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Japan’s effort to cool nuke fuel has itself led to massive releases of radioactivity

By Joe Romm  

"Japan’s effort to cool nuke fuel has itself led to massive releases of radioactivity"

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Tokyo Electric to scrap Reactors 1 to 4, probably 5 and 6, too

a deluge of contaminated water, plutonium traces in the soil and an increasingly hazardous environment for workers at the plant have forced government officials to confront the reality that the emergency measures they have taken to keep nuclear fuel cool are producing increasingly dangerous side effects. And the prospect of restoring automatic cooling systems anytime soon is fading.

Hiroto Sakashita, a professor in nuclear reactor thermal hydraulics at Hokkaido University, said of the fuel rods, “Handling this situation is getting increasingly difficult.”

The NY Times explains how the very efforts to stop a full meltdown have themselves had serious consequences:

The setbacks have raised questions about how long, and at what cost, Japan can keep up what experts call its “feed and bleed” strategy of cooling the reactor’ fuel rods with emergency infusions of water from the ocean and now from freshwater sources.

That cooling strategy, while essential to prevent full meltdowns, has released harmful amounts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere and set off leaks of highly contaminated water, making it perilous for some of the hundreds of workers at the plant to further critical repair work.

Moreover, the discovery of radioactive elements that experts say could come only from the core of a reactor suggest that the government’s strategy may not be working and that partial fuel melting has not been completely halted.

Some of the well-meaning, but ineffective strategies, may have backfired entirely.

Compounding the matter, the government said Tuesday that the recent discovery of plutonium in the soil at the plant provided new evidence that at least one reactor was experiencing melting of its nuclear fuel, as happened in the early days of the crisis.

While the source of the plutonium found at the plant was unclear, all three kinds of nuclear fuel at the complex could leak plutonium.

Fresh signs of radiation leaks have raised questions about the sustainability of the government’s feed-and-bleed approach.

One major problem, said Murray E. Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University with 20 years of experience in examining nuclear containment structures, was that all the water the Japanese were spraying had soaked important machinery like generators and pumps, further hampering efforts to restore the reactors’ electricity supply. The use of helicopters in the first week to drop water on the rectors from above was especially ineffective in hitting the target and may have done more harm than good, he said.

“They dumped water all over the place,” he said. “They keep on generating more contamination. That’s the consequence of doing it. They got water on things that shouldn’t be wet.”

Hiroto Sakashita, an associate professor in nuclear reactor thermal hydraulics at Hokkaido University, said that though the fuel rods in the nuclear reactors had already lost over 99 percent of their heat, they were still giving off enough heat to evaporate an estimated 200 tons of water a day.

And the remaining heat, from isotopes with long half-lives, will take years to cool. “They will just have to keep on pouring and pouring,” Mr. Sakashita said, “but contaminated water will keep leaking out.”

Separately, the NYT reports today, “High Radiation Levels Found in Seawater Near Japanese Nuclear Plant”:

Seawater near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shows significantly higher levels of radioactive iodine than in recent days, Japan‘s nuclear safety agency reported Wednesday, and the operator of the plant publicly acknowledged for the first time that at least four of the six reactors at the multibillion-dollar complex would have to be scrapped….

Estimates of the costs of decommissioning a single reactor under normal circumstances run upward of $500 million, and the company faces the likelihood of enormous liability claims from a disaster that has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

“We have no choice but to scrap” the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 units at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of Tokyo Electric, said at a news conference.

He said the Nos. 5 and 6 units were still operational, but said any restart of those would depend on consultation with the government and local residents.

Yukio Edano, the chief government spokesman, appeared skeptical of reviving the Nos. 5 and 6 units, saying at the news conference that “the decision is pretty obvious.”

That’s Japanese for, “duh.”

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21 Responses to Japan’s effort to cool nuke fuel has itself led to massive releases of radioactivity

  1. paulm says:

    So these nukes were suppose to have been shutdown earlier. But for some reason they were extended.

    This seems to be the case for most nukes. Their life gets extended.

    Why is this?

    Why weren’t their life expectancies correctly used in the original design planning in the first place?

  2. Mark says:

    Freudian slip of the eye. I was sort of in a hurry and wanted to check another post. My eye just skimming past this post (which I had read earlier) I did a double take and had to back up. As I read the headline in my rush what registered was

    “Japans Effort to Nuke Itself”.

  3. Artful Dodger says:

    BREAKING: Fukushima nuclear plant to be entombed in concrete as Japan admits it has lost battle with crippled reactors

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1371793/Fukushima-nuclear-plant-entombed-concrete-Japan-admits-lost-battle-crippled-reactors.html#ixzz1I8ZoFfIS

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    paulm: My guess is the extended licenses are a simple reflection of the insanely high cost of new nuclear plants. It’s far cheaper to rent a politician who will let you renew your license than it is to build a new plant…

  5. David B. Benson says:

    I recommend not believing anything one read in The Daily Mail.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    #1 paulm – Why do reactors lives get extended? This is really simple (same reason old Coal Plants just keep being run instead of retiring – the depreciation on the investment is completely finished by that point (no more paying off the reactor), you just get to pay to run it and rake in the money from the electricity generated – the profit without the depreciation costs is much higher.

    The comment by the power company on how reactors 5 & 6 could still be used, is probably innocent (just noting those are still okay), but in light of things boggles the mind…yeah lets start those other two back up right on the shore of the ocean in a major fault zone again…yeah, good idea.

  7. paulm says:

    @4 Lou, but was the intention all along to extend the life of these plants? And the risk assessment indicated otherwise at the time?

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Radiation Traces Found in U.S. Milk http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703806304576233221749626458.html

    Germans Bilfinger Concern, which administrates most plants in germany is happy with shutting down all of the nuclear plants. Because they earn more money if a plant is shut down.

  9. Lewis C says:

    The first critical option ignored by Tepco was their failure to follow standard practice in assembling an emergency management team immediately, rather than waiting until two days after the quake. This left the plant manager and shocked executives facing an emergency beyond their expertize, at the most critical early stages, when the position was potentially still redeemable.

    From the time the tsunami waters receded to the time that the reactors’ cooling systems were damaged beyond viability, a second critical recovery option appears to have been ignored – that of an emergency delivery of generators and diesel tanks, by naval landing craft if necessary -

    It is worth noting here that while the back-up pumps reportedly worked for an hour after the tsunami hit (and then for some unproven reason failed) and while the reserve batteries then ran the cooling system for several hours before being drained, at that point the cooling systems were in still in Full Working Order. Despite daily media scrutiny, I’ve found no report to contradict this assertion. Damage to the cooling system or related infrastructure, that now prevents its use with the new power supply, has thus occurred as a result of subsequent events at the plant.

    That delivery of generators might or might not have been done quickly enough to avoid the start of Reactor 1’s meltdown, but it could surely have been achieved in time to halt that meltdown and to prevent its repeat in later days in Reactors 3 & 2. It could also have prevented the critical slow loss of air-pressure in the rubber seals on Reactor 4 cooling tank, causing it (predictably) to leak away its water, expose its rods, generate hydrogen from a zirconium fire, and suffer a massively destructive explosion as its rods’ meltdown began.

    Instead of ordering the emergency delivery of generators, Tepco spent the first week laying a new power line 1,000 metres to the plant, then reportedly discovered that it didn’t supply as much power as was needed, and since then have been discovering that the plant’s infrastructure has become too damaged for the power to be used to run the reactors’ cooling systems. Ad hoc interim cooling efforts made with police water-cannon, helicopter buckets, and high-jib concrete pumps, have proved both futile and a lasting high-profile discredit to Tepco’s competence to manage a nuclear facility.

    A third critical option ignored until reactors 1,3 & 4 had each generated hydrogen explosions (destroying equipment and infrastructure) was of cutting a vent in the containment building (finally applied to Reactor 2) to prevent hydrogen build-up and avoid its inevitable explosion and further infrastructure damage.

    A fourth critical option ignored was that of getting freshwater delivered by barge ASAP to minimize the use of seawater as coolant (say within two days) rather than pumping the seawater into reactors 1,2 & 3 for almost a fortnight before switching to fresh water from barges.

    Seawater holds over 25kgs of minerals per cubic meter, and posed well-known extreme risks when boiled within the reactors –
    not only of very rapid degeneration of stainless steel piping, valves, pressure vessel, etc, by corrosion and cracking – thereby generating leaks and a progressive loss of cooling capacity -
    but also by forming deposits within piping, valves, and pressure vessel, and especially on and between the fuel rods – thereby further exacerbating the loss of cooling capacity.
    For these reasons the legal limit for chorine in reactor cooling water is around one billion times less than its concentration in seawater.

    One very eminent academic put the mass of those deposits in Reactor 1 after the first week of seawater pumping at around 45 tonnes, with correspondingly more in the larger Reactors 2 & 3.

    The latest I’ve read is that Tepco have now despaired of controlling the rogue reactors and are encouraging the idea of ‘isolating’ them under a carpet of steel and concrete, a la Chernobyl (which notably already needs massive repairs). Tepco have also made clear that they want to continue operating Reactors 5 & 6, to which idea the government has responded dismissively.

    So much for the superior competence of the corporations over governments to run such hazarous enterprises. If Tepco, one of the largest generating companies on earth, is so utterly inept in handling such an emergency, then like BP-Macondo it places its peers in a very poor light indeed. To the extent the public gets informed of this, the myth of private sector effectiveness may thus be further discredited. Some pretty desperate push-back can be expected.

    Regards,

    Lewis

  10. As an ex-Navy & commercial nuke, unconfirmed reports of CL-38 & the potential for localized criticality absorbed the nucleus of my good eye.

    Fukushima Workers Threatened by Heat Bursts; Sea Radiation Rises

    “A partial meltdown of fuel in the No. 1 reactor building may be causing isolated reactions, Denis Flory, nuclear safety director for the IAEA, said at a press conference in Vienna. This might increase the danger to workers at the site….”

    “The IAEA acknowledged “they don’t have clear signs that show such a phenomenon is happening,” Edano said. Radioactive chlorine found March 25 in the No. 1 turbine building suggests chain reactions continued after the reactor shut down, physicist Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, wrote in a March 28 paper. Radioactive chlorine has a half-life of 37 minutes, according to the report.”

    WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF THE HIGH Cl-38 RADIOACTIVITY IN THE FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI REACTOR #1

    ~IANVS

  11. Heather says:

    It is more then obvious now that they will have to completely shut down the plant because the damage is irreversible. The big trouble is that operating company is leading to bankruptcy. That means that there might not be enough funding to finish the whole operation successfully. I hope that Japanese government will take the responsibility into their own hands afterwards.

  12. Artful Dodger says:

    BREAKING: Wall Street Journal —

    Japan Nuclear Agency: Truck Runs Into Daini Nuclear Plant
    http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20110331-705514.html

    (This occurred at the plant 10 kilometers South of the Daiichi plant)

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    Special Report: Japan engineers knew tsunami could overrun plant

    Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, said the government’s approach of relying heavily on Tokyo Electric to do the right thing largely on its own had clearly failed.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/29/us-japa-nuclear-risks-idUSTRE72S2UA20110329

  14. Artful Dodger says:

    TEPCO Chairman Brings Up Decommissioning as Water Removal Efforts Continue at Fukushima Daiichi
    Thu, Mar 31 2011 6:07 AM

    http://nuclearstreet.com/nuclear_power_industry_news/b/nuclear_power_news/archive/2011/03/31/tepco-chairman-brings-up-decommissioning-as-water-removal-efforts-continue-at-fukushima-daiichi033004.aspx

    “At a press conference Wednesday, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata acknowledged that four reactors at the company’s severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will be decommissioned. According to news reports, he even broached the idea of permanently entombing them in concrete.”

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    Now we get a real world test of doing more with less, TEPCO has warned it’s business customers to prepare for a cut of 25% in electrical supply. If any people can do this it’s the Japanese.

  16. Stefan says:

    I’m not a nuclear physicist, but I’ve been told that Cl-38 can easily be mistaken with Y-90. Cl-38 has a gamma line at 2168 keV, Y-90 at 2186 keV. hth

  17. catman306 says:

    Here in Georgia, USA, with new reactors to be built, and with financing courtesy of the rate payers, and with ground not yet broken, already there is talk of cost overruns. Why don’t they just build a gas fired steam plant? Cheaper and not nearly so potentially dangerous.

    http://onlineathens.com/stories/033111/new_807912665.shtml

  18. Mike # 22 says:

    Re-criticality continues to be a concern. There is an awful lot to be said on this beyond-the-worst-case-scenario.

    From Bloomberg Mar 31, 2011 9:23 AM ET

    “Japan’s damaged nuclear plant may be in danger of emitting sudden bursts of heat and radiation, undermining efforts to cool the reactors and contain fallout.

    The potential for limited, uncontrolled chain reactions, voiced yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is among the phenomena that might occur, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in Tokyo today. The IAEA “emphasized that the nuclear reactors won’t explode,” he said.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-30/record-high-levels-of-radiation-found-in-sea-near-crippled-nuclear-reactor.html

  19. dbmetzger says:

    TEPCO apologizes and Japanese Protest as Nuclear Levels Soar
    Demonstrators in Japan have lobbied for all the country’s nuclear reactors to be shut down to prevent radiation contamination. http://www.newslook.com/videos/301327-japanese-protest-as-nuclear-levels-soar?autoplay=true

  20. Solar Jim says:

    Total American federal government historic subsidies for nuclear power: approximately $400 billion. President Obama’s total new taxpayer loan guarantee subsidy: approx. $50 billion. Taxpayer/ratepayer nuclear waste liability over indefinite future: in excess of $100 billion.

    See for example Beyond Nuclear.org and NIRS.org.

    “We can’t simply take nuclear off the table” says Obama. Reply: it was never on the table of free-market enterprise except for nation-state enabling policy and massive taxpayer subsidies.

    Now atomic fission becomes a nu-clear and present danger. It is an enigma of the bomb, federal corruption of “the market” and fraud and contamination on an historic scale, even when “working properly.”

  21. Artful Dodger says:

    “Entomb? Cement pumps flown in to nuke plant”
    Same company that helped seal in Chernobyl is sending equipment

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42359020/ns/world_news-asiapacific/