Japan nuclear disaster called 'world's second worst'

March 14, 2011

Wordview and Kate Dries

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(Getty/Christof Koepsel)
Anti-nuclear power protestors in Colgone, Germany

In the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the incidences at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima Prefecture are being called the second worst nuclear disaster seen yet. That's according to Stephen I. Schwartz, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, who categorized the Japanese disaster worse than or at least equal to the Three Mile Island accident of 1979, and ranked it behind only Chernobyl.

A drop in water levels left uranium rods completely exposed Monday, and although the water was restored, the rods are again exposed after a second episode. That increases both the risk that radiation will spread - and the risk of a meltdown. Japanese officials said the fuel rods in all three of the most troubled reactors at the site appeared to be melting, though they are most concerned with the problems at a different reactor, Unit 2. The other two, they say, are somewhat stabilized.

The reactors at the site were made by General Electric, and were actually supposed to have been shut down a month prior to the tragedy; they were just recently given a 10 year extension.  Addtionally, a study done by the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico indicated that there is a 42% chance of containment failure if the core of these reactors melts.

In an interview with Worldview's Jerome McDonnell, Schwartz explained that the damage to the reactors hits closer to home than many Americans might realize. Not 60 miles from Chicago, the Dresden 2 and 3 reactors in Morris, IL are of the exact same design as the Japanese reactors and also were recently given a lifetime extension.

At the Daiichi reactors, the tsunami wiped out the first backup system, and the second backup system was only capable of operating for eight hours. Currently, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is attempting to cool the rods with sea water pumped in through fire engines, a far cry from the distilled and impurity-free water usually employed for this activity. Additionally, there is no reliable energy source because of the outages, and the long-term ramifications of not having resting fuel (which takes a significant amount of time before it can be converted into energy) have not even begun to be broached. While Schwartz praised Japan's typical preparedness to natural disasters, he qualified that “Nothing will ever be truly risk free." He said, "[The Japanese] did plan for multiple contingencies, they just didn't plan for all of these at the same time."

What's the worst case scenario? Schwartz outlined a complete core meltdown: the nuclear fuel will totally liquefy and melt through the steel reactor vessel, reaching the ground (which is already saturated because of the tsunami), causing a massive steam explosion, destroying the rest of the reactor, and pushing the radiation up into the atmosphere.To prevent this possibility, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the Japanese government has asked for experts to help with an imperiled nuclear plant.

"The situation would probably be much much more dire if the workers at these plants were not performing these duties heroically," said Schwartz, comparing their efforts to those of the firefighters who perished during Chernobyl.