7 Apr 2011

Ex-deputy director of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Alexander Kovalenko: Japanese authorities ignored organizational and technological lessons of Chernobyl at Fukushima NPP

Alexander Kovalenko, who served as deputy director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and head of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Government Commission for the Liquidation of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster fr om 1986 to 1988, has given an interview to Interfax‘ Vyacheslav Terekhov in which he speaks about the Fukushima disaster.

Thousands of people in Japan and all over the world are following the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant crisis. Will there be a new Chernobyl disaster or not? Fortunately, Japanese specialists have so far succeeded in keeping the nuclear reactor fr om exploding. Everyone is hoping that it will not explode. However, journalists are interested to know whether official reports on the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant and around it are trustworthy. Those who remember Chernobyl and took part in covering the events there, myself included, are involuntarily drawing parallels. Mr. Truth, tell us the truth!

I have turned to Kovalenko because I remember very well how journalists covering the liquidation of the Chernobyl disaster called him "Mr Truth." We have more than once been convinced that he firmly follows his main principle, which is that you can never tell journalists anything you do not believe in, or are not convinced of yourself.

Question: Do you think lessons have been learned fr om the faulty information policies in the USSR in the coverage of the Chernobyl disaster?

Answer: Only partially. The coverage of the Fukushima disaster began in the first hours following the accident, while at Chernobyl everything was hidden for a long time. The experience of major nuclear power plant accidents and tests shows that the heads of the nuclear industry always try to present the situation in a better light than it really is. It happened at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, at Chernobyl, and during the Windscale nuclear incident. Delays in notifying the population and even governments are observed in all major nuclear accidents. In some cases, we can speak about deliberate misinformation. The old habit of ‘embellishing‘ and ‘turning trouble into a victory‘ has served a bad service during the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
I believe that the Japanese government, citing the Fukushima station management, convinced people that nothing terrible was going on and that the reactors were not damaged for several days. Information about the developments at the station has been, and still is, contradictory and soothing in nature. Although the first report saying that power supply to the reactor‘s cooling systems had failed should have led to immediate evacuation, that only began two days later, when people had already been exposed to radiation!

Q.: On what basis are you drawing such a horrible conclusion?

A.: According to the government, radiation at the crippled Fukushima plant was recorded at 1,200 microsieverts/hr, or around 30,000 microsieverts a day. By way of comparison, residents of the city of Pripyat evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster were exposed to radiation levels of 33,000 microsieverts. In addition, radioactive iodine and caesium were found around the nuclear plant, which have a half-life of thirty years! The presence of caesium and iodine outside the plant are a 100% indication of the destruction of the internal metal containment, which is the main form of protection fr om possible radiation leaks. That means that the reactor is no longer manageable, not matter what Japanese specialists say. Of course, the question also arises: wh ere did hundreds of tonnes of radioactive water from the reactor go? This question has not been answered yet. And that means that our Japanese colleagues either have forgotten about the Soviet experience, or do not believe it should be used. But they really should use it.
The contradictory and soothing reports on the Chernobyl events not only reduced people‘s confidence in them, but was also a big blow to public opinion on nuclear energy in the USSR and all over the world. Some information, in particular information on radiation levels outside the plant, was not released or was released too late after the disaster. The situation began to change when the Soviet government allowed briefings. They started releasing information to the IAEA, which was a reliable source for the press.

Q.: The first televised linkups connecting Chernobyl and the Western media was a big achievement. It happened in February 1987. At that time, a direct reference line was created in Chernobyl and journalists, including foreign ones, were allowed to come to the "Zone" to work. Why don‘t the Japanese media use our experience?

A.: There is another problem in the journalistic community, the problem of self-censorship. This problem exists not only in Russia and has clearly been seen during in the Fukushima disaster. If you compare television reports released by the Japanese company NTK to CNN, you will see a big difference.

There is need for ‘Information God‘

Q.: What main conclusion do you draw as a professional when you compare all these events?

A.: Over the past twenty years, I have many times been convinced that extreme situations necessitate the creation of an "information God." I mean the creation of an independent organization providing objective information. Such an "information God" is vitally needed. No doubt, this service should comprise representatives of various interested organizations, but it should not be affiliated with any specific agency.
That is indicated by the experience of the tragic events in Chernobyl, the Dubrovka and Beslan terrorist attacks, the bombing of the Moscow metro, the bombing of the airport Domodedovo, the bombing of residential houses in Moscow and other cities. Agencies always try to defend their structures, which leads to absolute mistrust in any official information, even if this information is really accurate.
As for nuclear power plants, I believe the main problem of world nuclear energy lies not only and not so much in technology, but in public perception. The Fukushima disaster only proves this conclusion.
People in all countries are cautious about everything related to nuclear energy because this sphere is secret and the authorities do not tend to be frank in the event of accidents. The government of France, for example, did not inform its population that radiation levels in some regions by far exceeded the usual levels in the course of ten days following the Chernobyl disaster. In Italy, reports on radiation levels contained measurement units that were not clear to ordinary people.
The report made by U.S. Senator John Glenn after the Chernobyl disaster mentions 151 "significant" radiation leaks that occurred in the world in those years. Nothing was reported on almost any of these incidents. Who needs this secrecy and why? Secret information on environmental contamination and casualties, pointless bans on the use of satellite maps and energy in the vast "checkpoint zones" - all these things have turned into a big and well-paid industry all over the world.
We have paid billions of rubles for Chernobyl, we have paid in priceless human lives and the grief of thousands of people who were evacuated from the Zone. We have paid a very high price. In exchange, we have received very important experience of dealing with such disasters and we have learned to solve technical and technological problems that were unheard of before. It is also important to organize information and work with journalists in critical situations. The Chernobyl experience should be remembered, preserved and passed on because it is the heritage of the entire modern civilization.

Fukushima: why accident turned into catastrophe

Q.: Almost a month has passed, enough time to compare the actions taken by the Chernobyl disaster liquidators and the specialists who are working at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Can you name the main differences?

A.: The main difference between Fukushima and Chernobyl is that the Japanese authorities and nuclear specialists have ignored not only the information, but also the organizational and technological lessons of Chernobyl. I believe they were far too slow and apparently incapable of making decisions in real-time. I am confident that territory located at least thirty kilometers from the Fukushima nuclear plant will remain unsuitable for living and economic activities for a long time, maybe even for ever. In addition, the situation may yet worsen due to problems cooling the fourth, fifth and sixth reactors. They will have to close down the plant and spend a significant amount of time and energy to deactivate the territory, incurring huge physical and human losses. In addition, the health of many generations of liquidators and residents of the affected region will suffer damage as a result of both contamination and stress, which frequently does more damage to health than radiation in nuclear accidents.

Armenia could have had its own ‘Fukushima‘

Q.: And yet, in Chernobyl there was a reactor explosion, but in Fukushima the disaster was caused by an earthquake …

A.: I can open one secret. A situation similar to the one taking place in Japan arose in the Soviet Union when an 8.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in Armenia at 11:41 a.m. on December 7, 1988. During the disaster, virtually all staff left the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant. The lack of operative and maintenance personnel led to a threat of reactor overheating. To prevent a disaster, the Soviet Council of Ministers and the Nuclear Energy Ministry immediately moved personnel from other nuclear power stations to the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant, mainly from the Kola nuclear power station. The specialists, who arrived within several hours, restored water supplies to cool the active zone, including with the help of firefighting vehicles. The situation was stabilized promptly and a disaster that could have become similar to the Fukushima accident was prevented. Judging by official reports, that plant‘s staff were evacuated from the crippled nuclear power units after the earthquake, they did not leave of their own accord. Such a decision was made "due to increasing pressure and rising radiation levels." That is, the plant‘s personnel were watching the upcoming catastrophe from a safe distance!!! That lead to a considerable drop in the water levels, which led to an increase in the pressure in the reactors and subsequent explosions and emissions and a catastrophic rise in radiation levels. The restoration of electric power supplies with he help of mobile power units began at the first and second units only on March 14, when the accident had already turned into a catastrophe!

Q.: Does that mean that the Fukushima nuclear plant had no plan of action for emergency situations?

A.: The instructions to the Fukushima-1 personnel in emergency situations obtained by The Wall Street Journal explain the reasons for the slow reaction by the authorities and the TEPCO administration during the initial stages of the disaster. TEPCO, the operator of the plant, essentially had no plan to prevent the destruction of the nuclear station infrastructure in the event of a worst-case scenario. The accident notification plan did not include national emergency services and self-defense forces. The main method of notifying the authorities, including the nuclear energy minister and the governor of the prefecture of emergencies was by fax. Personnel were instructed to send fax reports "within 15 minutes" and only in some cases were the station personnel allowed to call to confirm receipt of the fax. There was no plan for preventing the destruction of the nuclear plant in the event of a large-scale natural disaster. The government has still not announced the mobilization of thousands of people for liquidating this disaster. Only several hundred people (fifty people working in four-hour shifts) are currently working. It‘s clearly not enough, especially with the replacement of the people exposed the highest radiation levels and the need to share experience and information. There were lengthy discussions even about the use of military helicopters, whose crew are by definition supposed to win or die in the event of a national tragedy.
It is now clear that no immediate and decisive actions were taken to supply water, even using autonomous portable pumps or firefighting vehicles, in the first 24 hours after the earthquake and the tsunami. And mobile military generators or ship power units could have been located near the sea. As a result of all those things, TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata admitted an inevitable and obvious fact three weeks into the disaster: the first four reactors of the crippled station are not restorable and the situation there will remain unstable for the near future. He added that these four reactors have not been taken under control yet, but specialists "are doing everything possible to cool them."

‘Caps‘ for Fukushima

Q.: The construction of the so-called sarcophagus to cover the damaged reactor at Chernobyl began immediately after the explosion.

A.: They are planning to cover the crippled reactors with caps made of special material in Japan, too. In my view, there is no point doing that as this material will be quickly destroyed by high temperatures. I‘m confident that it is only an attempt to cover the damaged power units to calm the public. We are talking about Units 1, 3, and 4, whose buildings were badly damaged in the first days of the disaster, when hydrogen exploded. However, the main threat is posed not only by radioactive dust, but by contaminated water flowing into the ocean and soil. They are planning to use tankers to collect highly radioactive water pumped from the power units. But wh ere will those tankers go and what will happen to the water pumped into them?

Will Landysh help?

Q.: The floating waste-disposal facility called the Landysh will leave Russia for Japan. Will it help?

A.: From a political viewpoint, it‘s an effective gesture from Russia, but I don‘t see any practical point in using this facility in Japan.

Q.: Why?

A.: Systems like this one only process low and mid-level liquid radiation waste and have no complete technological waste solidification cycle. In Japan, we are talking about highly radioactive water. In addition, mid-level radiation water is already being released into the ocean. According to the Japanese media reports, there are plans to release 11,500 tonnes of water into the ocean, in which radioactive content is 100 times the legal lim it. According to experts, this measure is needed for subsequent pumping of water with radiation levels over 1,000 millisieverts/hr, which is located in other spaces and technical tunnels, into the vacated reservoir. This information was announced by Japanese Economy, Industry and Trade Minister Banri Kaieda at a press conference in Tokyo.
At the same time, the iodine-131 content in the water flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the second unit of the Fukushima-1 nuclear plant was 7.5 million times the lim it as of April 5. This was indicated by an analysis of the samples reported by TEPCO representatives. Only on April 3, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear crisis at the plant, did government bodies and TEPCO begin to measure radiation levels in the air in the 20 km exclusion zone around the station using helicopters.

Q.: But the radiation levels in the air and on the ground may be very different.

A.: According to NHK, the radiation level in the air is 50 microsieverts/hr. This means that this level can be thousands times higher on the ground.

People should be forced not advised

Q.: In Chernobyl, evacuation from the 30-km exclusion zone was conducted toughly and even involved the military.

A.: There is no other option in such cases. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said in a statement that even today evacuation from the 30 km zone is still just a recommendation, not an order! However, they can‘t delay a forced evacuation anymore. According to calculations done by our experts on Chernobyl on the basis of information provided by TEPCO, the accumulated effective radiation dose in the zone may have reached up to 400 mSv within 5-10 km from the station, up to 300 mSv within 10-20 km from the station, and up to 150 mSv within 20-30 km from the station.
IAEA official Denis Flory said the IAEA was concerned about the high radiation levels in one of the villages located 40 km from the station, and many experts believe the Fukushima disaster should be ranked 7 on the INES scale, which is the same level as the Chernobyl disaster.
To understand the danger faced by the people who have stayed in their houses (of which, according to the Japanese media, there are still 140,000), I will say that:
- 50 mSv is the highest acceptable radiation dose received by nuclear facility operators during "peaceful" times;
- 250 mSv is the highest acceptable radiation dose for professional liquidators. People who have received this dose, as a rule, need treatment and can never again be allowed to work at a nuclear facility;
- 300 mSv is a level causing radiation sickness.
- 4,000 mSv is radiation sickness with probability of death;
- 6,000 mSv leads to death within several days.
It should be pointed out that 1,000 mSv is 1 mSv per hour.
In my opinion, the situation with the reactors at the Fukushima station was not catastrophic after the earthquake and the tsunami. The disaster was caused by the human factor, like at Chernobyl. In my view, it was the confusion and lack of action by the station‘s operator that let this accident developed into a catastrophe. Apparently, they wanted to do a good job… Time will show how it happened and why.

Epilogue: TEPCO invites Chernobyl liquidators

Indeed, only time can show whether Kovalenko‘s conclusions are right. However, time is a relative thing. The general public still knows virtually nothing about the accident at the Armenian nuclear power plant. We still do not have a very good idea about the events that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Q.: Despite the high public awareness of the situation in Fukushima, we see that specialists have lot of questions. We wonder how long will it take to get answers to them?

A.: Finally, when this material was being prepared we received a report stating that TEPCO is inviting Chernobyl liquidators to help work on the Fukushima disaster. According to French newspaper L‘Express, the company has promised to pay them $5,000 a day (which is the amount of money Chernobyl liquidators get a year).
Finally, news reports say that the radiation levels to which the specialists working at the Fukushima-1 station are being exposed are so high that they cannot be measured, NHK reported on Tuesday. The company cited a monitoring specialist, who said that the radiation levels in units 1-3 are so high that monitoring devices have proved useless. The high radiation levels are making it impossible to enter the station, but outside the radiation levels in some places exceed 100 mSv. Reservoirs and flows of radioactive water have been found along the entire station, which causes concerns about the workers, NTK has reported.