The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is approaching a weeks’ duration. The on-site situation remains extremely serious, with glimmers of hope being shrouded by a shadow of deep uncertainty.
If you’ve not been following the situation on BraveNewClimate, and want to recap, please read these recent updates:
These are assumed knowledge for understanding the rest of this post. The preparation of the material below was aided greatly by the private advice of my acquaintances in the nuclear engineering field.
As predicted yesterday, attention over the last 24 hours has focused on the critical situation with the ponds used for temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel at the individual reactor units, before it is moved to a centralised facility on site. Although this old fuel has lost much of its original radioactivity, the decline is exponential (see this figure) which means that thermal energy must continue to be dissipated for months.
This figure shows the location of the spent fuel ponds:
The problem, as is explained in this updated fact sheet by the NEI, is that as these ponds heat, their deep covering of water (which acts as a radiation shield and a cooling mechanism), starts to evaporate. If they reach boiling point, because of lack of operational maintenance systems, the evaporation rate will accelerate. If exposed, the there is a potential for these old fuel rods and their zirconium cladding to melt, and radiation levels will rise considerably. The heat generated in spent fuel depends on a number of parameters, including: (1) level of build-up of fission products (burn-up) and (2) length of time after having been taken out of the reactor.
The spent fuel pool temperature has been rising gradually since last Friday due to the loss of cooling pump (presumably no power source). As we know from previous updates, the side of the Reactor 4 building has been lost (it’s the left-most of the 4 buildings in the following image):
The Unit 4 reactor was already shut off for periodic maintenance when the earthquake struck. IF the fire was caused by hydrogen, its only plausible source would be spent fuel degrading in steam. Under this scenario, initial inventory was probably reduced by sloshing during the earthquake, and heat generation and resulting evaporation/boiling would thereafter be more than double that in other pools due to it containing freshly off loaded fuel. Temperature indications in the absence of water would be that of the mixture of steam and air in the location of the thermowell.
Nothing can be confirmed at this stage. As has been the case throughout this crisis, information is hard to come by and must be pieced together.
Are the spent fuel in the pools in Units 3 and 4 are now uncovered? TEPCO claims that NRC Chief Jaczko was wrong in claiming this, that the spent fuel pools in both Units 3 and 4 need some refilling but are NOT dry. (The Japanese authorities are apparently saying they’ve seen water still in the Unit 4 pool.) The big concern here is that unlike the releases from damaged fuel in the reactor cores of Units 1, 2, and 3, which were largely filtered by scrubbing in the containment suppression pools (wetwell torus), releases of volatile fission products (e.g., cesium and iodine) from these spent fuel pools have direct pathways to the environment, if they remain dry for an extended period.
Efforts to deliver water to these pools have proven to be very difficult, and fuel damage may be occurring. If they are exposed, then the use of the evaporation of salt water as a heat sink over periods of more than a few days is not viable because the quantities of salt deposited as the water evaporates becomes large in volume and plugs the flow paths through the fuel, degrading heat removal. Everything that is cooled becomes a heat sink to condense anything volatilised. Unfortunately, a fresh water supply seems difficult to come by.
One option is to bring fresh water by helicopter, but the amounts needed imply a large number of flights and gamma radiation levels are high above the pools making overflights hazardous. NHK has reported a number of successful water dumps using helicopters today. If radiation levels on the ground increase further, personnel access will become more challenging. Additional spent fuel is stored in pools in Units 5 and 6 and in a large centralized storage pool. A key issue is how to continue to make up water to these pools in the longer term, particularly if site access becomes more difficult.
It was announced at a press conference that a total of 11 specially-equipped vehicles will be used to spray water on the crippled reactors at Fukushima-1 after an access path is cleared using bulldozers. The big advantages of fire trucks over helicopters is that their water cannons can be better aimed, from the side rather than the top, and their operation is continuous rather than in batches so they can deliver vastly more water. It is clearly an appealing option. An additional 130 personnel have also been moved back on site to help with work.
Some additional key information from NEI:
Crews began aerial water spraying operations from helicopters to cool reactor 3 at Fukushima Daiichi shortly before 9 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, March 16. The operation was planned for the previous day, but was postponed because of high radiation levels at the plant. News sources said temperatures at reactor 3 were rising. Each helicopter is capable of releasing 7.5 tons of water.
Spokesmen for TEPCO and Japan’s regulatory agency, Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, on March 17 Japan time refuted reports that there was a complete loss of cooling water in the used fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi reactor 4.
The spokesmen said the situation at reactor 4 has changed little during the day today and water remained in the fuel pool. However, both officials said that the reactor had not been inspected in recent hours.
“We can’t get inside to check, but we’ve been carefully watching the building’s environs, and there has not been any particular problem,” said TEPCO spokesman Hajime Motojuku.
At about 7 p.m. EDT, NISA spokesman Takumi Koyamada said the temperature reading from the used fuel pool on Wednesday was 84 degrees Celsius and that no change had been reported since then. Typically, used uranium fuel rods are stored in deep water pools at temperatures of about 30 degrees Celsius.
Recent radiation levels measured at the boundary of the Fukushima Daiichi plant have been dropping steadily over the past 12 hours, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said on Wednesday night (U.S. time).
At 4 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, a radiation level of 75 millirem per hour was recorded at the plant’s main gate. At 4 p.m. EDT, the reading at one plant site gate was 34 millirem per hour. By comparison, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s annual radiation dose limit for the public is 100 millirem. Radiation readings are being taken every 30 minutes.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, said earlier today a radiation level of 33 millirem per hour was measured about 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant earlier this morning. He said that level does not pose an immediate health risk.
Edano said that TEPCO has resumed efforts to spray water into the used fuel pool at the damaged reactor 4.
TEPCO also continues efforts to restore offsite power to the plant, with up to 40 workers seeking to restore electricity to essential plant systems by Thursday morning, March 17.
Based on the information coming out of TEPCO, it appears that units 1,2 and 3 remain critical but stable. Partial melting has almost certainly occurred in all three cores. There was definitely a period of no water injection because of a pressure buildup caused by stuck relief valve — always a potential issue for in high pressure systems. This figure illustrates the current state of play with the reactor units and spent fuel ponds:
The following is the latest status report, with timelines, from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) Washington DC Office.
• Radiation Levels
o At 6:40AM (JST) on March 16, a radiation level of 400 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside the west side of the secondary containment building of the Unit 3 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At 6:40AM on March 16, a radiation level of 100 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside the west side of the secondary containment building of the Unit 4 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
o At 8:47AM on March 16, a radiation level of 150 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside the secondary containment building of Unit 2 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At 8:47AM on March 16, a radiation level of 300 milli sievert per hour was recorded between the exteriors of the secondary containment buildings of Unit 2 reactor and Unit 3 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At 8:47AM on March 16, a radiation level of 400 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside the secondary containment building of Unit 3 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At 8:47AM on March 16, radiation level of 100 milli sievert per hour was recorded outside the secondary containment building of Unit 4 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
o At 10:40AM on March 16, a radiation level of 10 milli sievert per hour was recorded at the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
o At 4:10PM on March 16, a radiation level of 1530 micro sievert per hour was recorded at the main gate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
o For comparison, a human receives 2400 micro sievert per year from natural radiation in the form of sunlight, radon, and other sources. One chest CT scan generates 6900 micro sievert per scan.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor
o At 6:55AM on March 16, the pressure inside the reactor core was measured at 0.17 MPa. The water level inside the reactor core was measured at 1.8 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reactor
o At 6:55AM on March 16, the pressure inside the reactor core was measured at 0.043 MPa. The water level inside the reactor core was measured at 1.4 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 reactor
o At 8:37AM on March 16, white smoke was observed emanating from the vicinity of the secondary containment building.
o At 9:55AM on March 16, the pressure inside the reactor core was measured at 0.088 MPa. The water level inside the reactor core was measured at 1.9 meters below the top of the fuel rods.
o At 11:32AM on March 16, the Japanese government announced that the possibility of significant damage to the primary containment vessel was low.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 reactor
o At 4:08AM on March 15, the temperature of the spent fuel pool was measured at 183 degrees Fahrenheit.
o At 5:45AM on March 16, a fire occurred in the vicinity of the third floor of the secondary containment building.
o At 7:26AM on March 16, no flames or smoke was observed and thus it was concluded that the fire extinguished on its own accord.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 5 reactor
o At 4:00AM on March 16, the temperature of the spent fuel pool was measured at 141 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Fukushima Daiichi Unit 6 reactor
o At 4:00AM on March 16, the temperature of the spent fuel pool was measured at 137 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant and Accompanying Facilities
o As of 12:00PM on March 15, power generation of all facilities was restored to the commercial electricity grid from backup power generation systems. It was confirmed that no fire, damage to equipment, injuries to personnel occurred. Radiation levels were measured at a normal level of safety.
The Japan Atomic Industry Forum reports that the level of water in unit 4’s fuel pond is low and damage to fuel stored there is suspected. Efforts are underway to refill the pool, including an abandoned attempt to douse the building with water from an army helicopter, hoping to get some to go through the damaged building. The temperature of the pond was last known to be 84ºC on 14 and 15 March, said the International Atomic Energy Agency. There was no data for today…
Efforts to cool the partially exposed cores of units 1, 2 and 3 continue. So long as radiological conditions allow, a team of workers pumps seawater into the reactor vessels. This boils away, raising steam pressure which must later be vented. Fuel assemblies are exposed by between one and two metres at the top, but the high thermal conductivity of the zirconium alloy rod casings helps cooling with just the lower portion of the rods submerged. This process is set to continue until the heat produced by the core has reduced so that the entire core can be covered.
The lack of recent temperature data may stem from a broken gauge. Please read the above WNN links for further details.
In sum, this accident is now significantly more severe than Three Mile Island in 1979. It resulted from a unique combination of failures to plant systems caused by the tsunami, and the broad destruction of infrastructure for water and electricity supply which would normally be reestablished within a day or two following a reactor accident. My initial estimates of the extent of the problem, on March 12, did not anticipate the cascading problems that arose from the extended loss of externally sourced AC power to the site, and my prediction that ‘there is no credible risk of a serious accident‘ has been proven quite wrong as a result. It remains to be seen whether my forecast on the possibility of containment breaches and the very low level of danger to the public as a result of this tragic chain of circumstances will be proven correct. For the sake of the people there, I sure hope it does stand the test of time.