PM spokes: 'container not breached'; 140k evacuated; 4 injured in explosion; 'At least' 9 exposed to radiation (may rise to 160)
LATEST: EXPLOSION HEARD AT 2ND PLANT | Radiation levels too high; 2 meltdowns may be under way; Iodine pills for radiation poisoning circulated | Emergency cooling system fails at 2nd reactor, valve opened to release pressure...
By Brad Friedman on 3/12/2011, 3:04am PT  

Opening this as a new article as of the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. This one picks up with updates following the much UPDATED previous one,

For previous reports on how we got here, as we collected them throughout the entire day Friday and late into the evening as officials had shut down the two nuclear plants and five reactors where they'd issued "nuclear emergencies" and widened local evacuations, please see our previous article...

Latest news, beginning with the EXPLOSION at Fukushima Daiichi No. 1, now posted here with new UPDATES at bottom of this article...

UPDATE 3/12/11 12:07am: "EXPLOSION HEARD." Okay. Never mind standing down for now. This could be very bad...These all from Reuters via Twitter:

"Explosion heard at quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan - AFP via Sky News"

"FLASH: Several people appear to have been injured after reported Fukushima plant explosion - media"

"Japan nuclear plant update: Several workers injured following explosion at quake-hit site - NHK"

3/12 12:22am PT: Most detailed report on explosion at moment. From Lisa Twaronite at MarketWatch...

TOKYO (MarketWatch) --- Smoke or steam was seen around Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Saturday, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK. Several worders were reported injured at the plant, NHK said, adding that the exact cause of the emission was unknown. NHK reported an explosion was heard about 10 minutes before the white cloud appeared around the plant. Japanese media earlier Saturday warned that a meltdown was possible or may be already occurring at plant, after Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan's northeast coast and damaged the reactor's cooling system.

3/12 12:37am PT: NBC: "Explosion rocks quake-hit Japanese nuke plant"

"Japan nuclear plant update: Walls and roof of a building at site destroyed by blast - NHK via Sky News"

Reuters: Tokyo Electric Power Co. "(TEPCO) says four people taken to hospital after reported explosion, no word on condition: report"

3/12 12:53am PT: From Washington Post East Asia reporter Chico Harlan: "People in Fukushima area are being asked to close doors, shut windows, cover mouths with masks, wet towels"

3/12 12:53am PT: Good god. See the explosion AT APPX :47 mark in video...

3/12 1:54am PT: Via @BreakingNews: "Japan nuclear plant update: Hourly radiation leaking from Fukushima is equal to amount permitted in one year, official tells Kyodo"

And here's a before and after explosion shot via @Jadath. Note the skeletal structure in the "after" shot...

3/12 2:05am PT: Better video and commentary now from BBC here, but it doesn't seem to be embeddable, so you'll have to go to the link to look at it.

During the video, the BBC nuclear expert Malcolm Grimston says: "I still very strongly suspect that's not an actual nuclear explosion. ... The issue is if that's damage to the containment, the nuclear materials may be able to escape. ... If that did include nuclear materials, we'll be seeing very high levels of contamination very quickly."

The hope is that because the nuclear process had been shut down --- even as officials have been unable to properly cool the plant --- the nuclear process is unlikely to have restarted.

3/12 2:12am PT: VOA's Steve Herman, on the ground in Fukushima, says the evacuation radius around the plant has been expanded to 20km. It had originally been 3km, before being widened to 10km. And now 20km.

3/12 2:20am PT: Three latest updates from BBC's live online coverage...

1016: The BBC's environment correspondent Roger Harrabin says he understands the blast at the nuclear plant may have been caused by a hydrogen explosion - also one of the possibilities laid out by Walt Patterson of Chatham House. "If nuclear fuel rods overheat and then come into contact with water, this produces a large amount of highly-flammable hydrogen gas which can then ignite," our correspondent says.

1011: More from Walt Patterson of Chatham House. He says the presence of the radioactive caesium in the surrounding area does not pose a huge threat to public health in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. "What would be serious is if there was an explosion or fire that lifted this stuff high in the air, meaning it could get carried over a wide area."

1009: "This is starting to look a lot like Chernobyl" Walt Patterson, an associate fellow with Chatham House, has told the BBC after seeing pictures of the explosion at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant. "The nuclear agency says that they have detected caesium and iodine outside the unit, which certainly indicates fuel melting at the very least," he says. "Once you have melting fuel coming into contact with water, that would almost certainly be the cause of the explosion."

3/12 2:30am: Stratfor analysis describes the situation as "Red Alert", but notes while a meltdown may have occurred, it does "not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster" --- before then going on, as the BBC expert noted above did, to compare the situation to Chernobyl...

A meltdown occurs when the control rods fail to contain the neutron emission and the heat levels inside the reactor thus rise to a point that the fuel itself melts, generally temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing uncontrolled radiation-generating reactions and making approaching the reactor incredibly hazardous. A meltdown does not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster. As long as the reactor core, which is specifically designed to contain high levels of heat, pressure and radiation, remains intact, the melted fuel can be dealt with. If the core breaches but the containment facility built around the core remains intact, the melted fuel can still be dealt with — typically entombed within specialized concrete — but the cost and difficulty of such containment increases exponentially.

However, the earthquake in Japan, in addition to damaging the ability of the control rods to regulate the fuel — and the reactor’s coolant system — appears to have damaged the containment facility, and the explosion almost certainly did.

At this point, events in Japan bear many similarities to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Reports indicate that up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) of the reactor fuel was exposed. The reactor fuel appears to have at least partially melted, and the subsequent explosion has shattered the walls and roof of the containment vessel — and likely the remaining useful parts of the control and coolant systems.

And so now the question is simple: Did the floor of the containment vessel crack? If not, the situation can still be salvaged by somehow re-containing the nuclear core. But if the floor has cracked, it is highly likely that the melting fuel will burn through the floor of the containment system and enter the ground. This has never happened before but has always been the nightmare scenario for a nuclear power event — in this scenario, containment goes from being merely dangerous, time consuming and expensive to nearly impossible.

They also note the --- seemingly obvious --- political angle...

The explosion at the reactor is certain to rattle confidence in nuclear power in Japan, victim of the only nuclear weapon explosions and where people have long been sensitized to the dangers of radioactive releases. In the United States, it will deal a severe blow to advocates of a nuclear power renaissance.

Of course, didn't they also say the BP oil spill would "deal a severe blow to advocates" of off-shore drilling?

3/12 3:21am PT: Russia Today's video of the explosion. Appears to be same as BBC's (as linked in the 2:05am PT update above), though embeddable and without the BBC commentary, unfortunately...

3/12 3:28am PT: Expert on Fox "News", Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund, when asked what makes this the "second worst nuclear disaster in history", answers: "Three Miles Island never got to this phase. We're much closer to meltdown than we were at Three Mile Island." Goes on to compare to Chernobyl, like so many others late tonight.

Cirincione continues: "If there's no meltdown, well then, we've dodged a nuclear bullet and there won't be anything for Japan or the U.S. to have to worry about."

3/12 4:46am PT: Via NPR's blog...

Government spokesman Yukio Edano, the Associated Press writes, "says the radiation around the plant did not rise after the blast — but instead is decreasing. He added that pressure in the reactor was also decreasing. Pressure and heat have been building at the nuclear reactor since an earthquake and tsunami Friday caused its cooling system to fail."

3/12 4:51am PT: Noriyuki Shikata, Dir. of Communitions for Prime Minister tweets what would be good news, under the presumption that it's accurate:

Blast was caused by accumulated hydrogen combined with oxygen in the space between container and outer structure. No damage to container.

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3/12 5:39am PT: Okay...Running on fumes, and fresh news seems to have finally slowed down again for the moment. So, am going to try to stand down again --- with the caution that when I tried to do so on Thursday night, the earthquake hit. Then when I tried tonight before midnight, the EXPLOSION happened and I had to return to my post here. If I don't cause any more disasters when trying again to sleep, I'll return in West Coast "morn" to pick up as needed...Please feel free to leave anything new in comments below!...

Until then, follow these folks who are on the ground near Fukushima: VOA's @W7VOA, IDG's @martyn_williams, WaPo's @chicoharlan, AP's @hiroko_nakamura.

Hope our coverage at The BRAD BLOG over last 48 hours has been useful. ... Good night, again, I hope!

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3/12 2:05pm PT: After some rest, finally, let's get caught up again here with the very latest developments. And there are several. Some encouraging, some not so much...

Reuters reports within the hour, that the emergency cooling system on another reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has now failed, and that "at least" 9 people have been exposed to radiation, according to Japanese officials...

(Reuters) - A quake-hit Japanese nuclear plant reeling from an explosion at one of its reactors has also lost its emergency cooling system at another reactor, Japan's nuclear power safety agency said on Sunday.

The emergency cooling system is no longer functioning at the No.3 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, requiring the facility to urgently secure a means to supply water to the reactor, an official of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency told a news conference.

On Saturday, an explosion blew off the roof and upper walls of the building housing the facility's No. 1 reactor, stirring alarm over a possible major radiation release, although the government later said the explosion had not affected the reactor's core vessel and that only a small amount of radiation had been released.

The nuclear safety agency official said there was a possibility that at least nine individuals had been exposed to radiation, according to information gathered from municipal governments and other sources.

In another Reuters report filed at around the same time, a number of new points are made and/or several ones from last night re-confirmed:

  • Yesterday's explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor "severely damaged the main building of the plant", but did not breach "the integrity of the primary containment vessel" which "remains intact, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s confirmation with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
  • The explosion occurred "occurred outside the primary containment vessel, not inside."
  • "The government insisted radiation levels were low, saying the blast had not affected the reactor core container."
  • While there was "an initial increase in radioactivity around a quake-hit nuclear plant on Saturday ... levels 'have been observed to lessen in recent hours'".
  • 4 workers were injured by the explosion itself.
  • 140,000 people are currently being evacuated from a 20km radius around both the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini plants.
  • To help try to "limit damage to the reactor core, TEPCO proposed that sea water mixed with boron be injected into the primary containment vessel. ... This measure was approved by Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the injection procedure began at 20:20 local Japan time.
  • While meltdown fears continue, Reuters reports, "experts said Japan should not expect a repeat of Chernobyl."

First close-up photo we've seen of the No. 1 reactor, following the explosion yesterday...

3/12 3:19pm PT: Reuters tweets: "TEPCO has started preparations for releasing pressure from Fukushima Daiichi No. 3 reactor." That's the one where the emergency cooling system reportedly failed in the last hour or two. "Releasing pressure" likely refers to releasing radioactive steam, as had occurred yesterday on the No. 1 plant prior to its explosion.

3/12 3:28pm PT: Lou Charbonneau (@Lou_reuters) tweets: "#Japan nuclear safety agency says number of people possibly exposed to radiation from #Fukushima plant could reach 160 (the number's rising)"

3/12 4:09pm PT: Conflicting reports from officials on whether or not "meltdown may be occurring" at No. 3 reactor where emergency cooling system has failed. One official says it's possible. Another one --- Japanese ambassador to the U.S. --- tells Wolf Blitzer on CNN "absolutely not." Also, iodine tablets for treating radiation sickness, said being distributed.

3/12 5:06pm PT: AP's Jeff Donn and Mari Yamaguchi post an excellent piece, explaining why the hydrogen explosion occurred at Unit No. 1 yesterday, asserting that officials knew it was likely to occur, but preferable to a full meltdown and nuclear explosion.

3/12 6:13pm PT: Several helpful updates at this hour...

  • March 13, 2am (local time) Press Release from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), summarizes the current status of each of the 6 Fukushima reactor units, including injuries to workers, etc. Good summary of 3 reactors currently cool and under control, 3 others not quite as much.
  • This fact sheet [PDF] on Fukushima from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) offers this, seemingly noteworthy, distinction between the No. 1 reactor which had an explosion yesterday, and the No. 3 plant where the emergency cooling system had failed earlier today...
  • UPDATE, 5:30 pm, Saturday, March 12, 2011. Reuters is reporting that Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 has lost cooling capability: This is of particular concern since, unlike all of the other reactors in trouble, Unit 3 has been using plutonium-based MOX (mixed oxide) fuel since September 10, 2010. Consequences of an accident at a MOX-powered reactor would be even more severe than at a more typical uranium-powered reactor.
  • NYTimes Michael Wines and Matthew L. Wald offer detailed article, bringing us up to date with entire nuke emergency/disaster. At least it was up to date when published. So read it quickly, as things are moving fast again right now, it seems.

3/12 6:35pm PT: Several troubling reports on the amount of radiation released, and another report that "at least one rod in Unit 1" has melted down... As culled mostly from @TheDeadHandbook (who was at Three Mile Island, so knows his stuff) on Twitter, as taken from Kyodo and NHK news sources:

"Radiation at Fukushima No. 1 plant has surpassed legal limit according to TEPCON" ... "radiation amount near nuclear plant exceeded nation's legal limit (500 mSv/h) at 9:01." ... "The excessive level of radiation was observed before the vent of unit #3 opened." ... "NHK saying that at least one rod in Unit 1 did melt, first meltdown in japan's history" ... "'fuel has been damaged and a significant quantity of radioactive material released' --- NHK re Unit 1." ... "NHK GOJ spokesman: there is air contamination because of venting. to control situation. not at level unsafe to humans." ... "NHK GOJ spokesman: yes, people anxious about radiation. screening offered, medical care if necessary."

3/12 6:58pm PT: On Twitter, I asked @Arclight, "an engineer specializing in risk assessment and safety, primarily regarding nuclear systems", about the NIRS assessment I quoted above in the 6:13pm PT update concerning the use of plutonium fuel in Fukushima No. 3, versus the uranium-based fuels in the other reactors, and if he concurs with their assessment that consequences of an accident in that reactor "would be even more severe than at a more typical uranium-powered reactor." His responses to my query:

"First, NIRS is antinuclear propaganda; understand their agenda & read with caution. Still it is fair to address their statement." ... "Regarding the NIRS press release; unlikely any damage at [Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3], fission product source term unlikely to be substantially diff from U[ranium] fuel" ... "Why? Because if it was significantly worse, they'd have to relicense the plant to run MOX fuel." ... "It is easier to design the fuel to stay within the plant's existing license than it is to change everything to use more dangerous fuel." ... "Some people shit themselves at the mention of plutonium. It's nasty stuff but please. Spent fuel is nasty and already has plutonium in it."

A bit unclear on his response, I asked: "So are u doubting NIRS contention abt plutonium fuel at 3? Or just saying it's no scarier than a uranium reactor?". To which he clarified by responding:

"I'm saying that if it was substantially worse than U fuel, they wouldn't be allowed to do it. Regulations forbid it."

So take that NIRS report above, with all of that in mind.

3/13 12:06am: The UK's Guardian brings us up to date at this hour, as officials continue to struggle to cool three different reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plants and as Japan's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, stands by his belief that some sort of meltdown event may be underway inside two of those reactors and says there remains a risk of explosion.

After others, including the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. have challenged Edano's use of the word "meltdown", he says that "terminology is important, and that a part of the core, to a certain degree, is deforming."

We began our concern and coverage of the "nuclear emergencies" in Japan more than 48 hours ago, after officials had quietly and cryptically noted that attempts to cool one of the reactors at the Fukushima plant after shutting it down were "not going as planned".

To our amazement, few in the media seemed to be paying attention, and so we sought out whatever information we could find and tried to let as many folks known about it as we could. Now, two days later, the media finally seem to be giving this aspect of Japan's national tragedy the attention it seemed to deserve in the first place.

So, for now, we'll close this particularly long and unruly live thread, stand down for a bit and get some rest, in hopes that the issue is now receiving something closer to the attention it warrants. But, as necessary, we'll certainly return to it in a new article. And we'll definitely continue to cover points of note via Twitter (@TheBradBlog) as warranted throughout the next several hours, if not days, as we suspect this story will be continuing for quite some time.

Thursday night when we attempted to go to bed, the earthquake/tsunami struck. Friday night when we attempted to stand down, the Fukushima reactor exploded. Let's hope tonight will be a quieter night. If not though, we'll be back.

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* * * NEW EXPLOSION * * *
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3/13 8:14pm PT: A new explosion has occurred, this one at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3, as has been feared over the past 24 hours since the emergency cooling system on that reactor failed yesterday. DETAILS NOW HERE IN NEW LIVE BLOG THREAD...