Nuclear experts are increasingly nervous about the escalating crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, particularly its No. 3 reactor that uses mixed uranium-plutonium fuel and another reactor where, according to several reports, operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. acknowledged a nuclear reaction has begun in a spent fuel rod pond where water was boiling.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are painting a much bleaker picture of what is happening at the six-reactor complex in northern Japan near the epicenter of the 9.0 earth quake and a 30-foot-high tsunami that struck on March 11, effectively knocking out cooling systems at the complex. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress on Wednesday (March 16) that “we think there is a partial meltdown” at Fukushima.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that U.S. residents in Japan within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors should evacuate. Japan is recommending a 12.4-mile evacuation zone.
“None of this has happened before," said Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy project at Friends of the Earth. "The stricken reactor No. 3 has experienced at least a partial fuel meltdown, and it contains nearly a quarter of a metric ton of plutonium. They are venting that reactor into the air, to reduce the pressure inside, but that allows particulate matter from the melting rods--including plutonium--to be released into the environment as radioactive gas."
For now, the biggest concern at the No. 3 reactor is the uranium-plutonium fuel, called MOX (for mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium), that was loaded into the reactor last year, Moglen said. Hence, it is likely that spent fuel rods stored outside the reactor’s containment vessel are uranium-only.
"So far, the world has had no major accidents involving release of the plutonium fuel called MOX," said Ira Helfand, a member of the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "However, with plutonium inside reactor No. 3, if it melts down or explodes, then even microscopic quantities of particulate will cause lung cancer in anyone who inhales it. The whole area will have to be cordoned off."
Helfand noted that plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, warning that if it burns through a containment vessel, it could release vast amounts of radioactive steam wherever the molten material encounters ground water.
"The use of plutonium in MOX fuel generated a lot of Japanese resistance, especially locally, including the mayor, who expressed worry about safety at the reactor. But it was loaded into reactor No. 3 last year anyway," Moglen said. "Now, what the Japanese authorities need to report on [are] the constituents of the radioactive materials being released."
Plutonium is weak emitter that registers low on radiation detectors, but it is an intensely radio-toxic material. If inhaled by humans even in microscopic quantities, it would likely cause fatal lung cancer within 18 to 20 years, Moglen estimated. Authorities have confirmed that radioactive iodine, which causes thyroid cancer, and cesium, which causes leukemia, have been detected in the air around Tokyo, according to Moglen. However, if the No. 3 reactor's core melts down, plutonium will likely be one of the constituents discharged directly into the air.
"there are accidents, and then there are accidents." True, but there are benefits too.
The lesson to be learned from this is not that nuclear power is unacceptably risky, but that nuclear power must be made safer -- as safe as modern technology and understanding can make it.
Consider the age of many of the world's nuclear power plants. The Fukushima reactors, for example, were commissioned in the '70s and were based on designs from the '60s. Even the old-timers here on EE Times were children when these things were designed, and probably most EE Times readers weren't even born yet.
Think about that in terms of the evolution in science & technology in the last half-century. Knowledge and understanding of nuclear physics, seismology, climatology, and of course the capabilities of electronic sensors, control systems and computing power have advanced by leaps and bounds over the course of time -- all of which means that today we could produce not only much better designs, but we could design them to much better specs.
But to do that, there would need to be business incentives and governmental support (or at least not opposition) for modern nuclear power technology, which has been sorely lacking for most of the last half century -- at least in the U.S.
Despite the substantial percentage of total electricity generated by nuclear power in industrialized countries, the nuclear power industry has for decades been the unwanted stepchild that is uncomfortably tolerated, with the public just wishfully hoping it would eventually fade away or choosing just to not think about it very much.
And now we are paying the price for allowing such an important and hazardous technology to atrophy rather than to advance and modernize.
Regardless of the beliefs underlying the comments so far, there is no excuse for the language being used and is not something I want to see in the posts and is not worthy of EETimes to allow. As engineers we need to focus on verifiable facts and use our power to correctly educate and inform so that the best decisions can be made by us all.
I believe there are lot of knee-jerk reactions happening around the world due to this issue.
Main issue with nuclear energy is "long term effects on the environment and people if there is a real disaster" and also another main concern safe storage of spent fuel.
Hence basic question is not only how safe these reactors are but how well we are prepared if there a nuclear accident? We are very small infront of mother nature and I am sure in future nuclear accidents are bound to happen.
I Googled Plutonium Citrate and the only thing that came up were rat studies that induced cancers in all the rats.
Also, pure nicotine is highly poisonous. In fact, it is sold as a rat poison.
Of course, considering the post was in all capitals, I should have been forewarned.
I'm a Christian, and this sounds ridiculous to me as well. If I was so inclined to make some sort of biblical reference to this event (and I'm not) I think I could come up with a better fit than this. I suspect the original posting may be from a "troll" just trying to see what kind of reaction he can get.
THE IDEA THAT PLUTONIUM IS EXQUISITELY TOXIC IS COMPLETE NONSENSE. THERE WERE TWO STUDIES AROUND 1997 THAT SHOWED IT TO BE LESS TOXIC THAN NICOTINE. IN ONE CASE, PLUTONIUM CITRATE WAS INJECTED INTRAVENOUSLY. IN THE OTHER, IT WAS SWALLOWED. THE PEOPLE THAT CAME UP WITH THE TOXICITY CLAIM HAD NO EVIDENCE AT ALL.
The problem is not the fact SH*T happens. It is the scale. I think this is the biggest problem with Nuclear power, the plants are just way to big. If there were 10-20 smaller plants scatter around instead of the 6 LARGE plant located in one place. This 'accident' could have been more easily contained. If you do scatter plants, it does mean more accidents, but less severe.
I think your response is rather blithe.
If each car accident caused increased cancer deaths and genetic defects of thousands of people, radiation deaths of hundreds of others, global radiation pollution, I might begin to agree with you, but, of course, I do not.
The scale of this disaster, its negative global effects, including damaging genetic effects to lifeforms everywhere on the planet, make this entirely different risks than cars, trains and automobiles! Yes, people die from all of them, but only radiation can mutate the germlines of all living creatures, and kill thousands, if not millions of people.
ee-joe, please use more logic in your risk assessments, they are nonsensical!
There is always a risk from any technology used to produce energy. People are allways ready to abandon something because of an accident. Why don't we abandon cars, they kill people every year. Stop traveling, plane and train accidents kill people every year. We as a society need to get away from thinking about perfection. As long as people are involved in the design and manufacture of anything, perfection is a pipe dream. We need to learn from our mistakes, or in this case the wrath of mother nature, suck it up and move on. We waste too much time and energy dwelling in the past.