News / Asia

US Nuclear Experts Worry About Possible Japan Reactor Meltdown

Fukushima Daiichi power plant's Unit 1 is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Friday, March 11, 2011
Fukushima Daiichi power plant's Unit 1 is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Friday, March 11, 2011
Mike O'Sullivan

Tens of thousands of residents near a nuclear plant in Japan were evacuated Saturday after an explosion at the plant, 240 kilometers north of Tokyo.  The reactor failure follows a devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on Friday.

Japanese officials have reassured the public, saying there is no danger of a meltdown of the reactor core. But US nuclear experts say they are worried about the possibility.

The failure at the plant in Fukushima Prefecture was caused by a power loss, and then a loss of backup power, following the massive earthquake and tsunami Friday.

A Japanese official said a buildup of hydrogen in the reactor's cooling system caused the explosion, but he said the containment structure was intact.  Radiation was released, but government officials say the levels were low and are dropping.

Watch the explosion at reactor number one in Fukushima

Saturday, residents within 20 kilometers of the plant were evacuated, while government officials said there is no danger of a melt-down and large-scale radiation release, like the one at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 that sent radioactive clouds billowing across Europe.

The four American experts and a colleague in Japan briefed reporters by telephone Saturday, and they said  they were less certain.  

Nuclear energy analyst Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies says there are many things we do not know about the failure, including whether the containment structure is fully intact. "The information that has been made public, particularly by the Japanese nuclear safety authorities, certainly indicate that radioactive elements from the fuel itself have escaped and entered the environment.  And even if the reactor maintains its integrity, there's a possibility that things like open relief valves on the top of the reactor and things like that may still release large amounts of radioactivity," he said.

Ken Bergeron, a physicist who formerly worked for Sandia National Laboratories, says a so-called station blackout - which involves the loss of both off-site electricity and on-site backup power from diesel generators - is viewed in the nuclear industry as extremely unlikely.  But he says it happened.

"So we're in uncharted territory.  We're in the land where probability says we shouldn't be.  And we're hoping that all of the barriers to release of radioactivity will not fail," he said.

He said the first barrier, the so-called fuel cladding that covers the reactor rods, has apparently failed, which he says is shown by the release of radiation into the atmosphere.  

Crews are pumping a mixture of seawater and boron to cool the reactor, and these experts say it is essential to keep the water flowing for several days.  Analyst Alvarez called the use of seawater a "Hail Mary pass", a term from American football meaning an act of desperation.  But he said that with enough water pumped at sufficient volume and rate, the reactor can be stabilized.

Ken Bergeron said it is also crucial to restore electric power in order to pump enough water.

Ira Helfand of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility says the reactor contains huge levels of  radioactivity that cannot be allowed to escape. "The bottom line is that we just don't know what's going to happen over the next couple of days. And frankly, neither do the people who are operating these power plants.  They're very complex systems that are clearly way out of whack, and whether they're going to be able to contain the radiation inside the reactors or not, is simply not known at this point," he said.

Japanese health officials have announced they will distribute iodine tablets as a precaution.  Iodine is know to protect against radiation-induced thyroid cancer.

You May Like

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid