An early morning flurry of internet reports carried scary – but false –headlines about Fukushima nuclear power plant’s fuel pools exploding and burning, and releasing massive amounts of radiation on October 22. Many readers expressed skepticism, as the reports seemed to come from a single, unconfirmed source and by later the same afternoon more responsible websites were labeling the story a hoax.
The Fukushima accident in Japan continues nonetheless, at a slower pace for now, even though one of the more dangerous damaged units has cracks in its walls and is sinking into the ground, as affirmed by nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson in his October 21 podcast.
Unit 4 at Fukushima is perhaps the most threatening part of the damaged plant because the unit’s fuel rods are outside the containment where further mishap could lead to the release massive amounts of radiation directly into the environment.
At the time of the earthquake in March 2011, about 100 miles of Japan’s coastline, including the area around Fukushima, dropped about three feet, increasing the impact of the tsunami that destroyed the nuclear power plant, which continues to deteriorate.
In recent weeks it’s become increasingly clear that Fukushima Unit 4, with its unprotected fuel rods is continuing to sink into the ground, and is sinking asymmetrically, creating the possibility that the building will begin to tilt. The unit sank about 36 inches in March 2011 and has sunk another 30 inches since then, as confirmed by Gunderson.
How Safe Is a Buckled, Sinking Building?
“These buildings are supposed to be seismically and structurally secure and, you know, if the ground sinks under them, that suddenly changes a lot of people’s perception,” Gunderson said, underscoring the assurances of the nuclear industry that reactors are constructed to survive earthquakes intact. The Japanese “seismic calculations were wrong all along,” he added.
Unit 4 was first damaged by the earthquake/tsunami event, and then suffered several explosions during the aftermath. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) acknowledged that the building was damaged and went in during the spring of 2011 to structurally reinforce the elevated fuel pool, to keep the bottom of the pool from breaking and dumping fuel rods uncontrollably.
Today the Unit 4 building is buckled, and is two inches wider at the bottom than at the top. There is at least one crack in its foundation.
Of the four Fukushima reactors and fuel pools, Unit 4 has the most nuclear fuel in the fuel pool, and no fuel in its reactor within the containment. All the fuel in Unit 4 is outside the relative safety of the containment. And part of that fuel is the entire hot nuclear core that used to be in the reactor. That’s why the fuel pool steams on colder days.
“There is dozens of times more Cesium in the nuclear fuel pool at Unit 4 than was ever released in all the above ground [nuclear bomb] testing that ever occurred, so if that pool were to face structural damage from another earthquake, it would likely devastate Japan,” Gunderson said, “It’s a sleeping dragon.”
He added that until Tepco gets the fuel out of the pool, the world needs to keeps its fingers crossed that there’s not another earthquake, because Tepco is moving too slowly and methodically to make the site safe any time soon.
Perception of Safety Wins Out Over Reality
As has been widely reported, Tepco has known since 2002 that the Fukushima site was unsafe. “I actually think they knew in the eighties,” Gunderson commented. One reason TEPCO didn’t do anything was money, and another was public relations.
“They didn’t want to create the perception that the site was unsafe, so therefore they kept the site unsafe,” Gunderson said.
He explained that they have since acknowledged their behavior and he read from a TEPCO public statement: “There was a worry that, if the company were to implement a severe accident response plan, it would spur anxiety throughout the country and in the community where the plant was sited, and it would lend momentum to the anti-nuclear movement.”
Similar thinking in the U.S. was revealed by the release of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) study that showed that 34 U.S. nuclear power plants at risk of flooding from dam failures upstream. Written about six months ago, but classified “not for public disclosure,” the study was recently made public by a whistleblower.
“So here’s the NRC, America’s nuclear watchdog, doing exactly what Tokyo Electric did, preventing the public from becoming aware of a safety problem, because they don’t want to frighten the public,” Gunderson said.
How Many Potential Fukushimas in US?
After discussing the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant surrounded by flood waters in 2011, with five full-to-capacity dams upstream, Gunderson commented: “Yet the NRC was basically telling everybody, don’t worry be happy. You know, the probability of a dam failing is pretty low, but so is the probability of a 60 foot high tsunami hitting Fukushima. We know that low-probability events happen. And the NRC and Tokyo Electric both basically don’t want to admit that these events can happen. And we’ve got 34 different Fukushimas in the United States – one third of the nuclear fleet is in danger of an upstream dam failing.”
Currently four U.S. nuclear power plants have been shut down for extended periods of one to four years, while ratepayers continue to pay the operating costs of plants that aren’t operating. The two shut down reactors at San Onofre in California are costing ratepayers $50 million a month just to maintain the opportunity to re-start the reactors on short notice.
Worldwide, about 60 of the world’s 434 so-called safe, clean, reliable, inexpensive nuclear power plants are shut down, some forever.
“It just shows that the people we’re counting on to protect us, the regulators and the people that own these power plants, can’t be trusted,” Gunderson concluded.