Friday, March 18, 2011

Very Very Exceptionally Bad Things

(Graphic: New York Times Online, March 17, 2011)

The New York Times' continuing coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan, following the earthquake and tsunami a week ago, mentioned a few facts this morning which may indicate the situation is getting worse, not better -- and, that the Japanese government and Tokyo Power Company (TEPCO) have been understating the level of danger to the surrounding population for some time.

My One Dog's Opinion, based on nothing but general experience, is that TEPCO didn't reveal the full extent of problems at the Fukushima plant to the Japanese government until things began to spiral out of control -- and even then, they weren't completely forthcoming.

At this point, the situation is so critical that no one has time to place blame -- they're too busy trying to prevent it from getting even worse.
In a further sign of spreading alarm that uranium in the plant could begin to melt, Japan planned to import about 150 tons of boron from South Korea and France to mix with water to be sprayed onto damaged reactors, French and South Korean officials said Friday. Boron absorbs neutrons during a nuclear reaction and can be used in an effort to stop a meltdown if the zirconium cladding on uranium fuel rods is compromised.

Tokyo Electric Power Company... said earlier this week that there was a possibility of “recriticality,” in which fission would resume if fuel rods melted and the uranium pellets slumped into a jumble together on the floor of a storage pool or reactor core. Spraying pure water on the uranium under these conditions can actually accelerate fission, said Robert Albrecht, a longtime nuclear engineer...

Additionally... there also appeared to be damage to the floor or sides of the spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4, and that this was making it extremely hard to refill the pool with water... a leak had not been located but engineers had concluded that it must exist because water sprayed on the storage pool has been disappearing much more quickly than would be consistent with evaporation.

One concern at [Reactor] No. 4 has been a fire that was burning at its storage pool earlier in the week; American officials are not convinced the fire has gone out. American officials have also worried that the spent-fuel pool at that reactor has run dry, exposing the rods.
The NYT continued that the United States government has not reversed a previously-declared instruction for all U.S. nationals to relocate at least 50 miles from the nuclear plant, which is a greater perimeter than the Japanese government has established (see NYT graphic at the top of the page).

Obligatory Cute Small Animal Photo In Middle Of Very Bad Thing

American officials in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the State Department have said their greatest concern was that efforts by the Japanese to get water into four of the plant’s six reactors showed few signs of working. On Wednesday, American and Japanese officials gave "radically different assessments" of the danger, but appeared to try and present a more united front yesterday.

"Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes," per the NYT. With Japanese permission the U.S. began to fly intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, "in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from Tokyo Electric, which operates Fukushima Daiichi."

"American officials say they suspect that the company has consistently underestimated the risk and moved too slowly to contain the damage."
American officials, meanwhile, remained fixated on the temperature readings inside Reactor No. 2 and two others that had been operating until the earthquake shut them down, as well as at the plant’s spent fuel pools, looking for any signs that their high levels of heat were going down. If the fuel rods are uncovered and exposed to air, they heat up and can burst into flame, spewing radioactive elements.

So far the officials saw no signs of dropping temperatures. And the [UN's IAEA website] made it clear that there were no readings at all from some critical areas. Part of the American effort, by satellites and aircraft, is to identify the hot spots, something the Japanese have not been able to do in some cases...

Getting the Japanese to accept [use of] American detection equipment was a delicate diplomatic maneuver, which some Japanese officials originally resisted. But as it became clear that conditions at the plant were spinning out of control, and with Japanese officials admitting they had little hard evidence about whether there was water in the cooling pools or breaches in the reactor containment structures, they began to accept more help.

...As time went by, and the situation became worse. On occasion, admitting you're screwed and asking for help to solve a problem is better than trying to avoid "embarrassment" over having made a mistake.

In this case, damage to the Daiichi plant was an act of nature (The decision to build nuclear power plants in a country as seismically-active as Japan we'll table for the moment). However, the crisis that has developed since is the result of human beings, making decisions -- or, not.



UPDATE: From the NYT this morning:
Japan Raises Nuclear Crisis Warning Level Retroactively
By Hiroko Tabuchi and Keith Bradsher / 10:58 PDST

The decision to raise the level came two days after an American warned publicly that the situation at the plant was much bleaker than Japanese officials had indicated...

A senior official at [Japan's] nuclear safety agency, Hidehiko Nishiyama, said Friday that [Japanese] regulators had not raised the threat level earlier because they were still assessing the situation. But on Friday, they decided events starting at the plant on Tuesday had been worrisome enough to justify the higher rating...

Despite changing the threat level, the Japanese government did not extend the evacuation area from 12 miles. The United States on Wednesday warned its nationals in the area to move at least 50 miles away from the plant.

Mr. Nishiyama said there was “no need” to expand the evacuation area, asserting that officials had erred on the side of caution from the very beginning in setting the boundary...

Uh-Huh.