Fukushima Update, 8 Months Later

On March 11, 2011 Japan was struck by a major 9.0 earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, consisting of six nuclear reactors and 40+ years of accumulated spent nuclear fuel, was destroyed.

There’s been considerable debate over whether the “loss of cooling function” to reactors 1, 2, and 3  was caused by the earthquake itself or by the tsunami. I think the earthquake alone was enough to doom the plant but either way, the end result is the same; the nuclear fuel inside the three reactors melted down, and then out of the metal pressure vessels, escaping into the in-pedestal areas of the drywells and most likely down into the basement suppression pools. Explosions ripped apart reactor buildings 1, 3, and 4 damaging the concrete containments and spent fuel pools. Reactor 2 suffered an internal failure and containment breach, probably in the pressure balance tubes or basement suppression pool areas. In other words, they blew to kingdom come.

Presently the whereabouts of the melted nuclear fuel (lava like “corium”) and what exactly its doing is unknown but the detection of short half-life fission products such as xenon gas suggests sporadic nuclear criticalities are occurring. In other words, the molten fuel blobs are likely sparking and fizzing somewhere down there. They’re pouring water into what’s left of the reactors in an effort to cool the corium but it leaks right back out, flooding the reactor building basements with highly contaminated radioactive water. Managing this contaminated water is a major challenge for the liquidators.

At this point I think it’s safe to say clustering six nuclear reactors plus decades of spent fuel, all in one location, like they did at Fukushima, is an extremely bad idea. A problem with one reactor means you have a problem with all of the reactors and the “spent” fuel is also very hot and dangerous. Unlike the reactor cores the spent fuel isn’t kept in any real kind of containment. It’s stored in water filled pools and the water must be constantly circulated and cooled or it will boil off and the spent fuel will melt down, burn, and release radioactivity into the air, as happened with the reactor 4 spent fuel pool. You can see the location of the spent fuel pools in the upper right hand corner of the above diagram. Somehow I don’t think storing your spent nuclear fuel on top of a nuclear reactor is such a good idea. We have GE to thank for the design.

For the six reactors a core load of fuel averages about 100 tons each and at the time of the quake the inventory of the spent fuel pools was as follows:

•    Reactor No. 1: 50 tons of nuclear fuel
•    Reactor No. 2: 101 tons
•    Reactor No. 3: 89 tons
•    Reactor No. 4: 229 tons
•    Reactor No. 5: 163 tons
•    Reactor No. 6: 151 tons
•    Also, a separate ground-level common fuel pool contains 1,100 tons of fuel and some 70 tons of nuclear materials are kept on the grounds in dry storage.

So in addition to the working nuclear fuel in the reactor cores there’s another 1,953 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored on site! Unfortunately this kind of accumulation of spent fuel is not unique to Fukushima and a lack of comprehensive policy and planning for nuclear waste has resulted in similar accumulations of spent nuclear fuel at plants all over the world, including the United States. For reasons that are all too obvious now, the on site storage of spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants represents a highly dangerous and unacceptable magnification of risk. Since common sense demands “not putting all of your eggs in one basket” at the very least, spent fuel should be stored off site. Additional reading on spent nuclear fuel here.

At this point the radioactive releases have come from the core melt-downs of reactors 1, 2, and 3, and the number 3 and 4 spent fuel pools. Thus far “only” a fraction of the 769 tons of fuel in reactor buildings 1, 2, 3, and 4 has been released into the greater environment but that fraction has been more than enough to send radioactive plumes all over the planet and contaminate a large portion of Japan. In theory the melted corium is still somewhere down in the bowels of reactor buildings 1, 2 and 3 (we hope) and the fire in the number 4 spent fuel pool has been put out. As for the explosion of spent fuel pool number 3, time will tell if there’s any fuel left in there. Credible analysis suggests fuel may have been blown up and out of the number 3 spent fuel pool and the reported discovery of fuel pellets over a mile from the plant supports this hypothesis.

I pray that they can stabilize the damaged fuel and contain further releases. It’s unimaginable what would happen if conditions deteriorate and they lose control of the site and the 1,100 tons of fuel in the common spent fuel pool and the 500 tons of fuel in reactor buildings number 5 and 6. Please join me in my prayers.

Today, contaminated water continues to seep into the groundwater and sea, and radioactive particles continue to be released into the air. However, not all of these releases are accidental…

Radioactive fallout has also contaminated the huge amounts of debris from the earthquake and tsunami and efforts are currently underway to dispose of this material. Incredibly, it’s being shipped from the contaminated areas to densely populated Tokyo, where it is burned, releasing radioactivity back into the air. Then, the resulting ashes are dumped into Tokyo bay, releasing even more radioactivity into the sea. A truly unbelievable course of action. As a citizen of this planet living down wind from Tokyo I’m asking you to please stop.

Another big surprise in all of this is the Japanese government’s callous disregard for its citizens living in the contaminated areas. Raising the “acceptable” levels of radioactive contamination in food, water, and the general environment, does not make the problem go away and we can expect to see a significant increase in disease, especially for those living in the contaminated areas. They really should be evacuated.

Please tell me again about clean, safe, and cheap nuclear power. The realities of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima certainly proves otherwise. Sadly, the Fukushima story is far from over; that’s the way it is when you’re dealing with radioactive contamination that lasts many thousands of years. Where is the main stream media reporting? What is the United States doing to protect its citizens from the clear and present danger of nuclear power? Accepting lobby money from the nuclear industry??? Money is no protection from radiation! We’re playing with fire and the stakes are too high! The present day risks that we are taking and the perpetual legacy of nuclear waste that we’re leaving to future generations clearly outweigh any benefit. Please join me in my opposition to nuclear power.

I find this October 18th video of workers surveying the wrecked reactor number one building haunting. While the camera work is shaky at times I think the cameraman should be forgiven considering the circumstances. As they pick their way through the rubble one member of the party calls out the radiation levels and at one point he is heard to say “189”, presumably meaning 189 millisieverts per hour.

Their mission was to inspect the integrity of the isolation condenser system. Since most of the gauges they checked showed zero pressure I’d have to guess it’s leaking somewhere.

The official radiation dose for their efforts was 10 millisieverts but I have to wonder about that. The white twinkles or snow-like flashes you see in the dark areas, especially toward the end of the video suggests high radiation in those areas.

Speaking of radiation twinkles here’s another video. This time it’s a robot swabbing the trolley tracks in front of the reactor number 3 drywell access door (see diagram above) with some kind of towel. The point of view is the split screen display of the robot operator. The right hand side of the screen is the big picture and the left side of the screen alternates between a close up of the track and a Geiger counter. See the Geiger counter hit 1.3 seiverts per hour? That’s hot but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Likely there’s some corium on the other side of that door. And look at all the flashes in the shadow areas on the big picture view, interesting how the radiation effects the camera. That robot must have hardened electronics to be able operate in an environment like that. I think 1.3 seiverts per hour works out to about 130 years worth of typical background radiation per hour. Certainly way too hot for humans.

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4 Responses to Fukushima Update, 8 Months Later

  1. Mark Foreman says:

    The corium has been located, in unit one it melted out of the reactor and is now on the floor of the containment building. It has cooled down and is no longer molten or hot. In units two and three only a small amount escaped from the reactor tanks, by now the corium will be emitting very little heat compared with the amount of heat it emitted in the first week.

    • Mark, if you have any credible links on the present whereabouts and status of the coriums I’d love to see them. I seek truth.

      Latest thing I saw on the subject was they drilled a hole in reactor #2 contaiment and stuck in a camera looking for the corium, but all they could see was steam and intense radiation. The camera was ruined.

      http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/search/label/endoscope

      I agree that under ideal conditions nuclear fuel will cool at a certain rate, however we don’t really know what configuration the coriums are in. I also agree that it’s comforting to think the water they’re dumping into the containments is doing some good.

      It’s interesting to note that spent fuel isn’t considered cool enough to move for something like 5 years? The physics of this stuff is truely amazing once you begin looking into it.

      Let’s keep our fingers crossed and pray things stay under control.

    • Thank you for the links Mark I appreciate the info.

      I’ll review the papers more closely when I have more time but in scanning over them they both seem to agree that # 1,2, and 3 all melted down and there was melt through of the # 1,2, and 3 reactor pressure vessels. The only question is how much fuel melted out of each of the pressure vessels; a little, a lot, or all? Reports vary widely and nobody truely knows but the fact that the water they pour into the pressure vessels leaks right out and into the basements certainly suggests there’s a pretty good sized hole in those vessels. The leaking vessels also suggest that whatever corium might remain in the vessels is not submerged in water but is only, at best, receiving a superficial spray…not a reassuring scenario.

      As for the physics, I wasn’t refering to the molten nuclear fuel (the corium) specifically but rather the issue of nuclear power in general. Particularly how spent nuclear fuel, submerged in a spent fuel pool, remains too hot to move for up to 5 years! Truely amazing. I wish they could get that spent fuel out of the #4 pool pronto but I guess we’ll have to wait…

      While we can debate the scope of the disaster (it’s still a disaster) and wonder at the physics my position remains unchanged. Nuclear power is not safe, clean, or cheap.

      Germany seems to agree with me, they’re phasing out their nuclear power in favor of sustainable and clean energy. Japan also seems to agree, right now only 3 of their 52 plants are in operation and those plants are scheduled to go off line soon.

      It’s interesting how the Japan energy story has changed, they used to say nuclear power was required to meet their energy needs but now it seems they’re getting by without it.

      http://www.wri.org/stories/2011/06/germanys-nuclear-phase-out-renewable-energy-plans-are-clear

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/world/asia/03japan.html

      Please join Germany, Japan, and myself in seeking a safe, clean, and sustainable energy future.

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