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Meltdown: The Japanese Earthquake and Fukushima Reactors

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We shouldn't have another nuclear catastrophe to realize there are better, much safer ways to make electricity.

In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, thousands of residents living within 12 miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.

Plant operators have not been able to cool down the core of at least two reactors containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling. In a race against time, the power company and the Japanese military are flying in more than a dozen emergency generators. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced yesterday that the U.S. Air Force has provided cooling water for the troubled reactors. Complicating matters, Japan's Meteorological Agency has declared the area to be at high risk of being hit by a tsunami.

The plants were operating at full power when the quake hit and even though control rods were automatically inserted to halt the nuclear reaction, the reactor cores remains very hot. Even with a fully functioning emergency core cooling system, it would take 24 to 48 hours for the reactor cores to cool and stabilize. If emergency cooling isn't restored, the risks of a core melt, and release of radioactivity into the environment is significantly increased. Also, it's not clear if piping and electrically distribution systems inside the plants have been damaged. If so, that would interfere with reactor cooling. The government's nuclear safety agency has reported that radiation levels in one of the reactor control have made it making it virtually uninhabitable.

Early on Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation has been released.
Unfortunately, a large explosion destroyed the reactor building at unit 1, which might be due to the generation of hydrogen from overheated fuel cladding. Significantly, higher radiation levels are also being reported at the plant boundary -- large enough to prompt a major evacuation over a large area in the U.S. The presences of cesium-137, is clear evidence that radioactive fuel debris is escaping into the environment. These events point strongly to a reactor core melt. Radiation levels at the site are about 10,000 times above normal.

In a desperate effort, reactor operators are attempting to divert and pump seawater into the reactor. Even if the reactor remains intact, the Fukushima explosion indicates that the containment has failed and there is now a direct path for radioactive releases directly into the environment. According to Arnie Gunderson, a former U.S. nuclear power plant operator: "events over the last day indicate that volatile radioactive elements such as xenon, krypton, cesium, iodine, and strontium are already being released from the Fufushima nuclear reactor. The fuel rods have lost their integrity and, EVEN IF the reactor maintains its integrity, [radioactive materials] are being released into the environment through open relief valves on top of the reactor. Whether or not there is a meltdown, enormous quantities of radioactive gases will continue to be released through the failed nuclear fuel."

But the devastating Japanese quake and its outcome could generate a political tsunami here in the United States. For instance, in California it may become impossible for the owners of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operating licenses with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The quake is also likely to further deflate the "nuclear renaissance" balloon.

These two reactors are sitting in high seismic risk zones near earthquake faults. Each is designed to withstand a quake as great as 7.5 on the Richter scale. According to many seismologists, the probability of a major earthquake in the California coastal zone in the foreseeable future is a near certainty. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the largest registering 8.3 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco in 1906.

"There have been tremblers felt at U.S. plants over the past several years, but nothing approaching the need for emergency action," reported Scott Burnell, a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters today.

As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe approaches next month, the earthquakes in Japan serve as a reminder of the extreme risks of nuclear power, when things go seriously wrong. The Chernobyl accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. More than 100,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of radioactive contamination. And an area equal to half of the State of New Jersey was rendered uninhabitable.

The U.S. and Japanese reactors have extra measures of protection that were lacking at Chernobyl, such as a secondary concrete containment structure over the reactor vessel to prevent escape of radioactivity. In 1979, the containment structure at the Three Mile Island reactor did prevent the escape of a catastrophic amount of radioactivity after the core melted. But, people living nearby were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the accident and deliberate venting to stabilize the reactor. Also, within one hour the multi-billion dollar investment in that plant went down the drain.

In the meanwhile, prospects to cool down the cores of the Japanese reactors are dimming. We shouldn't have another nuclear catastrophe to realize there are better, much safer ways to make electricity.