning forImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The British company's report says that the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant was not ideal because reactors one to four were built against a cliff face so that any tsunami was destined to cause major damage to the plant.

This was the reason why the emergency diesel generator was swamped by the floods, at a time when it was meant to offset the collapse of the local electricity grid caused by the earthquake.

Another in-built design flaw of Japanese reactors, the report says, caused the fuel pond in reactor four to run dry, and the spent fuel rods stored there to melt. A small railway tunnel meant to transport spent fuel from reactor three to the fuel pond couldn't be shut down so that all the cooling water drained when reactor three began to leak.

The worst may be still to come

One of the biggest mistakes made by TEPCO engineers, however, was to pump sea water into the primary containment surrounding the reactor pressure vessel.

According to Large, this did nothing to prevent the meltdown of the cores and means that 90 tonnes of molten nuclear material are likely to be slowly burning through the containment.

"In the area of meltdown in cores there is very little experience in dealing with these very large thermal masses. What is quite clear here, is that this is going on for much longer than had been thought and it's much hotter than was believed possible."

Large warned that the worst might be yet to come.

"To put it bluntly: The operators are running around like headless chickens trying to solve [every] problem that comes along."

Author: Uwe Hessler, Andreas Illmer (dpa, AFP)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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