Can Japan Bury Its Nuclear Disaster?

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From the beginning, the Japanese response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has been a constant improvisation. After the double blow of a quake and a tsunami knocked out power to the plant, officials have desperately tried to keep nuclear material at active reactors and spent fuel pools cool, to prevent overheating and more wide-scale radiation release. They’ve tried flooding the reactors with seawater. They’ve tried using riot control high-pressure water cannons to spray the reactors, and later fire trucks with more powerful hoses. They’ve tried using helicopters to dump water from above on spent fuel pools, which are running dangerously low. There are even efforts afoot to connect long extension cords that might power up the plant’s cooling system again.

As Ken Belson writes in the New York Times, the MacGyver-like nature of the Japanese response to the crisis is either a sign that they were dangerously unready to deal with a nuclear accident on this scale—or that they’re simply trying to do the best they can with an unimaginable situation. Either way, though, more creativity is going to be needed because the disaster seems to be getting worse by the day. On Friday Japan’s nuclear safety agency raised its assessment of the severity of the catastrophe from 4 to 5 on a 7-level international scale, suggesting that the accident may pose a danger for an area beyond the immediate plant. (Three Mile Island was also rated a 5—although there were few long-term effects from the accident—and Chernobyl tops the charts at a 7.) U.S. nuclear executives told American media that they believed there may be damage to the spent fuel pool at reactor 4, which could make it difficult to refill the pool with water. While American data-collection flights sent over the plant showed that severe radiation had not spread beyond the 19-mile zone of concern laid out by the Japanese government—which is smaller than the 50-mile range recommended by the American government—by the weekend winds could shift to carry any radiation in the direction of Tokyo. “This is a very grave and serious accident,” International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano told reporters Friday after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. “It’s a race against time.”

It might be time for even more extreme measures. On Friday Japanese engineers revealed that they may try to bury the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in sand and encase it in concrete to try to contain any radiation. That would be the last resort of last resorts—one that has so far only been used in the Chernobyl meltdown. Soviet officials there eventually encased the stricken plant in cement, entombing the remaining nuclear fuel—albeit after an explosive meltdown had already occurred. It won’t be easy, though, as a Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) official told reporters in Tokyo:

It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete. But our priority right now is to try and cool them down first.

There’s a reason burying the plant would be a last resort, however. It won’t fully work unless Japanese officials have managed to reduce the pressures and high temperatures of the remaining fuel within the reactors. Hot as it is, any sand or cement poured on top of the plant would almost certainly melt. But a physical blanketing of the reactors might at least keep some of the radiation from reaching the atmosphere and spreading. “The preferable strategy is to get water to cover the rods,” says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you have only one option left I would use sand and soil and blanket the material to try to keep the radiation from reaching the atmosphere.”

Lochbaum, for his part, isn’t too optimistic about the fate of Fukushima:

They are facing an unprecedented challenge. They are mobilizing resources, but they don’t have a lot of options. There’s a lot of material in there that could be exposed and not many barriers.

It doesn’t look like this is going to come to a good outcome.

Of course, it’s important to realize that so far, only the heroic workers at Fukushima have likely been put at any risk due to the nuclear accident—compared to the 7,000 people confirmed to have died in the quake and tsunami. TEPCO is working on reconnecting power to the planet by Saturday, which might allow officials to start pumping water back into the reactors and speed the cooling of existing nuclear fuel. But that would require something to go right—and nothing has gone right in Japan for more than a week.