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