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Japan After the Quake

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Japan Races to Avert Meltdown at Devastated Nuclear Power Plant

March 12th 2011

Energy / Environment - Fukushima meltdown

Japanese officials confirmed on March 12 that radioactive materials were indeed released in a plume that emerged from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant. An explosion at the plant 160 miles from Tokyo destroyed walls protecting the radioactive core, spurring fears of a possible meltdown of the fissile materials held in metal rods that require cooling in order to prevent overheating. A fire at the reactor following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami apparently caused a failure of the failsafe cooling system.

Television coverage showed a large cloud of smoke billowing out of the plant as large bits of debris were also flung hundreds of feet away from the building. Japan's NHK TV showed before and after pictures of the plant. They appeared to show that the outer structure of one of four buildings at the plant had collapsed after the explosion. The Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said four workers had been injured. It is not yet clear in exactly what part of the plant the explosion occurred or what caused it.

Japanese authorities have now ordered the evacuation zone around the plant be expanded from a 10km radius to 20km, while vehicles are being stopped 60km from the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. While Japan's nuclear agency said following the explosion that deadly radioactive cesium and iodine had been detected near the number one reactor of the power station, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan gave assurances the amount was "tiny." NHK TV showed before and after images of the Fukushima plant and theorized that this was evidence that containers of uranium fuel inside the reactor may have begun melting.

Air and steam, with some level of radioactivity, was earlier released from several of the reactors at both plants in an effort to relieve the huge amount of pressure building up inside. There were reports following the March 11 quake that pressure inside the plant had exceeded 1,000 times the pressure for which it was designed.

Nuclear power plants require water to circulate around the rods containing the radioactive rods in order to dissipate excess heat and also drive the turbines that produce electricity. In this instance, there was a failure in the circulatory system followed by a failure of the back-up diesel generators and batteries to power the pumps circulating the vital water.

Nuclear reactors at four power plants in the earthquake-struck zone automatically shut down on after the devastating 8.9 Richter-scale tremor on March 11. In several of the reactors at the two Fukushima plants the cooling systems, which should keep operating on emergency power supplies, failed. Without cooling, the temperature in the reactor core builds, with the risk that it could melt through its container into the building housing the system. The reactors at the plant are Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), one of the most commonly used designs, and widely used throughout Japan's array of nuclear power stations.

Japanese officials said initially that the amount of radioactive elements leaking from the plant would be "very small" and would not affect the environment or human health, if the leak is kept under control. If cooling cannot be restored to the plant, fallout would only spread and pose a danger to people living nearby. If the reactor does indeed melt down, the results could be similar to—if not worse than—that of the iconic Chernobyl disaster in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

When a reactor at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine went out of control in April 1986, it led to an explosion and meltdown, contaminating 58,000 square miles of land between Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, 600,000 residents were evacuated and their homes left permanently abandoned, while 4,000 died of radiation-related causes. The meltdown released a hundred radioactive elements into the atmosphere including dangerous iodine, strontium, and cesium, which are the most dangerous, and can still be found in the affected areas today.In the years since this devastating accident, studies on groups of emergency workers and individuals with the highest exposure rates have linked the radioactive fallout to several health consequences like certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and death.

The effects of radiation are predicated on three factors: total exposure, how close you were to the accident and how much time you were exposed to it. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "The potential danger from an accident at a nuclear power plant is exposure to radiation. This exposure could come from the release of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually characterized by a plume (cloud-like formation) of radioactive gases and particles. The major hazards to people in the vicinity of the plume are radiation exposure to the body from the cloud and particles deposited on the ground, inhalation of radioactive materials, and ingestion of radioactive materials." Symptoms, according to FEMA, "can arise at any point after exposure. It can be immediate or occur over days, weeks or months. Early exposure symptoms can include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and fever. Signs that may appear in the days following exposure include: dizziness, disorientation, weakness, fatigue, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, poor wound healing and low blood pressure."

But radioactive fallout traveling through the environment can pose long-term health consequences depending on the amount of exposure—and chronic exposure to these high levels of radiation can cause more serious conditions like cancer and premature aging. Japan, which witnessed two atomic bomb attacks by the US, had thousands of victims not only from the initial blasts in 1945, but also afterwards as a result of radiation sickness and cancer.

More than 1,000 people are feared dead in the worst earthquake and tsunami incident in Japan’s long history of seismic activity. The March 11 tremor caused panic as buildings, roads and transportation infrastructure crumbled on the island nation. Tokyo's metro has ceased operations, as has Japan's famed Shinkansen bullet train service. Thousands of travellers have been left stranded throughout the country. The military is providing assistance to the stricken, while emergency services are coping with widespread fires caused by ruptured gas pipelines in addition to attending to the dead and injured. Whole sections of the country are now without power, since several nuclear power plants are now off-line and power lines are down. Telephone service, and television, has also been affected. Thousands are without shelter and afraid to return home.

The country is also facing the consequences of damage to its nuclear power plants. Japan’s Prime Minister Kan issued a statement on March 11 declaring an emergency, as required by law, saying that it was "in case prompt action" had to be taken, adding that "no release of radioactive material" had been detected. Yukio Edano, Japan's chief cabinet secretary added that the country is taking precautions. "We launched the measure so we can be fully prepared for the worst scenario. We are using all our might to deal with the situation."

A fire emerged at the reactor located in the Fukushima prefecture following the quake, affecting the power plant’s crucially important cooling system. Without adequate cooling, the core of a nuclear reactor may overheat and cause a leakage of radioactive gas or other material. According to officials, there was a mechanical failure in the cooling system. The Fukushima facility and ten other reactors operated by Japan Atomic Power Co, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co., have been shut down as a preventative measure.

President Barack Obama offered assistance to Japan, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said following the quake that the US had leapt into action. "We just had our Air Force assets in Japan transport some really important coolant to one of the nuclear plants," Clinton said at a meeting of the President's Export Council on March 11. "You know Japan is very reliant on nuclear power and they have very high engineering standards but one of their plants came under a lot of stress with the earthquake and didn't have enough coolant," Clinton said.

Japan declared an “atomic power emergency” and proceeded to evacuate thousands of residents living close to a nuclear plant in northern Japan after the quake. Some 6,000 people were ordered to leave a 2-mile radius around the Fukushima No. 1 plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power, on March 11. The evacuation was described as precautionary, but since then more than 50,000 people have been evacuated. Near midnight local time, officials said that the cooling system would be reactivated and resume normal operations. Japan depends heavily on nuclear power for its electricity generation. The facilities are designed to withstand earthquakes, which are not uncommon in Japan, but experts have long worried about the impact a major quake could have if it hit close to a reactor and impacted its safety systems. A major quake in 1997 was considered a "wake-up call" for the government to consider the possibility of a nuclear disaster following seismic activity.

Fukushima 1 is one of the oldest nuclear power plants in Japan. It was designed by General Electric and went on line in 1971, and believed to be equipped to function for some hours without emergency diesel generators. These stopgaps failed in as yet unknown circumstances. While operators can quickly shut down a nuclear reactor in an emergency, they cannot allow the cooling systems to stop. Even after the plant’s chain reaction is stopped, its nuclear fuel rods produce heat. Heat from the fuel rods must be removed by water in a cooling system, but that requires power. The plant requires a continuous supply of electricity even after the reactor stops generating its own power. The Fukushima cooling system was being supplied with fresh water until the coolant from the US could arrive.

If the cooling system remains inoperative for long, the water will eventually boil away and the fuel will begin to melt. That is what happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island, the reactor in Pennsylvania that suffered a partial core meltdown. In that case, but mechanical failure, operator error and poor design were to blame.

Japan, besides being one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power, is also the third greatest consumer of petroleum. Reports are emerging of a fire raging at a Cosmo Oil Company refinery near Tokyo, causing widespread damage and destruction. A number of crude oil processing plants have been shut to avoid further mishaps. This includes 11 reactors from Japan Atomic Power Co, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. The 220,000 barrel-a-day refinery in Chiba is burning after a fire started at the plant's storage tanks following the quake.

The 8.9 Richter scale temblor is the second biggest in Japanese history and is in the top 5 worst earthquakes in history. Following the morning seismic incident, a tsunami emerged from the sea that rose to some 30 feet in height, devastating a swathe of the Japanese coastline and sweeping homes, vehicles, fishing vessels, and debris a kilometre from the shore in some instances. The iconic Tokyo Tower in the capital city was also damaged as skyscrapers were seen to sway during the quake as they were designed to do. People fled into the streets as some buildings and other structures collapsed or were engulfed in flames.

Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.com

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