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For battered Japan, a new threat: nuclear meltdown

By Yuri Kageyama

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 13 2011 1:04 a.m. MST

Cars of a train lie overturned in Shinchi town, Fukushima prefecture, Saturday, March 12, 2011 after being washed away by an earthquake-triggered tsunami. The powerful tsunami created by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded swept away Japan's east coast Friday.

Associated Press

IWAKI, Japan — Cooling systems failed at another nuclear reactor on Japan's devastated coast Sunday, hours after an explosion at a nearby unit made leaking radiation, or even outright meltdown, the central threat to the country following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.

The Japanese government said radiation emanating from the plant appeared to have decreased after Saturday's blast, which produced a cloud of white smoke that obscured the complex. But the danger was grave enough that officials pumped seawater into the reactor to avoid disaster and moved 170,000 people from the area.

Japan's nuclear safety agency then reported an emergency at another reactor unit, the third in the complex to have its cooling systems malfunction.

Japan dealt with the nuclear threat as it struggled to determine the scope of the earthquake, the most powerful in its recorded history, and the tsunami that ravaged its northeast Friday with breathtaking speed and power. The official count of the dead was 686, but the government said the figure could far exceed 1,000.

Teams searched for the missing along hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the Japanese coast, and thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers and aid. At least a million households had gone without water since the quake struck. Large areas of the countryside were surrounded by water and unreachable.

The explosion at the nuclear plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, 170 miles (274 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, appeared to be a consequence of steps taken to prevent a meltdown after the quake and tsunami knocked out power to the plant, crippling the system used to cool fuel rods there.

The blast destroyed the building housing the reactor, but not the reactor itself, which is enveloped by stainless steel 6 inches (15 centimeters) thick.

Inside that superheated steel vessel, water being poured over the fuel rods to cool them formed hydrogen. When officials released some of the hydrogen gas to relieve pressure inside the reactor, the hydrogen apparently reacted with oxygen, either in the air or the cooling water, and caused the explosion.

"They are working furiously to find a solution to cool the core," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nuclear agency officials said Japan was injecting seawater into the core — an indication, Hibbs said, of "how serious the problem is and how the Japanese had to resort to unusual and improvised solutions to cool the reactor core."

Officials declined to say what the temperature was inside the troubled reactor, Unit 1. At 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius), the zirconium casings of the fuel rods can react with the cooling water and create hydrogen. At 4,000 F (2,200 C), the uranium fuel pellets inside the rods start to melt, the beginning of a meltdown.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said radiation around the plant had fallen, not risen, after the blast but did not offer an explanation. Virtually any increase in dispersed radiation can raise the risk of cancer, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine, which helps protect against thyroid cancer. Authorities ordered 210,000 people out of the area within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the reactor.

It was the first time Japan had confronted the threat of a significant spread of radiation since the greatest nightmare in its history, a catastrophe exponentially worse: the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, which resulted in more than 200,000 deaths from the explosions, fallout and radiation sickness.

Officials have said that radiation levels at Fukushima were elevated before the blast: At one point, the plant was releasing each hour the amount of radiation a person normally absorbs from the environment each year.

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