The latest BBC News story on the Fukushima I site buries the following in the tenth paragraph:
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said they were closely watching the remaining two reactors at the plant, five and six, as they had begun overheating slightly.
Until yesterday morning, it had not been reported in the western press that Fukushima’s reactor #2 was having problems. Reactors #1 and #3 were reported yesterday by the BBC to be “somewhat stabilised,” whatever that means, but #2 was still reported to be out of control. And the claim that #1 and #3 were stable was made before it was reported last night by the New York Times that “all” workers were being withdrawn from the site. “All.” How is it, then, that #1 and #3 are going to stay stable?
The repeated messages of “don’t worry about it” from the Japanese government and Tepco, the company that operates the plant, are sounding tinnier and tinnier with every meltdown.
Regardless, plants #5 and #6 “overheating slightly” really doesn’t mean anything yet. It may never. Wouldn’t that be nice?
With all sarcasm aside, the “real” bad news at Fukushima is coming fast and furious, so none of us need to overreact to the overheating of reactors #5 and #6.
First, the fire at the fourth reactor. This is the one that hasn’t blown up yet. At about 2 a.m. GMT, that fire’s been put out, says the Wall Street Journal at about 4 a.m. Eastern time.Guess what? It’s not being confirmed WTF caused it. The fire was not actually at the #4 reactor but at spent fuel pool at the #4 reactor. This is the storage area for the fuel rods that have completed their operational life but are still “hot” — both literally hot, and radioactive.
At most civilian reactors, the spent fuel rods are stashed onsite to be collected for disposal. Since they are still experiencing significant decay heat, they are hot enough to catch fire if coolant (water) isn’t kept circulating over them. It’s already been established that hot fuel rods with zircaloy (zirconium alloy) cladding give off hydrogen. So the IAEA’s claim reported in the Journal that:
…The Japanese authorities are saying that there is a possibility that the fire was caused by a hydrogen explosion…
Sounds about as ludicrous as the rest of the crap the Japanese authorities confirm the “possibility” of about every five minutes, just before we find out it’s already happened — especially since The Guardian reported that the #2 explosion (the most recent one):
…was followed by a fire that broke out at the No 4 reactor unit, which appeared to be the cause of today’s radiation leaks. That reactor was shut down for maintenance before the earthquake, but its spent fuel rods are stored in a pool at the site. The fire was later extinguished but Kyodo reported that the pool was subsequently boiling, with the water level falling. If the water boils off there is a risk that the fuel could catch fire, sending a plume of radiation directly into the atmosphere.
The fire at the spent fuel pool, by the way, already caused significant radiation release, by the way, which one source was saying the Japanese government claimed was “seven times” what could cause cancer. That makes no real medical sense from what I know, or at least it’s stunningly unspecific. Thankfully, the BBC story has a helpful sidebar as to just how much cancer it can cause.
Shouldn’t acute radiation sickness be the newswriter’s more measurable benchmark, especially since it will directly hamper the disaster control work well before cancer becomes a definable issue? Or is it just that “cancer” is a buzzword to the punters?
Regardless, here’s an observation: It makes sense that the most significant radiation release so far would be from the spent fuel pool fire and not the explosions in #1, #2, and #3, because there are likely a lot more spent fuel rods stored than there would live fuel rods in a single functioning core. (Or, for that matter, one that’s melting down). Previously, radiation levels have been reported to be falling, then rising, then falling, then rising again; they’ve been reported as 1,000 “times normal,” which means almost nothing in practical terms, and “20 times normal,” and now “7 times what can cause cancer.”
Oh, also. You know those sailors who putter around the globe with pounds of plutonium strapped to their asses and say things like “Boo-yah!”? They’re bugging out. U.S. warships off the coast have been withdrawn because of radiation, says The Telegraph:
U.S. warships and planes helping with relief efforts moved away from the coast temporarily because of low-level radiation. The U.S. Seventh Fleet described the move as precautionary.
France is classifying the event as 5 or 6 on the international nuclear event scale (Three Mile Island was a 5, Chernobyl a 7). The Telegraph again:
France’s ASN nuclear safety authority said the accident could be classified as a level 5 or 6 on the international scale of 1 to 7, putting it on a par with the 1979 U.S. Three Mile Island meltdown, higher than the Japanese authorities’ rating.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency has rated the incidents in the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors as a 4, but has not yet rated the No. 2 reactor.
Last I’d heard, the Japanese nuclear safety agency had rated the whole thing a 4. That was before the third explosion, the one at #2. It was when that agency knew #2 was having problems, but it had not been reported. Furthermore, the above paragraph from the Telegraph gives the impression that the events at #1 and #3 are “over” and can reasonably be rated — when, in fact, at least from what I’m reading, their cores may be in the actual process of complete meltdown.
By the way, there appear to be ongoing disaster control efforts, even though the New York Times reported last night that “all” workers had left the plant? Here it is again, in case you missed it:
Industry executives said that in fact the situation had spiraled out of control and that all plant workers needed to leave the plant to avoid excessive exposure to radioactive leaks.
The Japanese nuclear events are a real tragedy. I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. It is available free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.
I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just a choice of compromises. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.
Prayer be with the families in Japan
James — Thanks for the link to the book. I totally agree with you about energy. There is no perfect energy solution. It’s all a matter of compromise with our lifestyles, and the risks are with the operation of large equipment in order to support a complex infrastructure. Eco-primitivists may advocate giving that up, but if we did, more people would die of cholera, hypothermia, from lack of clean running water…
Reducing consumption is a significant part of the equation, but in both that part of it and the energy generating part of it, we need rational approaches based on science.
Thanks for the comment!
Rachel — Absolutely — they are dealing with a lot throughout that wonderful country. My heart goes out to those suffering and also to the rescue workers.
Why in the world have they NOT removed the fuel from reactors 5 and 6 yet? What in God’s name are they waiting for? Get rid of what you can while you can. I think TEPCO is outclassed and insufficient to handle the task, any one company would be. I look at reactors 1 through 4 as “gone”. Get rid of the fuel in 5 and 6 so THEY don’t end up like the others. Simple logic really, this item was/is the source radiation, death in general and meltdown. Reactors with no fuel in the core and none in the spent fuel pool DO NOT MELT DOWN. I suppose they are keeping those reactors fully loaded in the event TEPCO finds itself short on radioactive contaminants to continue severely damaging the area with.