by Christine Frank
The record 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent 32.5 foot tsunami that swept over the northeast coast of Honshu Island, Japan, on March 11 have triggered the worst nuclear reactor crisis since the disastrous meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The quake is considered the most powerful Japan has experienced in recorded history. It has been followed by numerous aftershocks, 96 on March 13 alone, with more expected to shake the beleaguered island.
The whole world is watching as a reduced crew of engineers and technicians struggles to gain control of the situation by venting radioactive steam and pumping in seawater to cool down the reactors in “feed and bleed” operations, while desperately trying to raise rapidly falling water levels in the fuel-rod storage pools at the Fukushima nuclear power station. It is clear they are not in control of the situation despite claims by Japanese industry, government, and regulatory agency representatives.
Seventy thousand local residents have been evacuated, and an additional 140,000 people in the outlying area have been ordered by the Japanese government to remain indoors. Potassium iodide tablets are being distributed to prevent the thyroid cancer that results from exposure to radioactive Iodine-131. Japanese officials have declared only a 12 ½-mile evacuation zone despite the fact that radiation levels outside and above the deteriorating nuclear power station have reached intolerably high levels due to releases of radioactive steam. U.S. citizens in Japan are told to stay 50 miles away, even though levels in Tokyo, 172 miles away, are 20 times above normal.
Radiation levels have spiked to as high as 8217 microSieverts an hour (mSvh). Because of the intense radiation—800 times the recommended hourly exposure limit in Japan—750 employees have been removed from the facility. To enable efforts to stabilize the damaged power station, the government more than doubled the allowable exposure levels for nuclear workers, who are working in small crews of 50, and who will soon be overexposed, drop from radiation sickness, and have to be replaced. Five workers have already died, with 22 injured and two missing since the disaster struck.
It takes skilled workers to do the job, and even if people were drawn from other facilities, there might not be enough to sacrifice in order to save the situation. A crew of 50 or even 100 cannot possibly be adequate to sufficiently cool down the reactors and keep up the water levels in the rapidly heating and evaporating spent fuel rod pools.
Some outside nuclear engineers have observed that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns the complex, has basically thrown in the towel and given up trying to stabilize the badly crippled reactors since the crew can barely perform the minimum work required for corrective measures. This is occurring amidst lies and cover-ups by the company, officials from the Japanese government, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, none of which have been forthcoming with accurate information.
When the quake struck, 11 Japanese reactors automatically shut down. TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant has six boiling-water reactors, three of which were already shut down for routine maintenance prior to the quake. The other three were in full operation. The tsunami knocked out the regular and backup coolant systems along with the emergency diesel generator. Consequently, serious damage has been done to the reactor cores and spent fuel rod pools, which have experienced either hydrogen explosions or fires, releasing radioactive steam and smoke.
• Reactor No. 1: Its fuel rods are exposed with 70% damage, which means a partial meltdown. A hydrogen explosion tore off the roof.
• Reactor No. 2: A malfunctioning valve prevented workers from manually venting steam from the containment vessel to release pressure and allow fresh seawater to be injected into it. Consequently, there was an explosion, the third in four days. The fuel was exposed for many hours. This unit has likewise suffered 33% core damage with a partial meltdown. Its torus has been ruptured, and the primary containment vessel has been breached and is cracked. The hydrogen explosion damaged the suppression pool into which steam is vented to relieve pressure. Its roof is damaged.
• Reactor No. 3: Its housing experienced a hydrogen explosion and its primary stainless steel containment vessel is ruptured and leaking radioactive steam. A fire broke out because its fuel storage pool had overheated, releasing radioactive smoke and steam. Its spent fuel pool is losing water, and they have finally begun dropping seawater in by helicopter. This reactor has mixed reprocessed plutonium and uranium oxides for fuel (MOX), and is extremely worrisome because inhaling even the most minute particles of plutonium is lethal.
• Reactor No. 4: Its storage pool caught fire due to an explosion of a hydrogen gas bubble that arose from the chemical reactions set off by the fuel rods. Company officials had initially lied, saying the burning was from lubricating oil on machinery near the pool. The blast punctured two holes eight meters square in the wall of its outer building. The roof is also damaged. It is leaking radiation because its spent fuel pool has boiled away and the fissile material is completely exposed to the atmosphere. It will soon reach criticality if they cannot restore the water levels. Because of high radiation levels, the pool is now unapproachable, and water must be pumped in remotely. An attempt to spray water and boric acid using helicopters to slow the nuclear reaction and cool it down failed due to strong winds and high radiation levels. TEPCO is bulldozing a road to the building so trucks can approach and shoot water in via cannons. Because it’s too dangerous for the workers, it may take two or three days. This unit has 548 fresh fuel assemblies in its storage pool, moved there last November. The fresher the fuel, the more radioactive it is.
• Reactor Nos. 5 and 6, which were shut down for routine maintenance, are of less concern. However, their storage pool temperatures are above normal. Water supposedly is being pumped in to cool them down.
Needless to say, all six side-by-side reactors are in serious trouble and threaten the entire Northern Hemisphere with dangerous radioactive plumes and fallout if there is a meltdown and an explosion. Reactors 3 and 4 are both open to the air and leaking huge amounts of radiation directly into the atmosphere. With damaged roofs, the case is likewise for Reactors 2 and 4, with the fourth’s fuel rods completely exposed and undergoing fission. In Units 1, 2, and 3, the cooling water is boiling off the fuel rods and about to go critical as well.
The Mark One model reactor being used at the Daiichi complex was designed by General Electric, who promoted it for its relative cheapness. It has a long history of problems with its cooling system and its smaller containment, which is more susceptible to explosion and rupture from hydrogen gas buildup. It has a 90 percent probability of bursting in such situations. There are 23 of these potential fiascoes at 16 locations in the U.S. today.
Potential worst-case scenarios in Japan are as follows: If the uranium fuel rods in the reactor cores are not properly cooled, they will overheat and meltdown. At 1220 degrees Celsius (2220 F), the zirconium alloy cladding on the rods reacts with the cooling water and creates hydrogen gas, which must be vented. They have no other choice but to release it into the atmosphere. If it’s allowed to build up, the result is an explosion of which there have already been three that have damaged the reactor primary and secondary containments. At 2200 C, the uranium fuel pellets start to melt if the reactor is not cooled down with water. The fuel pellets can also burn through the bottom of the containment vessel in full meltdown—the infamous “China Syndrome”—and explosion will ensue, releasing radioactive fallout of dust and steam.
The spent fuel pools can be even more dangerous than the active fuel rods, which are contained in stainless steel housings 15 centimeters thick—for what that’s worth. The rods lie on racks under 30 feet of water. If the water level falls and exposes the fissile material to the atmosphere, the zirconium casings can catch fire. The high heat would loft the radiation in clouds that would be blown by the prevailing winds. The plumes would contain a deadly mix of radioactive elements. Among them is Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and can be inhaled or ingested with contaminated food.
Scientists have forecasted the path of the radioactive plume that is being belched forth by the Daiichi complex. It is headed toward the Aleutian Islands and will eventually sweep down over Southern California. Not only are the Japanese people at terrible risk right now, so are other populations that are in the path of the plume. The world has the right to know what kind of radiation levels are being produced by the plant, which appears to be in its death agony.
Using gamma-ray spectroscopy, scientists can tell which radioactive isotopes are present by reading their decay signatures. The amount measured will indicate the degree the fuel rods have been compromised. That way, humankind will at least know where it stands and what to expect. So far, no accurate radiation readings have been forthcoming from Japanese authorities, leaving their people in a terrible state of anxiety.
Even the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is downplaying the potential health impacts on Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast. They say the plum would dissipate over the Pacific as various wind currents waft it about. Yes, it will disperse some, but probably not as much as they claim. It took the Chernobyl plume 10 days to drift around the globe and reach the West Coast. Nonetheless, there were still measureable amounts of radionuclides detected. This time it won’t have to travel nearly as far or take as long.
Anti-nuclear researchers and campaigners such as Dr. Helen Caldicott maintain that there are no safe levels of radiation and that even the smallest amount in the form of an X-ray or CT scan can have mutagenic effects and harm human chromosomes. Instead of being told the truth straight out, we are being subjected to the same lies and secrecy that surrounded Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. We must demand the truth! No more lies!
Nuclear reactors are inherently dangerous because of the threat of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and extreme weather. To build nuclear power stations in the Pacific Ring of Fire, where plate tectonics are extremely active with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, is downright foolhardy, and millions of people are going to pay the price. A number of reactors in the United States lie near active earthquake fault lines. Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon plant, overlooking the ocean in Avila Beach, Calif., is close to two off-shore faults. And the Indian Point Energy Center stands near a fault line just 35 miles north of New York City.
The routine release of radioactive emissions is a constant threat to human health. Also, the radioactive wastes are continually piling up without end and pose a threat to future generations of humans and wildlife for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. The potential for human error is ever present as well. Uranium and plutonium are highly unstable elements, and it is the height of hubris and arrogance to think that we can control them. The uranium ore should be left in the ground, where Nature has safely sequestered it away.
This disastrous technology was imposed upon the Japanese people despite the horrors they experienced as a result of the atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two. They have not forgotten the memory of the thousands of deaths that occurred in the fire zone, the fatal radiation sickness that followed, or the birth defects and cancers that were suffered years later by the survivors. The dire situation in Japan clearly proves that there can be no such thing as “atoms for peace.” That whole concept is nothing but a cruel lie.
Nor can there be a “nuclear renaissance,” with a second generation of reactors in Europe, the United States, India, or China. There is no justification for it, not even climate change, since the entire nuclear cycle generates greenhouse gases from cradle to grave. We must put our foot down and say, “No more nukes!” and “Don’t nuke the climate!”
It is capitalist greed and the drive for profits that has thrust upon humanity this technological nightmare, from which we are all equally defenseless. Our only recourse is for working people to nationalize the energy industries in every country and decommission these monstrosities while installing safe, clean, renewable energy technologies that harness the power of the sun and Earth’s geologic forces.