November 15th, 2013 by Sandy Dechert
With a photo of fuel rod assemblies in the background, nuclear engineer, former executive, and educator Arnie Gundersen explains his doubts yesterday about the nuclear fuel relocation at Fukushima Unit 4 (screenshot).
Brace yourselves. Japanese media and the UPI reported early today that TEPCO has scheduled the ticklish job of relocating highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods in Fukushima Unit 4 for Monday. Details have been sketchy and inconsistent in the media to date, but the Washington Post published an excellent series of slides last week about the operation.
According to the Post and other news venues:
TEPCO employees will start by lowering a reinforced steel transportation container into the reactor’s top-story spent fuel pool alongside the cluster of incredibly heavy “hot” fuel assemblies 20 feet under. Only four yards long and as wide as a thumb, the rods contain uranium pellets much, much heavier than lead. TEPCO will remove the 202 unused fuel rods in these racks first because experts believe that operation is safer.
The company will then tackle moving the 1,331 rods of spent fuel, which are in less predictable condition, from the pool. Some of these had reportedly been damaged even before the 2011 quake. “It will be a risky round of highly radioactive pickup sticks,” said Dr. Paul Gunter, director of the Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project.
Plant personnel will then use robots and a small crane to transfer each fuel assembly underwater from its storage rack to the shielded steel container. It holds 22 fuel assemblies of 80 rods each, and the transfers are expected to take two days. Workers will then seal the cask, and the 273-ton mega-crane will lift and place it on a waiting trailer truck.
Over the next week, plant operators will drive the trailer about 100 yards away by road and then use another crane to place it in a larger pool at ground level in a different building. TEPCO, Japanese regulators, and most nuclear engineers believe the fuel will be more stable in the larger, undamaged ground-level facility. The alternative is leaving it as is, in unshielded water at the kevlar-wrapped attic of Unit 4’s warped and potentially shaky building, heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 and vulnerable to further seismic and oceanic events.
The operation involves worldwide controversy, especially considering its high stakes. While things may go as smoothly as TEPCO portrays in its sanitary animated video, if the rods break, collide, overheat, and go critical:
The nuclear pile might ignite without a spark, explode, and cause 85 times the nuclear contamination of Chernobyl–estimated fallout of 14,000 Hiroshima bombs–which would gradually spread over the entire world through the air and oceans.
“Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date,” say independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt in a recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Dr. Helen Caldicott and other nuclear watchdogs have warned that the northern hemisphere might become uninhabitable if the apocalyptic scenario comes true.
While TEPCO has been sunny and confident about its task, Shunichi Tanaka, the chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (which green-lighted the operation), acknowledged the great difficulty involved in the operation. Former Japanese Prime Minister and career civil servant Naoto Kan, ex-PM Junichiro Koizumi, and current Niigata Prefecture Governor Hirohiko Izumida have all expressed doubt about the utility’s credibility.
TEPCO’S latest online status report, “Fukushima Daiichi NPS Prompt Report 2013,” spoke of a Wednesday visit to the plant by Lake H. Barrett, a former U.S. Department of Energy official (retired in 2002), “who is acting as an advisor” to TEPCO. (Barrett is an independent consultant who served in the emergency response to the Three Mile Island disaster for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and led site selection for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear fuel repository). Barrett told a press conference that he was very impressed with the preparations for the fuel removal and had “confidence” the effort will succeed.
He praised TEPCO for instituting an improved “safety culture.”
Although Barrett “also praised TEPCO for reaching out to experts from the U.S., United Kingdom and elsewhere for assistance,” international participation has been far less evident in the preparations than what other groups, including Japanese regulators and many internationally known scientists, have called for.
Also on Wednesday, according to TEPCO spokesman Yoshikazu Nagai, TEPCO carried out a non-nuclear test operation for moving the heavy containment cask, as called for by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization and others. Barrett had reportedly prescheduled his site visit, not planned it for this test date. His presence and remarks on the cleanup process hardly constitutes the intense and painstaking scientific and engineering investigation others have been demanding. If such consultation has taken place, it has not been publicized.
Yesterday, veteran U.S. nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen released a video from the nonprofit Fairewinds Energy Education, which he heads. Now known as a whistleblower but in fact the longtime executive head of a corporate division that built nuclear fuel racks and a Three Mile Island expert witness, Gundersen presented a coherent and educated assessment of the Fukushima situation. His bottom line: the Japanese government should remove TEPCO before removing the fuel.
Gundersen said that TEPCO’s staff were unqualified to address the situation. (A report came out yesterday that some of the nuclear plant’s hardware was now being held together with duct tape. Some of the company’s own photos and videos appear to show makeshift repairs.) He stated the point at least three times, saying that TEPCO’s staff aren’t engineers, but operators used to running nuclear reactors; “I don’t think… the right people are doing the job”; and TEPCO lacks not only the expertise to do the job right, but also the money to attempt it. He also pointed out some TEPCO omissions:
• Loss of boron (a soluble addition to the pool water that absorbs neutrons and lessens the chance of an uncontrolled chain reaction),
• Brittleness of the spent fuel after four years of use,
• Potential of the rods to stick partway out of the racks and not be removable or replaceable,
• Snapped rods being ignited by superheated air, and
• Release of krypton gas, threatening onsite workers.
Gundersen pulls no punches: in yesterday’s report, he called the explanatory video TEPCO produced “a fantasy cartoon.”
In the status report TEPCO executives issued on Wednesday, they stated:
“Beginning this work shifts the focus from site stabilization to real progress. When the work is done, and the fuel is brought to an undamaged storage facility, the site will be safer for workers, for the community, for Japan, and for the world.”
It did not mention the risks. Nor did it cite the price of the Unit 4 fuel removal, estimated or actual. TEPCO’s plans for decommissioning the entire Fukushima Daiichi complex are expected to take up to 40 years and cost half a trillion dollars, in today’s numbers.
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