Monday, 14 March 2011
The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them. At 3:41 p.m. Friday, roughly an hour after the quake and just around the time the region would have been struck by the giant waves, the generators shut down. According to Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant switched to an emergency cooling system that operates on batteries, but these were soon depleted.
Inside the plant, according to industry executives and American experts who received briefings over the weekend, there was deep concern that spent nuclear fuel that was kept in a “cooling pond” inside one of the plants had been exposed and begun letting off potentially deadly gamma radiation. Then water levels inside the reactor cores began to fall. While estimates vary, several officials and industry experts said Sunday that the top four to nine feet of the nuclear fuel in the core and control rods appear to have been exposed to the air — a condition that that can quickly lead to melting, and ultimately to full meltdown.
At 8 p.m., just as Americans were waking up to news of the earthquake, the government declared an emergency, contradicting its earlier reassurances that there were no major problems. But the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, stressed that there had been no radiation leak.
But one was coming: Workers inside the reactors saw that levels of coolant water were dropping. They did not know how severely. “The gauges that measure the water level don’t appear to be giving accurate readings,” one American official said.
What the workers knew by Saturday morning was that cooling systems at a nearby power plant, Fukushima Daini, were also starting to fail, for many of the same reasons. And the pressure in the No. 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi was rising so fast that engineers knew they would have to relieve it by letting steam escape.
Shortly before 4 p.m., camera crews near the Daiichi plant captured what appears to have been an explosion at the No. 1 reactor — apparently caused by a buildup of hydrogen. It was dramatic television but not especially dangerous — except to the workers injured by the force of the blast.
The explosion was in the outer container, leaving the main reactor vessel unharmed, according to Tokyo Electric’s reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The walls of the outer building blew apart, as they are designed to do, rather than allow a buildup of pressure that could damage the reactor vessel.)
But the dramatic blast was also a warning sign of what could happen inside the reactor vessel if the core was not cooled. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that “as a countermeasure to limit damage to the reactor core,” Tokyo Electric proposed injecting seawater mixed with boron — which can choke off a nuclear reaction — and it began to do that at 10:20 p.m. Saturday.
It was a desperation move: The corrosive seawater will essentially disable the 40-year-old plant; the decision to flood the core amounted to a decision to abandon the facility. But even that operation has not been easy.
To pump in the water, the Japanese have apparently tried used firefighting equipment — hardly the usual procedure. But forcing the seawater inside the containment vessel has been difficult because the pressure in the vessel has become so great.
One American official likened the process to “trying to pour water into an inflated balloon,” and said that on Sunday it was “not clear how much water they are getting in, or whether they are covering the cores.”
The problem was compounded because gauges in the reactor seemed to have been damaged in the earthquake or tsunami, making it impossible to know just how much water is in the core.
And workers at the pumping operation are presumed to be exposed to radiation; several workers, according to Japanese reports, have been treated for radiation poisoning. It is not clear how severe their exposure was.
Posted by Reg Illingworth at 03:34