Core damage confirmed at 3 reactors; spent fuel rods a rising concern at 4th;
U.S. urges evacuation within 80 kilometers (50 Miles) around stricken plants
March 16, 2011 (San Diego) – The United Nations has released a forecast indicating a radioactive plume from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors at Fujushima Daiichi cold reach the Aleutian Islands off Alaska on Thursday and Southern California late on Friday, then east to Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and likely points beyond.
The U.N. has not issued a statement on how much radiation the plume could contain, however numerous other experts have indicated that amounts are expected to be small and below levels likely to harm human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is setting up additional radiation monitors on the West Coast as a precaution. An existing monitor in San Diego is currently non-operational, according to the EPA’s RadNet real-time radiation monitoring database online.
Murray Jennex, a nuclear expert at San Diego State University, told by ECM of the non-operational monitor locally, called back a short time later to reveal, “We’re going to set up monitoring here and try to get real numbers."
Murray said he hopes to have monitors up tomorrow in order to get background readings before any radiation reaches our region. Despite the escalating crisis in Japan, he does not expect radiation at levels harmful to health to reach the U.S., as particles would drop and toxicity would dissipate and would likely not be shot high enough into the atmosphere, he said.
Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in a White House briefing today, said it would be “very unlikely that there would be any harmful impacts” on health in the U.S. because of the distances involved.
Nuclear crisis escalates at Fujushima
But in Japan, the situation is far more dire.
“The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is very serious The damage to the core of the three units, unit 1, 2 and 3, have been confirmed,” International Atomic Energy Association Director General Yukiya Amano said today, Associated Press reported. Partial meltdowns have occurred at two, and possibly three, of those facilities, multiple sources confirm.
Jennex believes that even with partial meltdowns and some core damage, containment structures will retain most radioactive materials (unlike Chernobyl, which had no containment structure around the core). However concerns are greatest at reactor #3 and #4.
Reactor number three was refueled with a plutonium-uranium mixture. “If it were to get out, that would be a pretty permanent contamination,” said Jennex. “It has a half life of 6,000 years, so for all intents and purposes we won’t be able to clean that up.” Still, the contaminated area would likely be confined to the immediate plant area.
As for reactor #4, Jaczko today told a House energy and commerce subcommittee that “There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high…We believe at this point that unit four may have lost a significant inventory, if not lost all of its water.” He also stated that radiation levels around the plant may give emergency workers “lethal doses” of radiation, preventing them from working inside. Tokyo Electric later held a press conference insisting that some water remained in the pool.
Jennex believes reactor #4 poses the greatest challenge. “There is no containment structure around that spent fuel, and there are fires. That’s become the big, big problem.” As a result, toxic materials including uranium are being released directly into the atmosphere, he added.
Tokyo Electric has warned of ‘re-criticality’ – meaning a nuclear chain reaction at plant #4’s spent rods pool could start among fuel rods exposed due to evaporation in the pool, which would increase release of radioactive substances. Concers have also been raised about pools at plants #5 and 6, and possibly those at other reactors, the New York Times reports.
“The radiation levels I’m hearing are actually lethal—about 40 REM per hour,” Jennex told ECM. “To put that in context, in a one-hour exposure you have radiation sickness; if you start getting 5-8 hours and that’s a lethal dose to 50% of the population in 30 days.”
Ominously, he added, “This is where it starts approaching looking like Chernobyl with the spent fuel.” Chernobyl remains uninhabitable, a nuclear ghost town, decades later. “There are no people around that plant and there is no plan to bring them back in my lifetime.”
Asked for a worse-case scenario in Japan, Jennex said a 20-30 kilometer area around the plan and possibly further could be contaminated. “There’s no way to get out—no roads, no fuel, not vehicles,” he said. In a best-case scenario, however, contamination could still be short-term and limited to a relatively small area, said Jennex.
Heroic crews risk lives to cool reactors, battle blazes
Late today, heroic efforts to forestall catastrophe continued in Fujushima, where water cannons normally used for crowd control are being shot into the reactor through holes made in the building by explosions and fire. The crew battling the reactor disasters has been increased from 50 to 150 today. In addition, South Korea has agreed to provide 53 tons of boric acid—nearly all that the country has, to be sprayed on the radiation leaks and help cool the reactors.
Such heroics involve great risk—and potential death sentences--to those involved. In Chernobyl, the most lethal radiation doses were received by firefighters and pilots, Jennex noted. Although better protective gear is available to today’s crews, the dangers are unquestionably high.
Levels at Fujushima has been so high at times that workers have been allowed into the plant for only a few minutes at a time. Still, there has been some cause for hope. Radiation levels have dropped at plant one, and natural cooling begins to occur the longer the reactors are offline and fuel rods remain covered with water Within a week after a shutdown, decay heat declines around 50%, experts asy, so reactors require less external cooling.
Global concerns grow
But overall the situation in Japan is raising concerns globally.
Europe’s energy chief, Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, told a European Parliament Committee today that the situation is “effectively out of control,” adding that the crisis “is now in the hands of God.”
That remark drew a rebuke from Yukiya Amano, the U.N. atomic watchdog. “It is not the time to say things are out of control,” he said, according to Reuters. “The operators are doing the maximum to restore the safety of the reactor.”
South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong have increased air monitoring for radiation in preparation for fallout from Japan’s nuclear catastrophies. Several nations including China, Germany and France have declared moratoriums on approval of new nuclear facilities, however in the U.S., the Obama administration reaffirmed support for nuclear power. The European Union and several Asian nations have ordered radiation testing on food products from Japan.
Today, Low-level radiation reached Tokyo, a city with 35 million people, today—though many had fled due to radiation fears or because of the prior earthquake and tsunami. Those radiation levels, however, were no higher than levels normally found at high-elevation cities such as Denver…at least for now. The U.S. has dispatched nuclear experts to Japan, including radiation monitors. A warning system to detect radiation movement at Fujushima is not working, according to the Japanese government.
Numerous countries, though not the U.S., have advised their citizens to get out of Tokyo and leave the country. Tokyo is located about 140 miles from Fujushima.
U.S. urges wider evacuation zone than Japanese have ordered
U.S. and Japanese authorities today openly broke ranks over evacuation perimeters. The U.S. has urged all citizens within 50 km of the stricken nuclear plants to evacuate and also moved U.S. military vessels 80 km away. Japan, however, continues to maintain that a 20 km evacuation zone is adequate, with people up to 30 km advised to stay indoors.
Experts criticize Japanese response
The power plant experienced multiple failures after the 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami that breached a 27-meter-high seawall. “The greatest unforeseen part of this is the nuclear melt-down from their power plants,” Vic Camp, an SDSU professor who teaches a Natural Disasters course, speaking before the spent fuel rods became exposed. But he added, “Perhaps this scenario should have also been foreseen as a potential repercussion.”
Jennex praised the “heroic efforts” of crews battling to forestall further damage, noting that employees are tired and many have lost their families in the quake and tsunami. But he acknowledged, “Everybody in the nuclear industry is seeing bad decisions made. “ He said that upon hearing that Japanese were considered moving panels off units 5 and 6 to forestall a bildup of gas that led to explosions at other plants, his reaction was “I would have done that after the first explosion.”
In testimony present today to the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Dr. Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the nuclear watchdog group Union Of Concerned Scientists, warned that in the U.S. “We have 23 plants of the same design” as Fukushima.” He noted that U.S. reactors have had “close calls” and faulted the U.S. nuclear industry for failing to learn lessons from Chernobyl.”If there was a reactor accident in the United States, the emergency preparedness measures that would directl protect the public, including evacuation planning and potassium iodide distribution, are limited to a 10-mile radius,” he observed, then called on the government to reevaluate those standards.
Japanese survivors endure new worries as time runs out for rescues
A Japanese news crew ventured inside the evacuation zone to interview doctors remaining behind with hospitalized patients, residents with no way to evacuate, and a frustrated mahor of Minamasoma who voiced the gravest of concerns. “They are leaving us to die,” he said.
Fukushima prefecture governor Yuhei Sato said, “Anxiety and anger felt by people have reached the boiling point." The statement is particularly strong a country known for its civility and respect toward; Japan in fact has been noteworthy in not having looting or violence that has followed major disasters in many other places.
While the world has focused on the nuclear disaster, however, the greatest crisis facing people in most of Japan remains survival following the earthquake and tsunami. Nearly half a million have been left homeless, most staying in temporary shelters with little food, water or heat. Some have no shelter—and now the weather has chilled and snow blankets much of the region. Over 4,300 are confirmed dead and more than 8,000 remain missing.
While many thousands have been rescued, time is running out for any who may still be trapped in rubble--with search and rescue efforts impaired by radiation fears and now, weather.
The next challenges: Assessing the future and cleaning up radioactive debris
A challenge that lies ahead will be how to clean up massive amounts of debris from the tsunami and quake, some of which may now be radioactive. “They’re going to have t come with a plan and a repository,” Jemmex said, adding that includes creating designated clean-up zones to allow materials to cool down.
President Obama met privately today with Japan’s prime minister. Tomorrow, the leaders of the G7 nations will meet to discuss the economic impact of the crisis. The disaster has caused falls in stock markets around the world and sharp appreciation of the Japanese yen,.
Emperor Akihito, speaking in a televised address, called the nation’s crises “umprecedented in scale” and said, “I hope from the bottom of my h eart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times.”