Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fukushima FUBAR

Yesterday, the head of the NRC basically dismissed Japanese claims as whistling Dixie:
The military also announced that it had postponed plans to drop water on Reactor No. 4, which Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday pinpointed as a cause for serious alarm.

On Thursday afternoon, the Self-Defense Forces and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had begun deploying eight water cannon trucks to Reactor No. 3. Before the radiation level drove them back, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had planned to use the trucks, which are usually used in riot control, to spray at least 12 tons of seawater into the reactor. * * *

The maneuvers seemed at odds with the most startling assertion by Mr. Jaczko that there was now little or no water in the pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation into the atmosphere. His testimony before Congress was the first time the Obama administration had given its own assessment of the condition of the plant, apparently mixing information it had received from Japan with data it had collected independently. “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” Mr. Jaczko said.

His statement was quickly but not definitively rebutted by officials of Tokyo Electric, the plant’s operator.

We can’t get inside to check, but we’ve been carefully watching the building’s environs, and there has not been any particular problem,” Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric, said Thursday morning in Japan.

Later, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Yoshitaka Nagayama, was more equivocal, saying, “Because we have been unable to go to the scene, we cannot confirm whether there is water left or not in the spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4."

At the same time, officials raised concerns about two other reactors where spent fuel rods were stored, Nos. 5 and 6, saying they had experienced a slight rise in temperature.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Jaczko reiterated his earlier statement and added that commission representatives in Tokyo had confirmed that the pool at No. 4 was empty. He said Tokyo Electric and other officials in Japan had confirmed that, and also stressed that high radiation fields were going to make it very difficult to continue having people work at the plant.
This continues to be disputed, but apparently no one can get in to *look* at the pools; there's a report that the temp in one spent-fuel pool was 84 C on March 15, but apparently no one's been able to check since then. N.b. "Celsius."
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 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 melt down, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.
Nice to see that "diplomatic considerations" aren't muzzing Jaczko.
American officials who have been dealing with their Japanese counterparts report that the country’s political and bureaucratic leadership has appeared frozen in place, unwilling to communicate clearly about the problem’s scope and, in some cases, unwilling to accept outside assistance. Two American officials said they believed that the Japanese government itself was not getting a clear picture from Tokyo Electric.
It's increasingly likely that the entire plant will exude such high radiation that no one can get in, and the reactors will have to be left alone to (possibly) melt down, both the active fuel rods and the (relatively) spent ones.
The spent fuel pools can be even more dangerous than the active fuel rods, as they are not contained in thick steel containers like the reactor core. As they are exposed to air, the zirconium metal cladding on the rods can catch fire, and a deadly mix of radioactive elements can spew into the atmosphere. The most concern surrounds Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and can get into food supplies or be inhaled.
Hence the U.S. advice to its nationals to clear a 50-mile zone around the plant, not the 20-mile zone advised by Japan.

... So, how are the Japanese reacting to the U.S.'s dissing their government's assessment?
Most Japanese citizens did not react to Mr. Jaczko’s comments, which presented a far bleaker assessment of the unfolding nuclear crisis, for the simple reason that they went nearly unreported in the Japanese news media. * * *

Reporters who cover agencies and ministries are organized in press clubs that have cozy ties with officials and decide what to report — and what not to. The lack of attention received by Mr. Jaczko’s comments was consistent in the news media.
How much did those "cozy ties" contribute to Fukushima's continued operation (rather than its dangers being publicized and the plant shuttered & replaced) in the first place?

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