Nuke Plant Crisis Worsens as Radiation Levels Rise

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[UPDATE: 5:59 PM ET: The evacuation zone around the power plant has been increased to 10 km, or 6.2 mi.]

[UPDATE: 5:46 PM EST: Japanese authorities announced that radiation inside the stricken Fukushima power plant control room has risen to 1,000 times its normal level. Some has leaked outside of the plant, prompting calls for further evacuations beyond the 3,000 people who have been cleared out already in a 1.8-mi. radius. Additionally, the planned release of radioactive steam to bleed off pressure has been delayed due to a failure in the electrical systems required to execute the venting.]

There is no country in the world that’s better than Japan at designing  nuclear power plants to be earthquake-resistant. It’s thus a measure of how serious  yesterday’s quake was that several of the country’s nuke facilities are in such precarious shape today.

The hardest hit, of course, is the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Onahama City, 170 miles northeast of Tokyo. All six of the plant’s functioning reactors have been shut down—though some reports suggest that three of them were already inactive as they underwent routine inspections. The three that were operating are the ones that have been causing the worry. For one thing, there is insufficient coolant to keep the reactors at a safe temperature. But, as my colleague Eben Harrell reported earlier, even if there were enough on hand, a lack of electricity and a breakdown in a diesel pumping system is limiting the ability to circulate the coolant where it’s needed.

For much of the day, pressure in the plant had been reported to have risen to 1.5 times its normal level, prompting officials to evacuate residents in a 1.2 to 1.8- mi. radius.“We launched the measure so we can be fully prepared for the worst scenario,” Chief cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told the press.  “We are using all our might to deal with the situation.”

An evacuation zone that size is bad, but not awful. In the case of Chernobyl—history’s worst nuke plant nightmare—residents living as far as 18 miles away were ordered to pack up.

“I think this sounds like a low-level alert,” said nuclear scientist Ron Chesser, director of Texas Tech University’s Center of Environmental Radiation Studies. Chesser knows a thing or two about crises like this: he was the first American scientist allowed inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 1992.

But Chesser spoke before Fukushima officials made their next announcement at about 1 PM ET,  acknowledging that they had had to release a small amount of what’s being referred to as “slightly” radioactive vapor to keep pressure at safe levels. The country’s nuclear safety agency insists that the vapor will have no ill effect on the health of either people or the environment, which may indeed be true. Chernobyl taught officials the importance of candor in such matters and in any event, simply taking radiation readings of the Fukushima surroundings will confirm if the authorities are telling the truth. The greater problem—an unknown unknown—will occur if the pressure cannot be brought under control and more steam needs to be bled off.

The U.S. is pitching in, shipping more coolant to the stricken plant. But if the pumps can’t get up and running it will do little good. Chesser, who  toured one other, smaller, Japanese plant before the quake, is still sanguine. “I was very much impressed with the amount of attention to safety, especially regarding potential earthquakes,” he said. But he does concede to being “a little it surprised” that the Fukushima plant is nonetheless in such trouble. One thing that weighs in the plant’s favor: unlike the Chernobyl reactors, those in Fukushima are covered iwith containment vessels, which should help minimize any potential damage.

While Fukishima gets all the attention, at least three other nuclear plants have been shut down in what the government is calling an atomic power state of emergency.The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that a fire broke out at the Onagawa plant, but that it was quickly extinguished. Four million people in the Tokyo area alone are now without power, though that may be the least of the nuclear power grid’s problems—and will be until the Fukushima plant is brought under control.

“Any time you have a nuclear facility that size that is not meeting its requirements for cooling,” says Chesser, “you have a real emergency on your hands.”