Nuclear Nightmare Gets Worse

SUBHEAD: The evacuation of the plant leaves open to question whether the manpower exists to fight the fire and reduce the radiation hazard. By Steve Ludlum on 15 March 2011 in Economic Undertow - ( Image above: Stock shot of perator at controls at Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant No. 3. From ( It should be noted the Nikkei stock index sold off earlier today to the tune of 10.55%, The losses yesterday were 6%. The total two-day loss of 17% is the largest since 1987. The Hong Kong exchange lost almost 4%. The various Eurozone exchanges are also down a like amount. At the open, the S&P is convulsing, along with commodities and other 'risk' assets. The Panglossian mask of complacency and denial promoted by a self-serving establishment is in the process of being ripped away. There really is no recovery. The kids are not all right. The modern world is coming apart at the seams. Everywhere one looks there are existential crises: in Japan, in China with her inflation and pollution along with potential for social unrest, in the Middle East - with the rise of their political underclasses, in the European Union, and in the US itself. All have embraced the 'Key Man' strategy of propping up derelict institutions at whatever cost: a strategy of can-kicking and free money. 'Extend and pretend' has come to the end of the road. The reactor fiasco is the current expression of can-kicking, Japanese-style. The meltdown of three reactors and a spent fuel fire at a fourth is not a 'natural disaster' or an act of god. Nobody put a gun to the heads of the Japanese establishment forcing them to build scores of reactors, to put them next to each other where the failure of one meant the failure of all, to build them in a zone riddled with faults and subject to massive tsunamis. The Japanese built the reactors as a 'hedge' against rising petroleum prices beginning after the 1973 oil shock. Instead of confronting fuel use directly and rebuilding demand to match available fuel supplies, the Japanese built reactors, accepting the risk that something like what is taking place right now would happen to 'somebody else'. Punt that can, Baby! The reactor building binge has been another bubble, the concurrent meltdowns are the popping of that bubble. The bubble existed so that Japan could 'enjoy' its version of the American-style waste-based economy, with endless carz, non-stop high tech 'George Jetson' gadgetry and a gigantic manufacturing infrastructure. It may be too early for the Japanese to be asking themselves how -- after decades of deflation and stagnation -- that economic approach is working out for them, now. Add the costs of this disaster to the costs of the tsunami and those accumulated over the past two decades of extend and pretend consequent to Japan's bank insolvency and it hard to see what output Japan can tap to rebuild. Japan is Detroit writ large. It is a smokestack economy. It must sell carz or go broke. Carz are central to the financial ring of fire that is crapitating around the world and has been since 2004. There is nothing new here, folks! It's just more of the same. Without significant change, things are going to get worse and worse. Nobody listens to me, I'm an idiot! Meanwhile, back at the 'Neutron Ranch', the most serious development overshadowing the core melting at Dai-ichi (I still don't know how to spell this as multiple versions exist across the media) is the fuel fire that ignited in a spent fuel storage tank in unit #4. This is the last in the row of reactors located at Kurushima Dai-ichi. Prior to the earthquake it had been shut down for maintenance along with its sister plants five and six. I suspect a large contributor to the rise in radiation discovered outside the reactors is the fire. Also contributing was a hydrogen and explosion in unit #2 that took place early this morning in the suppression pond. This has apparently breached the containment of unit #2.
Here is a schematic of a boiling water reactor more or less identical to the General Electric BWR- 3 reactors failing in Kurushima. It is taken from a set of illustrations of the plant @ Monticello, Minnesota on Nuclear Tourist.
  • Spent fuel -- which lacks the energy required to make commercial steam -- is removed from the core in a large, water- filled 'flask' that is lowered by the crane into the core. The flask is attached to a crane that travels the length of the reactor in the attic space over the containment.
  • The spent fuel rod assemblies are lowered into tanks or 'ponds' filled with cooling water for long- term storage until disposal or reprocessing.
  • The rod assemblies must be immersed in water for long periods until the latent radioactivity is reduced enough so that the assemblies can be handled. Like all other fuel rod assemblies that have been subject to use the rods are fiercely hot and will burst into radiation- spewing fire. The flammable zirconium cladding interacts with steam and emits hydrogen which accelerates the fire. The rod assemblies are subject to spontaneous fire for many years after removal.
In building #4 the water level in a spent fuel tank dropped to expose the fuel rod assemblies. Hydrogen gas formed and detonated as the rods burst into flames. This was because the lack of outside power immobilized necessary pumps. It is also possible that no one was monitoring unit #4 with the distractions taking place at the other three reactors. Without circulating cooling water the contents of the tanks quietly boiled off exposing the fuel. This is something about reactors that people don't understand: even when a reactor is in 'cold shut down' there are continuous demands for power and working equipment. A failure anywhere can mushroom into a catastrophe. The fire at unit 4 is of the gravest concern. The spent fuel tanks in these reactors are located at the very top of the containment structures. For all practical purposes, they are unapproachable. As the fuel rods burn, the fuel pellets vaporize. Particles of fuel, daughter isotopes and other radioactive bits and pieces are blown by the force of the fire to every part of the reactor containment. Any leaks in the containment roof area allows radioactive steam and smoke to flow outside the reactor in large amounts.. reports the NY Times:
... Japan’s nuclear watchdog said a pool storing spent fuel rods at that fourth reactor had overheated and reached boiling point and had become unapproachable by workers at the plant. The fire earlier Tuesday morning was sparked by a hydrogen explosion generated by rising temperatures at the fuel pool, which released radioactivity directly into the atmosphere. The fourth reactor had been turned off and was under refurbishment for months before the earthquake and tsunami hit the plant on Friday. But the plant contains spent fuel rods that were removed from the reactor. If these rods had run dry, they could overheat and catch fire. That is almost as dangerous as the fuel in working reactors melting down, because the spent fuel can also spew radioactivity into the atmosphere. Shigekatsu Oomukai, a spokesperson for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said the substantial capacity of the pool meant that the water in the pool was unlikely to evaporate soon. But he said workers were having difficulty reaching the pool to cool it, because of the high temperature of the water. Worryingly, temperatures appeared to be rising in the spent fuel pools at two other reactors at the plant, No. 5 and No. 6, said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary.
  • There are spent fuel tanks at the tops of the other three reactors filled with almost 2,000 tons of spent fuel rods with uncertain cooling.
  • It is uncertain whether spent fuel tanks at the stricken three units are boiling or damaged in some other way.
  • The evacuation of the plant leaves open to question whether the manpower exists to fight the fire and reduce the radiation hazard.
  • The fire can be fought directly by flooding the tanks with water. The tanks can also be flooded by way of a standpipe. It is presumed this is taking place at the moment at the three damaged plants even though this is unclear in media reports.
  • If the tanks themselves are damaged and water is leaking whether due to the explosions or the earthquake, adding more water has radiation leaking into the containment and perhaps to the outside.
  • The tank fires can be doused by filling the tanks with sand and boron. However, sand must be available along with a means to get it to the tanks.
  • The stricken reactors have suffered severe explosion damage at the roof structures where the tanks are located. It is unclear whether access to the tanks can be had at all under any circumstances.
  • The radiation risk from the tanks is as great or greater than the cores because of the available supply of fuel and the fact that is is literally located in open air while being inaccessible at the top of dangerously unstable reactors.
  • If water cannot be pumped into the tanks, helicopters would be used to fling or dribble water, boron and perhaps sand in the general direction of the tanks. It is hard to see how fire fighters could make their way to the tanks in order to flood them.
  • All of this presupposes the three stricken reactor cores do not melt down completely rendering the plant area unapproachable.
  • All of the fifty-four Japanese reactors have spent fuel on site in tanks or ponds with questionable circulation.
While the tank/pond debacle is unfolding, the drama of the three reactor cores is still underway. As of today (Tuesday in the US) the cores and pressure vessels are still intact and the reactor gang is flooding them with seawater in a continuing attempt to cool them. Making this process more difficult is the rising levels of radiation at the Fukushima facility and the evacuation of staff. Beginning now, the operation is short-handed. Someone has to go outside, hook up hoses, start engines, monitor instrument panels, add diesel fuel to generators and otherwise perform necessary tasks. If the area is too 'hot' the tasks aren't attempted. Without 'hands' an effort cannot be considered. The radiation exposure creates its own vicious cycle of reduced manpower leading indirectly toward greater releases of radiation. The list of unfinished tasks is growing. Some could have been done in parallel with others but many seem to have been put off indefinitely for unknown reasons. Some could be started now but increased radiation calls efforts into question:
  • Repairing diesel generators that were immobilized by the tsunami. Repair of these generators would allow primary and backup circulating pumps to draw heat out of the cores. No mention of this kind of repair effort is made in the media. Fixing the generators would require diesel mechanics not PhD nuclear physicists!
  • Efforts could be made to determine if generators at reactors four, five and six are usable. If so, power can be shunted to the disabled reactors.
  • Efforts could be made to connect emergency generators to the pumps. Apparently, this approach was abandoned before the explosion at unit #1.
Right now it appears that there is no apparent organization at this reactor complex. Tokyo Electric is rudderless. Reactor operators flounder from crisis to crisis. There is no one in overall command and no management structure. Nobody can tell whether the cabinet is in charge, the Japanese nuclear agency or Tokyo Electric. Operators are reacting to events rather than mapping strategies and following through. This leadership void has the physical problems amplifying each other while undermining the morale of the crews. The same conflict of aims adversely effected the first attempts to plug the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. As in Japan, great efforts are being made to 'spin' the problems in the media and to minimize effects. Less efforts are being made to get a handle of the problem(s). Confronted with a situation where every second counts, the major effort has been a public relations campaign. As stated earlier: 'No problems' means 'Mo problems'! How bad is it going to get?
  • The Dai-ichi plant is kaput. All of the reactors at this site will ultimately be decommissioned and removed for burial at some 'secure' nuclear waste site. This is the best case scenario! Out of necessity decommissioning will take decades. The caveat is whether Japan can afford to do this. The cost will be in the tens of billions on top of all this disaster's costs and those finance costs exposed by the collateral loss and deflationary unwind. The total costs are likely to be multiple trillion$ US.
  • Japan Inc. is flat broke, held up with negative real interest rates, phony accounting, inflated collateral values and an ossified Establishment. Its finance sector has been a zombie for twenty years. Japan's economy is a ponzi scheme that is now under massive cost pressure.
  • Other Japanese reactor sites are kaput. Many are old and poorly sited like this one. This includes Fukusima Da-ini's four reactors. Add decommissioning these and other 'questionable' reactors to the cost-side of Japan Inc's ledger.
  • Japan is going to have a severe electricity shortage that will effect its productive output. Japan's nukes support Japan's powerful auto industry. As the nukes sneeze, the auto industry will get the pneumonia.
  • Japan is going to face another fallout crisis. This is nothing new. During the 1950's and 60's the US, Britain, France and the USSR tested hundreds of nuclear devices above ground and in the atmosphere. Radiologicals were circulating in the atmosphere for decades. Some isotopes were found to accumulate in food, such as reaction daughter Strontium 90. World-wide protests more or less eliminated above ground testing and radiation levels subsided. Atmospheric levels of nuclear isotopes of Cesium and Iodine will increase worldwide but the greatest contamination will take place within twenty miles or so of the plant complex. If there is a core - breech or if the spent fuel burns uncontrollably, the effects are likely to be as great or greater than the effect post- Chernobyl.
  • Keep in mind that most radioactive materials are heavy and will settle close to where they are emitted. This area might very well be rendered 'off limits' to humans for a period of decades or centuries. The plants would have to be entombed in concrete and steel: designed to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and a 10 meter tsunami!
  • The reactor industry worldwide is likely kaput. Reactor orders will be canceled and old reactors shut down.
  • The nuclear industry has lost whatever shreds of credibility it earned post-TMI. Nobody will believe what any nuclear pimp has to say about nuclear 'safety'.
  • The loss of life is likely to be low from this incident, regardless of the outcome. Unlike the Chernobyl catastrophe where the Soviet establishment maintained official silence while the reactor was vomiting radiation like a volcano, the Japanese have evacuated the area closest to the plant.
  • This does not mean there is no downwind danger. Radionuclides are mutagenic and cause cancers in humans. Tokyo is downwind from Kurushima. The cost of cleansing a city of 20 million of radioactive materials for an unknown period is impossible to calculate. The same is true of the rest of the country. For the third time since August, 1945, the Japanese are going to have to live with radiation.
Even if the reactors begin to cool tomorrow and the crisis ends at Fukushima, the bulk of the costs will remain. And without a change in the demand for energy, the ongoing nightmare of world economic unwind is going to keep getting worse. UPDATE: Reuters reports Japanese reactor workers may drop water onto the spent fuel tanks by helicopter. This suggests the fire is still burning, that the tank area is unapproachable, that the roof is off unit #4 and that the containment of the reactor is contaminated. Scratching the bottom of the solution barrel, folks! UPDATE: NY Times Report suggests the explosion that breached containment in unit #2 was the result of trapped hydrogen gas and oxygen detonating in the suppression pool under the pressure vessel. Gas saturation of cooling water would be the result of low water in the pressure vessel for a long period. Venting the pressure vessel would allow the gases to bubble out of the cooling water in the suppression pond and accumulate there. .

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