'Very Grave And Serious': Fukushima Disaster Reaching Chernobyl Levels

As we noted was likely to happen just after posting last night's update on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the "calm" over the last day or two that we reported was somewhat broken shortly thereafter. Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan took to the air for a rare press conference to discuss the situation at the crippled nuclear plant, and to mark the two weeks which have passed since an unprecedented, three-prong earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster rocked the country.

Kan described the situation at Fukushima as "very grave and serious", adding, "

He did not, however, offer much in the way of new information. In the meantime, other government officials have now recommended (but not ordered) that those living between 20 and 30 kilometers from the plant voluntarily leave the area. They stress that the new recommendations are due to the difficulty in supplying food and other resources to the area, not because of an increase in radiation levels.

Last week, those living within 20 kilometers of the plant were forced to evacuate from that "exclusion zone", and those within 20 to 30km of the plant were instructed to stay indoors to avoid radioactive fallout. The U.S. government has recommended a larger exclusion zone of 80 kilometers (50 miles) around the plant, though Japan has not felt it necessary to widen their own mandatory exclusion zone.

The most noteworthy hard news development since our report yesterday is the speculation --- and yes, we'll still call it speculation until there is hard confirmation --- that the containment vessel at Unit 3 has ruptured in some fashion, and that a meltdown may be occurring in the core of the reactor. Those details seem to be largely speculative still at this hour, based on the investigation into what caused the water at the reactor building to be as radioactive as it was to lead to "beta burns" on the feet and ankles of three workers yesterday who stepped in water while trying to restore electricity to the unit. Two of them were hospitalized. (See dispiriting photo at top of this article.)

Whether the extraordinarily high levels of radiation in the water is coming from a crack in the steel containment vessel housing the reactor core there, or from water leaking out of the spent fuel pool at Unit 3 --- or even from something else --- doesn't seem to be conclusively known at this point. But the radiation in the water was reportedly 10,000 times the "normal" limit, with some reports pegging the radiation at 100,000 times higher.

That's not the only disturbing news, however, as we now have more scientists ringing in on the data we discussed in detail yesterday from Austrian researchers suggesting that some 50% of the radioactive cesium-137 that spewed from Chernobyl in 1986 has already been emitted to surrounding areas in Japan from one or more of the crippled reactors at Fukushima...

Before more troubling information on that disturbing thought, Voice of America's Steve Herman reports in his latest article, that there are signs that the zirconium tubes, in which the uranium and/or plutonium fuel pellets are stored in the reactors, may be degrading --- another signal of possible core meltdown [emphasis added]:

Japan's Defense Ministry says pure water and pumps supplied by the United States military will be brought to Fukushima [Daiichi] to cool the reactors. It would replace the sea water being used that is causing corrosion because of an accumulation of tons of salt.

Scientists say chloride in the salt could also break open the zirconium alloy layer of protection around the fuel rods which prevents volatile radioactive elements from escaping.

Tokyo Electric Power confirms that zirconium 95 in sea water several hundred meters from the Fukushima plant has been detected since Wednesday when testing began there for additional radioactive elements.

A spokesman for the Japanese prime minister's office tells VOA there is no clear evidence that any fuel rod covering has been breached.

Later, Herman, VOA's NorthEast Asia Bureau Chief and a very reliable source of news reporting from both the Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo over these past two weeks, tweeted that a source from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), has said the workers hospitalized after burns from coming into contact with radioactive water "also seem to have 'internal exposure'".

Incredibly (see photo at right) their seems to be a lack of footwear provided to protect workers while working in the water at the damaged nuclear plant. Japan Probe blasts TEPCO for that today, writing: "It is unclear why the two workers weren’t equipped with footwear that could protect them from 15 centimeters of water. Judging from the photos from the power plant, it would seem that a lot of workers are just wearing normal shoes as part of their radiation suits. There also seems to be some folks with plastic bags duct-taped over their shoes."

While we've been unable to find further confirmation of NIRS' "internal exposure" assessment of the two hospitalized workers, in their 10:00am, 3/25/11 update on Fukushima this morning, NIRS, the 30-year old anti-nuclear advocacy organization, wrote:

Three workers were treated yesterday for contamination after walking in highly radioactive water in Unit 3 that is said to have had a dose rate of 20 rems/hour-about 10,000 times above normal. However, even that rate wouldn't be high enough to cause the burns that were reported on the workers, so there is suspicion that the rates were even higher. Radioactive elements were found in the water that are not normally found in reactor cooling water.

This has led to new open speculation among government and utility officials that the core of Unit 3 has been breached and primary containment has failed (most observers have suggested this for several days). The Japanese Prime Minister has called the situation "very grave and serious." Radiation can be expected to be released from at least Unit-3 for some time. Steam is continuing to be released from multiple reactors at the site-steam releases at this point are certainly radioactive.

Meanwhile, Kyodo News service is reporting today that "Tap water in 16 municipalities across six prefectures has been found to contain a level of radioactive iodine higher than the maximum recommended for infants," though they added that "in some of the municipalities where the standard was exceeded, radioactive iodine later returned to a safe level."

New Scientific Analysis: Fukushima Accident is 'Level 7'

We have gone out of our way to be exceedingly careful in our coverage of this disaster over the past two weeks, focusing usually on information confirmed directly by "official" sources, such as the Japanese government itself or from the plant's owner/operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).

Other "non-official" sources have been painting a far more dire portrait of the situation at Fukushima than we've often felt comfortable relaying as "hard news" here during the last 14 days of nearly round-the-clock coverage. We've striven to be balanced in that coverage, and have, in fact, been quite conservative in the details we've passed along to date. The situation is disturbing enough as it is, just based on "official" news frankly, such that we haven't felt it necessary to share some of the more alarmist or sensationalist speculation about events on the ground.

While we have offered some speculation over the past two weeks, as balance to the "official" line and usually coming from scholarly sources, we always try to note it as such (for example, with the information from NIRS above.)

Last night, we reported the new assertions of Dr. Edwin Lyman, a Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) Global Security Program. Lyman is described by UCS as "an expert on nuclear plant design and the environmental and health effects of radiation."

Commenting to reporters yesterday on new data from researchers at Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Vienna suggesting levels of radioactive fallout --- particularly cesium-137 --- from Fukushima may be nearing Chernobyl levels, Lyman said he believed "the estimates...appear to be roughly consistent with" additional data he'd examined from the U.S. Department of Energy from March 22nd.

"That does appear to be consistent, at least in order of magnitude terms with the idea that roughly 50 percent of the cesium that was released at Chernobyl has already been released from the plant," he explained during a conference call with reporters yesterday.

The Austrian data was gathered from a global network of air samplers set up to verify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty around the world.

In his comments, Lyman also noted that he believed the "danger that the workers are facing" at the power plant itself "are greater than TEPCO suggests" and suggested, as have others recently, that it's possible the area around the plant could become uninhabitable for decades.

Today we have more scientists offering information based on the Austrian data and separate, but supporting information. According to a statement released this morning [PDF] by Greenpeace Germany (obviously, an anti-nuclear advocacy organization), based on a new assessment of the Austrian data and data published by the French government's radiation protection agency (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire or IRSN), the Fukushima accident needs to be reclassified to levels meeting, and perhaps exceeding, the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) rating of the Chernobyl disaster.

The INES ratings are from 1 to 7. The Fukushima accident was recently raised to level 5, an "accident with wider consequences", on par with the Three Mile Island disaster. Chernobyl was rated as 7, a "major incident".

According to Greenpeace Germany's statement, based on their analysis from Dr. Helmut Hirsch:

The total amount of radionuclides iodine-131 and caesium-137 released since the start of the accident until March 23rd, as reported by the two institutes require the Fukushima accident to be reclassified to the same level as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster twenty five years ago in April 1986. In fact so high are the releases that they...amount to three INES 7 accidents.

In contrast to the Chernobyl accident which involved one nuclear reactor, Fukushima has suffered major failures at four.


Dr Hirsch concludes, "Taking all the releases from the Fukushima-daiichi reactors together this [is] obviously an INES 7 with the possibility that it is three INES 7's, taking each reactor separately which results in a release of 100,000 Tbq each."

"From the very beginning this accident looked potentially devastating in terms of radiation release. It is far from over, and today we have further evidence of a very real risk of reactor core meltdown with potentially catastrophic effects. The nuclear industry and the IAEA have claimed since Chernobyl that such an event would not take place in a western reactor. Their dangerous complacency over decades has now led us to an utter catastrophe for the people of Japan, and the accident is not over," said Heinz Smital nuclear expert of Greenpeace Germany.

Hirsch and Greenpeace are also [critical] of the INES scale as the basis on which nuclear accidents are assessed by national governments and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. The INES scale was intended to be applied in the case of one accident at one site. At Fukushima, the accidents have been at multiple nuclear reactors, suffering two critical failures - reactor cooling and spent fuel storage. The INES scale was never designed for such an eventuality because the nuclear industry and the IAEA considered such things not possible. In an example of their distorted logic INES classifies each event at the Fukushima power plant separately. Yet the releases of high levels of radioactivity do not discriminate in terms of who they affect once they are released.

The release goes on to charge that, due to the population density in Japan, versus the less populated areas of Belarus where much of the Chernobyl radioactivity fell, "The implications for collective dose of radiation to the population and human health are enormous." They add that they will be sending their analysis to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna for study.

In fact, a number of scientists over the past two weeks have been critical of the idea that the Fukushima incident could be anywhere near as damaging as Chernobyl. Their conclusions tend to be based on the differing design of the reactor in the former Soviet Union which did not have as many layers of containment structures --- so-called "Depth of Defense" --- that Japanese, and other western plants, have. Also, the burning of graphite rods used at Chernobyl (but not in Japan's plants) led to uncontrollable fire and an explosion sending radioactive fallout much higher into the sky for wider disbursement than is believed possible at Fukushima.

Obviously, Greenpeace has an "agenda", so their analysis should be taken with that in mind. But as we continue to hear more and more independent scientists and scientific bodies comparing the situation at Fukushima --- which shows no real signs of ending anytime soon, despite slow progress reportedly being made each day to bring the disaster under control --- it becomes more and more difficult to avoid some of the worst-case scenarios and analyses now emerging, as based on actual, real-time data gathered from the ongoing crisis.

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