Greetings fellow denizens of the World,
Every day on which I’ve taken time to work on this piece, over a trillion becquerels (one Becquerel being a single nuclear decay, and that nuclear decay being more or less dangerous depending on the element from which it is decaying) have been emitted via steam and groundwater leakage at the Fukushima Daiichi Number One power plant in Northeastern Japan. The earth under this nuclear power plant has subsided by more than a foot. Reactor #4 is leaning worse than a peg-legged pirate. Tens of millions of pounds of water, contaminated with some of the most toxic and environmentally persistent substances known to man, sit perched multiple stories above the ground in buildings compromised both by the earthquake and by massive hydrogen explosions which rocked the buildings in the days following the quake.
How did we get here?
As you’ve probably heard there was a very, very large earthquake on the western edge of the Ring of Fire on March 11, 2011. This earthquake displaced the sea floor at up to 60 feet in some places, causing a mountain of water to rush towards Japan, in some places inundating the coastline for miles.
In the path of this fifty foot wall of water was the Fukushima Daicchi Number One Nuclear Power Plant , protected by a seawall designed for a twenty-two foot wall of water. The reactor buildings appeared to have weathered the tsunami, although now there is some discussion that there may have been some catastrophic structural failures caused by the earthquake itself. Power was lost. Backup generators located on the ground floors of the plant were inundated with salt water. As those generators were brought on-line they were destroyed by the salt/fuel mix. There was no way to cool the reactors. Temperatures increased to a NHK reported 2,800 degrees C. Fuel melted (The zirconium cladding of the rods that hold the fuel pellets melt around 1,600 degrees ). Fission of the water cooling the rods occurred. H2 gas was fissioned alongside O2 was fissioned as well to fuel it, and the buildings exploded. In Reactor #1 it is thought that the gases collected in the greater reactor building. Reactor #3 and Reactor #4 appeared to explode more upward, driving some speculation that the gas had built up more intensely in the cooling ponds which projected the explosion upwards like a gun barrel.
The ‘Controlled’ Fission Process
With the style of nuclear power used at Fukushima, very high grade fuel is put into pellets and allowed to decay, generating intense amounts of heat. The only thing that controls this process is a continuous cooling, provided by a million gallons per hour of water that is cycled past the 15 foot tall fuel rods. If the cooling process is interrupted, the rods will heat up to Hellish temperatures. That is their natural tendency… to heat up. They are always attempting to heat up. The only thing that keeps them from heating up is active cooling. This is what makes this version of ‘controlled’ fission so dangerous and ‘controlled’ instead of controlled… we are only in ‘control’ as long as active cooling is taking place. Research is currently underway that involves using Thorium in the rods, which requires a constant bombardment of X-Rays for fission to continue occurring. If the power were to go out, the X-Ray beam would go out, and the rods would automatically cease decaying and cool down. This is smart. This is not what we have been doing for the last 50 years.
Instead, in this particular NPP’s Reactor #3, we have mixed plutonium with uranium in our relentless quest to get more from less. More energy comes from less material when using the more potent plutonium. By engaging the risk of using the most deadly material known to man, plutonium, with a half life of 23,000 years, these nuclear power plants were able to eek an extra 5% of energy production out of the fuel rods.
What is the situation right now?
Right now it is believed that some portion of the fuel rods have melted in reactors #1, #2, and #3 and are pooled on the floor of their respective containment vessels. TEPCO categorizes the current situation as serious but stable. What they mean by this is that there is active cooling taking place of the reactor cores, and that the core melt material is staying fairly cool. In my opinion this is about as stable as the situation at Fukushima can be for the next several years.
Today TEPCO is reporting that it believes that the piping into the reactor vessels may have been damaged in the Quake, and if not damaged by the actual shaking then the complex structures were almost certainly damaged from the molten fuel in the hours after the quake pooling at the bottom of the vessels and melting leaks into the sub-structure piping. This would explain where many of the millions of gallons of water that are ‘disappearing’ are going… straight into the local groundwater system, which is seeping into the ocean. TEPCO has denied that much groundwater is seeping since the beginning of the event, but it has been very obvious to careful observers all along. TEPCO issued reports of Reactor 5 and 6 basements filling up with water not long after emergency cooling of the reactors began… this was all due to surging groundwater levels on site.
Temperatures have been spiking in both Reactor #1 and Reactor #3. TEPCO announced today that they will again increase the volume of water being pumped into the reactors by a couple more tons an hour.
And this isn’t even considering the 1,300+ rods that are trying to heat up in Cooling Pond #4. Currently that reactor building is leaning. TEPCO is making some efforts to shore up the building structure, although how exactly they’re doing that they have not made clear.
What is the worst case scenario?
For the people of the world the worst case scenario is the ejection of aerosolized fallout dust… plutonium, uranium, and on down the radioactive decay sequence… thousands of feet into the atmosphere which would allow the jet stream to spread that dust across the planet. The only way this could happen would be via an ejection event that could propel dust up vertically via an explosion. The explosion could come from any number of sources: pressure reactions as pressures climb dramatically from molten corium generating steam and gases; hot and cold reactions related to the pressure reactions; or the ignition of explosive fission products like hydrogen gas. If molten corium does manage to hit a large pool of cold water, the resultant explosion would likely be a combination of all three of those forces.
There is some speculation that the corium material has already melted through the vessels and a tiny part of this process has already begun.
If one, just one, of these reactor vessels explode, then it is likely the capacity to cool the other reactors will be lost and they will all go critical. That is the absolute worst case. The measurable impacts to the rest of the world will depend very much on how violent the explosions are and how high that fallout material is ejected, should these explosions occur.
The best case? The situation as it is, but with controlled groundwater and air emissions.
What has Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) done to shield us from this Hazard?
Considering they have had two months now to respond, not much.
TEPCO’s current plan is to repair the cooling systems in each of the reactor buildings… that is, repair blown apart cooling systems in buildings that humans will never be able to enter again. They have produced a vague 9 month roadmap to control that outline the Plan’s steps.
They continue injecting cooling water. They have come up with a plan to cover the buildings in sheets.
The cooling ponds and reactor vessels remain essentially open to the atmosphere… there has been no mitigation of possible explosions and potential for atmospheric ejection of fallout dust.
There has been no groundwater wells drilled on site. There is no attempt being made to capture any of the radioactive seepage or to prevent the seeps from reaching the open ocean. In TEPCO’s latest press releases they’ve mentioned adding a drainage system to their ‘9 month road map.’
There are no hoods, fans, or piping being installed to attempt to capture fugitive radioactive steam emissions.
Well what would YOU have done, Mr. Smarty Pants?
The most popular idea seems to be concrete. Concrete can’t work. There are several reasons why… it can’t cure properly around a superhot source and would crack, and it wouldn’t allow interaction with the rods (Except perhaps by unpredictable and unwanted cracks, I suppose.) My recommendation for the site has been the same since the beginning. I propose a soil cap. Soil would:
- Support the exterior walls of the reactor buildings
- Allow for the construction of a water recycling system exterior to the reactor buildings
- Shield the radiation emanating from the reactor buildings
- Help suppress potential explosions and localize radiation spread
- Allow for steam cleansing zeolite and borax sand capable of filtering some radionuclides out of the steam
- Off-gassing structures to vent radioactive steam.
Check out my group’s info if you’d like to read more about the soil plan: http://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Viable-Plan-for-Emergency-Containment-at-Fukushima-Support-this-Campaign/182248908488523 if you’re on board. I also yell daily at TEPCO from @BottomfedBuddha.
As interesting and horrifying as the nuclear events going on in Japan are, just as fascinating and potentially horrific are the public policies being implemented by TEPCO and the Japanese government. From withholding information of potential impending catastrophe to raising schoolyard radioactivity limits to unconscionable levels, there is a lot to dissect as this dire situation marches forward.