Nuclear Experts: Japan Nuclear Disaster Unprecedented -- No Way to Know About US Impact

In the days after a massive earthquake battered Japan – triggering a deadly tsunami, shifting the earth several inches off its axis, and most frighteningly, damaging one of the most powerful nuclear power plants in the world – many nuclear engineers sought to reassure the American public that while the crisis was a serious one for Japan, there was no cause for Americans to be alarmed. But experts interviewed by AlterNet cautioned that the events taking place in the Fukushima No. 1 power plant are simply unprecedented, and noted that the situation appears to be deteriorating.

On March 13, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a statement confidently assuring the American public that because of “the thousands of miles” separating us from the site of several crippled reactors at the Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear power plant, “Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

The announcement was widely reported, but seems to have been premature. “NRC's statement was so absurd,” Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist, told AlterNet. “They made that statement when we certainly didn't know how bad it would get, and it has gotten much worse in the past days.”

That uncertainty lies at the heart of the matter. “We're facing six reactors that can have the worst accident possible in those types of designs,” Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Green Action, a Japanese environmental group, told AlterNet. “And if the chances are fifty-fifty in six reactors, we know what the math is – that means three will go. So if we have six that look really serious, that's something we've never seen before. And it's just playing out right now – it seems there's no way of stopping it, although there's an attempt to.” On Wednesday, white smoke appeared streaming from Unit 3, and officials said that a breach had likely occurred in the reactor's containment vessel -- the second at the plant in two days. 

Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, told AlterNet that so far, as dire as the situation looks for Japan, there's little cause for concern in the U.S. “There a lot of other assumptions you have to build into that, like the winds blowing the fallout towards the United States; they could also blow it over Russia. I think Hawaii would be the first place I'd be concerned about, and the plumes would have traveled a significant distance, so they'd be pretty dilute.”

But, he said the crisis is “not getting better, and it's actually getting worse.” He wouldn't speculate how bad a worst-case scenario might get on the distant shores of the U.S., because he was still “trying to get my head around how much [radioactivity] would be released in terms of multiple reactor meltdowns.” 

Kamps agreed that a number of factors would have to play out in order for the catastrophe 5,000 miles away to pose a threat to public health in the U.S. It would “depend on the direction of the wind, the nature of the radioactive clouds, and if they were able to maintain their concentration and not disperse.” But that “has happened,” he warned. “It happened at Chernobyl, with fallout of a very high level of concentration falling hundreds of miles from the disaster.”

There is quite a lot of debate about just how serious Chernobyl's impact on human health was. The World Health Organization says that only a handful of deaths can be attributed to what is widely considered to be the worst nuclear accident in human history. But last year, Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow, and Vassily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety, Belarus, published the findings of an extensive literature review and concluded that almost a million people may have died as a result of the disaster. "For the past 23 years, it has been clear that there is a danger greater than nuclear weapons concealed within nuclear power," the authors said. "No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe... Chernobyl fallout covers the entire Northern Hemisphere."

Arnie Gunderson, an engineer and former nuclear industry insider, told Democracy Now! that those desperate attempts to avert disaster at Fukushima No. 1 are likely to be hampered by the March 14 evacuation of hundreds of workers who were trying to contain the disaster. “These 750 people that are being evacuated were doing critical work. They weren’t sweeping floors and washing windows,” he said, calling the decision to pull the crews, “an indication that management at the site has thrown in the towel and is going to let this thing run its course without any more human intervention.”

For Japan, the crisis is already very serious, with tens of thousands of nearby residents evacuated from their homes and low but elevated radioactivity readings recorded in Tokyo. “This could be enormously harmful to the whole country,” said Robert Alvarez, adding that aside from any potential harm to human health, “this is the kind of event that will sink the third largest economy in the world.”

Mioko Smith said the Japanese government has been less than forthcoming about the severity of the disaster. “The French government held a press conference [on March 15], and the head of the French nuclear safety agency said that all six of the reactors are close to level 7 on the IMIS scale – that's the international scale for ranking nuclear accidents, and 7 is the highest,” she said. “So, this is the French government giving a press conference in France saying, 'look, all six reactors at Fukushima are close to level 7.' Well, the Japanese government isn't telling people that.” 

“Everyone thinks a meltdown is a quiet thing,” she added, “but it's not. You get massive releases of hydrogen, which causes explosions. Which means the material coming out of the reactor gets dispersed. How much, we don't know.”

Asked what might bring about the worst-case scenario, Kamps said it would be a combination of the containment chambers housing the reactor cores being breached and the highly radioactive spent fuel rods stored in “cooling pools” outside the containment catching fire. “If we were to have three core meltdowns and containment breaches, and six storage pools catching fire, those pools being outside the containment, that radioactivity would be directly released into the environment. That would be the worst-case scenario,” he said.

The cooling pools are where highly radioactive spent fuel rods are stored. Explosions in at least two of the reactor buildings blew the roofs off the pools, exposing them to the environment. With cooling system failures and the spent fuel exposed to the atmosphere, the risk of a very difficult to extinguish chemical fire is high, and experts believe that's what happened at Fukushima Unit 4. And when the fuel rods burn, as they can for extended periods, they release highly toxic steam into the environment. “It’s worse than a meltdown,” David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New York Times.

The Times noted that “the good news is that the Japanese have a relatively long time to deal with the problem,” but “the bad news is that if efforts to deal with the emergency fail, the results could be worse.” Arnie Gunderson told Democracy Now! that one of the reasons he was so concerned about the workers being evacuated from the plant was “that a large group of personnel were fighting the fire in the fuel pool on Unit 4.”

Aftershocks continue to batter Japan. According to the government, the island-nation has experienced 250 aftershocks registering 5.0 or higher on the Richter scale since the initial quake. Gunderson noted that the vulnerable plants could face more serious consequences yet. “I’m particularly concerned about another aftershock... on the weak Unit 2 containment, which already apparently has failed, and an aftershock would make it worse,” he said.

While nobody can say what will transpire in Japan in the coming days and weeks, one need not look east to find a threat of nuclear catastrophe for the U.S. Robert Alvarez told AlterNet that a study he had conducted found uncontained cooling pools currently operating at 103 reactors in 65 nuclear power plants spread across 31 states. “It's an unacceptable risk for the American public for these reactors to have their spent fuel densely compacted in these pools,” he said. “We were looking at this in the context of acts of terror, but our analysis suggests that the worst possible event that could start a spent fuel fire would be an earthquake.”

“We warned that this was a problem in the United States in 2003,” he continued, “and a year later the National Academy of Sciences agreed that our analysis was correct about the consequences and said the NRC needs to take this seriously.” But, he added, “the NRC has simply thumbed its noses at everybody because the industry doesn't want to spend the money” required to contain the waste.

This week, German chancellor Angela Merkel ordered seven of her country's power plants shut down pending a review, and the catastrophe in Japan has caused European states to “stress test” all of their  reactors. Guenther Oettinger, the EU's energy commissioner, told reporters, "There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen." He added that the catastrophe "has to raise the question of whether we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear power.”

Meanwhile, CBS reported that the “Obama administration on Tuesday insisted that nuclear power plants in the United States are safe,” in an attempt to protect the industry from the kind of public backlash that followed the Three Mile Island disaster.

CBS added: “Twenty-three of the nuclear reactors in the United States use the same design as those found at the plant that failed in Japan” and every plant in the U.S. “shares key design traits with the Japanese plant.”


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