Earthquake Endangers Japanese Reactor–Possible Disaster Looming

US Air Force transports coolant to nuclear reactor hit by giant Japan earthquake

Move comes after state of emergency declared at two nuclear facilities

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 17 minutes ago

Key details

  • U.S. Air Force delivers coolant to stricken nuclear plant
  • Cooling system failed at Fukushima No. 1 plant after quake
  • Fire reported at Onagawa nuclear facility

The United States has transported coolant to a Japanese nuclear plant hit by the massive Friday earthquake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

“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.

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“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.

The move came after Japanese authorities evacuated thousands of residents from an area around the Fukushima reactor after damage caused by the powerful 8.9 quake that hit the Pacific Rim nation raised fears of a radiation leak. Officials, however, said there was no sign of leakage at present.

Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the order applied to about 3,000 people and followed a government emergency declaration at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant northeast of Tokyo after its cooling system failed after the quake.

Work begins
Work has begun on restoring the reactor’s cooling function, the Jiji news agency quoted the Trade Ministry as saying, while the Kyodo news agency quoted a Fukushima prefecture official as saying that water levels at the reactor were not at critical levels.

The plant, which is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and is located in Onahama city, about 170 miles northeast of Tokyo, experienced a mechanical failure in the backup power generation system to supply water needed to cool the reactor. Nuclear reactor cores normally remain hot even after a shutdown.

Tomoko Murakami, leader of the nuclear energy group at Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, said there did not appear to be an imminent danger of a radiation leak.

“Even if fuel rods are exposed, it does not mean they would start melting right away,” she said.

“Even if fuel rods melt and the pressure inside the reactor builds up, radiation would not leak as long as the reactor container functions well.”

But Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that the situation could turn grave.

 

  1. Strongest quakes since 1900 

    These figures do not include the March 11, 2011, quake off eastern Japan, which at magnitude 8.9 makes it the fifth strongest in 110 years of records.

    1: Chile, May 22, 1960, magnitude 9.5

    2: Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 28, 1964, magnitude 9.2

    3: Offshore Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004, magnitude 9.1

    4: Kamchatka, Russia, Nov. 4, 1952, magnitude 9.0

    5: Offshore Chile, Feb. 27, 2010, magnitude 8.8

    6: Offshore Ecuador, Jan. 31, 1906, magnitude 8.8

    7: Rat Islands, Alaska, Feb. 4, 1965, magnitude 8.7

    8: Sumatra, Indonesia, March 28, 2005, magnitude 8.7

    9: Tibet, Aug. 15, 1950, magnitude 8.6

    10: Andreanof Islands, Alaska, March 9, 1957, magnitude 8.6

    Source: United States Geological Survey

“This is no laughing matter,” he said, referring to unconfirmed reports that one or more of the emergency diesel generators for the cooling system were not working.

Serious concern
He said there was serious concern in Japan whether the cooling of the core and removal of residual heat could be assured.

“If that does not happen, if heat is not removed, there is a definite danger of a core melt … fuel will overheat, become damaged and melt down.”

TEPCO confirmed that water levels inside the reactors at the Fukushima plant were falling but it was working to maintain water levels to avert the exposure of nuclear fuel rods.

The company has been trying to restore power to its emergency power system so that it could add water inside the reactors, a TEPCO spokesman said.

“There is a falling trend (in water levels) but we have not confirmed an exposure of nuclear fuel rods,” a TEPCO spokesman said.

Emergency cooling
The four Japanese nuclear power plants closest to the epicenter of the quake were safely shut down, the United Nations atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Friday. Eleven nuclear reactors were automatically shut down in the quake-affected area, the government said.

In a statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “Parts of nuclear plants were automatically shut down but we haven’t confirmed any effects induced by radioactive materials outside the facilities.”

The quake struck just under 250 miles northeast of Tokyo, the U.S. Geological Survey said. It was followed by more than a dozen aftershocks, one as strong as 7.1.

Reactors shut down due to the earthquake account for 18 percent of Japan’s nuclear power generating capacity.

Planned maintenance
Japan’s nuclear power sector produces about 30 percent of the country’s electricity and has been rocked periodically over the past decade by safety concerns. Many reactors are located in earthquake-prone zones such as northeastern Fukushima prefecture and Fukui prefecture on the Japanese coast.

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