While there is no shortage of heartbreak and disaster to focus on in the wake of Japan’s (now upgraded) 9.1 magnitude earthquake, yesterday morning my thoughts concentrated on what was then a quiet story in the background… the problem with then one of Japan’s many nuclear power facilities that supply about 30% of their needs.
By yesterday eve, the story started gaining traction as rising radiation levels were detected at the adjacent Fukushima #2 facilities. Because the cooling back up generator systems had failed, the pressure was building in the core and plans were made to open valves, releasing some of that pressure. Apparently, the plant’s officials decided to use seawater as a coolant, which would indicate they had written off the 40 yr old plant’s functional future, as it would corrode the metal innards.
Despite efforts, in the US’s west coast mid-night hours, the Fukushima #1 facility exploded, blowing the roof off one building and destroying exterior walls where the troubled reactor was housed.
Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear station after an explosion. KYODO PHOTO
While some media (such as the NYTs above) quoted officials that said with the explosion came an abatement of some of the radiation levels, it also led to others, expressing increasing concern about an imminent “meltdown”.
First, to put some perspective on the extreme event of a meltdown, we non-nuclear engineers need a better handle on how these facilities are constructed and what fail safe measures are in place by design. The BBC article today provides a basic working visual for we non-nuclear engineers, plus a diagram of a boiling water reactor system. It explains how the pressure could build as a result of a failed cooling system, and also explains that if the actual metal containment vessel that actually houses the cores were intact, that radiation should be contained.
And the big fear within the anti-nuclear movement, as used in the film The China Syndrome, is that the multiple containment of a molten core might not work either, allowing highly radioactive and toxic metals to burrow into the ground, with serious and long-lasting environmental impacts – total meltdown.
However, the counter-argument from nuclear proponents is that the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island did not cause any serious effects.
Yes, the core melted, but the containment systems held.
And at Chernobyl – a reactor design regarded in the West as inherently unsafe, and which would not have been sanctioned in any non-Soviet bloc nation – the environmental impacts occurred through explosive release of material into the air, not from a melting reactor core.
According to Chief cabinet secretary Chief Yukio Edano, the reactor’s containment vessel was not damaged by the explosion and remains intact.
But the world is getting some mixed messages INRE the reactor status. The facility’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), insists that ther reactor is in “subcritical” mode, while Ryohei Shiomi, an official at Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, is quoted as having said a meltdown was possible. The latter possibility is heightened when Japanese authorities steadily widen the evacuation area, and prepare to distribute iodine as a protection against radiation exposure. As of today, some media have been reporting the same news, but with a more hysterical tabloid headline, “3000 flee Japan’s nuclear RED ALERT”.
Granted the last thing Japanese officials need is to pile on mass panic over the reactors. I would say that headlines like UK’s tabloid, “The Sun”, uses above doesn’t help… but then, I doubt the Japanese are busy reading The Sun these days. Japan is a nation already stressed to maximum in resources, grief, and facing possibly decades of rebuilding. There are cities and agricultural areas that were virtually wiped clean by the tsunami. And now with a large portion of their power in the state of emergency, the rescue and recovery effort is nothing short of a precipitous climb.
The BBC is more concerned it’s a TEPCO “cover up”, noting that thus far, “…the whole incident so far contains more questions than answers.” Even the NYTs above noted what they find to be inconsistencies, and suggest that TEPCO’s facilities are fraught with a past filled with safety violations.
Yes, folks… while the body count still rises, search and rescue commences for the thousands missing, all amidst high magnitude aftershocks, politics and energy agenda has begun to enter the picture. And they are going to use TEPCO’s plant as their poster child.
I suggest that this story is not dissimilar to the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf. It’s dangerous to allow catastrophic events to dictate energy policy and direction. US oil and shale reserves are plentiful, and provide inexpensive energy for consumers. Nuclear power is clean, also affordable, and if Japan can demonstrate containment and success – even in such an earthquake volatile region of the world – then abandoning this type of energy using fear tactics is simply despicable.
For me? I’m following this story not because of the politics I knew would be interjected along the line, but because it is one more heinous event on top of what they are already having to deal with. Like the Deepwater Horizon, I’m going to leave aside the smearing of companies, and cheer on successful containment, solutions and possibly new design ideas for future safeguards. Japan doesn’t need to lose any more if it’s citizens to radiation exposure.
UPDATE 3-15-11 10:28AM: From Reuters live blog updates:
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a news conference that there was a “possibility of core damage” at unit 2. “The damage is estimated to be less than 5 pct.”
UPDATE 3-15-11 8:13am PAC Time: A Japan Times 3-15-11 article, is putting out some radiation levels.
But fears were heightened Tuesday over whether a containment vessel might be compromised, after the suppression chamber of the No. 2 reactor’s containment vessel failed.
A small explosion took place at the No. 2 reactor, causing partial damage to the chamber. Attached below the vessel, the suppression chamber’s function is to cool the steam flowing from the vessel and thus relieve its internal pressure.
At 10:22 a.m., a radioactivity monitoring post near the No. 3 reactor showed 400 millisieverts per hour, 400 times the amount an ordinary person is exposed to in a year.
The figure was 100 millisieverts per hour near the No. 4 reactor and 30 millisieverts per hour between the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors.
The radiation leak prompted the government to order residents between a radius of 20 km to 30 km to stay indoors to prevent exposure. People living within a 20 km radius have already been ordered to evacuate.
“There is no doubt it is an amount that would have (a harmful) effect on the human body,” Edano said. “But that is the amount right near the leak. The farther away, it drops.”
Radiation exposure of 7,000 to 10,000 millisieverts per hour is considered a lethal dose, said an official at the Institute of Applied Energy. A millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts.
UPDATE 3-15-11 8:05A PAC Time: Below is the status of the four reactors as TEPCO’s Fukushimi Daiichi site as of 9PM 3-14-11, Pacific Time.
UPDATE 3-14-11 9:21pm PAC Time: Reuters live blog updates say that radiation levels in Saitama near Tokyo are reported to be 40 times normal levels: (Kyodo quoting local government)
UPDATE 3-14/11 7:54PM PAC Time: While I’ve been absent from FA for the past day and a half, taking care of what I would hesitate to call domestic house “emergencies”, the FA community as thrown in interesting tangents and data in my absence. Thank you all.
As of this moment, CNN is reporting of the newest two explosions. Three of the six TEPCO reactors are experiencing different levels of failure, and the Japanese authorities have widened the area to include anyone within 30 kilometers of the power plants should remain inside, as the levels between all the released emissions in the air have reached a level they describe as being enough to “affect human health”. Hard to determine what that means, but it’s obvious that between the damage, and the difficulty of keeping the cores cooled, and maintaining the existing flooding of seawater and release of pressure in each of the reactors.
At this moment, Units 1-3 have different degrees of failures, and all three have experienced explosions. Units 1 and 3 have been overheating. Unit 2 is the latest entry to the mix, and it is uncertain at this update if Unit 2′s latest explosion has damaged the containment vessel. Heretofore, all officials have been adamant that neither Unit 1 or Unit 3′s containment vessel was compromised.
At this moment, I’ve been having a problem accessing TEPCO’s press release site. It is, no doubt, overloaded, and becomes a hit and miss as to when you can get in.
According to a late posting Reuters article, Japan is asking the US for additional equipment to help keep the core cooling process stable.
UPDATE: 3-12-11 9:45PM PAC time: MSNBC reports the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says the cooling process for one of the crippled reactors is going well. It should take about 10 days to totally fill the reactors containement vessel with seawater. In the interim, the 2nd reactor with a cooling problem seems to be following the same procedures as the first… release of pressure, then injection of seawater and boric acid.
The Japanese authorities have classified the event at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 as a level 4 “accident with local consequences” on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). The scale is used to consistently communicate the safety significance of events associated with sources of radiation. The scale runs from 0 (deviation — no safety significance) to 7 (major accident).
The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was a level 5 (“accident with wider consequences”). The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a level 7 (“major accident).
UPDATE: 3-12-11 9:35PM: Ah yes… Never let it be said a Democrat Congress member with an agenda to pursue allows even someone else’s crisis to go to waste. Already MA Rep Edward Markey, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, warns that the US is vunerable to the same “…nuclear accident that has sent waves of fear through northeast Japan.” Waves of terror? Over the reactor? The Japanese, quite used to earthquakes, are more wary of the tsunamis. I see no “waves of terror” INRE the power plants, save in the Congressman’s mind.
UPDATE: 3-12-11 9:28PM PAC Time: TEPCO, owner of the crippled reactors in the news, has their own press release site. Per their news, all six units of their Daiichi Nuclear Power Stations have been shut down. Three are due to regular inspections.
UPDATE: 3-12-11 3:23pm PAC Time: Personal comment… Wolf Blitzer is an ass! The Japanese Ambassador is *not* an enemy of his people, or a war criminal. Blitzer, in his quest for some breaking catastrophic news, demonstrates he knows nothing about Japanese culture, their approach to crisis, and emphasizes he’s simply a news whore.
UPDATE: 3-12-11 3:04PM PAC Time: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is blazing headlines that a “possible meltdown is in progress”, and trying to get the Japanese Ambassador to “admit” that it’s happening. Ambassador reiterates that the container vessel is, indeed still in place…. Mata Musing: do your best, guys. Get it under control, and forget the pundits trying for disaster headlines!
UPDATE: 3-12-11: Three tested positively for radiation exposure. Levels not mentioned. From CNN live blog news:
[1:20 p.m. ET, 3:20 a.m. Tokyo] Authorities have begun radiation exposure testing around Fukushima prefecture where three people – randomly selected out of a group of 90 – have tested positive for radiation poisoning, according to Japan’s government broadcaster, NHK.
UPDATE: 3-12-11 11:38AM: A CNN report ID’s the 2nd plant with cooling trouble as Fukushima Daini , located in a different town in the same prefecture.
Most of the concern initially had centered around the first Daiichi plant, which Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters on Friday “remains at a high temperature” because it “cannot cool down.”
That plant and three others were shut down after the quake hit around 2:46 p.m. Friday local time, prompting authorities in Tokyo to declare a state of atomic power emergency.
Three of the Daiichi reactor’s six units shut down because of the earthquake, while operations at the other three were out due to “regular inspection,” the Tokyo Electric Power Co. said in a news release Saturday.
The trouble the Daiichi plant happened after its once operating reactors had been successfully shut down, Edano said.
UPDATE 3-12-11, 11:29A PAC time: The French Nuclear Safety Authority says current winds make it likely any radioactive fall out would drift out over the Pacific.
“Apparently the situation is serious,” Mr Lacoste said, adding that his team was receiving incomplete information from Japan because of the number of people tied up with managing the crisis.
Again, as on the last thread, I so appreciate all news updates you all add. This is a fast moving story that requires the latest updates that you will run across. And it’s much easier to have the sequence of events in one or two posts, as opposed to several outdated posts over time. Besides, I can’t do it all without you!