Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Japan, Struggling To Regain Control of Nuclear Reactors, Announces Scrapping of 4 Damaged Reactors

The Japanese government and TEPCO continue to try and regain control over the four damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima and are having little success despite finally being able to run power lines to the plants. The damage to the reactor facilities is so bad that the government announced that it would decommission the four reactors that have been central to this crisis in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The situation is particularly bad to the point that the government is considering building a containment structure around the most heavily damaged buildings.

It's now the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, and the discovery of plutonium outside the reactor facilities suggests that there was at least partial meltdowns of one or more reactors and possible breaches of the reactor containment structures. Radiation levels are much higher than normal outside the plants, and in the ocean waters offshore. The stress has also apparently gotten to TEPCO's President, who was hospitalized:
It's already been determined that radiation has seeped into the soil and seawater and made its way into produce, raw milk and even tap water as far as Tokyo, 220 kilometres to the south.

Also Wednesday, TEPCO conceded that it would have to decommission four of the six reactors at the Fukushima facility. The seawater used to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools would have been corrosive to the reactors, leaving them inoperable.

More consultation would be needed to determine the fates of reactors 5 and 6, which were not operating at the time of the quake and tsunami and were cooled down safely.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano was unable to say when the country might feel assured that the problem at Fukushima was contained.

"We are not in a situation where we can say we will have this under control by a certain period," Edano told a Wednesday briefing.

The stress of the disaster has taken its toll on TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, who was sent to a hospital late Tuesday.

Shimizu, 66, has not been seen in public since two days after the disaster hit, when he attended a March 13 news conference in Tokyo.

His absence since has raised speculation that he had suffered a breakdown. For days, officials deflected questions about Shimizu's whereabouts, saying he was "resting" at company headquarters.

Spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said Wednesday that Shimizu had been admitted to a Tokyo hospital after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure.
There are concerns of a power vacuum at TEPCO, and that the crisis management has been abysmal since the tsunami came ashore. Mind you though that many of the workers trying to save the reactors from melting down are dealing with monumental crises all around them - with family members among the missing and dead from the tsunami and are working in horrific conditions to regain control over the damaged reactors.

The government also announced new measures that would be implemented immediately to upgrade security and safety at the country's nuclear power plants. They include improved backup systems, and a review of tsunami protection systems like sea walls:
A Reuters investigation showed Japan and TEPCO repeatedly played down dangers at its nuclear plants and ignored warnings, including a 2007 tsunami study from the utility's senior safety engineer.

The research paper concluded there was a roughly 10 per cent chance that a tsunami could test or overrun the defences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant within a 50-year span based on the most conservative assumptions.

The new safety steps, to be completed by the end of April, include preparing back-up power in case of loss of power supply, and having fire trucks with hoses ready at all times to intervene and ensure cooling systems for both reactors and pools of used fuel are maintained, the Trade Ministry said.

Other measures such as building higher protective sea walls would be studied after a full assessment of the Fukushima disaster, officials said.

The immediate measures do not necessarily require nuclear plant operations to be halted, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda told a news conference.

BTW, there's a webcam that shows a portion of Fukushima, but it only captures images once an hour (and it is currently dark). It's better than nothing.

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