Editorial Note: Recent reports indicate radioactive steam has been releasing into the atmosphere at the Fukishima Daichi nuclear reactor site in Japan. Unfortunately this is business as usual—i.e., since the disaster in the spring of 2011 there has been a continued unstable situation with radioactive steam releasing off and on. Of course it is more obvious in wintertime, as it is now. But that does not mean we should continue to ignore it.
The following article by Christopher Arcus will help inform the reader of the dire situation in Fukishima. What comes through is that this is not just a Japanese problem; it is a world health problem for generations to come. For this reason, Eos: The Creative Context will continue to follow this story in its various aspects.
FUKISHIMA, NEARLY THREE YEARS AFTER
by Christopher Arcus,
Last Spring, two years after spectacular explosions at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi Power Plant, pictures showed a grim reality. The full impact of the disaster continues to be difficult to comprehend.
For nearly three years, the plants have been doused with vast amounts of water to prevent further disaster. The water is too radioactive to dump and is stored in a vast and growing array of water tanks. The plan is to create a giant chemical processing operation to remove the radioactive contaminants from the stored water and then dispose of the processed water in the ocean. The situation at Fukushima shows a continuing battle to prevent radiation escaping into the environment that will last for generations to come.
There are two reasons why water is circulated over the plants. Inside, there are nuclear reactors with their melted cores, and just above, the spent uranium fuel, is stored in water baths the size of olympic swimming pools. The spent fuel must be cooled and covered with water, or it will heat up and burn, sending radiation into the atmosphere. The reactor is cooled in hopes that the corium (melted uranium core) stabilizes and does not undergo any further fission.
The utility monitors temperatures and there is great concern if the temperature rises. Already, several earthquakes have happened since the disaster, the most recent, a magnitude 7 off Hokkaido. http://japandailypress.com/m7-2-earthquake-strikes-north-of-japan-near-hokkaido-1927332/ There is great concern, because the stabilization and clean up is affected by further earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes.
There are many dangers that still exist. The first three reactor units are believed to have melted down completely. The radiation levels near the reactor is too lethal for workers to get near, although robots have tried and failed. Unit four’s building is damaged, and the spent fuel perched high up in the structure suffers the danger of collapse should another earthquake occur.
If the spent fuel is not covered by water, it could heat up and a fire could release large amounts of radiation. The water level could drop, either by losing power to cool it, or by damage causing leaks. Recently, power which supplies the pumps circulating this critical water supply was interrupted for twenty four hours, due to a rat that shorted electrical cabling. For now, the danger of boiling off the water is not too great, because power can be restored and leaks can be fixed in time. Not so in the event of an earthquake that damages the spent fuel pool excessively. That is causing there to be great urgency to remove the spent fuel from Unit 4, and that activity is under way now.
Water is being pumped from the reactor buildings into huge tanks. This water is so radioactive that one would receive a lethal dose in less than a day at a distance of a foot. Attempts to chemically filter the radioactivity out of this water have been unsuccessful, because the water is accumulating faster than it can be treated. These tanks are at risk in the event of leaks, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Already they have leaked and the water in the ocean nearby contains radioactive isotopes that can be absorbed by fish and sea life. Fishing has been prohibited near the coast, and fish in the area have been found to have high levels of radioactive contamination.
It is probable that even if the spent fuel can be removed, the highly radioactive melted cores will be left where they are, enclosed in a building to protect the environment from further contamination. Attempts may be made to build a concrete barrier underneath the melted cores. Any pathway that leaks radiation will potentially need to be stopped for millennia. The reactor at unit one was operated with MOX, a fuel with a higher concentration of plutonium. This highly toxic and radioactive element has a half-life of 24,000 years. There is a significant quantity of it in the reactors and spread throughout the earthquake, tsunami, and explosion damaged reactor complex. In order for it to decay by a thousandfold, it will take 240,000 years.
Independent estimates of the clean up cost are from 250 to 500 billion dollars. Plans are to enclose the entire disaster in a gigantic building . Chernobyl was enclosed in such a nuclear sarcophagus, but its roof collapsed after thirty years. Now European countries are contributing billions to build a new structure, estimated to last only a hundred years. The reality is sinking in, that buildings housing these nuclear disasters must be built and rebuilt for generations. There is no permanent solution that allows us to walk away and forget.
Christopher Arcus is an engineer working in Silicon Valley. As a young man he studied engineering with a focus on wind and solar energy. Chris has continued to take an interest in environmental concerns, including the problems created by nuclear power.
Categories: social and political commentry by Chris Arcus