As Japan’s nuclear crisis goes critical, we are all downwind

In the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan, a new threat rises from the rubble with the partial meltdowns of radioactive cores in two nuclear reactors that were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.

News reports paint a picture of a crisis rapidly spinning out of control.  The New York Times reported:

Japanese officials struggled on Sunday to contain a widening nuclear crisis in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, saying they presumed that partial meltdowns had occurred at two crippled reactors and that they were facing serious cooling problems at three more.

The emergency appeared to be the worst involving a nuclear plant since the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago. The developments at two separate nuclear plants prompted the evacuation of more than 200,000 people. Japanese officials said they had also ordered up the largest mobilization of their Self-Defense Forces since World War II to assist in the relief effort.

On Saturday, Japanese officials took the extraordinary step of flooding the crippled No. 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 170 miles north of Tokyo, with seawater in a last-ditch effort to avoid a nuclear meltdown.

Then on Sunday, cooling failed at a second reactor — No. 3 — and core melting was presumed at both, said the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. Cooling had failed at three reactors at a nuclear complex nearby, Fukushima Daini, although he said conditions there were considered less dire for now.

The article went on:

The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that as many as 160 people may have been exposed to radiation around the plant, and Japanese news media said that three workers at the facility were suffering from full-on radiation sickness.

Even before the explosion on Saturday, officials said they had detected radioactive cesium, which is created when uranium fuel is split, an indication that some of the nuclear fuel in the reactor was already damaged.

How much damage the fuel suffered remained uncertain, though safety officials insisted repeatedly through the day that radiation leaks outside the plant remained small and did not pose a major health risk.

However, they also told the International Atomic Energy Agency that they were making preparations to distribute iodine, which helps protect the thyroid gland from radiation exposure, to people living near Daiichi and Daini.

Assurances by Japanese officials that the reactor container has not been breached are being questioned.  Statfor reports that:

Reports of iodine and cesium outside of the plant indicate that the reactor’s containment structure has been breached.

Iodine is in the fuel pins and cesium is a particulate, meaning there are heavy particles in the air, which are basically radioactive dust. Cesium 137, which Yomiuri Shimbun reports has been discovered in the surrounding area, is probably a product of the nuclear fission process and a strong demonstration of severe damage to the nuclear reactor’s core. The fact that the government has prepared a series of iodine treatments for locals in the vicinity of the nuclear plants suggests it is anticipating the need to prevent iodine exposure.

Meanwhile 90 people were reported as possibly exposed to radiation, including 30 refugees from the area and 60 people on staff at Futaba hospital. Sources suspect that Japan has already undergone “clad failure” (when zirconium in the rods reacts with water) leading to a violent exothermic reaction. This produces large quantities of hydrogen. The March 12 blast was probably caused by a combined steam and hydrogen explosion. The explosion may have destroyed the containment structure in the reactor vessel. This raises the distinct possibility that the core will gain heat to the point that it will melt through the reactor at the bottom of the reactor vessel. While there remain too many uncertainties to make reliable forecasts, the disaster has clearly escalated to a high level. Critical questions will be whether the radiation count rises above 1000 millirems per hour and whether winds should change direction to blow radiation from the north into Tokyo.

Another New York Times article reported:

Japan’s nuclear crisis begins to come to light, experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.

The emergency flooding of two stricken reactors with seawater and the resulting steam releases are a desperate step intended to avoid a much bigger problem: a full meltdown of the nuclear cores in two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. On Monday, an explosion blew the roof off the second reactor, not damaging the core, officials said, but presumably leaking more radiation.

U.S. military personnel aboard ships assisting in the earth quake and tsunami rescue and recovery effort have been exposed to the radioactive cloud:

On Sunday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it expected no “harmful levels of radioactivity” to move on the winds to Hawaii, Alaska or the West Coast from the reactors in Japan, “given the thousands of miles between the two countries.”

“No harmful levels of radioactivity”?  Not very reassuring given that the jetstream blows eastward over the northern Pacific ocean.

As the devastating tsunami plowed across the Pacific, damage outside of Japan appears to have been minimal.  Hawai’i experienced powerful surges in certain locations. Homes were ripped off foundations, boats and docks were trashed and businesses flooded. But Hawai’i had no tsunami related deaths or injuries.

Guam was also minimally affected. However the Navy reported that two nuclear powered submarines came loose in the surge:

The Navy reported that at around 8 p.m., the mooring lines for the submarines the USS Houston and the USS City of Corpus Christi broke free from the pier at Alpha wharf at Naval Base Guam due to a tsunami wave.

Officials say tug boats from Naval Base Guam responded quickly to the situation and safely moored both submarines. The submarine tender USS Frank Cable and the submarine the USS Oklahoma City remained safely moored throughout the tsunami event.

Thankfully, there were no major mishaps related to this incident.  However, it reminds  us of the danger posed by nuclear powered and armed naval vessels in our islands.

Hawai’i has no nuclear power plants.  Early planners had the wisdom to go nuclear free. Some counties like Hawai’i island have declared themselves nuclear free zones.  But U.S. military ignores these nuclear prohibitions.  Nuclear weapons have long been stored in Hawai’i. Back in the 1980s, activists exposed the presence of nuclear weapons in Waikele gulch only hundreds of yards from the heavily populated Waipahu neighborhood.  After having their cover blown, military officials moved the nukes to West Loch.  Global Security lists 50 W-80-0 nuclear warheads (150-kiloton yield each) for Tomahawk Sea-Launched Cruise Missles and 40 B-61 nuclear aerial gravity bombs (170-kiloton yield) stored at Naval Magazine Pearl Harbor West Loch.  A dense concentration of O’ahu’s population lives within a ten mile radius of this site.

We have also  had close encounters with nuclear accidents. According to the June 14, 1960:

USS SARGO suffers an explosion and fire in her aft end while docked at Pearl Harbor. The fire starts from a leak in a high-pressure line that was pumping oxygen aboard. The explosion occurs a few moments later. When dock units and boats are unable to bring the fire under control quickly, officers take the SARGO a short distance from the dock and submerge it with the stern hatch open to put out the blaze. The Navy says the ship’s nuclear reactors were sealed off. and there was “absolutely no danger of an explosion from the reactor compartment.” The submarine is extensively damaged and is drydocked taking three months to repair. The SARGO is the first nuclear ship in the Pacific Fleet and was scheduled to take the visiting King and Queen of Thailand on a cruise the next day.

Assurances of “absolutely no danger” are not convincing, especially when shipyard workers tell their stories of how close we were to a “China Syndrome”.  The USS Sargo had other accidents including a collision with an ice keel during Ice Exercise ’60 damaging her bow, and in 1963, collision with another nuclear powered sub, the USS Barb.

There have been a number of smaller accidents involving the release of radioactive contamination into Pearl Harbor.  The sediment near the shipyard is contaminated with radioactive Cobalt 60.

Depleted uranium has also been released in Lihu’e (Schofield) and Pohakuloa.

Anyone know good recipes for potassium iodide cocktails?

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