Tags: Japan | nuclear | core | melt

Japan on 'Path of Core-Melt' Nuclear Accident, Expert Tells Newsmax

Friday, 11 Mar 2011 04:40 PM

By David A. Patten

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Japan is “on the path of a core-melt accident,” a nuclear expert tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview.

The news Friday that the only nation that ever has endured a nuclear-weapons attack is venting contaminated vapor from a nuclear power plant’s containment core could indicate that the coolant loss is quite serious, says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonprofit think tank. Hibbs, who works in Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program, has spent 20 years reporting for nuclear-energy journals and has spoken with Japanese officials in the aftermath of the nuclear plant mishap resulting from the earthquake there.

Japanese nuclear officials say radiation levels inside a nuclear power plant have surged to 1,000 times their normal levels after the cooling system failed.

The nuclear safety agency said early Saturday that some radiation has also seeped outside the plant, prompting calls for further evacuations of the area. Some 3,000 people have already been urged to leave their homes.

The cooling system for a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant failed on Friday after a massive earthquake caused a power outage.

The continued loss of electricity has also delayed the planned release of vapor from inside the reactor to ease pressure. Pressure inside one of the reactors had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal.

The pressure inside the reactor containment domes is 50 percent higher than normal, the officials say, although they contend that a last-ditch emergency cooling system is intact.

“The Japanese public is generally very alarmed about things like radioactive emissions,” says Hibbs, who served for two decades as an editor and correspondent for the nuclear energy publications “Nucleonics Week” and “Nuclear Fuel.” “They have an extreme high standard of safety protection, and they don’t like to see risks like this taken even if the risk is small.

“It’s a very, very risk-averse culture in this regard. So if the authorities are willing to do this, that might be a sign of how serious they perceive the threat to the reactor.”

Although coolant interruptions to nuclear power plants are not all that unusual, says Hibbs, who adds that the surprising aspect of this incident is that Japan’s redundant systems apparently have been unable to counteract reactor core heating.

“What happened in Japan is very alarming because it would appear . . . that about 2:30 this afternoon Japan time, when the earthquake struck . . . three of the reactors that were operating were disenabled because of a loss of offsite power that was caused by the earthquake.”

The Japanese situation appears to be roughly analogous to the Three Mile Island incident in the United States, where authorities struggled for days to contain an improperly cooled reactor core but were able to avert a widespread release of nuclear material.

“We were in a situation as I recall then very similar to where we are now, where we were told by news media in 1979 that there was a core melt accident unfolding, we didn’t know how serious it would become, and what would happen,” Hibbs tells Newsmax.

At least one of the reactors in Japan, and perhaps more, “ are on the path of a core-melt accident. It’s called a loss of coolant accident. . . . And it’s up to the Japanese authorities, together with the industries in that country, to find a way to stem this problem,” he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that the United States is trying to help alleviate the situation. "We just had our Air Force assets in Japan transport some really important coolant to one of the nuclear plants," Clinton said, according to the Associated Press.

The Japanese reactors are designed to drop neutron-blocking control rods into the core as soon as the plants detect a seismic disturbance. These controls apparently functioned normally. But even after the procedure, scientists say a base level of heat continues to flow, and coolant is needed to constrain those temperatures.

Asked how long Japanese scientists have to correct the problem to avoid a core meltdown, Hibbs tells Newsmax that it depends on system design, adding, “it could be a day, plus or minus 10 hours.”

“After a while, with the heat building up in there, and lack of coolant, you’re going to see damage in your fuel, the cladding, the metal container around the nuclear material, begins to buckle or balloon or break, and after a little while you’ll get a situation where the fuel falls apart, melts, and falls into the core, and then you’ve got a classical core melt accident like you had in Three Mile Island that you had in the United States in '79.”

Hibbs spoke with Japanese government officials who told him the force of the tsunami was so severe that the water may have flooded the reactors,  power generators, and cooling mechanisms, disabling the equipment. "Which means they have to resort to basically a military-type exercise, to rush in to the devastated site equipment that they can quickly hook up to the reactor to get power in there and start this emergency equipment, to get cooling water into that core and prevent that fuel from overheating.

“And if they can’t do that,” he told Newsmax, “then you’re going to have this meltdown.”

They have 24 hours or so to avoid a core meltdown, he says. But if one occurs, two scenarios could follow: The good outcome would mirror what happened at Three Mile Island, while the bad one could involve what he called a “Chernobyl scenario, where the damage to the reactor was such that the integrity of the structures were damaged.

Chernobyl, Japan, nuclear meltdown
A warning sign at Chernobyl signals radioactivity after the worst-case scenario there in 1986. (Getty Images)
“There was an explosion and other things happened in there, that opened up the reactor so the inventory of radioactive material . . . went into the atmosphere and generated this deadly plume that we know happened in Chernobyl.

“So that is the ultimate worst-case scenario. Nobody is saying that’s going to happen. Nobody is even saying we’re going to have a core meltdown. But we have a window of time now. We don’t know how much is left — but the Japanese authorities and the government and all the agencies that they can muster are working overtime to get cooling systems on that site powered and working.”

The April 1986 Chernobyl disaster cost an estimated 4,000 lives. More than 330,000 Russians had to be relocated because of contamination.

But Hibbs says, “A lot of worst-case things would have to happen for us to get that far.”

Hibbs said the Japanese right now are fighting the clock to contain the heating.

The last major coolant issue involving a nuclear power plant occurred in Sweden in 2006, according to Hibbs. An electrical problem at that plant led to a malfunction in the emergency equipment. But coolant was restored and all radioactive material was contained.

“They might vent some of that pressure and some of that heat, by opening the structure to vent the atmosphere inside of the core of the reactor, to take off some of that pressure,” Hibbs tells Newsmax. “And they are willing to take into account the very negative public effect that that will happen.”

“I have no reason to believe that the amount of radioactivity that would be released in an event like that would be very much. It probably would not be. In the absence of any fuel damage, which they haven’t reported . . . it wouldn’t be a lot of radioactivity at all.”

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