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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Conflicting Reports on Japan's Nuclear Crisis

(A picture of damage at the Fukushima reactors number 3 and 4 released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Picture: AFP Source: AFP )

There are conflicting reports about the crisis playing itself out in Japan with their nuclear reactors with some reports bearing good news that a new power line is almost complete which would allow them to start cooling their nuclear reactors again and other reports indicating it may be too little, too late.

Quick background for those unaware: After a 8.9 magnitude earthquake and then a massive Tsunami, some of Japan's nuclear reactors were endangered when a power loss and subsequent damage of their backup systems prevented them from being able to properly cool their reactors and their spent rods which have to stay engulfed in water so they do not overheat, blow and emit massive radiation.

Japan has evacuated hundreds of thousands of people in a 12 mile radius around the stricken plant with U.S. officials recommended U.S. citizens in Japan evacuated up to a 50 mile radius.

The conflicting news surrounds just how bad the radiation levels are, how exposed nuclear fuel rods are and the potential fallout from what has already occurred as well as what will happen in the next couple of days.

I will show portions of the articles below but perhaps one of the most indicative reports of exactly how desperate the situation is becoming is from MSNBC, where we see that japan has resorted to using helicopters to drop water on the damaged reactors in an attempt to cool them.

Japanese military helicopters dumped loads of seawater onto a stricken nuclear complex Thursday, trying to cool dangerously overheated uranium fuel rods that may be on the verge of spewing more radiation into the atmosphere.

The extraordinary, combat-style tactics came as plant operators said they were racing to finish a new power line that could restore cooling systems and ease the crisis. Still, U.S. officials warned all Americans living within 50 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to leave the area or at least remain indoors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Chairman Gregory Jaczko told the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee "There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures."


If the American analysis is accurate and emergency crews at the plant have been unable to keep the spent fuel at that inoperative reactor properly cooled — it needs to remain covered with water at all times — radiation levels could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor No. 4, but to keep servicing any of the other problem reactors at the plant. In the worst case, experts say, workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to meltdown, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.

While radiation levels at the plant have varied tremendously, Mr. Jaczko said that the peak levels reported there “would be lethal within a fairly short period of time.” He added that another spent fuel pool, at Reactor No. 3, might also be losing water and could soon be in the same condition.

"Agonizing choice"

Mr. Jaczko’s testimony, the most extended comments by a senior American official on Japan’s nuclear disaster, described what amounts to an agonizing choice for Japanese authorities: keep sending workers into an increasingly contaminated area in a last-ditch effort to cover nuclear fuel with water, or do more to protect the workers but risk letting the pools boil away — and thus risk a broader meltdown.

ABC News:

U.S. officials are alarmed at how the Japanese are handling the escalating nuclear reactor crisis and fear that if they do not get control of the plants within the next 24 to 48 hours they could have a situation that will be "deadly for decades."

"It would be hard to describe how alarming this is right now," one U.S. official told ABC News.

President Obama has been briefed by nuclear experts.

The Japanese have evacuated most of the reactor personnel from the Fukushima nuclear complex and are rotating teams of 50 workers through the facility in an attempt to cool it down.

"We are all-out urging the Japanese to get more people back in there to do emergency operation there, that the next 24 to 48 hours are critical," the official said. "Urgent efforts are needed on the part of the Japanese to restore emergency operations to cool" down the reactors' rods before they trigger a meltdown.

"They need to stop pulling out people—and step up with getting them back in the reactor to cool it. There is a recognition this is a suicide mission," the official said.

That article and accompanying video states that there are 50 workers left there in a desperate attempt to control the damage.

(Note- I am not putting the video here because it automatically plays without manually starting it, one reason I rarely link to ABC News articles that contain video)

More desperate measures reported by NYT:

Amid widening alarm in the United States and elsewhere about Japan’s nuclear crisis, military fire trucks began spraying cooling water on spent fuel rods at the country’s stricken nuclear power station late Thursday after earlier efforts to cool the rods failed, Japanese officials said.


Mr. Nishiyama also said that radiation of about 250 millisievert an hour had been detected 100 feet above the plant. In the United States the limit for police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers engaged in life-saving activity as a once-in-a-lifetime exposure is equal to being exposed to 250 millisieverts for a full hour.

The radiation figures provided by the Japanese Self-Defense Force may provide an indication of why a helicopter turned back on Wednesday from an attempt to dump cold water on a storage pool at the plant.

Earlier Thursday the military forces dumped seawater from a helicopter on Reactor No. 3, making four passes and dropping a total of about 8,000 gallons over it as a plume of white smoke billowed. The Japanese government said that the reactor typically needs 50 tons of water, or about 12,000 gallons, a day to keep from overheating.

The Self-Defense Forces later said the measure had little effect on reducing the temperature in the pool where the spent rods are stored.

It is almost universally agreed that no one can predict the fallout from the nuclear crisis in Japan, especially since the situation is still not under control and they may not be able to get it under control even if the power line is completed and starts cooling the reactors again.

From the initial fallout the UN is already forecasting the possible path of the radioactive plume, saying it should hit the Aleutian Islands on Thursday before hitting Southern California late Friday, but officials are stating the plume will be diluted and will pose only minor concerns to citizens in the U.S.

Health and nuclear experts emphasize that radiation in the plume will be diluted as it travels and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States, even if hints of it are ultimately detectable. In a similar way, radiation from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 spread around the globe and reached the West Coast of the United States in 10 days, its levels measurable but minuscule.

The bottom line is, despite all the articles and stories in the news about what is or is not happening in Japan, the conflicting stories, the pictures and the videos... no one knows what the ultimate outcome will be nor the final damage and it is extremely likely no one will for weeks to come if not months.

In the meantime, keep the people of Japan in your thoughts because their nightmare is just beginning.