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Fukushima Fuel Pool Endangers Northern Hemisphere

Alex Smith | 12.04.2012 03:11 | Anti-Nuclear | Ecology

Could the collapse of the fuel pool at Fukushima Reactor #4 endanger the Northern Hemisphere? Nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen explains, on Radio Ecoshock. 26 min

The nuclear accident at Fukushima Japan is far from over. Three reactors continue to melt-down and now there is a storm of international worry about nuclear fuel pools tottering in blown up buildings. The whole Northern Hemisphere is at risk right now.

I'm Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. We are joined again by nuclear industry expert Arnold Gundersen, of Fairewinds Associates.

Arnie Gundersen, a year ago, warned us here on Radio Ecoshock, and to anybody who would listen, that a world-scale catastrophe was lurking in the nuclear fuel storage pools of both reactors Three and Four, at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan.

Why is this story finally getting wider attention, a year later?

The Japanese press, which has been following the government line, is starting to break out. On April 2nd, Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer for the Mainichi paper, said, quote: "The 7-story building itself has suffered great damage, with the storage pool barely intact on the building’s third and fourth floors. The roof has been blown away. If the storage pool breaks and runs dry, the nuclear fuel inside will overheat and explode, causing a massive amount of radioactive substances to spread over a wide area. Both the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and French nuclear energy company Areva have warned about this risk."

We also had the unusual case of Japan’s former ambassador to Switzerland, Mitsuhei Murata, speaking at a public hearing of the Budgetary Committee of the House of Councilors on March 22, 2012. He told the Swiss if the Reactor 4 fuel pool collapses, the cooling water for all six reactors would be shut down, as well as for the nearby spent fuel pool with another 6,000 fuel rods.

Another Japanese diplomat, Akio Matsumura is also blogging about this.

It is very surprising that Japanese officials are speaking out. Why now? Do they know something we don't?

It seems to me, and many Radio Ecoshock listeners from all over the world have written me about this - that the whole world is sleep-walking through this potential global catastrophe. They want to know: Why isn't there an international emergency action plan, to save us from a nuclear disaster which would make Chernobyl look small in comparison?

The average person thinks the Japanese could just dig an in-ground pool, move the fuel rods into a safer place, and then cover all that with a containment building. Why aren't they doing that?

So we have debris over the fuel rods, a broken crane, broken fuel rod assemblies, and a building so shaky any attempts to fix things might cause the building to fall. Is it possible we have a situation which cannot be solved?

Over at MSNBC, Rachel Maddow says Reactor 2 is an example of a technology which has no solution. Humans can't get near such high radioactivity. Even robot electronics fail in such circumstances. The Japanese require a technology that hasn't been invented yet. Would you agree, and should we even be using nuclear technology, if unsolvable accidents can happen?


Arnie, it is time to think the unthinkable. Walk us through what could happen if we wake up one day, and the Fukushima Dai-ichi Reactor 4 fuel pool collapses.

Arnie tells us the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S. issued a study on the impacts of a nuclear fuel pool fire.

Here is a good article summary of that 1987 Brookhaven study by Stuart Staniford.

In this article from the New England Centre for Investigative Reporting, we find "A 1997 [actually it was 1987] study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island concluded that a pool fire at a plant like Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut or Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts could kill 100 people instantly and another 138,000 people eventually. Some $546 billion in damage would result, the study said, and 2,170 square miles of land could be contaminated."


From the selfish point of view of someone living on the West Coast of North America, and for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, it seems the key point is whether there is a major explosion, driving radioactive materials into the stratosphere. That's what it takes to spread these poisons right around the world.

Gundersen says it is unlikely there would be an explosion if the #4 Fuel pool collapses. But dangerous "hot" particles would still be sent around the world, because within two days of the collapse, the Zirconium and radioactive metals (like Cesium and Plutonium) would burn at a very high temperature, sending particles high into the air. The result would be an everlasting disaster for Japan. Arnie thinks it could create a no-man's land 50 miles across the country, perhaps destabilizing the government.


The famous anti-nuclear activist and pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott just said in a speech: if there is a major nuclear release from Fukushima, she would evacuate her family from Boston, and head back to her native Australia, or anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Would it be safer south of the equator? Likely, as there is much less mixing of air from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. All the countries in the Northern Hemisphere would suffer radioactive fallout if this happens.

We can't evacuate the Northern Hemisphere. The explosion at Reactor 3 showed we have 5 to 7 days before radiation hits the Pacific Coast of North America. Personally, I would definitely leave Vancouver. We get a lot of rain here, so the hot stuff is going to wash into our open water reservoirs. They would be poisoned for hundreds of years. I would try to get east of the Rocky Mountains, to a drier place, with a source of fossil water from deep underground.

What would you do?

In the 1950's, all children were trained in civil defense in case of nuclear attack. It was lame, but it was something. Do you think world governments should be teaching everyone the basics of trying to avoid the worst exposure to radiation, in case Fukushima blows? We would all have to stay indoors, with the windows shut. You should buy a couple of HEPA air cleaners right now, I think. The economy would collapse. Do you have food stored for such an emergency? I hope so.

Surely there must be a better way to reduce our risk of having an accident that would damage the Planet more or less forever in human timescales. What can be done at Fukushima?

Arnie says the nuclear power game is set up so each country handles safety and any accident as an internal affair. But when an accident threatens us all, we need to pressure our own governments to formulate an international response, to help the Japanese acts as fast as they can.

In the interview, Arnie Gundersen, who was an executive at a company which installed nuclear fuel racks in those very same types of reactors, lays out three ways to handle this emergency. None of them are great, but his suggestion to make a smaller fuel canister, and start moving the rods out to an already existing in-ground pool on the site, sounds best to me. It would be slow and painstaking, but would begin to make us all safer every day.


Maybe an earthquake won't strike near Fukushima in the next few years. However, on February 14th, Dapeng Zhao, geophysics professor at Japan’s Tohoku University, published a paper in "Solid Earth", a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

good summary article:

Zhao said the giant earthquake in March of 2011 had reactivated a seismic fault close to the Fukushima nuclear plant. Using the latest scientific techniques and measurements, the paper warns another big earthquake could strike even closer to the plant.

Washington's blog concludes "Scientists say that there is a 70% chance of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hitting Fukushima this year, and a 98% chance within the next 3 years."

In a radio interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott in early February, Gundersen estimated a quake of 7.0 or greater could cause the Reactor 4 fuel pool to collapse.

What have the Japanese done so far to strengthen the building, and could they be doing more?

We have to remind ourselves, we might just get lucky. Maybe the Reactor 3 and 4 buildings will keep standing for few years, while the Japanese invent a solution. We didn't have a major nuclear war so far, maybe we'll squeak through this one. But are our chances good, or not so good, the way things are going.

Robert Alvarez, an expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has tried again and again to warn us: this isn't just a problem in Japan. The American reactors have built up even more stored fuel rods, some of them over earthquake fault lines, all of them requiring non-stop cooling, and none of the storage pools have containment if there is an accident.

The spent fuel risk in America is even greater in Japan. Why is no one talking about this?

Arnie Gundersen has not heard of government meetings or plans to get faster action to protect the world against yet another giant nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. We need citizens organizing everywhere, pushing their governments to stop ignoring the threat, or playing along with Japan, to stop being polite about the danger. I'm sure many people in Japan would welcome international pressure to get faster action.

We could compare this reactor accident to the horror of thermo-nuclear war, hanging over our heads. It took a generation of protests, and a fallen empire, to reduce that threat. A nuclear war is still possible, but it's less likely.

But we don't have a long-time frame, 30 years, to stabilize the Reactor 4 fuel storage pond. I'm surprised we got through this year, and I'm not sure about the next one. Can we scrape through again?

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