The story of Fukushima should be on the front pages of every newspaper. Instead, it is rarely mentioned. The problems at Fukushima are unprecedented in human experience and involve a high risk of radiation events larger than any that the global community has ever experienced. It is going to take the best engineering minds in the world to solve these problems and to diminish their global impact.
There are three major problems at Fukushima: (1) Three reactor cores are missing; (2) Radiated water has been leaking from the plant in mass quantities for 2.5 years; and (3) Eleven thousand spent nuclear fuel rods, perhaps the most dangerous things ever created by humans, are stored at the plant and need to be removed, 1,533 of those are in a very precarious and dangerous position. Each of these three could result in dramatic radiation events, unlike any radiation exposure humans have ever experienced. We’ll discuss them in order, saving the most dangerous for last.
Missing reactor cores: Since the accident at Fukushima on March 11, 2011, three reactor cores have gone missing. There was an unprecedented three reactor ‘melt-down.’ These melted cores, called corium lavas, are thought to have passed through the basements of reactor buildings 1, 2 and 3, and to be somewhere in the ground underneath.
Harvey Wasserman, who has been working on nuclear energy issues for over 40 years, tells us that during those four decades no one ever talked about the possibility of a multiple meltdown, but that is what occurred at Fukushima.
It is an unprecedented situation to not know where these cores are. TEPCO is pouring water where they think the cores are, but they are not sure. There are occasional steam eruptions coming from the grounds of the reactors, so the cores are thought to still be hot.
Radioactive water leaking into the Pacific Ocean: TEPCO did not admit that leaks of radioactive water were occurring until July of this year. Shunichi Tanaka the head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority finally told reporters this July that radioactive water has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster hit over two years ago. This is the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed according to a report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. The Japanese government finally admitted that the situation was urgent this September – an emergency they did not acknowledge until 2.5 years after the water problem began.
How much radioactive water is leaking into the ocean? An estimated 300 tons (71,895 gallons/272,152 liters) of contaminated water is flowing into the ocean every day. The first radioactive ocean plume released by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster will take three years to reach the shores of the United States. This means, according to a new study from the University of New South Wales, the United States will experience the first radioactive water coming to its shores sometime in early 2014.
Spent fuel rods: As bad as the problems of radioactive water and missing cores are, the biggest problem at Fukushima comes from the spent fuel rods. The plant has been in operation for 40 years. As a result, they are storing 11 thousand spent fuel rods on the grounds of the Fukushima plant. These fuel rods are composed of highly radioactive materials such as plutonium and uranium. They are about the width of a thumb and about 15 feet long.
The biggest and most immediate challenge is the 1,533 spent fuel rods packed tightly in a pool four floors above Reactor 4. Before the storm hit, those rods had been removed for routine maintenance of the reactor. But, now they are stored 100 feet in the air in damaged racks. They weigh a total of 400 tons and contain radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The building in which these rods are stored has been damaged. TEPCO reinforced it with a steel frame, but the building itself is buckling and sagging, vulnerable to collapse if another earthquake or storm hits the area. Additionally, the ground under and around the building is becoming saturated with water, which further undermines the integrity of the structure and could cause it to tilt.
The three major problems at Fukushima are all unprecedented, each unique in their own way and each has the potential for major damage to humans and the environment. There are no clear solutions but there are steps that need to be taken urgently to get the Fukushima clean-up and de-commissioning on track and minimize the risks.
Read the full article at Truthout
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