U.S. Sees Array of New Threats at Japan’s Nuclear Plant
By JAMES GLANZ and WILLIAM J. BROAD
Published: April 5, 2011
United States government engineers sent to help with the crisis in Japan are warning that the troubled nuclear plant there is facing a wide array of fresh threats that could persist indefinitely, and that in some cases are expected to increase as a result of the very measures being taken to keep the plant stable, according to a confidential assessment prepared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Among the new threats that were cited in the assessment, dated March 26, are the mounting stresses placed on the containment structures as they fill with radioactive cooling water, making them more vulnerable to rupture in one of the aftershocks rattling the site after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The document also cites the possibility of explosions inside the containment structures due to the release of hydrogen and oxygen from the water used to cool the cores, and offers new details on how semimolten fuel rods and salt buildup are impeding the flow of water meant to cool the nuclear cores.
In recent days, workers have grappled with several side effects of the emergency measures taken to keep nuclear fuel at the plant from overheating, including leaks of radioactive water at the site and radiation burns to workers who step into the water. The assessment, as well as interviews with officials familiar with it, points to a new panoply of complex challenges that water creates for the safety of workers and the recovery and long-term stability of the reactors.
While the assessment does not speculate on the likelihood of new explosions or damage from an aftershock, either could lead to a breach of the containment structures in one or more of the crippled reactors, the last barriers that prevent a much more serious release of radiation from the nuclear core. If the fuel continues to heat and melt because of ineffective cooling, some nuclear experts say, that could also leave a radioactive mass that could stay molten for an extended period.
The document, which was obtained by The New York Times, provides a more detailed technical assessment than Japanese officials have provided of the conundrum facing the Japanese as they struggle to prevent more fuel melting at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But it appears to rely largely on data shared with American experts by the Japanese.
Among other problems, the document raises new questions about whether pouring water on nuclear fuel in the absence of functioning electronic cooling systems can be sustained indefinitely. Experts have said the Japanese need to continue to keep the fuel cool for many months until the plant can be stabilized, but there is growing awareness that the risks of pumping water on the fuel present a whole new category of challenges that the nuclear industry is only beginning to comprehend.
The document also suggests that fragments or particles of nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools above the reactors were blown “up to one mile from the units,” and that pieces of highly radioactive material fell between two units and had to be “bulldozed over,” presumably to protect workers at the site. The ejection of nuclear material, which may have occurred during one of the earlier hydrogen explosions, may indicate more extensive damage to the extremely radioactive pools than previously disclosed.
David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked on the kinds of General Electric reactors used in Japan and now directs the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the welter of problems revealed in the document at three separate reactors made a successful outcome even more uncertain.
“I thought they were, not out of the woods, but at least at the edge of the woods,” said Mr. Lochbaum, who was not involved in preparing the document. “This paints a very different picture, and suggests that things are a lot worse. They could still have more damage in a big way if some of these things don’t work out for them.”
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost
Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind," Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president, told Al Jazeera.
Japan's 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that crippled the cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns that forced evacuations of those living within a 20km radius of the plant.
Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant likely has more exposed reactor cores than commonly believed.
"Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed," he said, "You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively."
TEPCO has been spraying water on several of the reactors and fuel cores, but this has led to even greater problems, such as radiation being emitted into the air in steam and evaporated sea water - as well as generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive sea water that has to be disposed of.
"The problem is how to keep it cool," says Gundersen. "They are pouring in water and the question is what are they going to do with the waste that comes out of that system, because it is going to contain plutonium and uranium. Where do you put the water?"
Even though the plant is now shut down, fission products such as uranium continue to generate heat, and therefore require cooling.
"The fuels are now a molten blob at the bottom of the reactor," Gundersen added. "TEPCO announced they had a melt through. A melt down is when the fuel collapses to the bottom of the reactor, and a melt through means it has melted through some layers. That blob is incredibly radioactive, and now you have water on top of it. The water picks up enormous amounts of radiation, so you add more water and you are generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive water."
Independent scientists have been monitoring the locations of radioactive "hot spots" around Japan, and their findings are disconcerting.
"We have 20 nuclear cores exposed, the fuel pools have several cores each, that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl," said Gundersen. "The data I'm seeing shows that we are finding hot spots further away than we had from Chernobyl, and the amount of radiation in many of them was the amount that caused areas to be declared no-man's-land for Chernobyl. We are seeing square kilometres being found 60 to 70 kilometres away from the reactor. You can't clean all this up. We still have radioactive wild boar in Germany, 30 years after Chernobyl."
Radiation monitors for children
Japan's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters finally admitted earlier this month that reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima plant experienced full meltdowns.
TEPCO announced that the accident probably released more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl, making it the worst nuclear accident on record.
Meanwhile, a nuclear waste advisor to the Japanese government reported that about 966 square kilometres near the power station - an area roughly 17 times the size of Manhattan - is now likely uninhabitable.
In the US, physician Janette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano published an essay shedding light on a 35 per cent spike in infant mortality in northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima meltdown, and may well be the result of fallout from the stricken nuclear plant.
The eight cities included in the report are San Jose, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Boise, and the time frame of the report included the ten weeks immediately following the disaster.
"There is and should be concern about younger people being exposed, and the Japanese government will be giving out radiation monitors to children," Dr MV Ramana, a physicist with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University who specialises in issues of nuclear safety, told Al Jazeera.
Dr Ramana explained that he believes the primary radiation threat continues to be mostly for residents living within 50km of the plant, but added: "There are going to be areas outside of the Japanese government's 20km mandatory evacuation zone where radiation is higher. So that could mean evacuation zones in those areas as well."
Gundersen points out that far more radiation has been released than has been reported.
"They recalculated the amount of radiation released, but the news is really not talking about this," he said. "The new calculations show that within the first week of the accident, they released 2.3 times as much radiation as they thought they released in the first 80 days."
According to Gundersen, the exposed reactors and fuel cores are continuing to release microns of caesium, strontium, and plutonium isotopes. These are referred to as "hot particles".
"We are discovering hot particles everywhere in Japan, even in Tokyo," he said. "Scientists are finding these everywhere. Over the last 90 days these hot particles have continued to fall and are being deposited in high concentrations. A lot of people are picking these up in car engine air filters."
Radioactive air filters from cars in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo are now common, and Gundersen says his sources are finding radioactive air filters in the greater Seattle area of the US as well.
The hot particles on them can eventually lead to cancer.
"These get stuck in your lungs or GI tract, and they are a constant irritant," he explained, "One cigarette doesn't get you, but over time they do. These [hot particles] can cause cancer, but you can't measure them with a Geiger counter. Clearly people in Fukushima prefecture have breathed in a large amount of these particles. Clearly the upper West Coast of the US has people being affected. That area got hit pretty heavy in April."
Blame the US?
In reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe, Germany is phasing out all of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. In a referendum vote this Monday, 95 per cent of Italians voted in favour of blocking a nuclear power revival in their country. A recent newspaper poll in Japan shows nearly three-quarters of respondents favour a phase-out of nuclear power in Japan.
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost
Here we go, more people have died of automobile accidents than all the nuclear accidents AND the two bombs combined, yet instead of banning them, they continued to make them safer. Much of the NYT articles are sensationalism and bare little or no merit. FLEAS are a problem but are these fleas? Are these reactors of Fukushima really gonna CRAP (contaminated radio active particles) up the west coast? I have doubts. Let's bann the nuke plants, guns and trees (sometimes they fall on people), fatty foods, ice cream, SPOONS, your name it, it's dangerous and can kill humans and effect the enviroment too. No one ever thought about figuring out what went wrong, when and trying to solve the problem to make these things safer? Just LOOK at this article, they include the deaths of ALL the quake and tsunami victums and try to make people think it was ALL caused by three reactors. It's NONSENSE and is BS with little or absolutely NO MERIT. 28,000 fukushima victums? what a JOKE
In the PBS interveiw they were clearer about the nuclear toll on people had not yet begun. The numbers thus far are only quake & tsunami and not from radioactivity.
A year ago I thought nukes might bridge the gap between now and green energy but I had no idea how many plants already exist.
Only in the field of nuclear power have we allowed the production of large amounts of a lethal byproduct to accumulate without final plans for it's removal and storage for hundreds of years.
The Japanese are saying the American engineers who built the original Japanese nuclear plants gave no thought to earthquakes. If that's true what about our own nukes on the West Coast.
Wave energy on the other hand is constant unlike wind power. It's more energy than wind too. OSU has test units working in the Pacific right now.
CNET: "The intensifying nuclear crisis in Japan is raising anxieties on both sides of the Pacific over the potential impacts of radiation exposure, and a relative dearth of official information on radiation levels is leading some to turn to crowdsourced options. (...) With official estimations of the threat from radiation across Japan changing rapidly and sometimes inconsistent, a number of real-time amateur radiation monitors have popped up online."
Below, a Google Map of "unofficial" radiation monitoring sites.
(AP) ISLAMABAD (AP) ? A raid by militants on a Pakistani naval base this week has raised fresh anxiety about Pakistan's ability to protect its nuclear sites. Although Western governments and analysts agree there is little chance militants could succeed in stealing nuclear material in an assault like the one in Karachi, attacks by al-Qaida or the Taliban against a nuclear facility remain a possibility.
A serious breach of the security perimeter could lead to calls for a unilateral American move to secure the Muslim world's only nuclear weapons, something that likely would trigger massive protests inside Pakistan and more hostility between Washington and Islamabad ? an outcome that would be welcomed by the militants.
While that is unlikely, a scenario that includes more militant attacks on Pakistani security force installations in the coming weeks, possibly nuclear ones, is not. That alone could deepen the worry in the United States that the Pakistani army is infiltrated by militants and is unable to protect the weapons.