Climate change

March 25, 2011

10+ days of crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – 22 March 2010

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 1:54 pm

by Barry Brook

Update: Detailed graphical status report on each reactor unit is available. Here is the picture for Unit 2 — click on the figure to access the PDF for all units.


Yes, it really has been that long. So what happened during those 10+ days? For a long answer, look back over the daily posts on this blog, which also has plenty of links to more off-site information. For the short-hand version, I offer you this excellent graphic produced by the Wall Street Journal:

Credit: Wall Street Journal:

Things continue to develop slowly, but I think now towards an inevitable conclusion — barring any sudden turn of events, a cold shutdown (reactor temperature below 100C) should be achieved in units 1 to 3 within the next week (or two?). The other priority is to get the spent fuel storage sufficiently covered with water to make them approachable (and ideally to get AC power systems restored to these ponds, as has been the case already for units 5 and 6). The clean up, diagnostics, and ultimate decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi, of course, will take months and years to complete.

What is the latest news?

First, there is a new estimate of the tsunami damage. According to the NEI:

TEPCO believes the tsunami that inundated the Fukushima Daiichi site was 14 meters high, the network said. The design basis tsunami for the site was 5.7 meters, and the reactors and backup power sources were located 10 to 13 meters above sea level. The company reported that the maximum earthquake for which the Fukushima Daiichi plants were designed was magnitude 8. The quake that struck March 11 was magnitude 9.

Second, the IAEA reports elevated levels of radioactivity in the sea water off the coast of these reactors. That is hardly surprising, given that contaminated cooling water would gradually drain off the site — and remember, it is very easy with modern instruments to detect radioactivity in even trace amounts. These reported amounts (see table) are clearly significantly elevated around the plant — but the ocean is rather large, and so the principle of disperse and dilute also applies.

I’m reminded of a quote from James Lovelock in “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” (2008):

In July 2007 an earthquake in Japan shook a nuclear power station enough to cause an automatic shutdown ; the quake was of sufficient severity-over six on the Richter scale-to cause significant structural damage in an average town. The only “nuclear” consequence was the fall of a barrell from a stack of low-level waste that allowed the leak of about 90,000 becquerels of radioactivity. This made front page news in Australia, where it was said that the leak posed a radiation threat to the Sea of Japan.The truth is that about 90,000 becquerels is just twice the amount of natural radioactivity, mostly in the form of potassium, which you and I carry in our bodies. In other words, if we accept this hysterical conclusion, two swimmers in the Sea of Japan would make a radiation threat.

For further details on radiation trends in Japan, read this from WNN. In short, levels are hovering at or just above background levels in most surrounding prefectures, but are elevated in some parts of Fukushima. However, the World Health Organisation:

… backed the Japanese authorities, saying “These recommendations are in line with those based on accepted public health expertise.”

Below is a detailed situation summary of the Fukushima Daiichi site, passed to me by a colleague:

(1) Radioactivity was detected in the sea close to Fukushima-Daiichi. On March 21, TEPCO detected radioactivity in the nearby sea at Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station (NPS). TEPCO notified this measurement result to NISA and Fukushima prefecture. TEPCO continues sampling survey at Fukushima-Daiichi NPS, and also at Fukushima-Daini NPS in order to evaluate diffusion from the Fukushima-Daiichi. Though people do not drink seawater directly, TEPCO thinks it important to see how far these radioactivity spread in the sea to assess impact to human body.
Normal values of radioactivity are mostly below detection level, except for tritium. (detection level of Co-60 is 0.02Bq/ml) Also, samples of soil in the station have been sent to JAEA (Japan Atomic Energy Agency).

(2) Seawater injection to the spent fuel pool at Fukushima-Daiichi unit 2. This continues, with seawater injected through Fuel Pool Cooling and Cleanup System (FPC) piping. A temporary tank filled with seawater was connected to FPC, and a pump truck send seawater to the tank, then fire engine pump was used to inject seawater to the pool. Although the water level in the pool is not confirmed, judging from the total amount of injected seawater, 40 tons, it is assumed that the level increased about 30 cm after this operation.

(3) Brown smoke was observed from unit 3 reactor building. At around 3:55 pm on March 21, a TEPCO employee confirmed light gray smoke arising from the southeast side of the rooftop of the Unit 3 building. Workers were told to evacuate. It is observed the smoke has decreased and died out at 6:02pm. TEPCO continues to monitor the site’s immediate surroundings. There was no work and no explosive sound at the time of discovery.

(4) Smoke from unit 2 reactor building (as of 9:00pm, March 21). TEPCO’s unit operator found new smoke spewing from mountain side of unit 2 reactor building around 6:20 pm, which was different smoke from blow-out panel on the sea side. There was no explosive sound heard at the time. At 7:10 pm, TEPCO instructed workers at unit 1 – 4 to evacuate into the building. Evacuation was confirmed at 8:30 pm.

(Note: Since there was another smoke found from unit 3 at 1:55pm and evacuation was completed at that time, no workers were remained at the units when smoke found at unit 2.)

TEPCO assumes the smoke is something like vapor, but are still investigating the cause of this smoke with monitoring plant parameters.

Radiation level near the Gate of Fukushima-Daiichi NPS increased at the time of smoke, then decreased to prior level.

5:40 pm 494 μSv/hr

6:10 pm 1,256 μSv/hr

6:20 pm 1,428 μSv/hr

6:30 pm 1,932 μSv/hr

8:00 pm 493.5 μSv/hr

As a result of smoke from unit 2 and 3, scheduled water cannon spraying operations for March 21 were postponed.

(5) Power supply restoration at unit 2 (as of 5:00 pm, March 21). Power cables have been connected to the main power center (existing plant equipment) and confirmed as properly functioning. Presently, soundness tests of the equipment are underway. A pump motor, which is used to inject water to spent fuel pool, has been identified as needing to be replaced.

Similar power connections have been made to reactors 5 and 6 and a diesel generator is providing power to a cooling pump for the used fuel pools. Power cable is being laid to reactor 4, and power is expected to be restored to reactors 3 and 4 by Tuesday.

Kyodo News now reports that all 6 units are connected to external power, and control room power and lighting is about to be restored.

The water-spraying mission for the No. 4 reactor, meanwhile, was joined by trucks with a concrete squeeze pump and a 50-meter arm confirmed to be capable of pouring water from a higher point after trial runs.

With the new pump trucks arriving, the pumping rates for water spraying has increased to 160 tonnes per hour through a 58 metre flexible boom via remote control.

Here is the latest FEPC status report:

March 21, 2011

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – Why I stay in Tokyo

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 12:22 pm

Posted by Barry Brook

Guest Post by Axel Lieber. Axel is a German national and has been a resident of Tokyo since 1998. He runs a small executive search firm and is married to a Japanese.

[Editor’s note: This is a personal perspective, not a professional scientific one, but I can verify Axel’s facts]

Why I stay in Tokyo

僕 が東京にとどまる理由

[This commentary contains footnotes and links that allow you to verify what I am saying.]

Thousands have left Tokyo recently in a panic about the perceived radiation threat. If you ask any one of them to precisely articulate what the threat consists of, they will be unable to do so. This is because they actually don’t know, and because in fact there is no threat justifying departure, at least not from radioactivity (*).They flee because they have somehow heard that there is a threat – from the media, their embassies, their relatives overseas, friends, etc. These sources of information, too, have never supplied a credible explanation for their advisories.

But they have managed to create a mass panic, leading to thousands of people wasting their money on expensive air fares, disrupting their professional lives, their children’s education, and the many other productive activities they were going about. In some cases, foreign executives have abandoned their post in Tokyo, guaranteeing a total loss of respect among those who have stayed behind. Some service providers catering to the foreign community have lost almost their entire income over night. Other providers reversely will lose long-term clientele because they have fled, leaving their remaining customers and clients forced to find new providers. Domestic helpers (especially from the Philippines) have suddenly lost their livelihoods because their “employers” think it’s alright to run away without paying their helpers another penny. Another result of all the hysteria is that attention has been diverted away from the real disaster: the damage done in north-eastern Japan where thousands have died, and many tens of thousands live in dreadful conditions right now, waiting for help.

Contrast this with the fact that radioactivity levels in Tokyo are entirely safe and have been since the beginning of the Fukushima incident (*1a, and *1b for continuous updates). Modern instruments to measure radioactivity are extremely sensitive and precise, and report even the smallest deviations with impressive reliability. Nowhere in the Tokyo area have there been any measurements that would imply any sort ofhealth risk. There certainly have been increases in radioactivity but they are tiny and simply irrelevant to anyone’s health. There is also no fear that there could be some kind of cover-up.

Instruments to measure radioactivity are available at many different research institutions that are not controlled by the Japanese government. The J-gov does also not control the media. They simply have no laws and no means to do so.

[Editor’s Note: For a contrast, the background level in London is 0.035 to 0.05 µSv per hour, see the pie chart for an average breakdown by source. Also, see this great chart.]

But what about a worst-case scenario, one that is yet to come? For four days now, I have tried to find a serious source of information – a nuclear safety engineer or a public health expert – who would be able to articulate just what exactly the threat to residents of Tokyo is. It has been difficult because there aren’t many who bother to. I could quote several Japanese experts here but won’t do so to avoid a debate over their credibility (which I personally do not have any particular reason to doubt). The most to-the-point assessment I have found from outside of Japan comes from the UK government’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir John Beddington. In a phone call to the British embassy in Tokyo, he says about the worst-case scenario:

In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500m up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area….The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500m but to 30,000 feet (9,144m) . It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30km. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20-30km, it’s really not an issue for health.(*2)

It is important to note that Beddington, too, uses language such as “really serious”. Most nuclear safety engineers at this moment would describe the Fukushima incident as “very serious” and as having potentially “catastrophic consequences”. But the important point to note here is that these descriptions of the situation do not translate into public health concerns for Tokyo residents! They apply to the local situation at and around the Fukushima plant alone.

As of the time of writing this note (March 19, 2011, 13:00 JST), the status at Fukushima is still precarious but there are now signs that the situation is stabilizing and may be brought under control in the next few days. (*3)

Tokyo, even at this time of crisis, remains one of the best, safest and coolest large cities in the world to live in. All public services operate normally or almost normally. Many areas of central Tokyo have not had any power outages, and when such occur they are limited to a few hours and certain areas, and are announced well in advance. I have personally not experienced any power outages. Food is available in almost normal quantity and quality. The only food type I have personally seen to be lacking is milk and dairy products, and rice because of panic purchases. Gas (petrol) supply is indeed limited but just yesterday I was able to get a full tank of gas after “only” a fifteen minute wait. Public order and safety in Tokyo remains higher than in any other large city in the world, as it has always been over the past few decades.

To really rub this in: if you live in New York, Shanghai, Berlin, London or Sydney or any other metropolis, you are more exposed to public safety threats such as crime or road accidents than I am at this moment, and in most cases considerably so.

Active and passive smoking, driving a car or motorcycle, getting a chest x-ray, jay-walking, or snowboarding down a snowy mountain are all much more risky activities than simply sitting on a sunny roof terrace in Tokyo.

And sunny it is today, in the capital of the country whose name is literally “Origin of the Sun”.

To obtain level-headed information about the status at Fukushima, avoid CNN and read or


(*) There is, however, a possibility that there will be further strong earthquakes in the next few weeks, especially in the north-east of Japan, but also in other areas, including Tokyo. This was demonstrated in the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile, where powerful quakes followed the original ones, not necessarily in the same spot either. It would be more rational to stay away from Japan for a few weeks because of this. But again, the risk of being harmed by another earthquake, especially in Tokyo with its superb infrastructure, is not very high. And if you consider this reason enough to stay away, then indeed, you should never live in Japan because we will always face this risk here.





The original post can be read here (or here for 日本).

Fukushima nuclear accident: Saturday 19 March summary

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 12:18 pm

by Barry Brook

Last Saturday the the crisis level at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was rapidly on the rise. Hydrogen explosions, cracks in the wetwell torus and fires in a shutdown unit’s building — it seemed the sequence of new problems would never end. A week later, the situation remains troubling, but, over the last few days, it has not got any worse. Indeed, one could make a reasonable argument that it’s actually got better.

Yes, the IAEA has now formally listed the overall accident at an INES level 5 (see here for a description of the scales), up from the original estimate of 4. This is right and proper — but it doesn’t mean the situation has escalated further, as some have inferred. Here is a summary of the main site activities for today, followed by the latest JAIF and FEPC reports. You also might be interested in the following site map:

Another large cohort of 100 Tokyo fire fighters joined the spraying operation to cool down the reactors and keep the water in the spent fuel ponds. The ‘Hyper Rescue’ team have set up a special vehicle for firing a water cannon from 22 m high (in combination with a super pump truck), and today have been targeting the SNF pond in unit 3. About 60 tons of sea water successfully penetrated the building in the vicinity of the pool, at a flow rate of 3,000 litres per minute. Spraying with standard unmanned vehicles was also undertaken for 7 hours into other parts of the the unit 3 building (delivering more than 1,200 tons), to keep the general containment area cool. The temperature around the fuel rods is now reported by TEPCO (via NHK news) to be below 100C.

Conditions in unit 3 are stabilising but will need attention for many days to come. Promisingly, TEPCO has now connected AC cables to the unit 1 and 2 reactor buildings, with hopes that powered systems can be restored to these building by as early as tomorrow (including, it is hoped, the AC core cooling systems), once various safety and equipment condition checks are made.

Holes were made in the secondary containment buildings of Units 5 and 6 as a precautionary measure, to vent any hydrogen that might accumulate and so prevent explosions in these otherwise undamaged structures.  The residual heat removal system for these units has now been brought back on line and these pools maintain a tolerable steady temperature of 60C. More here. These buildings were operating on a single emergency diesel generator, but now have a second electricity supply via the external AC power cable.

Why are they concentrating on these activities? Let’s revisit a bit of the history of last week. The spent fuel pool still has decay heat (probably of the order of few MW in each pool) that requires active cooling. When power went out on Friday, the cooling stopped and the pool temperature has been rising slowly over the weekend, and probably started boiling off (and a large volume may have also been lost due to ‘sloshing’ during the seismic event). The pool is located on the 4th floor above the reactor vessel level. It remains unclear why they could not arrange fire trucks to deliver the sea water before the fuel rods got damaged and started releasing radioactivity. Now the effort is hampered by the high radiation level (primarily penetrating gamma rays). This is the inventory of those spent fuel ponds that have been causing so many headaches:

In order to remove the decay heat after the reactor shutdown, the cooling system should be operating. Following the loss of offsite power, the on-site diesel generators came on but the tsunami arrived an hour or so later and wiped out the diesel generators. Then the battery provided the power for 8 hours or so, during which time they brought in portable generators. However, the connectors were incompatible. As the steam pressure built up inside the pressure vessel, the relief valve was open and dumped the steam to the pressure suppression chamber, which in turn was filtered out to the confinement building and the hydrogen explosion took out the slabs.

The sea water was then pumped in by fire trucks and the reactor pressure vessels are now cooled down to near atmospheric pressure but the fuel assemblies are uncovered at the top quarter or third (the FEPC updates give the actual pressure and water levels). It appears that the pressure vessels and the reactor containment structures are intact, except the Unit 2, where the hydrogen explosion took place inside the containment and hence damaging the lower wetwell torus structure (but almost certainly not the reactor vessel, although the exact status is unclear). It appears that the radioactivity releases are mostly coming from the spent fuel storages than the reactor cores.

World Nuclear News has a really excellent extended article here entitled “Insight to Fukushima engineering challenges“. Read it! Further, you must watch this 8 minute reconstruction of the timeline of the accident done by NHK — brilliant, and really highlights the enormous stresses this poor station faced against a record-breaking force of nature. As I’d noted earlier, just about everything that could have went wrong, did. But valuable lessons must also be learned.

The IAEA and Japanese government has reported the potential contamination of food products from the local Fukushima area via radioactive iodine (mostly vented as part of the pressure relief operations of units 1 to 3). This is a short-term risk due to the 8-day half-life of radioactive iodine (and a small risk, given the trace amounts recorded), but precautions are warranted, as discussed here. What does this mean?

In the case of the milk samples, even if consumed for one year, the radiation dose would be equivalent to that a person would receive in a single CT scan. The levels found in the spinach were much lower, equivalent to one-fifth of a single CT scan.

… and to further put this in context:

The UK government’s chief independent scientific advisor has told the British Embassy in Tokyo that radiation fears from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant are a “sideshow” compared with the general devastation caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck on 11 March. Speaking from London in a teleconference on 15 March to the embassy, chief scientific officer John Beddington said that the only people likely to receive doses of radiation that could damage their health are the on-site workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He said that the general population outside of the 20 kilometre evacuation zone should not be concerned about contamination.

As to the possibility of a zirconium fire in the SNF ponds, this seems unlikely. Zr has a very high combustion point, as illustrated in video produced by UC Berkeley nuclear engineers. They applied a blowtorch to a zirconium rod and it did not catch on fire. The demonstration is shown about 50 seconds into this video. The temperature was said to reach 2000C [incidentally, I visited that lab last year!].

The the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum has provided their 12th reactor-by-reactor status update (16:00 March 19).

Here is the latest FEPC status report:


  • Radiation Levels
    • At 7:30PM on March 18, radiation level outside main office building (approximately 1,640 feet from Unit 2 reactor building) of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station: 3,699 micro Sv/h.
    • Measurement results of ambient dose rate around Fukushima Nuclear Power Station at 4:00PM and 7:00PM on March 18 are shown in the attached two PDF files respectively.
    • At 1:00PM on March 18, MEXT decided to carry out thorough radiation monitoring nationwide.
    • For comparison, a human receives 2,400 micro Sv per year from natural radiation in the form of sunlight, radon, and other sources. One chest CT scan generates 6,900 micro Sv per scan.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor
    • Since 10:30AM on March 14, the pressure within the primary containment vessel cannot be measured.
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, pressure inside the reactor core: 0.191MPa.
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, water level inside the reactor core: 1.7 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
    • As of 3:00PM on March 18, the injection of seawater continues into the reactor core.
    • Activities for connecting the commercial electricity grid are underway.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reactor
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, pressure inside the primary containment vessel: 0.139MPaabs.
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, pressure inside the reactor core: -0.002MPa.
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, water level inside the reactor core: 1.4 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
    • As of 3:00PM on March 18, the injection of seawater continues into the reactor core.
    • Activities for connecting the commercial electricity grid are underway.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor
    • At 2:00PM on March 18, six Self Defense emergency fire vehicles began to shoot water aimed at the spent fuel pool, until 2:38PM (39 tones of water in total).
    • At 2:42PM on March 18, TEPCO began to shoot water aimed at the spent fuel pool, until 2:45PM, by one US Army high pressure water cannon.
    • At 3:55PM on March 18, pressure inside the primary containment vessel: 0.160MPaabs.
    • At 3:55PM on March 18, pressure inside the reactor core: -0.016MPa.
    • At 3:55PM on March 18, water level inside the reactor core: 2.0 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
    • As of 3:00PM on March 18, the injection of seawater continues into the reactor core.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 reactor
    • No official updates to the information in our March 18 update have been provided.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 5 reactor
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, the temperature of the spent fuel pool was measured at 152.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Unit 6 reactor
    • At 4:00PM on March 18, the temperature of the spent fuel pool was measured at 148.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Common Spent Fuel Pool
    • At 10:00AM on March 18, it was confirmed that water level in the pool was secured.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Dry Cask Storage Building
    • At 10:00AM on March 18, it was confirmed that there was no damage by visual checking of external appearance.

At 5:50PM on March 18, Japanese Safety Authority (NISA: Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) announced provisional INES (International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale) rating to the incidents due to the earthquake.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, 2 and 3 Unit = 5 (Accident with wider consequences)

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 = 3 (Serious incident)

Fukushima Daini Unit 1, 2 and 4 Unit = 3 (Serious incident)

(No official provisional rating for Fukushima Daini Unit 3 has been provided.)

March 17, 2011

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – 16 March update

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 7:53 am

by Barry Brook

This is an update of the situation as of 10 am JST Wednesday 16 March. (For background on events of 15 March and earlier, start with previous posts and included links.) Note that this is a blog, not a news website, and thus the following analysis, like all others on this, is a mixture of news and opinion — but facts remain paramount.

First, the situation is clearly (but slowly) stabilising. As each day passes, the amount of thermal heat (caused by radioactive decay of the fission products) that remains in the reactor fuel assemblies decreases exponentially. When the reactors SCRAMed on 11 March after the earthquake, and went sub-critical, their power levels dropped by about 95 % of peak output (the nuclear fission process was no longer self-sustaining). Over the past 5 days, the energy in the fuel rods dropped by another ~97 %, such that the heat dissipation situation is getting more and more manageable. But we’re not out of the woods yet, and the reactor cores will need significant cooling for at least another 5 days before stability can be ensured.

Yesterday there appears to have been a fracture in the wetwell torus (see diagram: that circular structure below and to the side of the reactor vessel) in Unit 2, caused by a hydrogen explosion, which led to a rapid venting of highly radioactive fission product gases (mostly noble [chemically unreactive] gases, the majority of which had a half-life of seconds to minutes). It also caused a drop in pressure in the supression pool, which made the cooling process more challenging. However, despite some earlier concerns, it is now clear that containment was not breached. Even under this situation of extreme physical duress, the multiple containment barriers have held firm. This is an issue to be revisited, when the dust finally settles.

Units 1 and 3, the other two operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi when the earthquake struck, continue to be cooled by sea water. Containment is secure in both units. However, like Unit 2, there is a high probability that the fuel assemblies have likely suffered damage due to temporary exposure (out of water), as the engineers struggled over the last few days to maintain core coolant levels. Whether there has been any melting of the clad or rods remains unclear, and probably will continue to be shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty for some time yet.

The other ongoing serious issue is with managing the heat dissipation in the spent fuel ponds. These contain old fuel rods from previous reactor operation that are cooling down, on site, immersed in water, which also provides radiation shielding. After a few years of pond cooling, these are transferred to dry storage. The heat in these rods is much less than those of the in-core assemblies, but it is still significant enough as to cause concern for maintaining adequate coverage of the stored fuel and to avoid boiling the unpressurised water. There have been two fires in Unit 4, the first tentatively linked to a failed oil pump, and the second, being of (currently) unknown cause, but the likelihood is that it was linked to hydrogen gas bubbling.

There appears to have been some exposure of this spent fuel, and radiation levels around this area remain high — making access in order to maintain water levels particularly troublesome. Note that apart from short-lived fission product gases, these radiation sources are otherwise contained within the rods and not particularised in a way that facilitates dispersion. Again, the problems encountered here can be linked to the critical lack of on-site power, with the mains grid still being out of action. As a further precaution, TEPCO is considering spraying the pool with boric acid to minimise the probability of ‘prompt criticality’ events. This is the news item we should be watching most closely today.

An excellent 2-page fact sheet on the spent fuel pool issues has been produced by the NEI, which can be read here: Used Nuclear Fuel Storage at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (this includes an explanation of what might happen under various scenarios).

This figure illustrates the current reported state of the Daiichi and Daini reactors, last updated 1230 on 16 March (click to enlarge):

The status report from the The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) is given below:

• Radiation Levels

o At 10:22AM (JST) on March 15, a radiation level of 400 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside secondary containment building of the Unit 3 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

o At 3:30PM on March 15, a radiation level of 596 micro sievert per hour was recorded at the main gate of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

o At 4:30PM on March 15, a radiation level of 489 micro sievert per hour was recorded on the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

o For comparison, a human receives 2400 micro sievert per year from natural radiation in the form of sunlight, radon, and other sources. One chest CT scan generates 6900 micro sievert per scan.

• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor

o As of 10:00PM on March 14, the pressure inside the reactor core was measured at 0.05 MPa. The water level inside the reactor was measured at 1.7 meters below the top of the fuel rods.

• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reactor

o At 6:14AM on March 15, an explosion was heard in the secondary containment building. TEPCO assumes that the suppression chamber, which holds water and stream released from the reactor core, was damaged.

o At 1:00PM on March 15, the pressure inside the reactor core was measured at 0.608 MPa. The water level inside the reactor was measured at 1.7 meters below the top of the fuel rods.

• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor

o At 6:14AM on March 15, smoke was discovered emanating from the damaged secondary containment building.

• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 reactor

o At 9:38AM on March 15, a fire was discovered on the third floor of the secondary containment building.

o At 12:29PM on March 15, TEPCO confirmed extinguishing of the fire.

• Fukushima Daini Units 1 to 4 reactors: all now in cold shutdown, TEPCO continues to cool each reactor core.

This indicates a peak radiation level of 400 mSv/hr, which has come down to about 0.5 mSv/hr by the afternoon. This ‘spot’ radiation level was measured at a location between Unit 3 and 4. It was attributted to a hydrogen explosion in the spent fuel pool of Unit 4 — but this is still under debate. The radiation level at the site boundary is expected to have been much lower and, to date, there is no risk to the general public.

Two other useful sources of information are from the WNNRadiation decreasing, fuel ponds warming and Second fire reported at unit 4. ANS Nuclear Cafe continues to be a great collator of key official channels and top news stories.

Finally, this is a useful perspective from an MIT staffer that is well worth reading:

What happened at the Fukushima reactor? Events in Japan confirm the robustness of modern nuclear technology — not a failure

Kirk Sorenson, from Energy from Thorium blog, also has this very interesting piece: Thoughts on Fukushima-Daiichi. A concluding excerpt:

What is known is that this is a situation very different than Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. There was no operator error involved at Fukushima-Daiichi, and each reactor was successfully shut down within moments of detecting the quake. The situation has evolved slowly but in a manner that was not anticipated by designers who had not assumed that electrical power to run emergency pumps would be unavailable for days after the shutdown. They built an impressive array of redundant pumps and power generating equipment to preclude against this problem. Unfortunately, the tsunami destroyed it.

There are some characteristics of a nuclear fission reactor that will be common to every nuclear fission reactor. They will always have to contend with decay heat. They will always have to produce heat at high temperatures to generate electricity. But they do not have to use coolant fluids like water that must operate at high pressures in order to achieve high temperatures. Other fluids like fluoride salts can operate at high temperatures yet at the same pressures as the outside. Fluoride salts are impervious to radiation damage, unlike water, and don’t evolve hydrogen gas which can lead to an explosion. Solid nuclear fuel like that used at Fukushima-Daiichi can melt and release radioactive materials if not cooled consistently during shutdown. Fluoride salts can carry fuel in chemically-stable forms that can be passively cooled without pumps driven by emergency power generation. There are solutions to the extreme situation that was encountered at Fukushima-Daiichi, and it may be in our best interest to pursue them.

More updates as further information comes to hand. Otherwise, for me, it’s back to the mad TV and radio media circus.

UPDATE: From World Nuclear News: Problems for units 3 and 4

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano had outlined problems that had occured on the morning of 16 March with Fukushima Daiichi 3 and 4.

At 8:34am local time white smoke was seen billowing out of Fukushima Daiichi 3. Efforts to determine the cause of this development were interrupted as all workers had evacuated to a safe area due to rising radiation readings. Readings from a sensor near the front gate had fluctuated for some time, although Edano said that on the whole there was no health hazard. Earlier in the morning readings had ranged between 600-800 microsieverts per hour, but at 10am readings rose to 1000 microsieverts per hour. Readings began to fall again from around 10:54.

Edano said that one possibility being considered was that the unit 3 reactor had suffered a similar failure to that suffered by unit 2 yesterday, although there had been no reported blast or loud sound, which had been the case for unit 2. The immediate focus, said Edano was on monitoring of levels and checking pumping operations.

Edano also outlined plans for units 4-6. Preparations were being made to inject water into unit 4, however the high levels of radiation from unit 3 were imparing those preparations. When possible, the water injection would be done gradually as there were safety concerns over pouring a large amount of water at once. The water will be pumped into the reactor building from the ground, plans to drop water from a helicopter having been abandoned. Although he said that “all things were possible” Edano did not believe that recriticality at unit 4 was a realistic risk

Second fire at unit 4

Earlier, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that a blaze was spotted in the reactor building of Fukushima Daiichi 4 at 5.45am local time this morning.

Attempts to extinguish it were reportedly delayed due to high levels of radiation in the area. A spokesperson for TEPCO said that by around 6:15am there were no flames to be seen.

The incident at unit 4 is believed to be in the region of a used fuel pond in the upper portion of the reactor building.


Tokyo Electric Power Company issued a notice of an explosion at unit 4 at 6am on 15 March. This was followed by the company’s confirmation of damage around the fifth floor rooftop area of the reactor building.

On that day, a fire was discovered but investigations concluded it had died down by around 11am.

At present it is not clear whether today’s fire was a completely new blaze, or if the fire reported yesterday had flared up again.

Think climate when judging nuclear power

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 7:50 am

by Barry Brook

Guest Post by Ben Heard. Ben is Director of Adelaide-based advisory firm ThinkClimate Consulting, a Masters graduate of Monash University in Corporate Environmental Sustainability, and a member of the TIA Environmental and Sustainability Action Committee. After several years with major consulting firms, Ben founded ThinkClimate and has since assisted a range of government, private and not-for profit organisations to measure, manage and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and move towards more sustainable operations. Ben publishes regular articles aimed at challenging thinking and perceptions related to climate change at

(Editorial Note: [Barry Brook]: Ben is a relatively recent, but very welcome friend of mine, who is as passionate as I am about mitigating climate change. I really appreciate publishing his thoughts in this most difficult of times. Now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right]


On 8th March, I delivered a presentation to around 45 people, describing my journey from a position of nuclear power opponent to that of nuclear power proponent. The presentation was very well received and has generated much interest.

Just four days later, I saw those first appalling images of the tsunami hitting Japan, and realised that for the first time since 1986, a nuclear emergency situation was unfolding.

In all cases, I find it most distasteful when individuals or groups push agendas in the face of unfolding tragedy. Let me say at the outset that this is not my intention.

Sadly, many people and groups don’t share this sentiment, including a great many who have wasted no time in making grave and unfounded pronouncements regarding the safety of nuclear power, and how this event should impact Australia’s decision making in energy. This has been aided no end by a media bloc that has reflected the general state of ignorance that exists regarding nuclear power, as well as a preference for headlines ahead of sound information at this critical time. The whole situation has been all too predictable, but still most disappointing. It has reinforced one of the great truisms in understanding how we humans deal with risk: We are outraged and hyper-fearful of that which we do not understand, rather than that which is likely to do us harm. Rarely if ever are they the same thing.

Those who attended my presentation on the 8th March will have seen that I place a high value on two things in forming an opinion and making a decision: Facts and context. Facts without context can be dangerously misleading. In this newsletter therefore, I would like to present some of the basic facts and context of this event, as well as providing links to reliable and up-to-date sources of information to gain a more detailed understanding of the crisis. From there, I only ask that you maintain a critical frame of mind in considering the true implications of this event.

Firstly, the context. Japan is a densely populated chain of islands. It is the fourth largest economy in the world, and derives around 30% of its electricity from 55 nuclear reactors at 17 locations around the country. Japan has been using nuclear power for some time. As such some of the reactors are approaching 40 years of age, and are older designs by comparison with what would be built today.

On 11th March, Japan experienced an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning a 9 quake is ten times more powerful than an 8, 100 times more powerful than a 7 and so on. On this basis the quake was something like 100,000 times the force of that which struck Christchurch recently. It is only the 4th quake of greater than 9 magnitude in recorded history.

Just one hour later, a tsunami measuring up to 10 metres struck large parts of the Japanese coast. We have all seen the awesome and terrifying footage of this wave, which laid waste to nearly everything in its path.

So by way of context, what I would like you to do is take Japan’s population density, coastal geography and high penetration of nuclear energy. Then overlay a two-phase natural catastrophe, with only one hour between each phase. Each phase of the catastrophe is perhaps the most powerful of its kind that we will see in our lifetimes.

I am sure those of you who have ever conducted risk assessment exercises will agree that it would be difficult to construct, in our wildest imaginings, a scenario that would pose a more comprehensive and arduous test of the operational safety of nuclear power plants in the world today.

Lets now turn to the response of Japan’s nuclear power industry to this event, sticking at this stage to high level facts that are not in any way in dispute:

• When the earthquakes struck, Japan’s nuclear power stations did as they were designed to do and shut down with the insertion of control rods. This halted the nuclear chain reaction that generates the power. In response the plants rapidly dropped in power to around 5% of normal.

• Other (non-uranium) constituents of the fuel remained “hot” i.e. reacting, which is normal.

• Back up power systems (diesel generators) were applied to continue to provide cooling to the reactor core. This worked as expected.

• Approximately 1 hour later, two power plants housing seven nuclear reactors were struck by a 7 metre tsunami. These plants were Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini. This disabled the diesel generators that were in use, and all other back-up generators that were available. It is this second disaster that triggered the problems at these power plants, as the plants began to experience a loss of cooling on the fuel.

• Back-up cooling from batteries was applied, and provided cooling for approximately a further 8 hours

• Other measures have then needed to be implemented as this power source ran out. This has included pumping sea-water into the reactor core. This is not a preferred action as it causes some damage.

• Some portions of the fuel rods remained exposed from the coolant for long enough to heat up and melt. This is the meaning of “partial meltdown”

• Some build up of radioactivity has occurred within the reactor buildings. This has been periodically vented in a controlled way to maintain pressure within the reactor at a safe level. The radiation being vented is of a type that is short lived, decaying rapidly to harmless substances

• The venting gas has contained hydrogen. Unfortunately, perhaps due to not venting quickly enough, the hydrogen concentrations have become elevated and resulted in explosions occurring outside of the reactor building when the venting occurred

• Presently the reactor cores are being successfully cooled and progressively moved to a state of cold shutdown, meaning fully under control.

• Critically, throughout the disaster the integrity of the very strong Containment Structures, which separate the nuclear reactor from the outside world, has been maintained. The reactor building itself then contains the core of nuclear fuel, and these reactor buildings have also remained intact. This means there has never been a risk of a “Chernobyl-type” incident, with serious releases of radioactivity to the surrounding environment that would pose a threat to human health. The Chernobyl power stations had no such structure, which greatly increased the consequences of that accident.

• The incident has received a severity rating of INES 6. It is clearly very serious. The Three Mile Island Accident was a 5. Chernobyl, however, was a 7 (the highest), and is a very different league.

For more detailed and technical information regarding these events, please look through and follow the regular updates and review some of the other excellent, more technical postings

There seems to be some suggestion that “but for the efforts” of the engineers, this situation would be worse. Well, that’s true, but at the same time, misleading. Passive safety is a great thing, be it nuclear power plants or the cars we drive. But at the end of the day, a key control measure in catastrophic events will always be a skilled and well trained work force with the knowledge and ability to respond to a changing situation. That’s as true for the power plants as for the rest of the country, where the army, police and other emergency services will play a vital role in mitigating the damage.

The bottom line of the events at Fukushima and the nuclear power sector more broadly would appear to be as follows:

• Zero deaths from radiation

• Zero release of radiation levels of a danger to human health, except for brief periods for those working within the plant compound (not Public exposure). These workers would be well protected and monitored to avoid excessive accumulated doses

• Minimal injuries (about a dozen) as a result of the hydrogen explosions

• No significant or lasting environmental impact whatsoever

• A major evacuation, which has no doubt been distressing for all involved

• 8 — 10 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors known to have varying levels of damage that will impact their ability to provide electricity. The remainder will no doubt require inspection, but would appear to be relatively undamaged.

The main contribution of note from the nuclear power sector has been dangerously misleading headlines and media reports, and a distraction from the greater tragedy unfolding in Japan, which is likely to have caused fatalities in the 10,000s, and left great areas of the country in total wreck and ruin.

So, combining the extraordinary context with that high level summary of facts, what conclusion should be drawn about the current and future role of nuclear power, particularly with regard to operational safety?

That is up to each of you, and I don’t want to push an agenda. If you want my conclusion, read on.

If Japan’s nuclear power sector can withstand the worst natural calamity I hope to ever see in my life and contribute no deaths, minimal injuries and minimal environmental impact, then nuclear power must be just about the sturdiest, best designed, best managed and least dangerous infrastructure in the world. And in a world that is quickly cooking itself through climate change, nuclear power must not be allowed to suffer from the hype, headlines and hyperbole that have stemmed from this tragic event.

Fear or facts. I choose facts. I hope you do too.

March 15, 2011

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – 15 March summary of situation

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 11:37 pm

by Barry Brook

The situation surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, triggered by Japan’s largest recorded earthquake and the resulting 10 m high tsunami, continues to develop rapidly. This post is intended to be a concise update of the situation as of 12pm Japan Standard Time, 15 March 2011. For a summary of the situation prior to today, read these posts:

Japanese nuclear reactors and the 11 March 2011 earthquake

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation (with further updates at MIT here:

Japan Nuclear Situation – 14 March updates

Further technical information on Fukushima reactors

TEPCO reactor by reactor status report at Fukushima

This is also a useful summary, from William Tucker (published in the Wall Street Journal): Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl. See also:  Nuclear Overreactions: Modern life requires learning from disasters, not fleeing all risk.


Attention has centred on units #1, 2 and 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant (all Boiling Water Reactors built in the 1970s). Current concern is focused on unit #2 (more below). Units 4, 5 and 6 at the site were not in service at the time of the earthquake and their situation is stable.

At a nearby plant, Fukushima Daiini, the situation is now under control, and units are in, or approaching, cold shutdown. I do not expect any further significant developments at that site. To quote WNN:

In the last 48 hours, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has carried out repairs to the emergency core coolant systems of units 1, 2 and 4 and one by one these have come back into action. Unit 1 announced cold shutdown at 1.24 am today and unit 2 followed at 3.52 am. Repairs at unit 4 are now complete and Tepco said that gradual temperature reduction started at 3.42pm. An evacuation zone extends to ten kilometres around the plant, but this is expected to be rescinded when all four units are verified as stable in cold shutdown conditions.

Fukushima Daini Unit 1 reactor

o As of 1:24AM on March 14, TEPCO commenced the cooling process after the pumping system was restored.

o At 10:15AM on March 14, TEPCO confirmed that the average water temperature held constant below 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fukushima Daini Unit 2 reactor

o At 7:13AM on March 14, TEPCO commenced the cooling process.

o As of 3:52PM on March 14, the cooling function was restored and the core temperature was stabilized below 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Fukushima Daini Unit 3 reactor

o As of 12:15PM on March 13, reactor has been cooled down and stabilized.

• Fukushima Daini Unit 4 reactor

o At 3:42PM on March 14, cooling of the reactor commenced, with TEPCO engineers working to achieve cold shutdown.

The rest of this post will focus on the ongoing crisis situation at Fukushim Daiichi. Let me underscore the fact that accurate information is sparse, uncertain and rapidly changing.

During March 12 and 13, there were serious issues with providing sufficient cooling to units 1 and 3 after the tsunami had caused damage to the diesel backup generators and compromised the emergency cooling water supply. This resulted in a decision to use sea water injection to keep the reactors cool — a process that is ongoing. Steam was regularly vented as part of the effort to relieve steam pressure within the reactor vessels, but this also led to an accumulation of hydrogen gas within the secondary buildings that house the reactor units. Possible sources for the hydrogen are discussed here. Unfortunately, this hydrogen could not be vented sufficiently quickly, resulting in chemical explosions (hydrogen-oxygen interactions) within the two reactor housing buildings of both unit 1 and unit 2 during March 12-13.

The roof and part of the side walls of both buildings were severely damaged as a result. After the first hydrogen explosion there is no longer a roof on the building, so there is little chance of any large buildup of hydrogen or further explosions at these units. [In restrospect, the designers (40 years ago) perhaps should have more carefully considered the implications of the decision to vent the pressure suppression torus to the reactor building space]. Although hydrogen recombiners are a standard feature of that design, they unfortunately lost all AC power, and then the batteries were run down. Containment (the robust concrete shell and 18 inch thick steel reactor vessel within it), however, remained intact. This was verified by monitoring levels of radiation surrounding the units — if there had been any containment breach, levels would have jumped.

This cutaway diagram shows the central reactor vessel, thick concrete containment and lower torus structure in a typical boiling water reactor of the same era as Fukushima Daiichi 2

This is an overview of the current status of units 1 to 3:

Radiation Levels

o At 9:37AM (JST) on March 14, a radiation level of 3130 micro sievert was recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

o At 10:35AM on March 14, a radiation level of 326 micro sievert was recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

o Most recently, at 2:30PM on March 15, a radiation level of 231 micro sievert was recorded at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor

o As of 12:00AM on March 15, the injection of seawater continues into the primary containment vessel.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reactor

o At 12:00PM on March 14, in response to lower water levels, TEPCO began preparations for injecting seawater into the reactor core.

o At 5:16PM on March 14, the water level in the reactor core covered the top of the fuel rods.

o At 6:20PM on March 14, TEPCO began to inject seawater into the reactor core.

o For a short time around 6:22PM on March 14, the water level inside the reactor core fell below the lower measuring range of the gauge. As a result, TEPCO believes that the fuel rods in the reactor core might have been fully exposed.

o At 7:54PM on March 14, engineers confirmed that the gauge recorded the injection of seawater into the reactor core.

o At 8:37PM on March 14, in order to alleviate the buildup of pressure, slightly radioactive vapor, that posed no health threat, was passed through a filtration system and emitted outside via a ventilation stack from Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reactor vessel.

Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor

o At 11:01AM on March 14, an explosion occurred at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor damaging the roof of the secondary containment building. Caused by the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen vapor, in a fashion to Unit 1 reactor, the explosion did not damage the primary containment vessel or the reactor core.

o As of 12:38AM (JST) on March 15, the injection of seawater has been suspended.

What is of most current concern?

Units 1 and 3: the situation now seems fairly stable. There is some concern that holding pools for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) may have been damaged by the hydrogen explosions, but nothing is confirmed. Provided the pool walls remain unbreached and the SNF is covered with water, the situation should not escalate. Note: Although still ‘hot’, the SNF decay heat is many orders of magnitude lower than the fuel assemblies within reactors 1 to 3.

Unit 4: A fire has started at the building of Unit #4. Note that the reactor of this unit is stable and was not operating at the time of the earthquake.

Kan also confirmed a fire burning at unit 4, which, according to all official sources, had never been a safety concern since the earthquake. This reactor was closed for periodic inspections when the earthquake and tsunami hit, therefore did not undergo a rapid and sudden shutdown. It was of course violently shaken and subject to the tsunami.

Shikata said that there had been “a sign of leakage” while firefighters were at work, “but we have found out the fuel is not causing the fire.” The fire is now reported extinguished.

Unit 2: This is now of most concern, and the situation continues to change quickly. Here is the key information to hand (I will update as new data emerges).

Loud noises were heard at Fukushima Daiichi 2 at 6.10am this morning. A major component beneath the reactor is confirmed to be damaged. Evacuation to 20 kilometres is being completed, while a fire on site has now been put out.

Confirmation of loud sounds at unit 2 this morning came from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). It noted that “the suppression chamber may be damaged.” It is not clear that the sounds were explosions.

The pressure in the pool was seen to decrease from three atmospheres to one atmosphere after the noise, suggesting possible damage. Radiation levels on the edge of the plant compound briefly spiked at 8217 microsieverts per hour but later fell to about a third that.

A close watch is being kept on the radiation levels to ascertain the status of containment. As a precaution Tokyo Electric Power Company has evacuated all non-essential personnel from the unit. The company’s engineers continue to pump seawater into the reactor pressure vessel in an effort to cool it.

Evacuation ordered

Prime minister Naoto Kan has requested that evacuation from 20 kilometer radius is completed and those between 20-30 kilometers should stay indoors. He said his advice related to the overall picture of safety developments at Fukushima Daiichi, rather than those at any individual reactor unit.

Shortly afterwards Noriyuki Shikata said radiation levels near the reactors had reached levels that would affect human health. It is thought that the fire had been the major source of radiation.

Prime minister Naoto Kan has requested that everyone withdraw from a 30 kilometer evacuation zone around the nuclear power plant and that people that stay within remain indoors. He said his advice related to the overall picture of safety developments at Fukushima Daiichi, rather than those at any individual reactor unit.

Regarding radiation levels: It is very important to distinguish between doses from the venting of noble-gas fission products, which rapidly dissipate and cause no long-term contamination or ingestion hazard, and aerosols of other fission products including cesium and iodine.

From NEI:

Yukio Edano, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, during a live press conference at 10 p.m. EDT, said there is a fire at Fukushima Daiichi 4 that is accompanied by high levels of radiation between Units 3 and 4 at the site. The fire began burning at Unit 4 at around 6 a.m. Japan time on March 14 and is still burning. Fire fighters are responding to the fire. The reactor does not have fuel in the reactor, but there is spent fuel in the reactor (pool) and Edano said that he assumes radioactive substances are being released. “The substances are coming out from the No. 4 reactor and we are making the utmost effort to put out the first and also cool down the No. 4 reactor (pool).”

Edano said that a blast was heard this morning at Unit 2 at about 6:30 a.m. A hole was observed in the number 2 reactor and he said there is very little possibility that an explosion will occur at Unit 2.

“The part of the suppression chamber seems to have caused the blast,” Edano said. A small amount of radioactive substance seems to have been released to the outside.

TEPCO workers continue to pump sea water at 1, 2 and 3 reactors. “The biggest problem is how to maintain the cooling and how to contain the fire at No. 4.” At 10:22 a.m. Japan time, the radiation level between units 2 and 3 were as high as 40 rem per hour. “We are talking about levels that can impact human health.” Edano said.

Of the 800 staff that remained at the power plant, all but 50 who are directly involved in pumping water into the reactor have been evacuated.

More updates to the above as the fog of uncertainty begins to clear…


Finally, a telling comment from a friend of mine in the US nuclear research community:

The lesson so far: Japan suffered an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented proportion that has caused unbelievable damage to every part of their infrastructure, and death of very large numbers of people. The media have chosen to report the damage to a nuclear plant which was, and still is, unlikely to harm anyone. We won’t know for sure, of course, until the last measure to assure cooling is put in place, but that’s the likely outcome. You’d never know it from the parade of interested anti-nuclear activists identified as “nuclear experts” on TV.

From the early morning Saturday nuclear activists were on TV labelling this ‘the third worst nuclear accident ever’. This was no accident, this was damage caused by truly one of the worst of earthquakes and tsunamis ever. (The reported sweeping away of four entire trains, including a bullet train which apparently disappeared without a trace, was not labelled “the third worst train accident ever.”) An example of the reporting: A fellow from one of the universities, and I didn’t note which one, obviously an engineer and a knowlegable one, was asked a question and began to explain quite sensibly what was likely. He was cut off after about a minute, maybe less, and an anti-nuke, very glib, and very poorly informed, was brought on. With ponderous solemnity, he then made one outrageous and incorrect statement after another. He was so good at it they held him over for another segment

The second lesson is to the engineers: We all know that the water reactor has one principal characteristic when it shuts down that has to be looked after. It must have water to flow around the fuel rods and be able to inject it into the reactor if some is lost by a sticking relief valve or from any other cause – for this, it must have backup power to power the pumps and injection systems.

The designers apparently could not imagine a tsunami of these proportions and the backup power — remember, the plants themselves produce power, power is brought in by multiple outside power lines, there are banks of diesels to produce backup power, and finally, banks of batteries to back that up, all were disabled. There’s still a lot the operators can do, did and are doing. But reactors were damaged and may not have needed to be even by this unthinkable earthquake if they had designed the backup power systems to be impregnable, not an impossible thing for an engineer to do. So we have damage that probably could have been avoided, and reporting of almost stunning inaccuracy and ignorance.Still, the odds are that no one will be hurt from radioactivity — a few workers from falling or in the hydrogen explosions, but tiny on the scale of the damage and killing around it.

It seems pathetic that Russia should be the only reported adult in this — they’re quoted as saying “Of course our nuclear program is not going to be affected by an earthquake in Japan.” Japan has earthquakes. But perhaps it will be, if the noise is loud enough.

TEPCO reactor by reactor status report at Fukushima

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 11:34 pm

by Barry Brook

Current status of reactors, from TEPCO (will update as required, click to enlarge)

Further technical information on Fukushima reactors

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 11:33 pm

by Barry Brook

Below is edited material sent to me in confidence from some colleagues in the professional nuclear engineering and research community. It provides some further insight into what is going on at Fukushima, and what is still unknown.

The main document was written by one nuclear engineer; the quotes are the response from another engineer.


1. Likely timeline of incident is:

a. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 were in operation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the earthquake struck.

b. all three reactors were shut down and control rods were inserted when earthquake struck.

c. Cooling was maintained to remove decay heat

d. decay heat drops rapidly on reactor shut down (e.g a 3GW reactor will reduce to 200MW decay heat after 1s and 50MW after 1 hour… But takes long time (3-6months!) to reduce to negligible levels)

e. sometime (≈1hr) later tsunami struck and mains power was lost to coolant circuit on Unit 1

f. Diesel generators also failed when tsunami hit so cooling was run by backup batteries for 7-8 hours

g. Other emergency diesel generators brought in but insufficient to run pumps

h. loss of coolant leads to fuel rods no longer being cooled by two phase flow (it is a Boiing water Reactor) and eventually get hot enough to recat with steam to produce Hydrogen.

{While this is plausible it would suggest massive loss of Pressure Vessel (PV) generated steam beyond the containment boundary (since the explosion did not disrupt the containment). In my view a far more plausible explanation is that hydrogen routinely injected in the Make Up Water System to control the corrosives (mainly O2) produced by radiolysis was released suddenly and catastrophically from outside the containment and within the reactor building. In reacting with oxygen from the atmosphere within the building at the correct concentration of hydrogen (4-74%) only a spark is required to detonate a hydrogen oxygen explosion.

By contrast the spontaneous splitting of water to hydrogen and oxygen requires a temperature of greater than 2000 C in the absence of a catalyst. The normal radiolytic environment of a BWR core produces an excess of oxygen, not hydrogen. Given that the explosion reduced the source term, by all accounts, the reaction with hydrogen for Make UP water injection is a likely scenario and potentially the most plausible explanation for such an explosion at present. This could be even more plausible and verifiable if the Daiichi plants were not retrofitted with Noble metal corrosivity reduction systems (Pt) which have been implemented in many BWRs to reduce site hydrogen inventory. Even with noble metal systems there is still a significant hydrogen inventory external to the containment in BWRs to manage the corrosivity of PV water}

i. Gas pressure in steel reactor pressure vessel rises when coolant systems are not active and is vented to reactor building by engineers. {In my view there is not yet plausible evidence that the temperature of the PV water was sufficiently high to spontaneously split water}

j. The hydrogen in the reactor building is ignited in an explosion which blows out the walls but is not likely to have damaged Steel pressure vessel or concrete containment.

{this is true of both scenarios –but the source of the hydrogen is also external to the PV and containment in my explanation, overcoming the problem of why there was not a hydrogen explosion within the containment and outside the PV!}

k. Operators are now flooding reactor with borated sea water. Would only do this of they had run out of demineralised water – and were sure that water was not spontaneously being split in the PV.

2. Other relevant observations

a. These reactors are old generation I GE BWR’s nearing the end of their useful life so economic loss would not be large: but decommissioning and decontamination costs may be significant.

b. Some reports say 50-100cm of fuel was above coolant. Not necessarily serious in BWR but hydrogen explosion suggests some of the core got very hot

{wrong explanation in my view}!

c. No evidence of catastrophic loss of fuel element integrity yet. BWR fuel often gets small leaks and fission fragments enter water! Only relatively low levels of Cs and I reported so far suggesting fuel integrity still OK.

d. Increase in Cs and I would accompany fuel element breakdown and eventual meltdown.

e. A parallel series of event may now be happening in Unit 3.

f. MOX fuel may have been in one of these reactors

g. to a first approximation there is no difference on the present context between conventional and MOX fuel

h. If anything, the MOX should be marginally more benign for a radiological point of view than UO2 based fuel. It may have a higher toxicological risk however.

3. It is expected that enough coolant and power will be found to avoid meltdown. In which case it could be argued that this is a reasonable result for 50 year old Gen I Reactors exposed to the worst earthquake and tsunami for 100+ years!

4. If meltdown does occur fuel should melt through to concrete basement spread and eventually cool. Not a good result but hopefully, predictable.

5. These events would not happen in modern reactors which are designed to be cooled on shutdown by natural convection.


Response: H2 (production due to oxidation of Zircalloy by high temp steam has to be seriously considered in all full or partial LOCA (loss of coolant accident) scenarios, so I remain conservatively suspicious.

Reply: You then still have to explain why the primary event chain for PV generated H2 and O2 which is 1) PV to containment, then 2) containment (no explosion in the containment) prior to 3) venting to atmosphere!!! (which would in any event be to the stack via filters not via the reactor building)!!! The video footage of the explosion was clearly a fast H2/O2 (shockwave evident) and asymmetrical event– blast leaves to screen left – which implies a concentrated source of H2 mixing with oxygen (Make Up water inventory) rather than a diluting source into atmosphere via the stack which would have taken out the filters at least and increased rather than deceased the site boundary source term.

But I agree very hot Zircalloy in steam is a plausible low temperature route to H2/O2, but remember that the temperature is decay heat not fission generated so radiolysis to produce extra O2 will be many orders of magnitude below that of an operating BWR. I’ll regard a PV chain as more plausible if you can explain how hydrogen (very light stuff) got from containment to reactor building – possible with certain piping configurations…I guess.

Unit 1 was the GE BWR design. These references might assist:

Radiochemistry in Nuclear Power Reactors (1996) Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications

BWR water chemistry – a delicate balance (2000) British Nuclear Societ

March 14, 2011

Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 3:13 pm

by Barry Brook

New 14 March: Updates and additional Q&A information here


Along with reliable sources such as the IAEA and WNN updates, there is an incredible amount of misinformation and hyperbole flying around the internet and media right now about the Fukushima nuclear reactor situation. In my previous post Discussion Thread – Japanese nuclear reactors and the 11 March 2011 earthquake (and in the many comments that attend the top post), a lot of technical detail  is provided, as well as regular updates. But what about a layman’s summary? How do most people get a grasp on what is happening, why, and what the consequences will be?

Below I reproduce a summary on the situation prepared by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston. He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry. This was first posted by Jason Morgan earlier this evening, and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here. I think it is very important that this information be widely understood.

Please also take the time to read this: An informed public is key to acceptance of nuclear energy — it was never more relevant than now.


I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.

There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.

By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

We will have to cover some fundamentals, before we get into what is going on.

Construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants

The plants at Fukushima are so called Boiling Water Reactors, or BWR for short. Boiling Water Reactors are similar to a pressure cooker. The nuclear fuel heats water, the water boils and creates steam, the steam then drives turbines that create the electricity, and the steam is then cooled and condensed back to water, and the water send back to be heated by the nuclear fuel. The pressure cooker operates at about 250 °C.

The nuclear fuel is uranium oxide. Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 3000 °C. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (think little cylinders the size of Lego bricks). Those pieces are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy with a melting point of 2200 °C, and sealed tight. The assembly is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form larger packages, and a number of these packages are then put into the reactor. All these packages together are referred to as “the core”.

The Zircaloy casing is the first containment. It separates the radioactive fuel from the rest of the world.

The core is then placed in the “pressure vessels”. That is the pressure cooker we talked about before. The pressure vessels is the second containment. This is one sturdy piece of a pot, designed to safely contain the core for temperatures several hundred °C. That covers the scenarios where cooling can be restored at some point.

The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor – the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. For that purpose, a large and thick concrete basin is cast under the pressure vessel (the second containment), which is filled with graphite, all inside the third containment. This is the so-called “core catcher”. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down.

This third containment is then surrounded by the reactor building. The reactor building is an outer shell that is supposed to keep the weather out, but nothing in. (this is the part that was damaged in the explosion, but more to that later).

Fundamentals of nuclear reactions

The uranium fuel generates heat by nuclear fission. Big uranium atoms are split into smaller atoms. That generates heat plus neutrons (one of the particles that forms an atom). When the neutron hits another uranium atom, that splits, generating more neutrons and so on. That is called the nuclear chain reaction.

Now, just packing a lot of fuel rods next to each other would quickly lead to overheating and after about 45 minutes to a melting of the fuel rods. It is worth mentioning at this point that the nuclear fuel in a reactor can *never* cause a nuclear explosion the type of a nuclear bomb. Building a nuclear bomb is actually quite difficult (ask Iran). In Chernobyl, the explosion was caused by excessive pressure buildup, hydrogen explosion and rupture of all containments, propelling molten core material into the environment (a “dirty bomb”). Why that did not and will not happen in Japan, further below.

In order to control the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor operators use so-called “control rods”. The control rods absorb the neutrons and kill the chain reaction instantaneously. A nuclear reactor is built in such a way, that when operating normally, you take out all the control rods. The coolant water then takes away the heat (and converts it into steam and electricity) at the same rate as the core produces it. And you have a lot of leeway around the standard operating point of 250°C.

The challenge is that after inserting the rods and stopping the chain reaction, the core still keeps producing heat. The uranium “stopped” the chain reaction. But a number of intermediate radioactive elements are created by the uranium during its fission process, most notably Cesium and Iodine isotopes, i.e. radioactive versions of these elements that will eventually split up into smaller atoms and not be radioactive anymore. Those elements keep decaying and producing heat. Because they are not regenerated any longer from the uranium (the uranium stopped decaying after the control rods were put in), they get less and less, and so the core cools down over a matter of days, until those intermediate radioactive elements are used up.

This residual heat is causing the headaches right now.

So the first “type” of radioactive material is the uranium in the fuel rods, plus the intermediate radioactive elements that the uranium splits into, also inside the fuel rod (Cesium and Iodine).

There is a second type of radioactive material created, outside the fuel rods. The big main difference up front: Those radioactive materials have a very short half-life, that means that they decay very fast and split into non-radioactive materials. By fast I mean seconds. So if these radioactive materials are released into the environment, yes, radioactivity was released, but no, it is not dangerous, at all. Why? By the time you spelled “R-A-D-I-O-N-U-C-L-I-D-E”, they will be harmless, because they will have split up into non radioactive elements. Those radioactive elements are N-16, the radioactive isotope (or version) of nitrogen (air). The others are noble gases such as Xenon. But where do they come from? When the uranium splits, it generates a neutron (see above). Most of these neutrons will hit other uranium atoms and keep the nuclear chain reaction going. But some will leave the fuel rod and hit the water molecules, or the air that is in the water. Then, a non-radioactive element can “capture” the neutron. It becomes radioactive. As described above, it will quickly (seconds) get rid again of the neutron to return to its former beautiful self.

This second “type” of radiation is very important when we talk about the radioactivity being released into the environment later on.

What happened at Fukushima

I will try to summarize the main facts. The earthquake that hit Japan was 7 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 8.9 that happened is 7 times, not 0.7). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up.

When the earthquake hit with 8.9, the nuclear reactors all went into automatic shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the control rods had been inserted into the core and nuclear chain reaction of the uranium stopped. Now, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat. The residual heat load is about 3% of the heat load under normal operating conditions.

The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. That is one of the most serious accidents for a nuclear power plant, and accordingly, a “plant black out” receives a lot of attention when designing backup systems. The power is needed to keep the coolant pumps working. Since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself any more.

Things were going well for an hour. One set of multiple sets of emergency Diesel power generators kicked in and provided the electricity that was needed. Then the Tsunami came, much bigger than people had expected when building the power plant (see above, factor 7). The tsunami took out all multiple sets of backup Diesel generators.

When designing a nuclear power plant, engineers follow a philosophy called “Defense of Depth”. That means that you first build everything to withstand the worst catastrophe you can imagine, and then design the plant in such a way that it can still handle one system failure (that you thought could never happen) after the other. A tsunami taking out all backup power in one swift strike is such a scenario. The last line of defense is putting everything into the third containment (see above), that will keep everything, whatever the mess, control rods in our out, core molten or not, inside the reactor.

When the diesel generators were gone, the reactor operators switched to emergency battery power. The batteries were designed as one of the backups to the backups, to provide power for cooling the core for 8 hours. And they did.

Within the 8 hours, another power source had to be found and connected to the power plant. The power grid was down due to the earthquake. The diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami. So mobile diesel generators were trucked in.

This is where things started to go seriously wrong. The external power generators could not be connected to the power plant (the plugs did not fit). So after the batteries ran out, the residual heat could not be carried away any more.

At this point the plant operators begin to follow emergency procedures that are in place for a “loss of cooling event”. It is again a step along the “Depth of Defense” lines. The power to the cooling systems should never have failed completely, but it did, so they “retreat” to the next line of defense. All of this, however shocking it seems to us, is part of the day-to-day training you go through as an operator, right through to managing a core meltdown.

It was at this stage that people started to talk about core meltdown. Because at the end of the day, if cooling cannot be restored, the core will eventually melt (after hours or days), and the last line of defense, the core catcher and third containment, would come into play.

But the goal at this stage was to manage the core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment (our pressure cooker) remain intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems.

Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Which one failed when or did not fail is not clear at this point in time.

So imagine our pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker.  In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has 11 pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was about 550°C.

This is when the reports about “radiation leakage” starting coming in. I believe I explained above why venting the steam is theoretically the same as releasing radiation into the environment, but why it was and is not dangerous. The radioactive nitrogen as well as the noble gases do not pose a threat to human health.

At some stage during this venting, the explosion occurred. The explosion took place outside of the third containment (our “last line of defense”), and the reactor building. Remember that the reactor building has no function in keeping the radioactivity contained. It is not entirely clear yet what has happened, but this is the likely scenario: The operators decided to vent the steam from the pressure vessel not directly into the environment, but into the space between the third containment and the reactor building (to give the radioactivity in the steam more time to subside). The problem is that at the high temperatures that the core had reached at this stage, water molecules can “disassociate” into oxygen and hydrogen – an explosive mixture. And it did explode, outside the third containment, damaging the reactor building around. It was that sort of explosion, but inside the pressure vessel (because it was badly designed and not managed properly by the operators) that lead to the explosion of Chernobyl. This was never a risk at Fukushima. The problem of hydrogen-oxygen formation is one of the biggies when you design a power plant (if you are not Soviet, that is), so the reactor is build and operated in a way it cannot happen inside the containment. It happened outside, which was not intended but a possible scenario and OK, because it did not pose a risk for the containment.

So the pressure was under control, as steam was vented. Now, if you keep boiling your pot, the problem is that the water level will keep falling and falling. The core is covered by several meters of water in order to allow for some time to pass (hours, days) before it gets exposed. Once the rods start to be exposed at the top, the exposed parts will reach the critical temperature of 2200 °C after about 45 minutes. This is when the first containment, the Zircaloy tube, would fail.

And this started to happen. The cooling could not be restored before there was some (very limited, but still) damage to the casing of some of the fuel. The nuclear material itself was still intact, but the surrounding Zircaloy shell had started melting. What happened now is that some of the byproducts of the uranium decay – radioactive Cesium and Iodine – started to mix with the steam. The big problem, uranium, was still under control, because the uranium oxide rods were good until 3000 °C. It is confirmed that a very small amount of Cesium and Iodine was measured in the steam that was released into the atmosphere.

It seems this was the “go signal” for a major plan B. The small amounts of Cesium that were measured told the operators that the first containment on one of the rods somewhere was about to give. The Plan A had been to restore one of the regular cooling systems to the core. Why that failed is unclear. One plausible explanation is that the tsunami also took away / polluted all the clean water needed for the regular cooling systems.

The water used in the cooling system is very clean, demineralized (like distilled) water. The reason to use pure water is the above mentioned activation by the neutrons from the Uranium: Pure water does not get activated much, so stays practically radioactive-free. Dirt or salt in the water will absorb the neutrons quicker, becoming more radioactive. This has no effect whatsoever on the core – it does not care what it is cooled by. But it makes life more difficult for the operators and mechanics when they have to deal with activated (i.e. slightly radioactive) water.

But Plan A had failed – cooling systems down or additional clean water unavailable – so Plan B came into effect. This is what it looks like happened:

In order to prevent a core meltdown, the operators started to use sea water to cool the core. I am not quite sure if they flooded our pressure cooker with it (the second containment), or if they flooded the third containment, immersing the pressure cooker. But that is not relevant for us.

The point is that the nuclear fuel has now been cooled down. Because the chain reaction has been stopped a long time ago, there is only very little residual heat being produced now. The large amount of cooling water that has been used is sufficient to take up that heat. Because it is a lot of water, the core does not produce sufficient heat any more to produce any significant pressure. Also, boric acid has been added to the seawater. Boric acid is “liquid control rod”. Whatever decay is still going on, the Boron will capture the neutrons and further speed up the cooling down of the core.

The plant came close to a core meltdown. Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material. After the meltdown, there would have been a waiting period for the intermediate radioactive materials to decay inside the reactor, and all radioactive particles to settle on a surface inside the containment. The cooling system would have been restored eventually, and the molten core cooled to a manageable temperature. The containment would have been cleaned up on the inside. Then a messy job of removing the molten core from the containment would have begun, packing the (now solid again) fuel bit by bit into transportation containers to be shipped to processing plants. Depending on the damage, the block of the plant would then either be repaired or dismantled.

Now, where does that leave us?

  • The plant is safe now and will stay safe.
  • Japan is looking at an INES Level 4 Accident: Nuclear accident with local consequences. That is bad for the company that owns the plant, but not for anyone else.
  • Some radiation was released when the pressure vessel was vented. All radioactive isotopes from the activated steam have gone (decayed). A very small amount of Cesium was released, as well as Iodine. If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy. The Cesium and Iodine isotopes were carried out to the sea and will never be seen again.
  • There was some limited damage to the first containment. That means that some amounts of radioactive Cesium and Iodine will also be released into the cooling water, but no Uranium or other nasty stuff (the Uranium oxide does not “dissolve” in the water). There are facilities for treating the cooling water inside the third containment. The radioactive Cesium and Iodine will be removed there and eventually stored as radioactive waste in terminal storage.
  • The seawater used as cooling water will be activated to some degree. Because the control rods are fully inserted, the Uranium chain reaction is not happening. That means the “main” nuclear reaction is not happening, thus not contributing to the activation. The intermediate radioactive materials (Cesium and Iodine) are also almost gone at this stage, because the Uranium decay was stopped a long time ago. This further reduces the activation. The bottom line is that there will be some low level of activation of the seawater, which will also be removed by the treatment facilities.
  • The seawater will then be replaced over time with the “normal” cooling water
  • The reactor core will then be dismantled and transported to a processing facility, just like during a regular fuel change.
  • Fuel rods and the entire plant will be checked for potential damage. This will take about 4-5 years.
  • The safety systems on all Japanese plants will be upgraded to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami (or worse)
  • I believe the most significant problem will be a prolonged power shortage. About half of Japan’s nuclear reactors will probably have to be inspected, reducing the nation’s power generating capacity by 15%. This will probably be covered by running gas power plants that are usually only used for peak loads to cover some of the base load as well. That will increase your electricity bill, as well as lead to potential power shortages during peak demand, in Japan.

If you want to stay informed, please forget the usual media outlets and consult the following websites:

Discussion Thread – Japanese nuclear reactors and the 11 March 2011 earthquake

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power, Japan Earthquake — buildeco @ 3:04 pm

by Barry Brook

Please use this Discussion Thread for the situation in Japan with respect to the Miyagiken-Oki earthquake (9.0 magnitude) and associated 10m tsunami, and its impact on the local nuclear reactors. Here is a précis of the situation as I understand it:

1. There is no credible risk of a serious accident. All reactors responded by insertion of control rods to shut down their nuclear reactions. Thus, power levels in all cases dropped quickly to about 5% of maximum output,  and the nuclear chain reaction ceased (i.e., all units are subcritical).

Note: I judge the situation would currently be rated INES Level 4: Accident with local consequences on the international nuclear event scale. Update: This level has been confirmed by WNN (5:50 GMT).

2. The concern is providing emergency cooling water to the reactor cores to remove decay heat from the fuel rods. This residual heat comes from the fission products, and will be persistent, but diminishes rapidly over time (i.e., most decay heat occurs over minutes and hours, with cold shutdown within a few days).

3. At one plant, the 40-year old Fukushima Daiichi (unit #1 opened in 1971), the backup diesel generators supply power to the core cooling system failed (apparently due to damage from the tsunami). This allowed pressure to build up in at least one of the reactors cores to about 50% higher than normal (unit 1), and requires venting of very mildly radioactive steam (contains trace levels of tritium). Some discussion here.

4. The nuclear reactor containments were undamaged by the tsunami or earthquake — these structures are sealed from flooding damage and are seismically isolated.

5. New generators and batteries have been transported to the Daiichi site in to provide power to the pumps. The emergency core cooling systems (ECCS) have been invoked, which follows the principle of defense in depth (however, see point #8, below, and TEPCO updates).

6. There are reports of partial exposure of the fuel at Daiichi unit #1, following coolant evaporation that, for a short time, exceeded inputs from the secondary cooling system. Such exposure can lead to some melting of the metal cladding (the ‘wrapping’ of the fuel rods), or the uranium rods themselves if the exposure is prolonged. This is what is technically referred to as a ‘meltdown’. I am still not clear if this exposure of the fuel assemblies actually happened (some evidence here), nor if any fuel underwent melt (due to decay heat, not a critical nuclear reaction).

7. The plant closest to the earthquake epicentre, Onagawa, stood up remarkably well, although there was a fire in a turbine building on site but not associated with the reactor operations, and therefore was not involved with any radioactive systems.

8. There has been an explosion at Fukushima Daiichi at 16:30 JST (7:30 GMT) on March 12. Note: There is no critical nuclear reaction occurring in any of these reactors, and it CANNOT reinitiate as all neutron-absorbing control rods are grounded. As such, any at a plant site fire would be chemical (e.g., hydrogen) or steam pressure during venting (see point #3).

Quote from WNN on the explosion:

Television cameras trained on the plant captured a dramatic explosion surrounding Fukushima Daiichi 1 at around 6pm. Amid a visible pressure release and a cloud of dust it was not possible to immediately know the extent of any damage. Later television shots showed a naked steel frame remaining at the top of the reactor building. The external building structure does not act as the containment, which is an airtight engineered boundary within.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano appeared on television to clarify that the explosion had damaged the walls and roof of the reactor building but had not compromised the containment.

Monitoring of Fukushima Daiichi 1 had previously shown an increase in radiation levels detected near to the unit emerging via routes such as the exhaust stack and the discharge canal. These included caesium-137 and iodine-131, Nisa said, noting that levels began to decrease after some time.

Nevertheless the amount of radiation detected at the site boundary reached 500 microSieverts per hour – exceeding a regulatory limit and triggering another set of emergency precautions. It also meant the incident has been rated at Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) – an ‘accident with local consequences’.

In this photo released by Tokyo Power Electric Co, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s Unit 1 is seen after an explosion in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture on Saturday. AP

Note: The seawater might be used for spraying within the containment, for additional cooling, rather than injection into the reactor core. That is what comes of too much uncertainty and too little hard information.

Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, via Reuters:

We’ve confirmed that the reactor container was not damaged. The explosion didn’t occur inside the reactor container. As such there was no large amount of radiation leakage outside…

Edano said due to the falling level of cooling water, hydrogen was generated and that leaked to the space between the building and the container and the explosion happened when the hydrogen mixed with oxygen there.

(I will edit the above section and provide further updates below, as more information comes to hand)

Some useful links for further information:

Battle to stabilise earthquake reactors (World Nuclear News)

Factbox – Experts comment on explosion at Japan nuclear plant (some excellent and informative quotes)

ANS Nuclear Cafe updates (useful news feed)

How to Cool a Nuclear Reactor (Scientific American interview with Scott Burnell from the NRC)

Nuclear Power Plants and Earthquakes (World Nuclear Association fact sheet)

Tokyo Electric Power Company updates here and here (the plant operators)

Capacity Factor: Some links on the Fukushima Daiichi #1 crisis (with updates)

This is a critical time for science, engineering and facts to trump hype, fear, uncertainty and doubt.


Updates Below
International Atomic Energy Agency: Japan nuclear plants nearest earthquake safely shut down

TEPCO updates for Fukushima Daiichi (Plant #1) and Daini (Plant #2): 8 am, 13 March

[Nuclear Power Station]
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station:

Units 1 to 3: shutdown due to earthquake

Units 4 to 6: outage due to regular inspection

* The national government has instructed evacuation for those local residents within 20km radius of the site periphery.

* The value of radioactive material (iodine, etc) is increasing according to the monitoring car at the site (outside of the site). One of the monitoring posts is also indicating higher than normal level.

* Since the amount of radiation at the boundary of the site exceeds the limits, we decide at 4:17PM, Mar 12 and we have reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned to apply the clause 1 of the Article 15 of the Radiation Disaster Measure at 5PM, Mar 12.

* In addition, a vertical earthquake hit the site and big explosion has happened near the Unit 1 and smoke breaks out around 3:36PM, Mar 12th.

* We started injection of sea water into the reactor core of Unit 1 at 8:20PM, Mar 12 and then boric acid subsequently.

* High Pressure Coolant Injection System of Unit 3 automatically stopped. We endeavored to restart the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System but failed. Also, we could not confirm the water inflow of Emergency Core Cooling System. As such, we decided at 5.10AM, Mar 12, and we reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned to apply the clause 1 of the Article 15 of the Radiation Disaster Measure at 5:58AM, Mar 13.

In order to fully secure safety, we operated the vent valve to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessels (partial release of air containing radioactive materials) and completed the procedure at 8:41AM, Mar 13,

* We continue endeavoring to secure the safety that all we can do and monitoring the periphery.

Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Station:

Units 1 to 4: shutdown due to earthquake

* The national government has instructed evacuation for those local residents within 10km radius of the periphery.

* At present, we have decided to prepare implementing measures to reduce the pressure of the reactor containment vessel (partial discharge of air containing radioactive materials) in order to fully secure safety. These measures are considered to be implemented in Units 1, 2 and 3 and accordingly, we have reported and/or noticed the government agencies concerned.

* Unit 3 has been stopped and being “nuclear reactor cooling hot stop” at 12:15PM.

* The operator trapped in the crane operating console of the exhaust stack was transferred to the ground at 5:13PM and confirmed the death at 5:17PM.

Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Station:
Units 1, 5, 6, 7: normal operation

Units 2 to 4: outage due to regular inspection

From Margaret Harding:

Heat from the nuclear fuel rods must be removed by water in a cooling system, but that requires power to run the pumps, align the valves in the pipes and run the instruments. The plant requires a continuous supply of electricity even after the reactor stops generating power.

With the steam-driven pump in operation, pressure valves on the reactor vessel would open automatically as pressure rose too high, or could be opened by operators. “It’s not like they have a breach; there’s no broken pipe venting steam,” said Margaret E. Harding, a nuclear safety consultant who managed a team at General Electric, the reactors’ designer, that analyzed pressure buildup in reactor containments.

You’re getting pops of release valves for minutes, not hours, that take pressure back down”

IAEA alert log:

Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) that today’s earthquake and tsunami have cut the supply of off-site power to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In addition, diesel generators intended to provide back-up electricity to the plant’s cooling system were disabled by tsunami flooding, and efforts to restore the diesel generators are continuing.

At Fukushima Daiichi, officials have declared a nuclear emergency situation, and at the nearby Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, officials have declared a heightened alert condition.

Japanese authorities say there has so far been no release of radiation from any of the nuclear power plants affected by today’s earthquake and aftershocks.

Tsunamis and nuclear power plants:

Large undersea earthquakes often cause tsunamis – pressure waves which travel very rapidly across oceans and become massive waves over ten metres high when they reach shallow water, then washing well inland. The December 2004 tsunamis following a magnitude 9 earthquake in Indonesia reached the west coast of India and affected the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant near Madras/Chennai. When very abnormal water levels were detected in the cooling water intake, the plant shut down automatically. It was restarted six days later.

Even for a nuclear plant situated very close to sea level, the robust sealed containment structure around the reactor itself would prevent any damage to the nuclear part from a tsunami, though other parts of the plant might be damaged. No radiological hazard would be likely.

World Nuclear News updates (updated 11:44 pm GMT):

Attention is focused on the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants as Japan struggles to cope in the aftermath of its worst earthquake in recorded history. An explosion on site did not damage containment. Sea water injection continues after a tsunami warning.

Three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors were in operation when yesterday’s quake hit, at which point they shut down automatically and commenced removal of residual heat with the help of emergency diesel generators. These suddenly stopped about an hour later, and this has been put down to tsunami flooding by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The loss of the diesels led the plant owners Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) to immediately notify the government of a technical emergency situation, which allows officials to take additional precautionary measures.

For many hours the primary focus of work at the site was to connect enough portable power modules to fully replace the diesels and enable the full operation of cooling systems.

Pressure and releases

Without enough power for cooling systems, decay heat from the reactor cores of units 1, 2 and 3 has gradually reduced coolant water levels through evaporation. The consequent increase in pressure in the coolant circuit can be managed via pressure release valves. However, this leads to an increase in pressure within the reactor building containment. Tepco has said that the pressure within the containment of Fukushima Daiichi 1 has reached around 840 kPa, compared to reference levels of 400 kPa.

The company has decided to manage this “for those units that cannot confirm certain levels of water injection” by means of a controlled release of air and water vapour to the atmosphere. Because this water has been through the reactor core, this would inevitably mean a certain release of radiation. The IAEA said this would be filtered to retain radiation within the containment. Tepco has confirmed it was in the process of relieving pressure at unit 1 while preparing to do the same for units 2 and 3.


Television cameras trained on the plant captured a dramatic explosion surrounding unit 1 at around 6pm. Amid a visible pressure release and a cloud of dust it was not possible to immediately know the extent of any damage. Later television shots showed a naked steel frame remaining at the top of the reactor building. The external building structure does not act as the containment, which is an airtight engineered boundary within.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano appeared on television to clarify that the explosion had damaged the walls and roof of the reactor building but had not compromised the containment.

Monitoring of Fukushima Daiichi 1 had previously shown an increase in radiation levels detected emerging from the plant via routes such as the exhaust stack and the discharge canal. Tepco have said that the amount of radioactive material such as iodine it is detecting have been increasing. The amount of radiation at the site boundary now exceeds a regulatory limit triggering another set of emergency precautions. It also meant the incident has been rated at Level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) – an ‘accident with local consequences’.

To protect the public from potential health effects of radioactive isotopes of iodine that could potentially be released, authorities are preparing to distribute tablets of non-radioactive potassium-iodide. This is quickly taken up by the body and its presence prevents the take-up of iodine should people be exposed to it.

Over the last several hours evacuation orders for local residents have been incrementally increased and now cover people living within 20 kilometres of the power plant.

Seawater injection

The injection of seawater into the building started at 8.20pm and this is planned to be followed by addition of boric acid, which is used to inhibit nuclear reactions. Tepco had to put the operation on hold for a time when another tsunami was predicted, but work recommenced after the all-clear.

Raised temperatures

Meanwhile at adjacent Fukushima Daini, where four reactors have been shut down safely since the earthquake hit, Tepco has notified government of another emergency status.

Unit 1′s reactor core isolation cooling system had been operating normally, and this was later supplemented by a separate make-up water condensate system. However, the latter was lost at 5.32am local time when its suppression chamber reached 100ºC. This led Tepco to notify government of another technical emergency situation.

Tepco has announced it has decided to prepare for controlled releases to ease pressure in the containments of all four units at Fukushima Daini.

A three kilometre evacuation is in progress, with residents in a zone out to ten kilometres given notice of potential expansion.


A seriously injured worker was trapped within Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 in the crane operating console of the exhaust stack and is now confirmed to have died. Four workers were injured by the explosion at the same reactor and have been taken to hospital. A contractor was found unconscious and taken to hospital.

Two workers of a ‘cooperative firm’ were injured, said Tepco; one with a broken bone.

At Fukushima Daiini unit 3 one worker received a radiation dose of 106 mSv. This is comparable to levels deemed acceptable in emergency situations by some national nuclear safety regulators.

The whereabout of two Tepco workers remains unknown.

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