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Japan Bracing For Nuclear Meltdown

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Mar 14 2011 (IPS) - Desperate efforts by the government to avoid the looming nightmare of a nuclear meltdown in tsunami damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, have brought no relief to the public who face the possibility of another explosion that could spew deadly radiation across the country.

After two explosions in three days at Fukushima reactors No. 1 and No. 3, a third reactor – No. 2 – has now lost its ability to cool.

The nation was informed of a deadly development Monday – that fuel rods of the No. 2 reactor of the Fukushima plant may have partially melted after emergency cooling systems failed, raising the spectre of toxic radioactive contamination, given the fact the plant is operated on mixed oxide (MOX) fuel containing plutonium and uranium.

Kyodo News Service, Japan’s leading wire agency, said that fuel rods at the No. 2 plant were fully exposed and have melted after a fire-pump pouring seawater into the reactor to cool it down ran out of fuel. Kyodo quoted TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) that runs the plant.

Exposed fuel rods cannot cool and are likely to produce steam, which could lead to the creation of highly volatile hydrogen causing another explosion, experts said.

Since Saturday, TEPCO has begun injecting seawater into the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors – cooling systems and emergency systems were disrupted by the tsunami Friday. The buildings were hit by the massive tsunami following an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Japanese seismic scale – the worst in a century.

The decision to use seawater by TEPCO is viewed by experts as a desperate measure taken to prevent a serious meltdown. Seawater renders the nuclear plant inoperable in the future.

Monday afternoon, the No. 3 reactor, also treated with seawater, suffered a hydrogen explosion sending plumes of smoke high into the atmosphere. Soon after came the news of meltdown in the No. 2 reactor.

Independent experts told the press today that the two new developments are sure signs of problems in TEPCO’s emergency measures – a chilling explanation given the desperate situation.

Masaahi Goto, a former Toshiba Company nuclear plant designer, now at the Citizen Nuclear Information Centre – a leading anti-nuclear power group – described the situation as “extremely delicate”.

He said the countdown to a meltdown in the No. 2 reactor would depend on how long the fuel rods are exposed without water, a situation that does not rule out the possibility of the worst-case scenario of widespread plutonium contamination if the core of the reactor explodes under mounting pressure.

The No. 3 reactor also reportedly has a leak which is now making it difficult to keep the core covered with seawater.

“MOX fuel has a lower melting point which makes the current situation more prone to the build-up of pressure. I pray and hope the workers can avert this disaster,” Goto said.

Goto added that he couldn’t ignore the possibility of more accidents in the other Fukushima plants. Pouring seawater into the No. 3 reactor is linked to problems in No. 2 – a chain reaction Goto predicts could spread.

Fukushima Daiichi has six plants out of which No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 were not operating and undergoing maintenance when the quake and tsunami struck.

Chief Cabinet spokesperson Yukio Edano, while acknowledging the partial meltdown, told the press there is no danger of a nuclear catastrophe because the reactors’ containment vessels are intact.

“The core container is intact,” he said explaining the government and TEPCO have things under control. These nuclear power plant explosions are the first Japan has experienced. The nuclear power plants, while reporting accidents, continue to be operated and now supply 30 percent of national electricity requirements.

The International Atomic Energy Association has put the Fukushima Nuclear power complex accident at level four, just below the Three Mile Island accident in the United States which was put at level five after fuel rods melted down forming a huge mass of radioactive debris.

Japan has confirmed 22 people have suffered radiation poisoning, and almost a thousand people have been evacuated to prevent exposure. Eleven workers at the Fukushima plant have been injured.

Anti-nuclear activists suggest that the looming disaster that the Japanese are praying will be averted is a clear example of why nuclear power is not the answer to Japan’s energy needs.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy but is heavily reliant on foreign energy resources.

During the past decade, the country has poured millions of dollars into it’s nuclear industry – making it a leader in developing nuclear power technology as a solution to secure cost effective stable energy as well as a green energy. Nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gasses.

But, points out Masako Sawai, an expert on nuclear fuel cycle issues, the domino effect of a nuclear accident on the Japanese economy, heath risks for the people and huge losses following closure of the plants shows how the darker side outscores the benefits touted by electric companies.

Japan’s stock market dropped 6 percent today following panic selling of TEPCO and other electric company shares following the accident. Evacuation of residents and rolling blackouts planned this week to conserve energy are also expected to be a blow to the national economy.

Radiation detected by U.S. helicopters have prompted the repositioning of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and seven other U.S. Navy ships in the area to offer aid, officials said.

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