Japanese Nuke Plants Show ‘Attention to Safety’

Monday, March 14, 2011 @ 08:03 PM gHale

The risk of a meltdown spread to a third reactor at a stricken nuclear power plant in Japan Monday after its cooling systems failed.

The widening nuclear plant problems underscored the difficulties Japanese authorities are having in bringing several damaged reactors under control three days after a devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami hit Japan’s northeast coast and shut down the electricity that runs the crucial cooling systems for reactors.

Operators fear if they cannot establish control, despite increasingly desperate measures to do so, the reactors could experience full meltdowns, which could release catastrophic amounts of radiation. The two reactors where the explosions occurred may have already suffered partial meltdowns.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said the release of large amounts of radiation was unlikely. But traces of radiation could release into the atmosphere, and about 500 people who remained within a 12-mile radius of the plant were ordered to take cover indoors temporarily, he said. That radius changed from earlier when it was just under two miles.

“Reactors are not like your car that you can turn off and walk away,” said Ron Chesser, director for the Center of Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University and the first American scientist allowed inside the exclusion zone in 1992 following the Chernobyl disaster. “They’re going to continue generating a great amount of heat until the core is disassembled. Without cooling water, then you stand a real chance of a meltdown of the core that could result in a large release of radiation, potentially.”

On the positive side, Chesser, who has toured a smaller Japanese nuclear power plant in Chiba, said Japanese designers put quite a few precautionary measures and contingency plans in place to ensure reactor safety in the event of an earthquake.

“I was very much impressed with the amount of attention to safety, especially regarding potential of earthquakes,” he said. “I was a little bit surprised when I saw they had a looming crisis at the Fukushima power plant just because of all the great attention the Japanese pay to earthquake safety.”

Also, the Fukushima reactors appear to have containment vessels over them unlike Chernobyl, he said.

“At Chernobyl, when it went, they eventually were evacuating people 18 miles away from the reactor. It doesn’t sound like there’s an imminent issue, but it is serious. Any time you have a nuclear facility that size that is not meeting requirements for cooling, you have a real emergency on your hands.”

According to the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s website, the Fukushima Daiichi plant has six functioning nuclear reactors with two more scheduled to come online in the next two years. Reports have said reactor Nos. 1, 2 and 3, were shut down because of the quake, but 4, 5 and 6 were down because of regular inspections.

At nearby Fukushima Daini, all four reactors are down, with two reactors experiencing cooling issues.

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