Daily Archives: July 9, 2011

Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 30: It was, is, and will be worse than you thought

Perhaps the most interesting single thing on the table in today’s update is the revelation that at least one of Fukushima’s reactors suffered sufficient damage from the earthquake that hit the region … prior to the tsunami … to have likely gone out of control or melted down. This is hard to assess because the tsunami caused so much additional damage as to obscure earlier damage, and because cleanup efforts are not proper forensic methods to reconstruct what happened there, and because we can assume at this point that the untrustworthy TEPCO will cover up whatever it can, and it is in their interest to ignore any evidence that the earthquake itself resulted in significant damage. The problem is that there are people who saw the damage happen during the earthquake and some of them are talking.

This is important because NPA’s (Nuclear Power Apologists) including TEPCO (and don’t get us wrong …. we love the promise of nuclear energy!) wants everyone to think that THE problem at Fukushima was the totally unexpected tsunami, not the more likely to occur and totally planned-for earthquake. It would turn out that not only was this tsunami not unexpected at all (this has been covered before) but that the earthquake did enough damage that whatever other expectations Japanese nuclear regulators have regarding earthquakes may have are in serious question.

There are about 120,000 tones of contaminated water at Fukushima. That is roughly equivalent to the volume of about 200 modest town homes or almost 50- Olympic size swimming pools. The plant is essentially full of water … injecting more water into the plant can only happen if some of it boils off, which releases radioactive steam into the air (which is, essentially, what has been happening for weeks). The current plan is to decontaminate the water and use the decontaminated water to cool the plant.

What has been happening instead is that the decontamination system has failed or worked at a lower rate than expected and pumps that are supposed to push the water through containment vessels have been under achieving. There is no evidence that water is no longer leaking into the sea or steam into the air. So, the current situation is one in which efforts to cool the plant and contain the water are partially working but not entirely under control. The result of this is continuing and in some cases increasing spread of contamination.

And the contamination stories are starting to get worse, not better, though the meaning of it all is hard to assess. One model shows contaminated water reaching the US coast in a few years, though at low concentration. A handful of cattle radioactive to a much higher than allowed level were brought to market the other day, though they were detected and removed from the meat supply. Local tea (tea is grown in this area) is too contaminated to drink. A school group engaged in a fieldtrip in which they pick tea, process it and drink it almost consumed tea contaminated to what is considered an unsafe level. Increasing and alarmingly high levels of radioactive material is being detected on the sea floor near the Fukushima plant. People in one village had three times the allowed annual exposure to radiation indicated in test of their urine. Close to half of the children in the Fukushima area appear to have thyroid exposure, though the levels seem moderate. And so on.

Fukushima had a lot of nuclear material in it and a lot of that material has escaped, and the rate of escape is only somewhat slowed down, and the prospect of additional catastrophic events such as the collapse of a structure or an explosion is still very real.

Which brings us to the instability problems. There is still a distinct possibility of a hydrogen explosion. Measures to reduce the likelihood of this have been put into effect in two of the reactors, but a third reactor that has a high (though unmeasured) chance of an explosion has proved more difficult to secure. The spent fuel pool in Reactor #3 is not only structurally questionable due to the earthquake, but the vessel and fuel rods also appear to be under severe threat of corrosion.

This particular story is interesting because it illustrates the uncertainty of what happens when disasters occur. The Fukushima plants are designed to keep gasses that get out of the reactor or cooling system in place so they do not contaminate nearby areas. But one of the gasses that can build up in the case of a meltdown or even a lesser problem with cooling is very explosive hydrogen. If the overarching structure was built to withstand a hydrogen explosion, this would concentrate the explosive forces and certainly do excessive damage to the machinery inside the plant, or worse. Therefore the structure is designed to blow up gracefully. That happened at Fukushima. In the case of Plant #3, however, there was a spent fuel storage tank in the facility, and much of the gracefully blowed-up overstructure fell slap-dab into it. The cement from this structure has dissolved in the hot water in the tank (extra hot because unexpected fission events occurred, i.e., a mini-melt down of sorts) and this has caused the liquid in the spent fuel rod tank to become extremely alkaline. And that alkaline water is eating through things, such as the fuel rods and the containment vessel itself. Storing your spent fuel rods in Draino is generally not recommended, and as far a we can tell, this was entirely unforeseen, as have been most of the events at Fukushima over the last few weeks.

The political fallout, while not exactly radioactive, remains toxic. One local mayor was apparently strong-armed into allowing the restart of two nuclear power plants, though he backed off this position later. Heads are still rolling here and there. We also have an email scandal, of course. It turns out that journalists were systematically fed misinformation about what was happening here in a coordinated effort by governmental and private entities. You saw some of that happen on this blog, in the way of “Not-concerned troll” spamming.

And now, a record size record of information about the situation at Fukushima …

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