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PORTSIDE  March 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE March 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Meltdowns Grow More Likely at the Fukushima Reactors

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Sun, 13 Mar 2011 22:49:20 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (131 lines)

Meltdowns Grow More Likely at the Fukushima Reactors
by Robert Alvarez
Institute of Policy Studies Blog
March 13, 2011
http://www.ips-dc.org/blog

Japan's government and nuclear industry, with assistance
from the U.S. military, is in a desperate race to stave
off multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns - as well as
potential fires in pools of spent fuel.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 170,000 people have
been evacuated near the reactor sites as radioactive
releases have increased. The number of military
emergency responders has jumped from 51,000 to 100,000.
Officials now report a partial meltdown at Fukushima's
Unit 1. Japanese media outlets are reporting that there
may be a second one underway at Unit 3. People living
nearby have been exposed to unknown levels of radiation,
with some requiring medical attention.

Meanwhile, Unit 2 of the Tokai nuclear complex, which is
near Kyodo and just 75 miles north of Tokyo, is reported
to have a coolant pump failure. And Japan's nuclear
safety agency has declared a state of emergency at the
Onagawa nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan
because of high radiation levels. Authorities are saying
its three reactors are "under control."

The damage from the massive earthquake and the tsunamis
that followed have profoundly damaged the reactor sites'
infrastructure, leaving them without power and their
electrical and piping systems destroyed. A hydrogen
explosion yesterday at Unit 1 severely damaged the
reactor building, blowing apart its roof.

The results of desperate efforts to divert seawater into
the Unit 1 reactor are uncertain. A Japanese official
reported that gauges don't appear to show the water
level rising in the reactor vessel.

There remain a number of major uncertainties about the
situation's stability and many questions about what
might happen next. Along with the struggle to cool the
reactors is the potential danger from an inability to
cool Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel pools. They contain
very large concentrations of radioactivity, can catch
fire, and are in much more vulnerable buildings. The
ponds, typically rectangular basins about 40 feet deep,
are made of reinforced concrete walls four to five feet
thick lined with stainless steel.

The boiling-water reactors at Fukushima - 40 years old
and designed by General Electric - have spent fuel pools
several stories above ground adjacent to the top of the
reactor. The hydrogen explosion may have blown off the
roof covering the pool, as it's not under containment.
The pool requires water circulation to remove decay
heat. If this doesn't happen, the water will evaporate
and possibly boil off. If a pool wall or support is
compromised, then drainage is a concern. Once the water
drops to around 5-6 feet above the assemblies, dose
rates could be life-threatening near the reactor
building. If significant drainage occurs, after several
hours the zirconium cladding around the irradiated
uranium could ignite.

Then all bets are off.

On average, spent fuel ponds hold five-to-ten times more
long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core.
Particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium-137
in fuel ponds, which contain anywhere from 20 to 50
million curies of this dangerous radioactive isotope.
With a half-life of 30 years, cesium-137 gives off
highly penetrating radiation and is absorbed in the food
chain as if it were potassium.

In comparison, the 1986 Chernobyl accident released
about 40 percent of the reactor core's 6 million curies.
A 1997 report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC) by Brookhaven National Laboratory also found that
a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles
uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer
fatalities, and cost $59 billion in damage. A single
spent fuel pond holds more cesium-137 than was deposited
by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern
Hemisphere combined. Earthquakes and acts of malice are
considered to be the primary events that can cause a
major loss of pool water.

In 2003, my colleagues and I published a study that
indicated if a spent fuel pool were drained in the
United States, a major release of cesium-137 from a pool
fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than
created by the Chernobyl accident. We recommended that
spent fuel older than five years, about 75 percent of
what's in U.S. spent fuel pools, be placed in dry
hardened casks - something Germany did 25 years ago. The
NRC challenged our recommendation, which prompted
Congress to request a review of this controversy by the
National Academy of Sciences. In 2004, the Academy
reported that a "partially or completely drained a spent
fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding
fire and release large quantities of radioactive
materials to the environment."

Given what's happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
complex, it's time for a serious review of what our
nuclear safety authorities consider to be improbable,
especially when it comes to reactors operating in
earthquake zones.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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