Monday, March 14, 2011

What Have We Learned From Chernobyl & Can It Help Japan?

By Theodora Filis

The world watched anxiously as a nuclear emergency unraveled at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, along the ravaged northeastern coast of Japan, as operators dumped seawater into 2 reactors in a final cooling effort to prevent a nuclear meltdown after a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and 23-foot tsunami devastated Japan on Friday, March 11, 2011.

With the Fukushima complex making headlines, White House officials hope to assure the American public that there is nothing for them to worry about.

"The U.S. power plants are designed to very high standards for earthquake effects," said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis."

Five of the six reactors at the Japanese plant, which suffered a second explosion Monday, use the same General Electric reactor that are at 23 nuclear plants in North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont, according to a database maintained by the NRC – Nuclear Regulatory Commission: an independent federal agency created in 1974 to license and regulate nuclear power plants. All but two of them began operating in the 1970's.

"These need to be examined," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear organization. "When the reactor designs are the same, and the reactor's ages are the same, comparisons seem more than appropriate."

On Capitol Hill, some are calling for a halt to further nuclear development in the U.S.

Rep. Ed. Markey of Massachusetts, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a moratorium on new reactors in seismically active areas until a new safety review is completed. In addition, Markey joined three other Democrats in asking the House GOP to conduct a hearing on the safety of U.S. nuclear plants.

Independent Sen. Joe Liebermann of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said it was time to "quickly put the brakes on" the U.S. Nuclear industry.

The Fukushima story is still playing out. As of last night, the latest reports assumed partial meltdowns have occurred in the plant’s reactors No. 1 and No. 3, where another explosion has taken place.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in Japan, the world’s nuclear industry will be looking inward on how to handle older facilities, plan for new ones, and address renewed public focus on safety measures and what-if scenarios.

Nuclear meltdowns that have occurred between 1952 and 2008:

Dec. 12, Chalk River, near Ottawa, Canada: a partial meltdown of the reactor's uranium fuel core resulted after the accidental removal of four control rods. Although millions of gallons of radioactive water accumulated inside the reactor, there were no injuries.

Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, N.Y.: was destroyed by waste from chemical plants. By the 1990s, the town had been cleaned up enough for families to begin moving back to the area.

Oct. 7, Windscale Pile No. 1, north of Liverpool, England: fire in a graphite-cooled reactor spewed radiation over the countryside, contaminating a 200-square-mile area.

South Ural Mountains Russia: explosion of radioactive wastes at Soviet nuclear weapons factory 12 mi from city of Kyshtym forced the evacuation of over 10,000 people from a contaminated area. No casualties were reported by Soviet officials.

Near Greifswald, East Germany: radioactive core of reactor in the Lubmin nuclear power plant nearly melted down due to the failure of safety systems during a fire.

March 28, Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pa.: one of two reactors lost its coolant, which caused overheating and partial meltdown of its uranium core. Some radioactive water and gases were released. This was the worst accident in US nuclear-reactor history.

Dec, 3rd Bhopal, India: toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, seeped from Union Carbide insecticide plant, killing more than 2,000 and injuring about 150,000.

April 26, Chernobyl, near. Kiev, Ukraine: explosion and fire in the graphite core of one of four reactors released radioactive material that spread over part of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and later western Europe. 31 claimed dead. Total casualties are unknown. Worst such accident to date.

Sept. 18, GoiĆ¢nia, Brazil: 244 people contaminated with cesium-137 from a cancer-therapy machine that had been sold as scrap. Four people died in worst radiation disaster in Western Hemisphere.

Sept. 30, Tokaimura, Japan: uncontrolled chain reaction in a uranium-processing nuclear fuel plant spewed high levels of radioactive gas into the air, killing two workers and seriously injuring one other.

Aug. 9, Mihama, Japan: nonradioactive steam leaked from a nuclear power plant, killing four workers and severely burning seven others.

July 17, Kashiwazaki, Japan: radiation leaks, burst pipes, and fires at a major nuclear power plant followed a 6.8 magnitude earthquake near Niigata. Japanese officials, frustrated at the plant operators' delay in reporting the damage, closed the plant a week later until its safety could be confirmed. Further investigation revealed that the plant had unknowingly been built directly on top of an active seismic fault.

February 7, Port Wentworth, Georgia: an explosion fueled by combustible sugar dust killed 13 people and injured several others at the Imperial Sugar plant near Savannah.

A nuclear meltdown happens when the core of a nuclear reactor is damaged from overheating. It is an informal term, not officially defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Meltdowns occur when a nuclear power plant system fails to properly cool the reactor's core, causing the nuclear fuel assemblies to overheat and melt. Meltdowns are serious because of the radioactive materials that could be released into the environment. After the meltdown, the reactor remains unstable until it is repaired.

At a news conference on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, emphasized the gravity of the situation. "I think that the earthquake, tsunami, and the situation at our nuclear reactors makes up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war. If the nation works together, we will overcome," he said. The government called in 100,000 troops to aid in the relief effort. The deployment is the largest since World War II.

Will this nuclear disaster be another Chernobyl?

The partial meltdown of reactor No. 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. But, it may be because of the April 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, the incident at Fukushima can be contained. Chernobyl's meltdown occurred because the reactor blew the unit's casing apart, exposing the core to the atmosphere.

The reactor at Fukushima hasn't yet melted through the containment vessel, due to engineers pumping seawater into the cooling systems. Too, evacuation of the Chernobyl area did not begin until a full 24 hours after the incident. A report released in 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum, states that up to 4,000 people could eventually die due to the radiation exposure from the accident twenty years ago.

Japanese authorities evacuated 200,000 people from the area of Fukushima within hours of the initial alert. Russia has sent two teams of emergency rescue specialists to Japan and has pledged extra deliveries of natural gas, but perhaps their biggest contribution from Russia has been the lesson learned from the disaster at Chernobyl.

While much of the United States is susceptible to tsunamis, there are several active fault lines and areas of volcanic activity not far from where existing nuclear power plants, nuclear reactors for research purposes and other proposed commercial sites are located.

California is home to some of the country’s oldest licensed nuclear power plants, there are at least two full-scale commercial plants near the San Andreas fault, the country’s most earthquake-prone region.

While nuclear experts have argued that the plants in the US have been built with the utmost attention to earthquake resistance – nuclear power plants currently in operation in the United States all date back, in part or in whole, to construction dates of more than 30 years ago.