Progress, stabilization continues, as new data suggest 50% of the radioactive cesium released by Chernobyl may have already been released by Daiichi's crippled reactors...
By Brad Friedman on 3/24/2011, 8:02pm PT  

We're just a day or so from the two week mark since disaster struck Japan on March 11th. Estimates now are that the death toll is likely to top more than 27,000 people killed in the great Tohoku Earthquake and its subsequent tsunami (with a peak wave now estimated to have 77 feet at its highest.)

Some quick math comparing the relative populations of Japan to the U.S. suggest that, had such a disaster struck this country, some 68,000 lives would have been lost in a single day. To further appreciate the size of Japan's disaster, the cost of damage is estimated to be around $300 billion. In the U.S., the cost of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, one of our greatest disasters, is estimated to be "only" around $81 billion, according to Reuters.

Friday is already well under way at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and reports last night and today suggest a calm, of sorts, at least in regard to the chain of continuing disasters we've seen there over much of the last two weeks. Though, like the photo that opens this article above, that calm may mask other problems, or be shattered in an instant, as has frequently been the case just after we post one of these "things seem to be stabilizing" articles.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be some stabilization at Fukushima's Daiichi power plant and its six troubled reactors at this moment, even as three plant workers were contaminated after stepping into 30 centimeters of radioactive water yesterday (two were sent to the hospital with burns on their skin as the radiation they came into contact with is said by TEPCO to have been 10,000 times normal levels); irradiated tap water worries ease somewhat in Tokyo, but spread to neighboring prefectures; and as scientists grapple with attempting to determine the full extent of the damage at the nuclear plant and the radiation dangers to the rest of the country, and across the globe, as data now suggests releases of dangerous radioactive cesium-137 have so far reached approximately 50% of that released at Chernobyl twenty-five years ago next month.

But first, before some of that gloomier news below, a (happily) very quick update on the latest status of each of the six crippled nuclear reactors...

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has begun posting daily updates in English. Culling information from their latest available report [PDF] as of 6:00pm Thursday (local time, so this is from "yesterday" there), here is the latest key status points for each of Fukushima Daiichi's six reactors:

Sea water being injected into core. Electricity from the power grid has been restored to lighting in the control room and to some of the instrumentation, but not yet to the pumping and cooling systems.

Possible damage to the suppression chamber. Spent fuel pool water cool. Water being injected to spent fuel pool and sea water being injected to the reactor core. Electricity from the grid now re-connected, but not yet turned on.

Black smoke dissipated yesterday. 120 tons of sea water have been injected into the reactor core, water spray to the spent fuel pool continues. Lights have been restored to the control room from external power, but not yet to instrumentation or the pumping and cooling systems.

UNIT 4: (Off-line prior to earthquake, fuel only in spent fuel pool)
Water spraying with the very long arm of a concrete pump truck, directly into the spent fuel pool continues.

UNIT 5: (Off-line prior to earthquake)
Water temperatures and pressure now under control as electricity restored and cooling pumps repaired and working again. "Cold shutdown" achieved on March 20.

UNIT 6: (Off-line prior to earthquake)
Water temperatures and pressure now under control as electricity restored and cooling pumps are working again. "Cold shutdown" achieved on March 20.

No out of control fires reported. Some 300 workers now at plant maintaining the above. Sounds encouraging, no? For many more details on each reactor Unit, such as temperatures, pressure readings, etc. (as available) see the fairly straight-forward NISA update [PDF].

During a teleconference this morning for media, scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) --- "an independent science-based advocacy group" and 40-year nuclear industry watchdog --- confirmed that conditions at the plant seem to be improving, "a step at a time, and they've made a few more steps toward [the] end goal" of full stability.

"Progress has been made over the past 24 hours in providing a more conventional way of injecting water into the Unit 1 reactor core, and injecting water via more conventional way into the Unit 3 spent fuel pool," David Lochbaum, Director of UCS's Nuclear Safety Project reported. "In addition, there has been success or progress made in re-establishing external power to all six units, although there's still some work to remain to then extend that power to all the components on the units that need to be repowered."

"[At the] Unit 1 reactor core and the Unit 3 spent fuel pool, they're using normal systems to inject the water, whereas in the past they have been using more temporary alignments to inject water," he said, adding that "They still haven't gotten to the point as they have on Units 5 and 6 spent fuel pools of having the normal systems that remove water, cool the water and then return that cooled water to either the reactor core or the spent fuel pools..., but they're moving towards regaining control over the cooling of the three reactor cores and the spent fuel pools on Units 1, 2, 3 and 4."

Dr. Edwin Lyman, a Senior Scientist in the UCS Global Security Program and "an expert on nuclear plant design and the environmental and health effects of radiation," discussed information from a report released yesterday by researchers at Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Vienna suggesting that levels of radioactive fallout from Fukushima are nearing Chernobyl levels.

The report says, based on data from the global network of air samplers set up to verify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, levels of radioactive cesium-137 is near 60% of the emissions from the 1986 disaster in the former Soviet Union.

"I believe that the estimates that we heard from the Austrians Meteorological Agency yesterday about the amount of cesium that has already been released from the plant does appear to be roughly consistent with the plume map that the Department of Energy put out on March 22nd that shows the existence of a plume of contamination reaching toward northwest" of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Lyman told reporters. "That does appear to be consistent, at least in order of magnitude terms with the idea that roughly 50 percent of the cesium that was released at Chernobyl has already been released from the plant."

When asked about the hospitalized plant workers, and what it may signal for dangers posed to others there, Lyman described it as "a disturbing development."

"My own impression is that the danger that the workers are facing is possibly even greater than TEPCO suggests and that when we look back at this accident, we're going to see that it did take an enormous toll on these workers," he explained ominously. "I would expect that this is the kind of condition that these workers are going to be facing for weeks, and that this will not be an uncommon occurrence."

Another reporter returned to the question of the Austrian report and the concerns about cesium-137 which, unlike the radioactive iodine discovered in drinking water which decays quickly, has a a half life of some 30 years. The reporter asked Lyman to discuss the "health risks that those radiation levels pose and whether or not the data suggests that radiation risks were present in a larger area than Japanese officials had evacuated."

Lyman responded that "eventually", the cesium "will work its way down to the soil, so the dose rates will decline somewhat...but if you look at the Chernobyl exclusion zone, you can see that even 20 or 25 years after the accident, that those dose rates do persist, and people do understand to some extent now from that experience how they will change over time, but certainly within a year or two, I would expect if there's no remedial action, that those would go down significantly, if they are due to cesium 137."

In response to another reporters question, however, Lyman stressed that the dangers to the U.S. from the cesium remain minimal, if at all, due to the differences in the design of the Chernobyl plant from those at Fukushima. Here's the exchange:

REPORTER: Given that you now think the Austrians might be right about the 50 percent of Chernobyl, could you elaborate on why you don't think aerial emissions are going to require any sort of protective effect? Is it that even the 50 percent of Chernobyl, if a lot, it's still not enough to reach the U.S. in quantities that would cause public harm, or is it something about the way cesium 137 behaves in the atmosphere and with rain and et cetera?

MR. LYMAN: Well, even after Chernobyl, again, although there was detectable contamination in the United States, the associated doses were still probably a thousand times below background or something like that. So, it's really the distance that's protecting us. And after Chernobyl, you know, given the complexity of the meteorological conditions and the height of the plume, there was protective actions that had to be taken as far away as Scotland, but again, even under those conditions, it didn't affect the United States.

And in the case of Chernobyl, because of the very hot fire, they experienced a plume that lofted to one to 2,000 meters, and that caused an even further dispersal than would be probably expected in this case, where the plume is not likely to exceed but a few hundred meters.

So, you know, even if the magnitude of the releases were comparable, while grave in Chernobyl, I think the extent of the downlink contamination would still be smaller.

The news for those in Japan, however, is not quite as bright. Lyman confirmed it is possible that areas around the nuclear plant may become uninhabitable. "It's certainly not the place I would want to live," the scientist told reporters, explaining that "there's still contaminated wildlife in northern Europe, things like mushrooms and berries, certain game continue to show high levels of cesium that will have to be watched for a very long time, and structures and soil would have to be decontaminated."

"There's no useful countermeasure against cesium-137...the larger radiation threat comes from external radiation from cesium that's deposited in the ground rather than what's being inhaled. Even on the site, the levels of cesium concentration in the air are still very low."

"So, there's really no effective countermeasure, unless you want to walk around in lead clothing for the rest of your life."

"There's still considerable confusion about the potential impacts on the whole world," Lyman continued darkly, "So, any idea that these releases can be so simple and predictable that you don't have to worry about them or you can easily avoid them are just absurd, and that attitude is going to have to change."

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For more updates and details today out of Fukushima and on the disaster in Japan, please see today's earlier Green News Report for radio. For breaking Fukushima-related news (and more), as it happens, 24/7, please follow us via Twitter: @TheBradBlog

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