Update on the Japanese Nuclear Crisis: Not a Pretty Picture

Experts have long said that Tepco’s projections for containing the nuclear crisis this year were unrealistic. Now, even Tepco is admitting that things won’t be stabilized this year. As Kyodo News reports:

Stabilizing the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant by the end of the year may be impossible, senior officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Sunday, throwing a monkey wrench into plans to let evacuees return to their homes near the plant.

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On May 12, it was confirmed that a meltdown had occurred at the No. 1 reactor, forcing the utility to abandon the water entombment idea and try to install a new cooling system that decontaminates and recycles the radioactive water flooding the reactor’s turbine building instead.

Given that the contaminated water has leaked from the No. 1 reactor’s containment vessel, a Tepco official said, “We must first determine where it is leaking and seal it.”

The official added, “Unless we understand the extent of the damage, we don’t even know how long that work alone would take,” noting the need for one or two months more than previously thought to establish an entirely new cooling system.

In other words, Tepco has no idea how long it will take to contain the leaking reactors.

As has been obvious from the start, Tepco has also covered up vital information. Now, even the Japanese government is lambasting Tepco for its secrecy. As Kyodo News notes:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. did not fully disclose radiation monitoring data after its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the government revealed Friday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, after being informed by Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, told reporters that he instructed Tepco to sort out the data, make it public and make doubly sure no more information-withholding occurs.

Coming a day after he blasted Tepco’s flip-flop over the injection of seawater into the plant’s reactor 1, Edano said the government “cannot respond to this matter on the premise” that no more undisclosed information will emerge.

“There is a distinct possibility that there is still more,” he said, urging Tepco to accurately and swiftly report the truth to the government.

Hosono also noted Tepco’s delay in revealing this fact, 2? months after the nuclear crisis started.

The government will look into how this happened, the two officials said.

You’ve already heard that 3 of the Fukushima reactors melted down within hours of the earthquake.

Yomiuri Daily reports today that not only the pressure vessels (the innermost barrier) but also the containment vessels (the outer barrier) of reactors 1 and 3 were also damaged within hours of the quake:

Not only the pressure vessels, but the containment vessels of the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were probably damaged within 24 hours of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s analysis of the nuclear crisis.

As I previously noted, the IAEA knew within weeks that there had been meltdowns at Fukushima. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission knew as well. As Kyodo News reports (scroll down to second story):

A senior nuclear regulatory official in the United States said Thursday he believed there was a “strong likelihood” of serious core damage and core melt at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in the days immediately after the crisis began.

“There were numerous indications of high radiation levels that can only come from damaged fuel at those kinds of levels,” said Bill Borchardt, executive director for operations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “So we felt pretty confident that there was significant fuel damage at the site a few days into the event.”

The NRC also had “suspicions” about the conditions of the spent fuel pools, Borchardt said after a speech at the Japan Society in New York.

Based on that assumption, he said, the NRC recommended that U.S. residents in Japan stay 80 km away from the crippled power plant, which was far beyond the Japanese government’s recommendation for residents within a 20-km radius to evacuate.

While most of the problems have been at reactors 1, 2 and 3 (which were all operating when the earthquake hit) and reactor 4 (where spent fuel rods have been leaking), there have also been problems at reactor number 5 as well. Specifically, as NHK writes:

The operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant says temperatures in the Number 5 reactor and its spent fuel storage pool have risen due to pump failure. The reactor has been in a state of cold shutdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Company says it found at 9 PM on Saturday that a pump bringing seawater to cooling equipment for the reactor and pool had stopped working.

TEPCO says temperatures have been rising since then.

To make matters worse, Typhoon Songda has brought heavy rains to Fukushima. As Al Jazeera notes:

The typhoon has already brought heavy rain to the Fukushima region and there is still more to come. This has prompted worries that runoff water may wash away radioactive materials from the land into the Pacific Ocean.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been pouring synthetic resins over the complex in an attempt to stabilise the plant. More work needs to be done, not just now but also to ensure that future typhoons would not spread radioactive materials into the environment.

As Raw Story reported:

Officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are apologizing in advance for the fact that the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant is not ready for the high winds and heavy rain of Typhoon Songda, a massive storm that could make landfall in Japan as early as Monday.

The BBC quotes a TEPCO official as saying, “We have made utmost efforts, but we have not completed covering the damaged reactor buildings. We apologize for the lack of significant measures against wind and rain.”

Buildings housing the plant’s nuclear reactors are still standing open in the wake of crippling hydrogen explosions that followed Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The approaching storm could scatter highly radioactive materials into the air and sea. Plant operators are currently spreading “anti-scattering agents” around the buildings housing reactors one and four.

As I’ve predicted for a long time, the Fukushima disaster could end up being much worse than Chernobyl. See this, this, this and this.

Mainichi (and Japan Times) report:

Radiation released by the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has caused soil contamination matching the levels seen in the Chernobyl disaster in some areas, a researcher told the government’s nuclear policy-setting body Tuesday.

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The size of the contaminated areas in the Fukushima crisis is one-tenth to one-fifth of those polluted in the Chernobyl disaster, Kawata said.

It’s not just the soil, it’s also the seafloor. NHK notes that radiation has been found in the entire 300 kilometer (186 mile) region of the coast tested near Fukushima.

And Harvey Wasserman notes that there may have been 10 times more radiation released into the ocean than by Chernobyl:

New readings show levels of radioisotopes found up to 30 kilometers offshore from the on-going crisis at Fukushima are ten times higher than those measured in the Baltic and Black Seas during Chernobyl.

“When it comes to the oceans, says Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceonographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “the impact of Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl.”

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For all the focus on land-based contamination, the continuing flood of radioactive materials into the ocean at Fukushima could have the most problematic long-term impacts. Long-term studies of radiological impacts on the seas are few and far between. Though some heavy isotopes may drop to the sea bottom, others could travel long distances through their lengthy half-lives. Some also worry that those contaminants that do fall to the bottom could be washed back on land by future tsunamis.

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“After Chernobyl, fallout was measured,” says Buesseler, “from as far afield as the north Pacific Ocean.”

A quarter-century later the international community is still trying to install a massive, hugely expensive containment structure to suppress further radiation releases in the wake of Chernobyl’s explosion.

Such a containment would be extremely difficult to sustain at seaside Fukushima, which is still vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. To be of any real use, all six reactors and all seven spent fuel pools would have to be covered.

But avenues to the sea would also have to be contained. Fukushima is much closer to the ocean than Chernobyl, so more intense contamination might be expected. But the high radiation levels being measured indicate Fukushima’s most important impacts may be on marine life.

The US has ceased measuring contamination in Pacific seafood. But for centuries to come, at least some radioactive materials dumped into the sea at Fukushima will find their way into the creatures of the sea and the humans that depend on them.

To add insult to injury, Zero Hedge notes that oil is also spilling into the ocean near Fukushima:

Just because mega-radioactive water leakage was not enough. From Xinhua: “Operator of the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant found that oil has been leaking into the sea close to the facility, the Kyodo News reported Tuesday. The operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said the oil leaks were possibly from nearby oil tanks that may have been damaged in the March earthquake and tsunami, and it would set up oil fences to prevent the liquid from pouring into the Pacific Ocean.” Oh, but they only discovered this now? Odd how it took nearly 3 months for those oil tanks to rupture and start spilling into the water.

Update: While an explosion occurred near reactor 4 today, that appears to be the least of the problems at the Fukushima nuclear complex.

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