Chris Martenson: Welcome to another ChrisMartenson.com podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson and today I have the privilege of speaking with Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates. In my eyes, a kind of living legend in the field of nuclear engineering. He has over thirty-nine years of nuclear industry experience and oversight and is a frequent expert witness on nuclear safety matters to the US Federal Government and private industry.
Since the initial days of the disaster at Fukushima, Arnie and his staff at Fairewinds have produced hands down, the most thorough, measured, accurate analysis of the unfolding developments there. A feat made all the more challenging by the frequent lack of information from TEPCO and the Japanese government and media. Now today, Arnie and I will talk about the latest state of the situation at Fukushima, which remains wholly unresolved and it’s quite troubling – we should keep our eyes on it. In addition, we are going to discuss what the important factors are for you to know, as well as what pragmatic preparations those of us who live in or near nuclear installations or countries that have them should really be doing. So Arnie, welcome to the show, it’s a pleasure to have you.
Arnie Gundersen: Thank you very much and I note that a lot of your readers have come to our site and I appreciate it.
Chris Martenson: We have some great readers and they are interested in knowing the truth, as best they can find it and we have a way of being at our site, which is that we really like to keep our facts very separated from our opinions. Something that I really admire that you do, as well.
Arnie Gundersen: Well thanks.
Chris Martenson: Let’s just briefly review – if we could just synopsize – I know you can do this better than anybody. What happened at Fukushima – what happened and I really would like to take the opportunity to talk about this kind of specifically, like where we are with each one of the reactors. So first of all, this disaster – how did it happen? Was it just bad engineering, was it really bad luck with the tsunami? How did this even initiate – something we were told again and again – something that couldn’t happen seems to have happened?
Arnie Gundersen: Well the little bit of physics here is that even when a reactor shuts down; it continues to churn out heat. Now, only five percent of the original amount of heat, but when you are cranking out millions of horsepower of heat, five percent is still a lot. So you have to keep a nuclear reactor cool after it shuts down. Now, what happened at Fukushima was it went into what is called a “station blackout,” and people plan for that. That means there is no power to anything except for batteries. And batteries can’t turn the massive motors that are required to cool the nuclear reactor. So the plan is in a station blackout is that somehow or another you get power back in four or five hours. That didn’t happen at Fukushima because the tidal wave, the tsunami, was so great that it overwhelmed their diesels and it overwhelmed something called “service water 2” But in any event, they couldn’t get any power to the big pumps.
Now, was it foreseeable? They were prepared for a seven-meter tsunami, about twenty-two feet. The tsunami that hit was something in excess of ten and quite likely fifteen meters, so somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five feet. They were warned that the tsunami that they were designed against was too low. They were warned for at least ten years and I am sure that there were people back before that. So would they have been prepared for one this big? I don’t know, but certainly, they were unprepared for even a tsunami of lesser magnitude.
Chris Martenson: So the tsunami came along and just swamped the systems and I heard that there were some other design elements there too, such as potentially the generators were in an unsafe spot or that some of their electrical substations all happened to be in the basement, so they kind of got taken out all at once. Now, here’s what I heard – the initial reports when they came out said, “Oh, nothing to fear, we all went into SCRAM,” which is some kind of emergency shutdown and they said everything is SCRAMed and I knew that we were in trouble in less than twenty-four hours, they talked about how they were pumping seawater in. Which I assume, by the time you are pumping seawater you have a pretty clear indication from the outside that there is something really quite wrong with this story, is that true?
Arnie Gundersen: Yes. Seawater and as anybody who has ever had a boat on the ocean would know, saltwater and stainless steel do not get along very well. Saltwater and stainless steel at five hundred degrees don’t get along very well at all. You are right, they had some single points of vulnerability – the hole in the armor and the diesels were one of them. But even if the diesels were up high, they would have been in trouble because of those service water pumps I talked about. And they got wiped out and those pumps are the pumps that cool the diesels. So even if the diesels were runnable, cooling water that runs through the diesels would have been taken out by the tsunami anyway. So it’s kind of a false argument to blame the diesels.
Chris Martenson: Okay, so take us through. Reactor number one, it was revealed I think about a week ago now that they finally came to the revelation that I think some of us had come to independently, that there had been something more than a partial meltdown, maybe even a complete meltdown. What is your assessment of reactor one and where is it right now?
Arnie Gundersen: When you see hydrogen explosions, that means that the outside of the fuel has exceeded 2,200 degrees and the inside is well over 3,500 degrees. The fuel gets brittle, it burns, and then it plops to the bottom of the nuclear reactor in a molten blob like lava. It was pretty clear to a lot of people, including apparently to the NRC, but they weren’t telling people back in March, that that had occurred in reactor one. There was essentially a blob of lava on the bottom of the nuclear reactor. So I have to separate this – a nuclear reactor – and that is inside of a containment. So there is still one more barrier here. But the problem is that the reactor had boiled dry and they were using fire pumps connected to the ocean to pump saltwater into the reactor. Now, if this thing were individual tubes, the water could get around the uranium and completely cool it. But when it’s a blob at the bottom of the reactor, it can only get to the top surface and that would cause it to begin to meltdown. Now, on these boiling water reactors, there are about seventy holes in the bottom of the reactor where the control rods come in and I suspect that those holes were essentially the weak link that caused this molten mass. Now it’s 5,000 degrees at the center, even though the outside may be touching water, the inside of this molten mass is 5,000 degrees. It melts through and lies on the bottom of the containment.
That’s where we are today. We have no reactor essentially, just a big pressure cooker. The molten uranium is on the bottom of the containment. It spreads out at that point, because the floor is flat. And I don’t think it’s going to melt its way through the concrete floor. It may gradually over time; but the damage is already done because the containment has cracks in it and it’s pretty clear that it is leaking. So you put water in the top. And the plan had never been to put water in the top and let it run out the bottom. That is not the preferred way of cooling a nuclear reactor in an accident. But you are putting water in the top and it’s running out the bottom and it’s going out through cracks in the containment, after touching directly uranium and plutonium and cesium and strontium and is carrying all those radioactive isotopes out as liquids and gases into the environment.
Chris Martenson: So this melting that happened, is this just a function of the decay heat at this point in time? We’re not speculating that there has been any sort of re-criticality or any other what we might call a nuclear reaction – this is just decay heat from the isotopes that are in there from prior nuclear activity – those are just decaying and giving off that heat. That’s sufficient to get to 5,000 degrees?
Arnie Gundersen: Yes, once the uranium melts into a blob at these low enrichments, four and five percent, it can’t make a new criticality. If criticality is occurring on the site – and there might be, because there is still iodine 131, which is a good indication – it is not coming from the Unit 1 core and it’s not coming from the Unit 2 core, because those are both blobs at the bottom of the containment.
Chris Martenson: All right, so we have these blobs, they’ve somehow escaped the primary reactor pressure vessel, which is that big steel thing and now they are on the relatively flat floor of the containment – they concrete piece – and you say Unit 2 is roughly the same story as Unit 1 – where’s Unit 3 in this story?
Arnie Gundersen: Unit 3 may not have melted through and that means that some of the fuel certainly is lying on the bottom, but it may not have melted through and some of the fuel may still look like fuel, although it is certainly brittle. And it’s possible that when the fuel is in that configuration that you can get a re-criticality. It’s also possible in any of the fuel pools, one, two, three, and four pools, that you could get a criticality, as well. So there’s been frequent enough high iodine indications to lead me to believe that either one of the four fuel pools or the Unit 3 reactor is in fact, every once in a while starting itself up and then it gets to a point where it gets so hot that it shuts itself down and it kind of cycles. It kind of breathes, if you will.
Chris Martenson: Right, so when it’s doing that breathing, it’s certainly generating a lot of heat through the fission process and then of course, it’s generating more isotopes to decay and contribute to the decay heat at that point. What’s your assessment if there is that sort of breathing going on, is sort of like a little pocket within one of the geometries that exists that would still allow fission to be supported or could you imagine this being a fairly significant amount or how much do you think might be happening?
Arnie Gundersen: I think it’s a relatively significant amount – maybe a tenth of the nuclear reactor core starts back up and shuts back down and starts back up and shuts back down. And that’s an extra heat load; you are not prepared to get rid of one tenth of a nuclear reactor’s heat by pumping water in the top
Now, Unit 3 has another problem and the NRC mentioned it yesterday for the first time and it gets back to that saltwater and the effect on iron. They are afraid that the reactor bottom will break, literally just break right out and dump everything. Because it’s now hot and it’s got salt on it and it’s got the ideal conditions for corrosion. So the big fear on Unit 3 is that it will break at the bottom and whatever else remains in it, which could be the entire core, could fall out suddenly. And if that happens, you can get something called a “steam explosion,” and this may be a one in a hundred chance. I don’t want your listeners to think it’s going to happen tomorrow, but if the core breaks you will get a steam explosion, but we’re not sure the core is going to break. And that is a violent hydrogen explosion like the one we’ve already witnessed.
Chris Martenson: Reactor 3 caught me when it blew, because what I saw there with my eyes was a fairly focused upwards very high-energy event, which completely looked different from what I saw when Unit 1 blew. Are you talking about – is that or I know you have postulated in the past that you think that might have been — what’s the name for it a “prompt” criticality?
Arnie Gundersen: I called it a “prompt criticality,” that created a detonation and engineers differentiate – either way it’s going to be a big explosion. But the violence of Unit 3’s explosion and I did some calculations to show that the speed at which the flame traveled in order to through particles as far as this one threw particles – the speed of that shockwave had to be in excess of a thousand miles per hour. That’s a detonation, where the shockwave itself can cause incredible damage and that can happen if we were to have one of these steam explosions at the bottom of the reactor in Unit 3 falls out – you could have another one of those all over again
Chris Martenson: Obviously, not a good thing if that happens. What can they do at this stage though, if that is a concern that they have – this sounds very tricky to me, because if it turns out that there is excess heat being generated because we are having this breathing re-criticality event going on, but for whatever reason let’s just say that the core of reactor three is pretty hot. What can they really do beyond just keep trying to dump water in there and keep their fingers crossed?
Arnie Gundersen: Well, that’s two out of the three things they have to do. The other one is they can flood, if they can flood it from the outside – in other words, put water outside the pressure cooker, as well as inside the pressure cooker. They may be able to remove more heat that way and prevent the gross failure of the pressure vessel. But really, it’s just hoping that you can put enough water in. And the other piece of that is and it relates to Unit 4 too, is a seismic event. If you put too much water in these reactors they get heavy, and they are not designed to sway when there is heavy – tens of tons of extra water in them. So they are really not designed to sway. So let’s say there is a severe aftershock, Unit 3 and Unit 4 are in real jeopardy. And if you remember the Sumatra earthquake, that was a nine plus about three or four years ago. The biggest aftershock occurred three months afterwards and that was an eight six, so aftershocks even though we are two months into this, if the Sumatra event is any indication, aftershocks are still possible.