Friday, March 18, 2011

Nuclear Crisis -- Projection: Diluted Radiation Plumes Will Reach California Friday; Tokyo Flight Sets Off Radiation Detectors in Chicago

Follow the latest news from the disaster in Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi plant:

Blogger's Note: Don't miss video embedded below.( Scroll down to find it.)

Update: Al Jazeera reports that the official death toll in Japan is now 6,539, with 10,354 people missing.

Meanwhile, the Japanese nuclear safety agency has raised Fukushima's crisis level from a 4 to a 5. On the 7-point nuclear crisis scale, Three Mile Island was a 5, while Chernobyl was a 7.

Update: Americans, being a somewhat panicky people, have made a run on potassium iodide, which is administered to those exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine-131. 

Also, according to the LA Times, "taking potassium iodide tablets without just cause can be risky for some people, health experts warned Wednesday."

UpdateThe New York Times has an animated model that shows the likely travel path of the plume of radioactivity released from damaged reactors at Fukushima No. 1 power plant in Japan. It suggests that it the leading edge of it will reach the West Coast on Friday. The good news, for North American readers, is that the radiation will be highly diluted by the time it makes its long journey across the Pacific, and authorities say they expect the plume to represent no threat to human health. 

More troubling is that the situation is not yet under control, and could deteriorate -- a hazard heightened by the powerful aftershocks that continue to batter Japan. There is also uncertainty about exactly how much radioactivity has been released into the environment so far; Japanese authorities and TEPCO officials have released neither measurements nor estimates. 

Take a look at the Times' model here

Update: NHK English reports the latest official stats from the March 11 earthquake and Tsunami: 5,700 confirmed dead and 9,500 missing.

Update: The Chicago Tribune reports that traces of radiation were detected on a United Airlines jet that arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Tokyo yesterday "but determined that the plane’s cargo and passengers were safe."
Federal officials inspected a United Airlines jet and one other with Geiger counters after they arrived in Chicago from Narita International Airport Wednesday, sources told the Tribune. A person familiar with the search  said it was conducted by Customs and Border Patrol agents in the “guise of a random inspection.”

Though officials detected trace elements of radiation on two cargo containers on one of the planes, they later determined that the packages were safe, sources said. Officials also determined the jets were safe after inspecting for radiation.
The radiation plume forming over the Pacific from Japan’s nuclear crisis is a growing concern for U.S. carriers, who want to avoid contaminating aircraft surfaces and exposing passengers and employees to harmful radioactive isotopes.

For the first time in recent memory, maps used to guide aircraft around hazards such as storms and active volcanoes now carry a red radioactive sign to denote a no-fly zone over the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors. Flight dispatchers Thursday were also given the coordinates of an area over the Pacific where airborne concentrations are of greatest concern, sources told the Tribune.

Update: The Kyodo news agency offers a confusing report about the attempts to get water into a cooling pond for highly radioactive spent fuel rods at Fukushima. First, some apparently good news:
An unprecedented attempt to douse an apparently overheating spent fuel pool with tons of coolant water at a stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima bore some fruit Thursday, but the emission of smoke newly confirmed at another pool suggests the difficulties that lie in the way of resolving the crisis triggered by the March 11 quake and tsunami.
But the headline, "Operation to pour water at Fukushima nuke plant said effective," appears to have overstated the tangible results:
The utility said vapor rising from the partially destroyed No. 3 reactor building suggests the operation went some way toward cooling down the pool that could otherwise emit highly contaminated radioactive materials.

However, no major changes were seen in radioactive levels at the plant immediately afterward.
Update: The disaster at Fukushima Dai'ichi has brought renewed attention to Japan's spotty nuclear safety track-record. AJE summarizes:
In 1997, at least 37 workers were exposed to radiation at the Tokaimura plant, after a fire and explosion.

In 1999, workers were reported to be hand-mixing uranium at the same plant.  Two workers later died.

Hundreds of people were exposed to radiation and thousands evacuated in the same year after an accident at Tokaimura.

The Fukushima number 1 plant has also had problems in the past. In 2006, a small amount of radioactive steam seeped out and blew beyond the compound.
In 2007, a powerful earthquake caused malfunctions at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant.  The damage included radioactive water spills, burst pipes and fires.

Update: This stunning footage shows the extent of the devastation at Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear plant:

Update: Al Jazeera English, citing the IAEA, reports that "Japanese engineers have laid an external grid power cable to the number 2 unit, in accordance with plans announced on Thursday."
However they can't reconnect power until they have finished spraying water on unit 3, which is at major risk of overheating and sending more radiation out into the atmosphere. Earlier attempts to drench the fuel rod pools appeared to have very limited success.
Japanese officials have claimed that the power line would end the crisis, but that is questionable if, as has been reported, two containment vessels have been breached.

Update:  Here's the latest report from CNN on cooling efforts by the Japanese military:
Military helicopters began dumping water on the reactor Thursday morning, with police and fire trucks opening up after 7 p.m. (6 a.m. ET). Japan's Defense Ministry said the first effort lasted 40 minutes, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company said the efforts would continue throughout the night in order to keep the reactor and its adjacent spent fuel pool from overheating.
Update: This morning's report in the New York Times is grim indeed, describing the failure of multiple "ever more desperate and unconventional methods to cool damaged reactors" to make a significant impacts. Extremely high levels of radiation are preventing some efforts, hindering workers from getting too close to the zone. The Times also describes conflicting messages from American and Japanese officials, as Americans  such as Gregory Jaczko, the chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have been much more fatalistic in public than their Japanese counterparts. American officials have recommemded evacuation within a 50-mile radius of the plant, more than the distance recommended by the Japanese.

Another article suggests that non-threatening radiation plumes could reach the West Coast of the U.S. in days. The radiation plumes from the plant "will "churn" across the ocean, "touching the Aleutian Islands on Thursday before hitting Southern California late Friday" according to a projection from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, a UN-run organization.

Update: The LA Times has a sad story about what life is like at this moment for people who are trapped near the nuclear plant, and their sense of betrayal and isolation:
Residents describe spooky scenes of municipal cars driving down near-empty streets telling people to stay indoors, but they've seen few other signs of outside help.
Aid agencies are reluctant to get too close to the plant. Shelters set up in the greater Fukushima area for "radiation refugees" have little food, in part because nobody wants to deliver to an area that might be contaminated. And with little or no gasoline available, not everyone who wants to leave can get out. Radiation fears mingled with a sickening sense of abandonment Wednesday.
The fear of ostracism also brought back memories of the stigma faced by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were often shunned due to their exposure to radiation. The connection between the two disasters isn't all negative:  scientific teams from Hiroshima are preparing to visit the stricken area while Hiroshima's hospitals are also getting ready to receive victims of radiation poisoning, according to this excellent report from Democracy Now!
Meanwhile the AP reports on the "bungling" and mismanagement and secrecy of the nuclear industry at large in Japan 
Leaks of radioactive steam and workers contaminated with radiation are just part of the disturbing catalog of accidents that have occurred over the years and been belatedly reported to the public, if at all. In one case, workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing by machine, so the fuel could be reused, exposing hundreds of workers to radiation. Two later died.
TreeHugger adds that WikiLeaks reveals warnings about the specific vulnerability of these plants to earthquakes two years ago.

Update: USA Today -- without information on radioactivity levels in Fukushima, there's no way of predicting how much radiation will hit the US:
"The Japanese government's radiation report for the country's 47 prefectures Wednesday had a notable omission: Fukushima, ground zero in Japan's nuclear crisis. Measurements from Ibaraki, just south of Fukushima, were also blanked out. Radiation experts in the USA say that the lack of information about radioactivity released from the smoldering reactors makes it impossible to gauge the current danger, project how bad a potential meltdown might be or calculate how much fallout might reach the USA."
Update: BBC reports:
Japanese defence minister Toshimi Kitazawa confirms four water drops took place over the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He says 11 "special purpose vehicles" manned by defence forces will conduct water spraying operations from the ground on Thursday afternoon.
Update: NHK English reports that temperatures are rising in the spent fuel cooling pools at Units 5 and 6. The two reactors were offline when the earthquake hit, but the fuel rods remain hot for years. The cooling systems in 5 and 6 are damaged, which poses a risk that the water will boil off, exposing the rods to the environment. In the worst case scenario, the spent fuel could combust in a chemical reaction, releasing radioactive smoke into the environment.

Operators at Fukushima No. 1 are desperately trying to get water into the cooling pools. According to NHK they are now trying to use a heavy water cannon to direct water onto the pools.

Update: An unnamed US official has told ABC news that Washington is not happy with how the Japanese have responded to the crisis:
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.
"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.

Update: According to the Washington Post, industry is digging into its deep pockets to buy some influence in the hope of heading off efforts to better regulate nuclear plant operators.
Nuclear power advocates are waging an intense lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill this week in an attempt to limit the political fallout from the reactor crisis in Japan, which threatens to undermine already shaky plans for expanded nuclear capacity in the United States.
Lobbyists with the Nuclear Energy Institute and some of the United States’s largest energy firms, including Exelon of Chicago, are holding meetings with key lawmakers and standing-room-only briefings for staff members in an attempt to tamp down talk of restrictions in response to the Japanese disaster.
The efforts come as lawmakers held hearings Wednesday focused on the impact of the worsening catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, where at least three reactor cores are believed to be imperiled following a major earthquake and tsunami last week.

Update: Stars and Stripes reports, "experts are now saying the Fukushima crisis could rival the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union."
Nuclear scientists use the term “core-on-the-floor” to describe radioactive fuel burning through protective containment layers, hitting water and bursting into the atmosphere in a huge steam explosion, spreading clouds of radioactive gas and dust.
It’s never happened before, but experts fear it may soon become reality in one or more reactors at the Fukushima nuclear complex, which was gravely damaged in last Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
“We are right now closer to core-on-the-floor than at any time in the history of nuclear reactors,” said Kenneth Bergeron, a former Sandia National Laboratory researcher who spent his career simulating such meltdowns, including in reactors of the type at the Fukushima plant.
This scenario is sometimes (inaccurately) referred to as the "China Syndrome." 
Update: The Daily Telegraph reports: "Japan was warned more than two years ago by the international nuclear watchdog that its nuclear power plants were not capable of withstanding powerful earthquakes."
An official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in December 2008 that safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations.

While it responded to the warnings by building an emergency response centre at the Fukushima plant, it was only designed to withstand magnitude 7.0 tremors. Friday's devastating earthquake was a magnitude 9.0 shock.
The news is likely to put further pressure on Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, who has been criticised for "dithering" over the country's response to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The Japanese government pledged to upgrade safety at all of its nuclear plants, but will now face inevitable questions over whether it did enough.

Update: The chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that there is no longer water in one of the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Dai-ichi, according to NPR. Japanese officials deny the report. What does this mean? NPR explains:
If NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is correct, this would mean there's nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.
Update: According to Stars and Stripes Magazine, the Pentagon is preparing for a worst case scenario in Japan -- a full-scale meltdown. The military has instituted the following precautions to protect American service personnel and their dependents:
-- 50-mile no-go zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi (much bigger than the Japanese evacuation zone).
-- US Air crews flying rescue missions 80 miles have been told to start taking potassium iodide tablets.

Update: The Tokyo Electric Power company says "a new power line that could solve the nuclear crisis is almost ready." The power line would, in theory, restore the plant's crippled cooling systems. We're a bit skeptical that restoring power would end the crisis, given that multiple containment domes have reportedly been breached, but we'll keep you informed of the latest.
Last night here and this morning in Japan, a horrfying drama unfolded. News reports circulated saying that the remaining 50 workers struggling to contain the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had to temporarily leave because of a dangerous spike in radiation levels. They soon returned, but their absence provoked fears.

Furthermore, it appeared that the containment vessel in reactor 3 had ruptured, and plumes of smoke were seen exiting from the roof. Concerns remained about the pool which contained the fuel rods.
The vessel that possibly ruptured on Wednesday had been seen as the last fully intact line of defense against large-scale releases of radioactive material from the stricken reactor, but it was not clear how serious the possible breach might be. The implications of overheating in the fuel rod pool, which is also at the No. 3 reactor, seemed equally dire. The developments were the latest in Japan’s swirling tragedy since an earthquake and tsunami struck the country with unbridled ferocity last Friday. Emperor Akihito told the nation on Wednesday he was “deeply worried” about the nuclear crisis.
The company operating the reactors had withdrawn most of its workers from the plant on Tuesday, leaving only a skeleton crew of 50 struggling to lower temperatures.
When those workers were forced to suspend cooling operations, the spent fuel rod pool began heating up dangerously.
There are many concerns about this growing nuclear threat, not the least of which is that the drama and horror is overshadowing the world's attention from massive humanitarian crisis--the homeless, foodless, hurt and missing--that has taken such an unimaginable, devastating toll already.
And then there is the anger and frustration with persistent claims that nuclear power is safe, and with the UN watchdog group International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has to rely on member-states cooperation to provide inspection. One Russian expert who had helped with the Chernobyl clean up was particularly biting in his criticism: 
"The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin, you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin," former Soviet nuclear expert Iouli Andreev said, according to The Guardian. He had harsh words for the IAEA. "This is only a fake organisation because every organisation which depends on the nuclear industry – and the IAEA depends on the nuclear industry – cannot perform properly ... It always will try to hide the reality."

No comments: