An Accident Waiting to Happen - by Ace Hoffman
October 25th, 2011
To give you some idea of how bad the worst industrial accident in human history actually is, a team of international experts recently concluded that the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear catastrophe has already released 2.5 times as much radioactive Xenon-133 (a noble gas) as was released by the Chernobyl catastrophe -- the previous worst industrial accident.
Both accidents are ongoing: Chernobyl's poisons will be emitted for thousands of years, and so will Fukushima's. Fukushima is still spewing radioactive poisons by the terabecquerel (a technical term for: A lot). Chernobyl's effluents are somewhat better contained, although Chernobyl's precarious sarcophagus is in need of immediate repair.
But bad as things still are at Fukushima after the March 11th, 2011 earthquake and tsunami (and numerous mechanical and human failures, too), things can get MUCH worse at Fukushima.
Unit #4's Spent Fuel Pool contains the equivalent of about three fully-fueled nuclear reactors: 1,331 fuel assembly bundles. And because of structural damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, plus an explosion in the reactor building housing the SFP on March 15, and numerous earthquake aftershocks, Unit #4's SFP is even more precarious right now than Chernobyl's sarcophagus.
Some of the fuel assemblies are extremely radioactively "hot" since the reactor itself was emptied entirely in December 2010 for extended maintenance. They take a minimum of about five years to cool enough to be removed from the pool. It's way too soon right now.
But if an accident (caused by an aftershock or a new earthquake, for instance) causes the Unit #4 Spent Fuel Pool to drain -- which nearly or partially happened, but things are sort of stable right now -- ALL of the fuel in the pool might catch fire and burn. This could approximately double the size of the Fukushima releases so far!
Below, Gordon Edwards, from the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, describes the dangers to Unit #4's SFP in more detail, and proposes an international team be immediately convened to secure the site better. The efforts necessary are agonizing processes, which will take an agonizing amount of time to accomplish. And they won't be cheap, which may be the main reason they are not being done.
But they MUST be done!
To: Akio Matsumura
From: Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Date: October 24, 2001
In your recent blog, entitled “The Fourth Reactor and the Destiny of
Japan”, you correctly identify the spent fuel pool in Unit 4 as the
most serious potential threat for further massive radioactive
releases from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. (http://
If not cooled by mechanical means for at least several years, the
irradiated fuel in the spent fuel pool will overheat due to
radioactivity alone. The heat generated by radioactivity must be
removed as fast as it is being produced to keep the temperature of
the nuclear fuel from soaring out of control.
If the temperature climbs toward 900 degrees C, the metal coating
("cladding") on the outside of the fuel pellets rapidly deteriorates,
releasing large quantities of radioactive gases and vapors.
At these elevated temperatures, the cladding also reacts with steam
(H2O) to produce hydrogen gas (H2) which explodes with great force,
as it did in Unit 4 on March 15 blowing the roof off the building
and providing a pathway for radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere.
At about 1000 degrees, the fuel cladding can catch fire, emitting
tiny radioactive cinders miniscule particles of irradiated fuel
called "nuclear fleas" particularly dangerous when inhaled or
Currently , the situation in Unit 4 is under control but things
could change quickly if the spent fuel pool collapses or the support
structure is severely damaged by a strong aftershock. It may then be
impossible to cool the irradiated fuel effectively. Temperatures will
climb, and the irradiated fuel will overheat and may even catch fire.
In such an event, with no roof on Unit 4, and no containment
structure surrounding the spent fuel pool, there is no barrier to
prevent or even limit further radioactive releases. Thus there is no
way to protect the Japanese population or the environment from these
Ten years ago, a technical study from the US Nuclear Regulatory
Agency pointed out that “the long-term consequences of an SFP [spent
fuel pool] fire may be significant. Analysis indicates that when
air flow has been restricted, such as might occur after a cask drop
or major earthquake, the possibility of a fire [in a spent fuel pool]
lasts many years.” (US NRC NUREG-1738, http://tinyurl.com/65aa4ue)
Because of the serious nature of this threat, it would be wise for
the Japanese Government to call in experts from other countries to
assess the structural integrity of the spent fuel pool in Unit 4 and
to recommend measures that can be taken to strengthen it. It is
imperative that the spent fuel pool and its supporting structures are
capable of withstanding the most severe imaginable aftershock.
Experience has shown that TEPCO and the Japanese regulatory body have
not always been correct in their assessments of the situation at
Fukushima Daiichi. On numerous occasions misinformation has been
communicated to the government and to the public. In such
circumstances, it is important to seek the advice of experts who are
genuinely independent having no conflict of interest and no need
to save face. National pride makes it understandably difficult to
seek help from outside, but sometimes it is the best thing to do.
As an example, here in Canada, the Board of Directors of Ontario
Hydro decided in 1997 to ask a team of American nuclear experts to
carry out an Independent Integrated Performance Assessment (IPPA) of
Ontario's 20 operational nuclear power reactors. This unprecedented
decision was taken in order to provide the Board with a truly
independent review of safety-related questions associated with
Ontario Hydro's large fleet of nuclear reactors. (http://ccnr.org/
The reason for calling in outside experts was to overcome a
significant degree of confusion and uncertainty created by obscure
and seemingly contradictory reports from the nuclear division of
Ontario Hydro and from Canada’s regulatory agency at that time, the
Atomic Energy Control Board.
As a result of the independent review, 7 of Ontario Hydro's reactors
were shut down for more than 7 years. This allowed management and
staff to focus on a large backlog of important safety-related
maintenance tasks and to improve the safety culture within the
nuclear division of Ontario Hydro (now Ontario Power Generation).
We in Canada have observed that, under extraordinary circumstances,
it can be very beneficial to have the advice of outside experts who
bring fresh eyes to bear on the problems and who have no need to
defend past pronouncements or justify decisions that may have been
I believe that such an independent assessment is needed for the spent
fuel bay in Unit 4, aimed at producing specific recommendations for
ensuring the integrity of the pool and its support structure against
any foreseeable earthquake or other stresses they may be subjected to.
It is important to remove the irradiated fuel from the damaged spent
fuel pool of Unit 4 as soon as possible. But for this, it is
necessary to have (1) a destination pool prepared to receive the
irradiated fuel from Unit 4, (2) a containment structure to prevent
radioactive emissions during transfer, (3) two cranes (with needed
infrastructure) for managing the fuel removal, and (4) transport
flasks with cooling capabilities. The fact that the fuel is already
damaged further complicates the procedure.
Clearly it will not be possible to remove the irradiated fuel from
the spent fuel pool until 2014 at the earliest. In the meantime, it
is urgent that action be taken to obtain objective advice from
structural experts to ensure that the existing spent fuel bay is as
strong and secure as possible.
The stakes are too high to accept unsupported reassurances from TEPCO
without first subjecting their analysis to the disinterested scrutiny
of others. The dangers associated with the Unit 4 spent fuel pool
that were described in a recently-released simulation by Japan's
Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (completed in June, but only
released in October) are still present. (http://tinyurl.com/3b7dmwn)
Contact information for Ace Hoffman:
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