Japan Nuclear Crisis: Just 48 Hours to Avoid ‘Another Chernobyl’

Japan has 48 hours to bring its rapidly escalating nuclear crisis under control before it faces a catastrophe “worse than Chernobyl”, it was claimed last night.

Technicians scan Red Cross rescue workers for signs of radiation in Nagahama City, Shiga Prefecture in northern Japan, after an earthquake and tsunami struck the area, March 14, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo via IFRC/Flickr

Japan has only 48 hours to bring its steadily growing nuclear crisis under control and avoid a catastrophe “worse than Chernobyl”, reported The Telegraph (UK) on Thursday, according to the French nuclear expert.

“The next 48 hours will be decisive. I am pessimistic because, since Sunday, I have seen that almost none of the solutions have worked,” Thierry Charles, a safety official at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), said according to the newspaper.

Nuclear safety officials in France said they were “pessimistic” about whether engineers could prevent a meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in north-eastern Japan after a pool containing spent fuel rods overheated and boiled dry.

The troubles at several of the Fukushima plant’s reactors were set off when last week’s earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and ruined backup generators needed for their cooling systems, adding a major nuclear crisis for Japan as it dealt with twin natural disasters that killed more than 10 000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The report also said the owners of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric, said five workers had been killed at the site while two were missing and 21 had been injured.

Last night, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, gave a far bleaker appraisal of the threat posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government had offered.

He said American officials believed that the damage to at least one crippled reactor was much more serious than Tokyo had acknowledged, and he advised Americans to stay much farther away from the plant than the perimeter established by Japanese authorities.

Gregory Jaczko warned that if “extremely high” radiation levels increased it would become impossible for workers to continue to take corrective measures at the plant as “the doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time”.

Mr. Jaczko’s most startling assertion was that there was now little or no water in the pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation into the atmosphere.

As a result, he said, “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”

As Japan resorted to increasingly desperate measures – including dumping water on the site from helicopters – there were accusations that the situation was now “out of control”.

Yesterday Japanese Emperor Akihito made a rare address to the nation, urging the Japanese to pull together, but hinted at his own fears for the nuclear crisis saying: “I hope things will not get worse.”

An earlier fire and explosion in the No 4 reactor building is thought to have breached the protective walls around the pool. A statement from the USNRC said: “We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”

If the water has gone, Mr Jaczko warned, there is nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

Attempts to cool the site by dumping sea water from helicopters had to be aborted at one stage because of dangerous radiation levels in the air above the plant. A police water cannon was brought in to help blast water into the overheating reactors and pools, but there were warnings that it may be too late to prevent a disaster.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) officials said bulldozers attempted to clear a route to the reactor so firetrucks could gain access and try to cool the facility using hoses. Company officials also said limited power could be supplied to the facility at some point which could help restart pumps.

“People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this,” Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference, referring to people living outside a 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone.

Thierry Charles, a safety official at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), said: “The next 48 hours will be decisive. I am pessimistic because, since Sunday, I have seen that almost none of the solutions has worked.” He described the situation as “a major risk”, but added: “All is not lost.”

Asked about the maximum possible amount of radioactive release, he said “it would be in the same range as Chernobyl”. The incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine on April 26 1986 is estimated to have caused 57 direct deaths, with some 4,000 additional deaths from cancer.

However, despite the grim forecast by the French, British nuclear expert at the Chatham House think tank, Malcolm Grimston told the paper Fukushima could not be compared to Chernobyl.

“We’re nearly five days after the fission process was stopped, the levels of radioactive iodine will only be about two–thirds of where they were at the start, some of the other, very short–lived, very radioactive material will be gone altogether by now,” he said. [via Reuters, The NY Times and The Telegraph (UK)]

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