Third Explosion Rocks Japanese Nuclear Power Plant
The tragedy of Japan’s earthquake in which 1900 are official dead but police estimate could wind up being more than 10,000 is now shifting to another kind of ominous story: a tale of explosions at nuclear power plants and possible long range cancer risks. And here’s the latest: there has been a third explosion at a Japanese Nuclear Power plant.
And it’s now being said that it is worse than the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island — and that overall the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant damage will make this the costliest natural disaster in history.
A hydrogen explosion Tuesday morning destroyed the outer building of a quake-damaged Unit 2 nuclear reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. Engineers had been struggling overnight to cool the nuclear core and stave off a meltdown that could release radioactivity over a wide area. It was the third reactor at the site whose external structure had been damaged by such an explosion.
Neither of the reactor containment vessels of Units 1 and 3 had been damaged in the earlier explosion and there is no evidence so far to suggest the vessel of no. 2 had been damaged either.
Officials had feared the possibility of such an explosion because the fuel core had been exposed to air for more than two hours, allowing it to overheat. When the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods was subsequently exposed to seawater used for cooling, it released hydrogen gas, which built up to dangerous levels in the plant and was most likely ignited by a spark.
Japan’s nuclear crisis had already taken a frightening turn for the worse after officials acknowledged that fuel rods at the Fukushima No. 1 reactor had been exposed to air, heightening the risk of an uncontrolled release of radiation into the environment.
In extraordinary televised scenes, three executives from the utility that runs the crippled complex in Fukushima prefecture, about 150 miles north of Tokyo, acknowledged that pumps funneling seawater into one of the reactors had halted temporarily, a major setback in efforts to cool the superheated core.
“We are trying to reopen the valve,” said one of the officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. as they passed the microphone back and forth among themselves. “The fuel rods are exposed. We are trying to get the pressure down and pump water into the pressure vessel again.”
The Telegraph says it is raising the possibility now of a “nuclear nightmare.”
Earlier a cloud of radioactive dust billowed from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after it suffered its second explosion in three days.
Government officials admitted that it was “highly likely” the fuel rods in three separate reactors had started to melt despite repeated efforts to cool them with sea water. Safety officials said they could not rule out a full meltdown as workers struggled to keep temperatures under control in the cores of the reactors.
The Fukushima crisis now rates as a more serious accident than the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and is second only to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, according to the French nuclear safety authority. After insisting for three days that the situation was under control, Japan urgently appealed to US and UN nuclear experts for technical help on preventing white-hot fuel rods melting.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was “unlikely” that the accident would turn into another Chernobyl, but failed to rule it out completely.
More than 500,000 people are thought to have been made homeless by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000. More than 2,000 bodies have been washed up on beaches along Japan’s Pacific coast, but rescuers have yet to reach isolated towns and villages in some of the worst-affected areas.
The tragedy is expected to become the costliest natural disaster in history, with the repair bill likely to top £100 billion.
Meanwhile, the BBC notes that the current crisis will reignite the long-standing debate over nuclear power:
Environmental groups and others have been quick to point out that this is a total vindication of their stance against any form of nuclear-sourced energy.
Walt Patterson at the London-based foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, questions why any government would build nuclear plants when there are so many others sources of energy generation.
“Why turn to the slowest, the most expensive, the narrowest, the most inflexible, and the riskiest in financial terms?” he asks.
But proponents of the nuclear option insist nuclear power has the lowest carbon footprint, the latest reactors are perfectly safe, and it produces sustainable energy at a cost that is competitive with other methods.
The facilities north of Tokyo were damaged after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead and at least 10,000 missing.
“Putting things into perspective, when the loss of life in Japan is probably going to be much higher than presently recorded, the problems with the nuclear reactors are a high-profile side-line,” says Ian Hore-Lacy at the World Nuclear Association (WNA).
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He points out that although the facilities were built in the 1960s, there have only been minor radiation releases and nobody has been killed.
But will that fact be of much comfort if the nuclear power plants are eventually deemed responsible for illness…or death?