EcoAlert: All Three Damaged Nuclear Reactors in ‘Partial Meltdown’ at Fukushima Daini Power Station

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The Japanese nuclear reactor hit by the tsunami went into 'meltdown' today, as officials admitted that fuel rods appear to be melting inside three damaged reactors. Experts class development as 'partial meltdown.' 180,000 people have been evacuated amid meltdown fears.

With the news of the third explosion in an as many days at the Fukushima Nuclear plant, we thought we'd explore the possibility and results of a full scale meltown. In the past two days there have been explosions in reactors number 1 and 3, and today reactor number 2 suffered an explosion. With growing worries over the information being shared by a tight-lipped Japanese nuclear agency that is overseeing the clean-up and an expanding evacuation zone keeping media at a safe distance, it is hard to dig out the real story.


If one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were to crack open, a full meltdown would release significant amounts of radioactive elements such as  iodine-131 that disperse rapidly in air and water, greatly increasing the chances for birth defects, thyroid cancer, and other problems. As of this weekend, radiation levels in the plant's control room were 1,000 times higher than normal but only eight times above normal in areas surrounding the plant.

Friday's tsunami easily overwhelmed the sea walls at the nuclear power plant and flooded the diesel generators that power the plant's cooling systems. Operators have been using sea water to cool the nuclear fuel, which  has resulted in a build-up of pressure that's required operators to vent the reactors' cooling vessels by releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere.

The radiation in the steam is, at this point, relatively modest, and the most highly radioactive material remains contained in the reactors' cores. The three explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were the byproduct of hydrogen build-up, and none is thought to have released significant amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. All four reactors at Fukushima Daini have been shut down.

Ron Chesser, director for the Center of Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University, was the first American scientist allowed inside the exclusion zone in 1992 following the Chernobyl disaster. Chesser said that though reports have stated the reactors were shut down safely, the reactors still must be cooled constantly to avoid a meltdown of the core.

“The fact they’re having trouble cooling the reactors is going to trigger an emergency,” Chesser said. “There are certain trigger points for declaring an emergency at nuclear reactors. Reduction in cooling capacity would be one of those. Release of radiation would be another. Reactors are not like your car that you can turn off and walk away. 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 core that could result in a large release of radiation, potentially.”

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

At Chernobyl, when it went, they eventually were evacuating people 18 miles away from the reactor. 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 (TEPCO) website, the Fukushima Daiichi plant has six functioning nuclear reactors with two more that are scheduled to come online in the next two years. Recent reports from the company 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.

“My great hope is that they are going to be able to rectify this quickly enough that they can maintain cooling capacity,” Chesser said. “I think that a reactor meltdown could be a major disaster, especially in a highly populated country such as Japan. It would be a real setback when we are battling to find alternatives to fossil fuels considering the potential that nuclear energy has.”

Exposure to moderate levels of radiation can result in radiation sickness, causing nausea, vomiting, and fever, though potassium iodine tablets can be taken to offset these symptoms, preventing the body from absorbing the radioactive iodine originating from the reactors.

The world's hope is that the modest amounts of radioactive steam that have already been introduced to the environment will blow out to sea, though a shift in winds could direct it back toward Japanese cities. Still, there are signs that the material is spreading more quickly than initially thought; helicopters equipped with radioactive counters have detected small amounts of radioactive material up to 60 miles offshore from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The Daily Galaxy via wsj.com, nyt.com, gizmodo.com

Image credit: AP/Getty Images

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