Crisis in Japan: Two Reactors Under Control, But Radioactive Gas Release Still Possible; Regulators Ignored Warnings About Plant

There have been so many pieces of troubling news over the past few weeks that it's hard to keep track of them all. As much of the world (rightly) focuses on the military intervention in Libya today, let's take a moment to remember that the nuclear crisis in Japan remains, well, a crisis. At the same time, the country is continuing to come to terms with the massive damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Some aspects of the situation at the Fukushima plant are improving, or at the very least not getting worse. CBS reports that Fukushima's units 5 and 6 have stabilized. Those units were already the most stable of the bunch, but at least that news gives the team in Japan something less to worry about. Meanwhile, unit 3 is continuing to pose problems, with plant workers saying they may have to release radioactive steam to address the problem.

Here's news of another step in the right direction: Al Jazeera saysthat TEPCO, the Japanese electric company, has connected all six Fukushima units to power lines, although the power is not yet on at the plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) warned on Tuesday that equipment still had to be checked before power could be properly reconnected, which would mark a significant step in bringing the reactors back under control.

Engineers have also been able to cool a spent fuel pool that was nearly boiling, bringing it back to 105 degrees after dumping 18 tonnes of seawater into a holding pool.

In less positive news, officials are worried about radiation contamination in the area:

Experts are concerned about sea water that has been used to cool the reactors and their spend fuel ponds after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11.

Radioactive iodine in the sea samples was 126.7 times the allowed limit, while caesium was 24.8 times over, Kyodo news agency said. But TEPCO said that still posed no immediate danger.

"I'm interested to know how this water is being disposed... if it is being disposed or just allowed to drain to sea," Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear and environmental expert at the University of Southern California, told the Reuters news agency.

Furthermore, it has come to light that Japanese government regulators ignored warnings they were given about the Fukushima plant just weeks before the earthquake. The New York Times:

Just a month before a powerful earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the center of Japan’s nuclear crisis, government regulators approved a 10-year extension for the oldest of the six reactors at the power station despite warnings about its safety.

The regulatory committee reviewing extensions pointed to stress cracks in the backup diesel-powered generators at Reactor No. 1 at the Daiichi plant, according to a summary of its deliberations that was posted on the Web site of Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency after each meeting. The cracks made the engines vulnerable to corrosion from seawater and rainwater. The generators are thought to have been knocked out by the tsunami, shutting down the reactor’s vital cooling system....

The decision to extend the reactor’s life, and the inspection failures at all six reactors, highlight what critics describe as unhealthy ties between power plant operators and the Japanese regulators that oversee them.

The official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami has now topped 9,000, with more than 12,600 people reported missing.

AlterNet / By Lauren Kelley

Posted at March 22, 2011, 6:48am

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