Saturday, March 12, 2011

Partial meltdown in Japanese nuclear plant?

According to the Washington Post, a "Partial meltdown is likely under way at power plant" in Japan. CNN has more details:
A meltdown may have occurred at at least one nuclear power reactor in Japan, the country's chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said Sunday, adding that authorities are concerned about the possibility of another meltdown at a second reactor.

"We do believe that there is a possibility that meltdown has occurred. It is inside the reactor. We can't see. However, we are assuming that a meltdown has occurred," he said about the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. "And with reactor No. 3, we are also assuming that the possibility of a meltdown as we carry out measures," Edano said.

Edano's comments confirm an earlier report from an official with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, who said, "we see the possibility of a meltdown."

"There is a possibility, we see the possibility of a meltdown," said Toshihiro Bannai, director of the apan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency international affairs office, in a telephone interview from the agency's headquarters in Tokyo. "At this point, we have still not confirmed that there is an actual meltdown, but there is a possibility."
An AP story is much more illuminating about what happened at the No. 1 reactor:
TOKYO (AP) -- Inside the troubled nuclear power plant, officials knew the risks were high when they decided to vent radioactive steam from a severely overheated reactor vessel. They knew a hydrogen explosion could occur, and it did. The decision still trumped the worst-case alternative - total nuclear meltdown.

At least for the time being.

The chain of events started Friday when a magnitude-8.9 earthquake and tsunami severed electricity to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, crippling its cooling system. Then, backup power did not kick in properly at one of its units.

From there, conditions steadily worsened, although government and nuclear officials initially said things were improving. Hours after the explosion, they contended that radiation leaks were reduced and that circumstances had gotten better at the 460-megawatt Unit 1. But crisis after crisis continued to develop or be revealed.

Without power, and without plant pipes and pumps that were destroyed in the explosion of the most-troubled reactor's containment building, authorities resorted to drawing seawater in an attempt to cool off the overheated uranium fuel rods.

Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser to the U.S. secretary of energy, said in a briefing for reporters that the seawater was a desperate measure. "It's a Hail Mary pass," he said.

He said that the success of using seawater and boron to cool the reactor will depend on the volume and rate of their distribution. He said the dousing would need to continue nonstop for days. Another key, he said, was the restoration of electrical power, so that normal cooling systems can be restored.

Officials placed Dai-ichi Unit 1, and four other reactors, under states of emergency Friday because operators had lost the ability to cool the reactors using usual procedures. An additional reactor was added to the list early Sunday, for a total of six - three at the Dai-ichi complex and three at another nearby complex. Local evacuations have been ordered at each location. Japan has a total of 55 reactors spread across 17 complexes nationwide.

Officials began venting radioactive steam at Fukushima Dai-ichi's Unit 1 to relieve pressure inside the reactor vessel, which houses the overheated uranium fuel. Concerns escalated dramatically Saturday when that unit's containment building exploded.

It turned out that officials were aware that the steam contained hydrogen, acknowledged Shinji Kinjo, spokesman for the government Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. More importantly, they also were aware they were risking an explosion by deciding to vent the steam.

The significance of the hydrogen began to come clear late Saturday:
• Officials decided to reduce rising pressure inside the reactor vessel, so they vented some of the steam buildup. They needed to do that to prevent the entire structure from exploding, and thus starting down the road to a meltdown.
• At the same time, in order to keep the reactor fuel cool, and also prevent a meltdown, operators needed to keep circulating more and more cool water on the fuel rods.
• Temperature in the reactor vessel apparently kept rising, heating the zirconium cladding that makes up the fuel rod casings. Once the zirconium reached 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 Celsius), it reacted with the water, becoming zirconium oxide and hydrogen.
• When the hydrogen-filled steam was vented from the reactor vessel, the hydrogen reacted with oxygen, either in the air or water outside the vessel, and exploded.

A similar "hydrogen bubble" had concerned officials at the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania until it dissipated.

If the temperature inside the Fukushima reactor vessel continued to rise even more - to roughly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 Celsius) - then the uranium fuel pellets would start to melt.

According to experts interviewed by The Associated Press, any melted fuel would eat through the bottom of the reactor vessel. Next, it would eat through the floor of the already-damaged containment building. At that point, the uranium and dangerous byproducts would start escaping into the environment.

At some point in the process, the walls of the reactor vessel - 6 inches (15 centimeters) of stainless steel - would melt into a lava-like pile, slump into any remaining water on the floor, and potentially cause an explosion much bigger than the one caused by the hydrogen. Such an explosion would enhance the spread of radioactive contaminants.

If the reactor core became exposed to the external environment, officials would likely began pouring cement and sand over the entire facility, as was done at the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a briefing for reporters.

At that point, Bradford added, "many first responders would die."
The New York Times reports that in reactor no. 3 at the Fukashima Daiichi plant the nuclear fuel rods were exposed. "On Sunday morning, officials injected water and boric acid into the second reactor and released radioactive vapor to ease pressure, said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary. The reactor’s fuel rods had become exposed, he said, which called for the extraordinary measures."

The Times also commented that the initial report by officials of the power company that owns the plant was misleading. "Late Saturday night, officials said that the explosion at Daiichi occurred in a structure housing turbines near its No. 1 reactor at the plant, rather than inside the reactor itself. But photos of the damage did not make clear that this was the case. They said that the blast, which may have been caused by a sharp buildup of hydrogen when the reactor’s cooling system failed, destroyed the concrete structure surrounding the reactor but did not collapse the critical steel container inside. This pattern of damage cast doubt on the idea that the explosion was in the turbine building."

The BBC has more on reactor no. 3 -
The plant's operator says pressure is rising inside reactor No. 3 after it lost its emergency cooling system....

The Japanese government has sought to play down fears of a meltdown at Fukushima 1, but media reports say radiation has now risen above safety limits at the plant.

On Sunday morning, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) revealed that the cooling system of a second reactor had failed....

But later Kyodo news agency quoted Tepco as saying radiation levels around the plant had risen above permissible limits....

But the BBC's Chris Hogg in Tokyo says the second reactor is a different type which uses MOX (plutonium plus uranium) fuel and the consequences of a problem there are potentially more severe. Quoted by Kyodo, Tepco said the tops of the MOX fuel rods were 3m above water.

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