Fukushima: has reactor Number 2 already melted down?

Seawater near Japan’s stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant shows significantly higher levels of radioactive iodine than in recent days, Japan’s nuclear safety agency reported March 30. Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said that seawater collected about 300 yards from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was found to contain iodine 131 at 3,355 times the safety standard, the highest levels reported so far. Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the plant, acknowledged for the first time that at least reactors 1 through 4 of the six-reactor complex will have to be written off. (NYT, March 31) A US engineer who helped install reactors at Fukushima, speaking anonymously to the Scandinavian environmental NGO Bellona, said he believes the radioactive core in reactor Number 2 may have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor—a development that would pose a grave risk to soil and groundwater. (Bellona, March 31)

TEPCO officials announced March 31 that radioactive contamination in groundwater below the complex has been measured at 10,000 times the government health standard. This was the first confirmation of groundwater contamination since the Fukushima disaster began. TEPCO (of course) said the company doesn’t believe any drinking water supply is affected.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it is looking into a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about high levels of radiation in the ground at the village of Iitate, 25 miles from the plant in Fukushima prefecture, and outside the evacuation zone. The IAEA said the level tested in Iitate was twice its suggested threshold for evacuation. Japanese safety spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said most residents in Iitate have left, but about 100 have chosen to stay. (NPR, March 31)

The so-called “Fukushima 50,” the group of around 300 technicians, soldiers and fire-fighters who work in shifts of 50, have been exposed repeatedly to dangerously high radiation levels. The mother of one of the men has admitted that the group has accepted that death is a strong possibility. “My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary in the long-term.” (The Telegraph, March 31)

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Japan is on “maximum alert” over the Fukushima crisis, as he acknowledged two days ago that traces of plutonium have been found in the soil (likely to come from reactor Number 3). Kan warned that the situation remains “unpredictable.” Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano described the situation as “very grave.” (VOA, March 29)

Low levels of radioactive iodine-131—presumably from Fukushima—have been detected in milk samples from Spokane, Wash., and at a dairy in San Luis Obispo County, Calif, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration reported, while (of course) saying there is no health risk. (CSM, March 31)

Since the Fukushima disaster began, the price of uranium oxide—the most commonly traded form of the nuclear fuel—has fallen 27% from $68.25 a pound to $50 a pound in the spot market. The price slightly recovered this week after hitting a $50 low, according to broker MF Global. (FT, March 31) Industry boosters (of course) continue to wax sanguine. “Growth in the sector is expected to remain buoyant, albeit on a flatter trajectory than previously thought, driven by strong fundamentals, including the global need for low carbon, base load electricity generating capacity,” said Capital Research managing director John Wilson. (Melbourne Herald Sun, March 31)

See our last post on the Fukushima disaster.

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    1. “no danger of Chernobyl-style catastrophe”?
      From The Guardian story of March 29:

      Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling-water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at Fukushima, told the Guardian workers at the site appeared to have “lost the race” to save the reactor, but said there was no danger of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe.

      Could be that he went on record to The Guardian, but insisted on anonymity with Bellona. But Bellona portrayed his scenario as more dire. “Chernobyl-style catastrophe” is a slightly vague construction. A Chernobyl-style reactor explosion? Hopefully we are past the point where that is a risk. But a Chernobyl-style full-on meltdown? That seems to be exactly what they’ve been struggling to avoid for the past two weeks…