The story of Japan’s natural/nuclear disaster has faded from the headlines, but it is still relevant in the state of Alabama that has three reactors near the New Madrid fault line.
In December, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that “a cold shutdown” had been achieved and that the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was now over. “The reactors are stable, which should resolve one big cause of concern for us all,” Noda told the Japanese people in a televised address.
But Mr. Noda’s optimistic assessment may have been premature. Nuclear engineer and former power company executive Arnie Gunderson compared the Prime Minister’s statement to President George Bush declaring “mission accomplished” on the deck of the USS Lincoln in 2003. Gunderson calls the situation at Fukushima “a long battle, far from over.”
Even Tokyo Electric Power Co.
(Tepco), which owns the Fukushima facility, says that it will take another 40 years to fully decommission the reactors there, a project which poses unprecedented engineering challenges. But the company’s own tests disclose a more immediate danger. Rising radiation levels within one of the reactors, the highest recorded so far, and evidence of a leak in the critical cooling system demonstrate that the situation is still far from stable.
Tepco revealed at the end of March that protective water levels in the containment vessel of Reactor, No. 2, were far shallower than they had expected, which might mean that the uranium fuel rods there are no longer completely submerged, and are heating up. The Japan Times reported on March 29th that radiation inside the vessel has reached 73 sieverts per hour-- high enough to administer a lethal dose to a human in a matter of minutes, even to disable the robotic devices which are sent regularly into the reactor to monitor what is happening there.
Conditions elsewhere in the plant are more difficult to assess. Reactors 1 and 3, both of which melted down after the earthquake and tsunami last year, are currently sealed and impossible to enter, even by robots. So we don’t know what is going on inside those crippled structures.
But nuclear experts say their biggest concern involves Reactor 4 which sustained severe structural damage during the earthquake and subsequent hydrogen explosions which collapsed its roof. This is where hundreds of tons of spent fuel sits perched 100 feet above the ground in a cooling pool exposed to the open sky.
A report released in February by the Independent Investigation Commission on the nuclear accident called this pool “the weakest link” at Fukushima. Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Energy warns that, “If an earthquake or other event were to cause this pool to drain it could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cs-137 released by the Chernobyl accident.”
How likely is this? While the structure of Reactor 4 is stable for the moment, the Dai-ichi plant lies miles from a big earthquake fault-- as large as the one that caused last year’s quake, but much closer to Fukushima. According to a study published in February in the European Geosciences Union´s journal Solid Earth, that fault is now overdue for a quake.
Whether or not the critical pool at Reactor 4 would survive another major quake intact, Edwin Lyman a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that a failure of the jury-rigged inadequate piping installed after the disaster could put the cooling system out of commission.
These dangers have led two former Japanese diplomats on a crusade to avert what they see as a disaster waiting to happen. UN veteran Akio Matsumura and former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata attended the Nuclear Security Summit Conference in Seoul Korea at the end of March “to inform the participants from 54 nations of the potential global catastrophe of reactor unit 4.” They called on the international community to set up an independent assessment team of structural engineers and nuclear scientists to study conditions at Reactor 4 and recommend a course of action.
What lessons can the nuclear industry in the US draw from the Fukushima accident and its still unresolved aftermath? Edwin Lyman calls it a wake up call that we have not yet heeded. He told me that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has failed to fully implement the recommendations of its own post-Fukushima task force.
While a Fukushima-type disaster could happen here, Lyman insists that it doesn’t need to. But he says we have to act now to require new safeguards, demand higher performance standards and expand the roster of accidents that nuclear power plants will need to protect against. Let’s hope the NRC is listening.
Alabama already suffered the oil spill damage and that was enough. We don’t want the catastrophe that occurred far away in Japan to come closer to home.