Robert Alvarez / The Institute for Policy Studies & Harvey Wasserman / NukeFree.org – 2011-03-13 00:34:33
On the Brink of Meltdown:
The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant
Robert Alvarez / The Institute for Policy Studies
(March 11, 2011) — In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, 5,800 residents living within five miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.
Plant operators haven’t been able to cool down the core of one reactor containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling. In a race against time, the power company and the Japanese military are flying in nine emergency generators.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the US Air Force has provided cooling water for the troubled reactor. Complicating matters, Japan’s Meteorological Agency has declared the area to be at high risk of being hit by a tsunami.
The plant was operating at full power when the quake hit and even though control rods were automatically inserted to halt the nuclear reaction, the reactor core remains very hot. Even with a fully functioning emergency core cooling system, it would take several hours for the reactor core to cool and stabilize.
If emergency cooling isn’t restored, the risks of a core melt, and release of radioactivity into the environment is significantly increased. Also, it’s not clear if piping and electrically distribution systems inside the plant have been damaged. If so, that would interfere with reactor cooling.
A senior US nuclear power technician tells me the window of time before serious problems arise is between 12 and 24 hours.
Early on, Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation had been released. However, because the reactor remains at a very high temperature, radiation levels are rising on the turbine building â€“ forcing to plant operators to vent radioactive steam into the environment.
The devastating Japanese quake and its outcome could generate a political tsunami here in the United States. For instance, it may become impossible for the owners of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operating.
These two California reactors are sitting in high seismic risk zones near earthquake faults. Each is designed to withstand a quake as great as 7.5 on the Richter scale. According to many seismologists, the probability of a major earthquake in the California coastal zone in the foreseeable future is a near certainty. The US Geological Survey reports the largest registering 8.3 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco in 1906.
“There have been tremblers felt at US plants over the past several years, but nothing approaching the need for emergency action,” Scott Burnell, a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters.
As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe approaches next month, Japan’s earthquake serve as a reminder that the risks of nuclear power, when things go seriously wrong.
The Chernobyl accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. More than 100,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of radioactive contamination. And area an equal to half of the State of New Jersey was rendered uninhabitable.
Fortunately, US and Japanese reactors have extra measures of protection that were lacking at Chernobyl, such as a secondary concrete containment structure over the reactor vessel to prevent escape of radioactivity.
In 1979, the containment structure at the Three Mile Island reactor did prevent the escape of a catastrophic amount of radioactivity after the core melted. But people living nearby were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the accident and deliberate venting to stabilize the reactor. With one hour, the multi-billion dollar investment in that plant went down the drain.
Meanwhile, let’s hope that the core of the Japanese reactor can be cooled in time. We shouldn’t need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better and much safer ways to make electricity.
Japan’s Quake Could Have Irradiated the Entire US
Harvey Wasserman, Editor / NukeFree.org
â€¨(March 11, 2011) — Had the massive 8.9 Richter-scale earthquake that has just savaged Japan hit off the California coast, it could have ripped apart at least four coastal reactors and sent a lethal cloud of radiation across the entire United States. â€¨â€¨
The two huge reactors each at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are not designed to withstand such powerful shocks. All four are extremely close to major faults. All four reactors are located relatively low to the coast. They are vulnerable to tsunamis like those now expected to hit as many as fifty countries. â€¨â€¨
San Onofre sits between San Diego and Los Angeles. A radioactive cloud spewing from one or both reactors there would do incalculable damage to either or both urban areas before carrying over the rest of southern and central California. â€¨â€¨
Diablo Canyon is at Avila Beach, on the coast just west of San Luis Obispo, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A radioactive eruption there would pour into central California and, depending on the winds, up to the Bay Area or southeast into Santa Barbara and then to Los Angeles.
The cloud would at very least permanently destroy much of the region on which most Americans rely for their winter supply of fresh vegetables.â€¨â€¨
By the federal Price-Anderson Act of 1957, the owners of the destroyed reactors — including Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — would be covered by private insurance only up to $11 billion, a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars worth of damage that would be done. The rest would become the responsibility of the federal taxpayer and the fallout victims. Virtually all homeowner insurance policies in the United States exempt the insurers from liability from a reactor disaster. â€¨â€¨
The most definitive recent study of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster puts the death toll at 985,000.
The accident irradiated a remote rural area. The nearest city, Kiev, is 80 kilometers away. But San Luis Obispo is some ten miles directly downwind from Diablo Canyon. The region around San Onofre has become heavily suburbanized.
Heavy radioactive fallout spread from Chernobyl blanketed all of Europe within a matter of days. It covered an area far larger than the United States.
Fallout did hit the jet stream and then the coast of California, thousands of miles away, within ten days. It then carried all the way across the northern tier of the United States. â€¨â€¨Chernobyl Unit Four was of comparable size to the two reactors at Diablo Canyon, and somewhat larger than the two at San Onofre.
But it was very new when it exploded. California’s four coastal reactors have been operating since the 1970s and 1980s. Their accumulated internal radioactive burdens could exceed what was spewed at Chernobyl.
Japanese officials say all affected reactors automatically shut, with no radiation releases. But they are not reliable. In 2007 a smaller earthquake rocked the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki site and forced its lengthy shutdown.
Preliminary reports indicate at least one fire at a Japanese reactor hit by this quake and tsunami.
In 1986 the Perry nuclear plant, east of Cleveland, was rocked by a 5.5 Richter-scale shock, many orders of magnitude weaker than this one. That quake broke pipes and other key equipment within the plant. It took out nearby roads and bridges.
Thankfully, Perry had not yet opened. An official Ohio commission later warned that evacuation during such a quake would be impossible. â€¨â€¨Numerous other American reactors sit on or near earthquake faults. â€¨â€¨The Obama Administration is now asking Congress for $36 billion in new loan guarantees to build more commercial reactors.
It has yet to reveal its exact plans for dealing with a major reactor disaster. Nor has it identified the cash or human reserves needed to cover the death and destruction imposed by the reactors’ owners.
Harvey Wasserman edits NukeFree.org. He is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. He co-authored Killing our Own: The Disaster of Americaâ€™s Experience with Atomic Radiation.
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