Two nights ago, an electrical component at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants in Japan lost power, affecting the plants’ ability to cool their radioactive fuel rods. Since the earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011 causing three meltdowns, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) says it has been working on repairs and maintenance at the severely damaged and non-operational plants. More than 100,000 people are still not allowed back in their homes due to significant radiation contamination, the entirety of which may never be cleaned up. This latest incident of power loss at the Fukushima Daiichi plants comes a week after the two year anniversary of the tsunami and ensuing meltdowns.
After a one day delay with no cooling to the three spent fuel pools, TEPCO finally restored power. Is TEPCO doing an adequate job of keeping the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power site safe?
We don’t think so. TEPCO’s primary job at the Fukushima Daiichi site is to keep the plants in the static equilibrium of what the nuclear industry calls a “cold shutdown” by cooling radioactive fuel rods in spent fuel pools. Losing power to one spent fuel pool might be understandable, but to have such a massive power failure last almost 24 hours is unconscionable. Because this problem lasted almost one day, and because several cooling systems were simultaneously disabled, Fairewinds believes that a common electrical component is the equipment that failed, likely a junction box or a transformer. Nuclear plants are supposed to be built to be single failure proof, meaning that if one component fails the systems still remain operational via other equipment. The loss of spent fuel pool cooling simultaneously in three nuclear reactors means that a common mode failure, or worse yet a single failure, was somehow allowed to occur in TEPCO’s jury-rigged design. This simply should never happen.
TEPCO claims that there was no radiation release from this recent power failure, but that is a scientific impossibility. When power is lost in a spent fuel pool, the radioactive fuel rods heat the pools up. As the pools heat up, evaporation increases resulting in a white “smoke” (steam). That steam is radioactive, containing some of the radiation that was previously in the pool. As the water warms up, radiation releases will increase. The water temperature is presently around 30-35C, which means that the cold shutdown limit of 65C will be exceeded in 4 to 5 days, and boiling will occur in about 8-10 days. Fairewinds does not yet believe another evacuation is necessary, however, there will be an increase in radioactive releases if the pools approach boiling.
The situation at Fukushima is a strategic disaster. TEPCO was not prepared for the tsunami two years ago, and they still do not truly appreciate the magnitude of the situation. The amount of cesium remaining in each spent fuel pool is equivalent to the releases of hundreds of nuclear bombs. A spent fuel pool fire would risk contamination of the entire Northern Hemisphere.
Yesterday’s power loss is further proof that the conditions at Fukushima Daiichi are still unstable, despite what TEPCO and the Japanese and US governments say.
We at Fairewinds want to know what emergency procedures TEPCO has in place for this and future emergencies. TEPCO should be able to find alternative sources of electricity to power the cooling pumps in the case of ongoing power loss. In the worst case scenario, TEPCO could add water to the pool through fire hoses to make up for evaporative loss that will occur. We also recommend that TEPCO go back over its design to see what other weak points exist, particularly seismic weaknesses in light of ongoing seismic activity.
In December of 2011 when TEPCO announced that they had safely contained the Fukushima Daiichi plants in a cold shutdown, Arnie commented “Well, to me this announcement sounds a little bit like George Bush on the deck of the aircraft carrier declaring that the mission has been accomplished. In fact, we all know how that turned out, and I think Fukushima is going down a very similar road. This is a long battle and it is far from being over.” Two years later, it’s still far from over.