Nuclear time-bomb

If Fukushima goes, so does Japan

I’ve been watching the first season of the new HBO series The Newsroom. One episode is set at the time of the horrific March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that destroyed much of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant.

We don’t hear much about Fukushima these days. My own research suggests it’s still incredibly dangerous, a “ticking time-bomb,” as many have called it, waiting to go off. If it does, the consequences could be exponentially greater than those caused by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

The worst threat is from the spent fuel at Reactor 4. It sits in an elevated cooling pool outside the reactor core’s reinforced containment structure, open to the elements because an explosion blew off its roof and caused the pool to list sideways. This pool contains more highly radioactive spent fuel than any of the other reactor pools.

All that’s keeping those fuel rods from overheating and igniting is the cooling water. If something should happen—say, another strong earthquake in this prolific earthquake zone—causing the water to leak out of the pool, the subsequent catastrophic fire would release 10 times more cesium-137 than was released at Chernobyl. That’s the figure Robert Alvarez, a former senior adviser to the secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, came up with when he crunched the numbers. The radiation would be sufficient to force all of Japan to become an evacuation zone, Alvarez said.

It gets worse. If the fire at unit 4 were to spread, igniting the spent fuel throughout the site, it would release about 85 times more cesium than was released at Chernobyl. This would be a catastrophe of global proportions.

Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., says it will need 10 years to remove the spent fuel rods and put them in much safer dry-cask storage. But experts say the chance of a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in the next three years is 90 percent, and there are serious doubts that Reactor 4 could withstand such a shock.

In his comprehensive report on the dangers of Fukushima, published on, Brad Jacobson points out that ordinarily the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be doing all it could to prevent a potential catastrophe, but so far it hasn’t become involved. Critics charge this is because the same design flaws that caused Fukushima to implode during the quake can be found in dozens of U.S. nuclear-power plants.

About one-third of American reactors are GE Mark I or Mark II boiling-water reactors, the type used at Fukushima. Like that plant, they store spent fuel in elevated cooling pools outside the reactor core. The best way to make them safe would be to use dry-cask storage (none of the nine casks at Fukushima were harmed), but that would cost several hundred million dollars per reactor, money the nuclear-power industry doesn’t want to spend.

Money talks, even when millions of lives are at stake.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.