Fukushima 1... 3/12/11-3/17/11
March 17 (12:15 pm, EDT)
The risk of further melting in the three damaged fuel cells at Fukushima (Units 1, 2, & 3) has again been reduced by the natural process of radioactive decay. Decay heat levels are lower than yesterday. Some time between tomorrow evening (Friday, March 18) and Monday morning (March 21), the rate of heat production in the fuel cells will be too low for either partial or severe meltage to re-occur, in addition to what seems to have already occurred. In addition to this good news, it is now known that emergency crews have been working diligently for several days to re-connect the Fukushima power plant complex to the electrical transmission system undamaged by the tsunami. It is expected that full electrical supplies to some or all of the Fukushima units will happen sometime later today. Once this happens and emergency reactor cooling systems are re-energized, the immediate crisis will be effectively at an end.
Unfortunately, this will not put an end to the news media broadcasting that a potential meltdown may still be possible. Such flawed scare-mongering will continue for months, if not longer, based on the news media's record with Three Mile Island in 1979. Now that the unethical prophets of nuclear doom (such as Amory Lovins) have entered into the rhetorical fray, the popular press will be inundated with exaggerations of risk, outright confabulatory scenarios of nuclear power plant holocaust, and perpetual appeals to the incorrect notion that there is no safe level of radiation exposure.
Two more items of good news have just been reported –
Helicopter pilots flying over Unit No. 3, in order to drop thousands of gallons of water into the evaporating spent fuel pool, have discovered that the pool was not dry, and it seems the spent fuel cells stored in it have not been uncovered. Regardless, the water drops by helicopter will continue until electrical power is restored to the power plant complex and cooling systems are operating. Speculations broadcast by the news media that the pool was dry have been proven false. What's disappointing is that some officials in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have stated that a pool is in-fact dry. Do they have a highly-confident view of the situation half a world away? No! But, it seems the Hiroshima Syndrome has permeated into the mental judgment centers of these NRC officials, who should be intimately aware (from TMI and Chernobyl) that one must never speculate. Information from “officials” must have a high degree of confidence before being transmitted. Anything less is unacceptable and ought to result in some sort of penalization, if time demonstrates that these speculations are unfounded.
The number of employees at Fukushima working feverishly to restore electrical power to their stricken systems, while at the same time keeping the reactors and spent fuel pools cooled, is 180. Reports of there being but 50 workers still on the Fukushima site, and that all of them were briefly evacuated due to potentially deadly radiation exposure, turns out to have been false. But, these flawed reports did contain a kernel of truth. The 180 employees work in crews of 70 (not 50), alternating their emergency work periods with periods of rest and recovery from their exhausting efforts. At one point, the off-duty staff (not the 70 on-duty) moved from the plant complex to avoid radiation exposure which might happen during the off-duty period and keep their doses as loww as possible. Off duty exposure would reduce the limit on how much exposure staff might receive while on-duty, and limit their emergency efforts. This is standard health physics procedure. If not working, don't open yourself to exposure. Prudent and logical. Regardless, the plant was never completely evacuated.
What ought to be most upsetting to the public is what has been a subtle but significant shift in news media coverage of the situation in Japan. As of this entry, the Fukushima accident has literally replaced the real disaster of the earthquake and tsunami as the world's top news story. This is nothing less than heinous! Yes, the accident situation at Fukushima is serious, but much less significant, real or imagined, than the actual disaster affecting all of Japan. More than 5,000 known dead...thousands upon thousands of additional dead that have yet to be accounted for...hundreds of thousands of people homeless and hungry...millions of other Japanese suffering at an unspeakable level...all due to the quake and tsunami. Only a minor fraction of this nation-wide societal horror is due to the Fukushima accident! Yet, Fukushima reigns supreme in the eyes of the popular press. Again, the news media is “merely” doing what it believes to be correct. Their false perception is entirely the result of the Hiroshima Syndrome...the phobic state of fear caused by confusion between reactors and bombs, confusion between fallout and radiation itself, and the widespread belief that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. If the myriad of misconceptions that fuel the Hiroshima Syndrome were replaced by correct, realistic understanding, Fukushima would still be a news story but would never be reported in a fashion that makes it seem more important than the true disaster in Japan.
But, the Hiroshima Syndrome does not only infect the rational judgment of the new media. As related previously, and explained in detail through the topic pages of this website, the Hiroshima Syndrome is a global affliction affecting everyone.* Not only the public-at-large, but also those charged with overseeing nuclear operations in governments around the world, including the NRC in America. Unquestionably, the single aspect of the Hiroshima Syndrome most responsible for this horrific folly is the mythic no-safe-level notion incessantly applied to radiation exposure. This issue has been mentioned previously in previous updates (below), and is addressed more fully through the course of this website. Simply put, low level and moderate level exposures to radiation are not in the least harmful, do not produce a cumulative risk of getting cancer at some moment in the future, in fact such exposure improves human health! The long term health effects of public exposure to radiation from nuclear accidents is very well understood, due to three decades of detailed public record-keeping after TMI and 25 years of similar cognizance by the World health Organization at Chernobyl.
Please...please...please search out the topic of “radiation hormesis” on any search engine. Take the time to understand the truth. Then you will fully comprehend the high degree of correctness in what follows.
In addition, and what contributes to making this all seem prudent in the public mind, are wildly incorrect radiation exposure levels alleged to be deadly and existent at Fukushima. First, the highest reported radiation level detected at Fukushima has been 400 millisieverts, outdoors at a location where no one was at. This high dose reading lasted for less than an hour, and maybe but a few minutes. Regardless, no one received this dose.
Second, the “deadly” exposure level most commonly broadcast since yesterday is 100 millisieverts. This is a gross confabulation with the units of radiation being used, and a total lack of understanding concerning any and all risk-assessment data. All reputable reports identify actual exposures to the public, that might be right next door to the plant, are in the microsievert range (everyone has been evacuated out to 3 kilometers, so there's really no-one "next door"). This is a unit designation 1000 times smaller than a millisievert. Radiation hormesis data demonstrates that the “threshold” of possible negative health effects is in excess of 1,000,000 microsieverts. In fact, LD-1 (toxic dose level for 1% of the exposed population) on the seriously flawed Linear, No Threshold model (no-safe-level) is also 1,000,000 microsieverts. In both models, the statistical threshold of any exposed person actually dying is in excess of 1,500,000 microsieverts. 5000 millisievert exposure is 5,000,000 microsieverts, a public exposure level which has only ever realistically existed at Hiroshima in 1945, and could possibly be deadly to more than 50% of those exposed.
*Does this include me? Of course! I've been spending every available waking hour trying to assemble the most reliable and correct information concerning Fukushima since the tsunami hit the Japanese coast. I have been doing this as a public service. I receive no compensation for my efforts.
March 16 (as of 11:30 am, EDT)
The dissemination of reliable, realistic information out of knowledgeable Japanese sources has improved tremendously since yesterday. Nearly all of what has been shared in the previous several days of our site entries (below this one) has been verified. In addition, many reputable science information sites on the web have begun carrying Fukushima information. Most of the best science info sites have been reluctant to publish previously because the scientific community is cautious, but also demands that evidence be correct and eminently verifiable before making statements. It seems there is now enough reliable information for these sites to publish with the high degree of confidence they require. I prefer Science Daily, which has been my science info source of choice for more than 10 years.
If this is the case, then why have I been providing updates since Friday? Several reasons. First, I was on the design team and initial operating staff of an American Boiling Water Reactor, supplied by General Electric, which was an improved version of Fukushima's BWR. We also built the Mark 3 containment around the reactor, which was a major upgrade over the Mark 1 at Fukushima. Several of the consulting engineers on the design team had previously helped design and build Fukushima Unit No. 1, and we routinely heard “When I was building Fukushima...” from them. Plus, we were endlessly comparing and contrasting the differences between Fukushima and our plant in our meetings. That's part of what an engineering design team does. Thus, I know more than most about the technology associated with the accident at Fukushima.
Second, after my design work was completed I worked as public spokesperson and education coordinator for the power plant from 1981 until 1987. I went through the news media scare-mongering from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, up close and personal. I know the western news media's modus operendi, if you will. This gives me a relatively sharp eye for differentiating the realistic from the fictional. I must admit, some of the information I have presented over the past few days were largely educated guesses, based on what my training and experiences have taught me. Was I lucky to get them all right? That judgment is up to you.
Lastly, during my nuclear career I also developed a knack for “translating” the technical terminology used by the nuclear community into everyday language. I “de-teched” a considerable number of press releases, and even did a little of it for multi-PhD nuclear professionals who were preparing to speak with the news media during the Chernobyl accident. Hopefully, that “knack” is still with me. I further made some 300 local public presentations through the company speaker's bureau. I guess that makes me somewhat glib.
Now, events at Fukushima since yesterday's update...
The decay heat production inside the three stricken, and now-known-to-be-fuel-damaged reactors at Fukushima, continues to drop exponentially. By the end of the day tomorrow, heat production rates at each reactor will be but about 2 megawatts. This does not rule out the possibility of further fuel and/or internal reactor fuel component meltage over the course of the next few weeks, but it does make it increasingly unlikely with every moment that passes. This gives the plant operators the time to take creative emergency measures to keep the core covered with water before more fuel damage occurs...much more time than the first day of the accident. Undaunted, the news media continues to preach the “catastrophic meltdown” gospel. It's their nature to do that. <sigh>
Yesterday's question as to whether or not the Unit No. 4 fire was “in” the spent fuel pool has been answered. As this writer logically suspected, it was near the pool itself, on the refueling deck above the reactor. Not “in” the pool, which made no sense at all. The fire started at 4pm (Japan time) and was put out by 5 pm. As with any fire that lasts an hour, smoke continued to rise for about an hour after it was put out. The “smoke” being reported on March 15 was probably steam. Steam from where?
Because of the lack of electrical feeds coming into the plant, and the few undamaged emergency power systems having been nearly exhausted, the cooling system for the spent fuel pool had been lost. The exhausted fuel cells, including those recently removed from the Unit 4 reactor, produce small amounts of decay heat and the pool has subsequently heated up to 84 degrees centigrade (~183 degrees Fahrenheit). As most of us have seen in a very hot sauna or hot tub, a considerable amount of steam rises and the water is not actually boiling. This appears to be the case with the spent fuel pool on Unit No. 4. The pool's surface is half as big as an Olympic-sized pool, thus the surface area is considerable. So the steam caused by relatively rapid evaporation is necessarily considerable. However, it is unlikely that the pool itself was ever actually boiling. Could it possibly boil...eventually? That's hard to say, but my guess is it's unlikely. Several week-old spent fuel produces decay heat, but not very much. (decay heat explanation on March 15 entry, below) At 8:30 pm this morning (March 16 - Japan time), the above scenario was officially confirmed. The pool is not boiling, but evaporation is considerable and the water level above the exhausted fuel cells is slowly dropping.
Now, a fifth reactor at the power plant complex is losing water level. The operators are using the (what seems to be) undamaged emergency diesel generator from Unit No. 6 to make enough electricity so that both Units No. 5 and 6 can run the pumps necessary to keep their cores covered with water. The operators at Fukushima seem to be doing as good a job as the situation allows. They should be commended.
Also this morning (March 16), it has been reported that the fire in the refueling deck area of Unit No. 4 has re-ignited. It took nearly three hours to put this one out largely due to a reduced workforce at the power plant complex. The reactor was not on fire, which was broadcast by a few news media outlets.
Also, the previous press reports of the containment structural damage at Unit No. 3 releasing raw radioactive steam into the outside environment, were incorrect. As we now know has been the case with Unit No. 4, the steam being seen is coming from the evaporation of the Unit No. 3 spent fuel pool. Not the reactor containment itself. It seems the containment is still doing its job quite well. Hey, three foot thick, steel reinforced concrete is pretty darn difficult to blow open.
And, finally, the latest report is that workers are preparing to pump sea water into the spent fuel pools of Units 3 and 4, to replenish the level lost to evaporation. The spent fuel cells in storage have not been uncovered.
Which brings me to our first explanation of the day. The boric acid being dropped on the open areas of the spent fuel storage pools at Fukushima is not to keep the spent fuel from going critical and experiencing a chain reaction. For a chain reaction to occur in uranium with very low concentrations of the fissionable isotopes U-235 and Pu-239 (1% or less), there must be water covering the fuel cells. Without the water molecules to slow down the neutrons, there cannot be any level of fissioning sufficient to bring the fuel to criticality. Its simply impossible! If the spent fuel cells were completely uncovered, there would be zero risk of the cells going into a critical chain reaction. The boric acid is a commonly used chemical for extinguishing fire. There is no chance of of the spent fuel going critical over the next few days, no matter what.
On another note, please allow me to wax nostalgic for a moment. One of the most important things learned by the American nuclear community (there is really no “nuclear industry”, per se) during Three Mile Island, was that it is imperative to keep the news media informed on a continual basis, until the crisis has passed. Also, any communications to the press must be given in everyday language, as much as possible. If everyday language is not possible, then be prepared to teach the press on what cannot be “de-teched”. All American nuclear power plants have a dedicated staff trained to do this, part and parcel to the type of emergency plans mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). During emergencies, regular communication with the news media is mandatory.
Unfortunately, there is no such mandate in Japan. The Japanese government and the nuclear community in Japan are taking a severe public relations bashing for poor communication, and they deserve it. It has taken the better part of five days for sufficient reliable information to become available so that the scientific community of the world can begin to get involved and reliably informed. Those scientists who have offered their opinions up until now are either spokespersons for a press-thirsting group or organization, or science media stars (like Bill Nye). It should never have taken this long to get reliable, reputable information to the world's science community. Hopefully, Japan and the rest of the nuclear community around the world will learn what we in America learned more than thirty years ago...be prepared to deal with the news media. Be very prepared! You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing this, but have nothing to gain and (perhaps) everything to lose by not doing this. Case in point...Japan!
March 15 (based on March 14 events)
Before today's entry concerning Fukushima itself, it seems appropriate to consider the nuclear situation in Japan in comparison to the horrific earthquake and tsunami impact. The quake and tsunami have inflicted a level of death and misery on the Japanese that is literally impossible for other people around the world to grasp. I seriously cannot get my mind around the scope and magnitude of what has happened and what is happening because of the quake and tsunami. I pray for the Japanese people and their terrible suffering. However, I am mad as hell concerning the western news media's continual effort to make the world think that the nuclear accident situation at Fukushima is either just as significant (which it clearly isn't) and potentially as devastating as the natural disaster itself (which it will never be). It's a clear case of guilt by association and appealing to common public misconceptions concerning anything nuclear. By giving the nuclear situation as much coverage as the true disaster itself, it tends to make a naive world think the nuclear accident is just as worthy of terrifying news coverage as the quake/tsunami. Disgusting? Yes! Unexpected? Unfortunately...no.
Should we blame the news media for something monumentally unethical? I say “NO!”. The news media is doing what they clearly believe to be correct, for two reasons. (1) They are following the same process of event coverage that the news media utilized at Three Mile Island. It worked for them three decades ago, so they are doing the same thing now. If there was a thunderous public outcry for the news media to follow the reputable and realistic path...they would! News reporting is a profitable business. As long as scare-mongering keeps the ratings up and the advertizing money pouring in, the news media will follow the path of fear and trembling, even if what is being reported is unrealistic. They don't see themselves as educators. Rather, they entertain us with the “news”, and fear sells better than anything else. (2) The news media is subject to the Hiroshima Syndrome, just like most of the people of our world. They erroneously believe there is a real and serious relationship between reactors and bombs. They falsely believe fallout and radiation itself are one-and-same. They believe there is no absolutely safe level of radiation exposure. Fear inspired, fictitious “what if” scenarios abound. The news media coverage concerning the Fukushima accident is convincing, before-your-eyes proof that the Hiroshima Syndrome is a world-wide problem that needs to be addressed and corrected...forever!
Back to Fukushima...
Since yesterday, the level of decay heat being generated by the shutdown reactors at Fukushima Units 1, 2, and 3 has dropped some more. The possibility of yet another “catastrophic meltdown” (a news media phrase) is much less likely than at this point yesterday. The fuel cells would have to be uncovered by water for an hour or more before melting would begin. There's just not enough heat being generated to cause any melting of fuel in a more rapid fashion. Almost remarkably, one of the more severe sources of anti-nuclear rhetoric, guardian.co.uk, has caught on to this (ref. 1), reporting “The fuel rods will already have lost around 90% of their heat and without further setbacks, the reactors could be cold and rendered safe within a week to 10 days.” Their 90% heat percentage is a measure of the total amount of potential heat which could be generated over a period of months. It is not an actual measure of current production levels. I think this is, in itself, misleading. It's the decay heat level that ought to be considered, not the total potential heat produced over a several month period. Regardless, even some of the nuclear critics are catching on.
Late last night (Eastern time), a new “threat” emerged. It seems some sort of fire broke out on the refueling deck (see diagrams; March12) of Fukushima Unit No. 4. Fukushima 4 has been shut down for many weeks for refueling and maintenance. The reactor itself is not operating, and hasn't for quite some time. Very, very little decay heat is being generated in the storage pool on the refueling deck, and almost all of that from the exhausted fuel cells from the current refueling. The pool of water in question is located above the reactor containment, imbedded in the deck's thick concrete floor. It contains the storage racks for the exhausted reactor fuel cells. The fuel cells are stored upright in a highly organized fashion, with at least 10 feet of water above the stored fuel cells. There are literally hundreds of exhausted fuel cells in the pool. The sum total of decay heat from the exhausted fuel cells is so low that it is questionable if the huge pool of water could ever get hot enough to boil off.
The components in the pools are the uranium fuel, the fuel-encasing zirconium cladding, and stainless steel structures for the fuel cells and storage racks. Of course, there is the water, too. None of the above are in any way flammable. However, initial news media reports place the Unit No. 4 refueling deck fire inside the pool! (ref.2) If the fire was actually in the pool, we currently have no information whatsoever as to how such a fire could happen in such a bizarre place as the pool itself. If we must speculate, let's assume the fire was inside the refueling deck area near the storage pool, and not in the pool itself. Could the fire have lasted long enough and been hot enough to heat up the pool's water, causing it to boil? Maybe...but that too seems to be a stretch. Clearly, more actual information needs to be available before firm conclusions are drawn. All we can say is there was a fire on the refueling deck of Fukushima Unit No. 4, and for some reason the spent fuel pool has been affected. Anything else is pure speculation.
Yet another issue is being constantly reinforced by news media coverage, is the radiation being released from the plant complex. It must be emphasized that evacuations and other “safety” precautions are entirely based on the old, incorrect no-safe-level notion (Linear, No-Threshold hypothesis, or LNT) used to allegedly estimate the risk of radiation exposure since before Three Mile Island. This seriously flawed model was created in the United States in the 1960s, based on the unquestionably toxic effects of enormous exposure levels that can only be reasonably associated with nuclear bomb blasts. The data from Hiroshima/Nagasaki of actual death rate versus actual radiation dose level was graphed, but literally no data for exposures below about 1.5 sieverts (150,000 millisieverts or 150 REM) was used. Creators of this high exposure dose-response model then arbitrarily continued the “best-fit” line (ask any high school algebra student what this means) down to zero radiation dose, without any actual data to support it. This arbitrary line indicates that any radiation dose, no matter how tiny, poses some risk of lethality.
Governments around the world have used this arbitrary area of the LNT model to justify emergency plans and radiation risk assessments ever since Three Mile Island. However, a literal mountain of world-wide research evidence since 1991 have revealed that radiation exposures below 1 sievert (1,000 millisieverts or 100 REM) pose no biological harm whatsoever! This is called the radiation hormesis model. While the overwhelming body of evidence over the past 2 decades clearly demonstrates the no-safe-level theory (LNT model) for exposures below 1.5 sieverts to be a total fiction, governments around the world ruthlessly cling to it and essentially look the other way when radiation hormesis is brought up. If the realistic radiation hormesis model for radiation exposure was used instead of LNT, existing nuclear emergency evacuation plans would be placed in serious question, specific to total whole-body dose levels. If evacuation plans must exist, they should be based on potential contamination levels from Strontium, Cesium, and Iodine that have been scientifically demonstrated to be actually harmful. A three kilometer evacuation zone to prevent the potential for harmful ingestion of radioactive contamination seems to be reasonable. Regardless, the potential exposures being reported by the press from Fukushima are about a hundred times less than the high-dose region of harm demonstrated by the radiation hormesis model. Nobody is being harmed, and no-one will be harmed.
The worst radiation release for a nuclear power plant accident in history, Chernobyl, produced doses to the public precisely in the middle of the totally safe region of the radiation hormesis model. World Health Organization reports on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident (2006) concluded there have been no long term health effects, and no radiation-related deaths to the public exposed by the Chernobyl accident. Zero! Precisely what the radiation hormesis curve demonstrates. In fact, last year's cancer death rate across all of Eurasia dropped nearly 7%, which is a trend that has been going on since 2000. For more information on radiation hormesis, go to the radiation page of this site. But, for a virtual Mount Everest of good information...Google it! Type “radiation hormesis” into the search browser, and spend a few days (literally) to educate yourself on it. You might be be glad you did.
“Nuclear scare grows with an orange flash and a violent blast”; guardian.co.uk; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/14/fukushima-nuclear-power-plant-japan
“IAEA Update on Japan earthquake”; IAEA.org; International Atomic Energy Agency; http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html (perhaps the least terrifying information on the Japanese situation on the internet)
“Fukushima blast shows nuclear is not the answer”; guardian.co.uk; http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/mar/15/nuclear-earthquake-tsunami-energy-industry?intcmp=239
Late yesterday (Eastern time), Fukushima Unit No. 3 experienced a hydrogen explosion in it's upper refueling area of the power plant. It seems that the explosion was the same type and of the same force as the one at Fukushima Unit No. 1 two days ago. Perhaps worse. The Fukushima 3 blast has resulted in 11 workers being injured, but no-one killed. At this point, the news media reports the reactor and containment structure below the demolished refueling deck at Fukushima Unit No. 3 have been filled with sea water.
As of this writing, all three of the Fukushima units at Daii-chi are reported to have experienced fuel-damage accidents. Reportedly, the fuel in Unit No. 2 was briefly uncovered at some point yesterday, meaning the water level inside the reactor had dropped below the top of the fuel cell, greatly reducing the ability of the remaining water to lower the temperature of the fuel caused by “decay heat”. The most recent report says the water level dropped to below the entire fuel cell for a brief period of time. The operators quickly began pumping sea water into the reactor and “re-covered” the fuel; i.e. re-immersed it with water. Because of the more than two days of natural decay heat reductions, the fuel was probably not uncovered long enough for a full meltdown, but damage to the fuel cell is probable. We want to see the control room records before making a judgment as to the degree of damage.
At this point, it is important to explain what “decay heat” is and why, after three days, the level of heat generation is low enough to give the operators more time than unit #1 operators to remove the heat before melting in the fuel cell occurs. This is actually the most important aspect of day 3 at Fukushima, and it's critical importance to everyone's understanding as to what is happening cannot be overstated.
Decay heat is the heat generated by the fission by-products in the fuel after the reactor has shut down, with control rods fully inserted to stop the fission chain reaction. When Uranium fissions it splits into two pieces, called fission by-products or fission fragments. These are two new atoms which are no longer Uranium, and can be any of more than 40 different elements. These new atoms are highly unstable as soon as they form, and are intensely radioactive. The various types of radiation released (Beta, Alpha, and Gamma) are almost immediately absorbed by the reactor fuel and cladding materials, which generates what we call decay heat...heat caused by radioactive decay. Immediately upon reactor shutdown, decay heat can be as much as 7% of reactor power. For Fukushima unit #1, this would have been ~100 megawatts. This is a huge amount of heat. However, as the initial post-shutdown avalanche of radioactive decay occurs, the total amount of heat-generating radiation diminishes very, very quickly. The rate of heat reduction falls off exponentially. One hour after shutdown, the decay heat level is no more than 1.5% (~21 megawatts at Fukushima #1). One day after shutdown, the decay heat level is about 0.7% (~10 megawatts).
Three days after shutdown (where we are now), decay heat being generated in each reactor is less than 0.5% (~7.5 megawatts).
Here's the good news. As the rate of decay heat being generated decreases, the amount of time the operators have to take effective emergency action increases...and the time factor increases exponentially. On day 1 of the accident, Fukushima Unit No. 1 was generating enough decay heat to force plant operators to literally scramble for some way to get water into the system. The water level in the reactor was dropping, resulting in probable “uncoverage” of the fuel cell. Without water to take away the decay heat, fuel damage due to overheating would have occurred relatively rapidly about 12 hours after automatic shutdown (SCRAM). Complete uncovering of the fuel for a few minutes during day 1 would begin fuel damage. A few more minutes of “uncoverage” could cause some of the fuel to melt. In what more and more seems to be a brilliant decision, sea water was pumped into the reactor to insure that the fuel was no longer uncovered with water. The extent of fuel damage to Unit No. 1's reactor cannot be estimated, at this point, which unfortunately leaves the issue open to terrifying media-inspired speculation. The fictional apocalyptic meltdown scenarios currently being broadcast around the world cannot happen in the real world, of course. However, it seems safe to assume that some severe fuel damage did occur in Fukushima 1, ultimately leading to the atmospheric release of radioactive fission by-products including Cesium and Iodine.
The decay heat generation level during day 2 at Fukushima Unit No. 3 dropped to about 0.5%. In the hope that sufficient emergency power might be restored, the operators used whatever they could to keep the core covered and remove the now-slowly diminishing decay heat. They wanted to save the reactor core. Their prayers were not answered. Eventually, their core was at least partially uncovered and damaged before they reluctantly decided to pump in sea water. Yes, their plant experienced a hydrogen explosion in the building's upper refueling area, but the massive multi-layered containment building surrounding the reactor below the refueling does not seem compromised. At this point, Fukushima Unit No. 3 is being sufficiently cooled and in a relatively safe condition.
Fukushima Unit No. 2 seems to have maintained reactor cooling longer than units #1 and 3. Thus, the operators held out hope that the local electrical system could be recovered soon enough for them to keep fuel damage from happening. Like yesterday at Unit No. 3, these prayers were not answered. The hydrogen explosion from Unit No. 3 damaged the mobile emergency power generation equipment for Unit No. 2 to the point where it was lost. Rather than wait for the fuel cell to be uncovered long enough for fuel damage to produce an explosive concentration of hydrogen in the upper refueling area, the operators decided to begin their sea water cooling immediately.
It will be several weeks before the decay heat generation levels at all three units will naturally diminish to the point where it will no longer be possible to melt the fuel in the reactors, and a much longer before less severe fuel damage will no longer be possible. Any further fuel damage depends on the fuel cells somehow becoming no longer covered by sea water, which is now an unlikely scenario. One thing is for sure...with every moment that passes, the decay heat being generated in all three Fukushima fuel cells is dropping and the risk of continued meltdown drops with it.
Nusbaumer, Oliver ; “Decay heat in nuclear reactors”; http://decay-heat.tripod.com/ (2006)
“Decay Heat”; Nuclear Power Fundamentals; Integrated Publishing; http://www.tpub.com/content/doe/h1012v2/css/h1012v2_74.htm ; ppg. 52
The drama at the Fukushima nuclear power complex in northwest Japan continues. As of this morning, it appears that Unit No. 1 reactor vessel, which has been the focus of concern for two days, is now being cooled using sea water. Sea water is not the sort of cooling liquid one should use in this type of situation due to its extreme corrosive properties, but it is water and the plant operators needed it to cool the reactor system. They should be commended for doing what they did. How much damage has there been damage to the reactor's fuel cell? At this point, it is impossible to say for sure, although a meltdown is not impossible. This hasn't stopped the western news media from making wild speculations. These wild speculations, as well as those chronicled below, only serve to re-invigorate the Hiroshima Syndrome the public mind, and extend its psychological damage to a whole new generation of sufferers.
The problem in Japan now seems to be focusing on Fukushima Unit No. 3. It appears that the unit is experiencing emergency power failures, similar to what happened to unit No. 1 yesterday. While the scenario parallels what happened at unit No. 1, the Japanese company that owns the plant (TEPCO) has reported that the fuel cell has at least partially lost its water level inside the reactor. Any core “uncoverage” will rapidly result in damage to the fuel cell. However, news media reports of a meltdown-in-progress are an example of speculation. No one, at this point, knows the nature or extent of damage to the fuel core on Unit No. 3. On a more positive note, since the heat generated after a reactor has been shut down comes from the fission by-products, and their radioactive decay rates are exceedingly rapid immediately after shutdown, the amount of heat being generated in Fukushima 3 is at least 50% less than unit #1 because of the time elapsed since shutdown. The very short-lived fission products have decayed themselves into much lower heat-generating concentration, at this point.
It should be re-iterated from yesterday's report, that the evacuations around the damaged units are mandated by their emergency plans. The Japanese use plans that use the IAEA's 7 levels of emergency, with level 1 being the least severe, and level 7 being the most severe. The Japanese have issued a level 4 state of emergency. In America, we use a 4 level system on nuclear emergency declarations covering essentially the same range of accident situations. However, the 20 kilometer-wide evacuation is clearly a result of the level 4 declaration. Further, we should keep in mind that these emergency plans were created long before radiation hormesis was found to be the case.
Next, the western news media is doing their best to scare the be-jeebers out of everyone with their apocalyptic rhetoric of nuclear disaster from meltdown. The news media scenario with the Fukushima accident is a page taken right out of what they did with Three Mile Island, in 1979. For example, the news media has said all along that the Japanese officials can't be trusted, just like the media purported about the American government reports during the first two days at TMI. It has taken the news media nearly 2 days to find someone whom they could present as an “expert” that would support their fictional prophecies of doom. In addition, wild “what-if” speculations from news media reports concerning Fukushima, have abounded during their two days of searching for someone to make it all sound real....just like 1979 with TMI.
Their search literally bottomed out when CNN's Science Guy, Bill Nye, was interviewed last night on television. Everything he said was either science fiction or downright ridiculous. For example, he said the Cesium detected on a few people in Japan came from the control rods. He explained that Cesium absorbs neutrons (which it doesn't) and is used to control the power level in the reactor (also fictitious). He continued that with the extreme heat that must have been inside the reactor, the Cesium “metal” vaporized into a gas and “got out” through a hole that must exist in either the inner vessel or outer vessel. First, Cesium is a by-product of fission in the fuel. Second, control rods are made out of Boron-Carbide in boiling water reactors (like Fukushima), a substance which soaks up neutrons like a sponge. Third, Cesium is an active element classified as a metal on chemistry charts, but it dissolves in water and was probably released from Fukushima 1 when they vented steam prior to the hydrogen explosion. Lastly, there is currently no evidence of there being holes anywhere in the multi-layered containment around the reactor. The release pathway is literally a matter of speculation. The bottom line is this...no matter how bad the situation in Japan actually may be, the news media will bend over backwards to keep the public on the edge of their seats by trying to make it seem many times worse. Fear “sells” many times better than reality.
There seem to be two fear-infested issues being continually trumpeted by the news media; (1) a widespread radiation release and (2) meltdown. Fear of radiation, and the no-safe-level myth the news media clings to with dire faith, is addressed elsewhere in this website and in yesterday's update. But the current news media-inspired meltdown scenarios are right out of the China Syndrome movie. For example from Yahoo! News, “According to experts interviewed by The Associated Press, any melted fuel would eat through the bottom of the reactor vessel. Next, it would eat through the floor of the already-damaged containment building. At that point, the uranium and dangerous byproducts would start escaping into the environment.” This is a China Syndrome science fiction story. China Syndrome is a myth (see the TMI page). Three Mile Island experienced a “severe meltdown” in 1979. (2009 Nuclear regulatory Commission finding) Nothing like the Yahoo! News report occurred at TMI, or ever came close to occurring at TMI. The melted fuel and control rod materials all mixed together during TMI's meltdown, called “corium” by scientists, spread out across the bottom of the reactor and into the connected piping, where it quickly cooled and solidified. That's what actually happens in a severe meltdown, and at this point we don't know what level of fuel damage actually exists at Fukushima...minor cladding cracks, partial meltage of some core materials other than the fuel, partial fuel meltage, or severe meltdown? Nobody knows, at this point, but all would result in Cesium production. In addition we have the assumption that uranium could possibly be released into the air and surrounding environment. Uranium is the heaviest, densest natural substance in the universe. Saying it would magically escape into the environment in dangerous amounts is absolute balderdash! It's way too heavy! But, the myth is certainly scarier than reality, is it not.
However, the Yahoo! News report doesn't stop there, ”At some point in the process, the walls of the reactor vessel — 6 inches (15 centimeters) of stainless steel — would melt into a lava-like pile, slump into any remaining water on the floor, and potentially cause an explosion much bigger than the one caused by the hydrogen. Such an explosion would enhance the spread of radioactive contaminants.” Absolute fiction! This is so preposterous that a detailed critique would only serve to give unwarranted dignity to the above statement. The “bigger explosion” phrase smacks of the belief that Uranium is an explosive, which of course it isn't! Yet more evidence of the Hiroshima Syndrome at work.
At this point, the Yahoo! News report reaches a new low in speculative spin-doctoring, “If the reactor core became exposed to the external environment, officials would likely began pouring cement and sand over the entire facility, as was done at the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a briefing for reporters. At that point, Bradford added, 'many first responders would die.'” First, there is little doubt that Mr. Bradford's comments are confabulated into a context conducive to the News Media's incessant desire to bring Chernobyl into the mix.* Bradford surely knows that water moderated reactors, like Fukushima, cannot have a Chernobyl-type accident. He must also know that an unrestricted release of radiation like Chernobyl is virtually impossible for western containment systems, with their robust multiple barriers. In hindsight, Bradford should have said any connection to Chernobyl is patently absurd and the news media should drop it like a hot rock.
*This sort of thing happened to me in 1986 from a national AP reporter, so much so that when my mother read it she began to cry...she couldn't believe I would be a part of something so dangerous. I think it has scarred her to this day.
“Water, power, food scarce in vast swaths of Japan”; Yahoo! News; http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/as_japan_earthquake
“Japanese Government Confirms Meltdown”; Stratfor Global Intelligence; http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110312-japanese-government-confirms-meltdown?utm_source=redalert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=110312%286%29&utm_content=readmore&elq=0a31c40a4a1147a28a4293d7625b17b8
“For battered Japan, a new threat: nuclear meltdown”; Associated Press (via the News Herald); http://www.news-herald.com/articles/2011/03/13/news/nh3760612.txt
“In Japan plant, partial meltdown 'highly possible'”; Yahoo! News; http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/ap_on_re_as/as_japan_earthquake_nuclear_crisis
Preliminary Update (March 12)
In concert with the horrific Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated much of northeastern Japan, eleven nuclear power plants automatically shut down. All reactors automatically shut down when severe events occur, and the shutdown happens beyond human interaction. One such shutdown happens when earth movement caused by an earthquake reaches or exceeds a predetermined level. The 9.0 earthquake centered off-shore of northern Japan caused the excessive ground movement that triggered the eleven automatic shutdowns.
The tsunami inundated the six reactor units at Fukushima and severed all electrical feeds to the Fukushima nuclear complex, which houses six power plants varying from ~500 megawatts (No. 1) to 1100 megawatts (No. 6). Emergency electrical generators automatically started at all of the plants, but nearly all seem to have been damaged by the powerful tsunami. This left Fukushima units 1-4 without emergency power, with the exception of some battery power which is limited in how long it will last.
Over the several hours following the quake and tsunami, pressures inside the reactor containment area climbing dramatically. News media reports suggest the operators are relieving this pressure to the outer floors of the reactor building.
Eventually, the radioactive gasses, combined with what has been reported to be hydrogen, filled the area outside the many-feet thick, steel-lined secondary concrete shield wall. In the middle of the day on March 12, the area above the concrete containment area, which seems to house the spent fuel pool and it's fuel-handling equipment, exploded. It has been reported that the walls were made of concrete and steel, but were quite thin relative to the massive containment walls around the reactor, located below. The currently sketchy level of news media reporting indicates that there has been little or no damage to the reactor containment structure itself.
There has been a precautionary evacuation of all people out to 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the plant. Such actions are taken according to emergency plans designed to keep people safe when there is sufficient potential for the release of hazardous levels of radioactive material. The operative term here is “potential”. These legally-binding emergency plans were created during the few years following the Three Mile Island accident, before the reality of radiation hormesis was understood. (see “Radiation : The No Safe Level Myth”) Thus, such public evacuation “tipping points” occur in the plans at levels about a hundred times less than would actually need to be the case if governments would use radiation hormesis curves for their emergency plans. The apocalyptic “what if” speculations being proffered continually by all western news services are making the psychological damage from the Hiroshima Syndrome worse.
Speculations referring to the 1986 Chernobyl accidents are empty...vacuous...completely ridiculous. A Chernobyl-type accident at a water-moderated reactor is impossible. (See “The Chernobyl Disaster”) The speculations referring to Three Mile Island have considerably more merit. (See “Three Mile Island and the China Syndrome”) Please keep in mind, TMI produced no long term health effects in the exposed population, and no environmental damage whatsoever. Whether or not this will also be the case with Fukushima remains to be seen.
Nearly all of the most recent news reports (typical examples listed below) have so many technical mistakes, exaggerations, confabulations, and statements of frightening rhetorical nonsense, that time does not allow this writer to adequately address them. These gross errors ought to be addressed when the dust has settled and we all really know what exactly happened.
All of the Japanese government's and Japanese electric utility's orders for people living between 3 and 20 kilometers from Fukushima to stay indoors and seal their homes, is precautionary. The American government's suggestion to have American citizens evacuate Japan is ridiculous, by real world evidence, and therefore is an ethically unconscionable act. Both of these actions are based entirely on the no-safe-level myth, amplified by the desire to cater to the public's phobic fears concerning radiation exposure as a result of the Hiroshima Syndrome. These actions promise the most votes and politically drive government actions. Votes depend on catering to widespread public beliefs. By using the scientifically correct hormesis model for radiation exposure and possible health effects thereof, few of these official orders would be warranted...and the Americans in Japan would not be un-necessarily bothered.
- “Explosion collapses walls of nuclear power plant in Japan”; Associated Press; http://www.cleveland.com/world/index.ssf/2011/03/officials_in_japan_warn_that_m.html
“Huge blast at Japan nuclear power plant”; BBC News, Asia Pacific; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12720219