SOMA, Japan – Water levels dropped precipitously Monday inside a stricken Japanese nuclear reactor, twice leaving the uranium fuel rods completely exposed and raising the threat of a meltdown, hours after a hydrogen explosion tore through the building housing a different reactor.
Water levels were restored after the first decrease but the rods remained exposed late Monday night after the second episode, increasing the risk of the spread of radiation and the potential for an eventual meltdown.
The cascading troubles in the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant compounded the immense challenges faced by the Tokyo government, already struggling to send relief to hundreds of thousands of people along the country’s quake- and tsunami-ravaged coast where at least 10,000 people are believed to have died.
Later, a top Japanese official said the fuel rods in all three of the most troubled nuclear reactors appeared to be melting.
Of all these troubles, the drop in water levels at Unit 2 had officials the most worried.
“Units 1 and 3 are at least somewhat stabilized for the time being,” said Nuclear and Industrial Agency official Ryohei Shiomi “Unit 2 now requires all our effort and attention.”
In some ways, the explosion at Unit 3 was not as dire as it might seem.
The blast actually lessened pressure building inside the troubled reactor, and officials said the all-important containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor — had not been damaged. In addition, officials said radiation levels remained within legal limits, though anyone left within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the scene was ordered to remain indoors.
“We have no evidence of harmful radiation exposure,” deputy Cabinet secretary Noriyuki Shikata told reporters.
On Saturday, a similar hydrogen blast destroyed the housing around the complex’s Unit 1 reactor, leaving the shell intact but resulting in the mass evacuation of more than 185,000 people from the area.
So the worst case scenario still hung over the complex, and officials were clearly struggling to keep ahead of the crisis.
Late Monday, the chief government spokesman said there were signs that the fuel rods were melting in all three reactors, all of which had lost their cooling systems in the wake of Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami
“Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely happening,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.
Some experts would consider that a partial meltdown. Others, though, reserve that term for times when nuclear fuel melts through a reactor’s innermost chamber but not through the outer containment shell.
Officials held out the possibility that, too, may be happening.
“It’s impossible to say whether there has or has not been damage” to the vessels, nuclear agency official Naoki Kumagai said.
If a complete reactor meltdown — where the uranium core melts through the outer containment shell — were to occur, a wave of radiation would be released, resulting in major, widespread health problems.
The Monday morning explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant’s Unit 3 injured 11 workers and came as authorities were trying to use sea water to cool the complex’s three reactors.
While four Japanese nuclear complexes were damaged in the wake of Friday’s twin disasters, the Dai-ichi complex, which sits just off the Pacific coast and was badly hammered by the tsunami, has been the focus of most of the worries over Japan’s deepening nuclear crisis. All three of the operational reactors at the complex now have faced severe troubles.
Operators knew the sea water flooding would cause a pressure buildup in the reactor containment vessels — and potentially lead to an explosion — but felt they had no choice if they wanted to avoid complete meltdowns. Eventually, hydrogen in the released steam mixed with oxygen in the atmosphere and set off the two blasts.
Japan’s meteorological agency did report one good sign. It said the prevailing wind in the area of the stricken plant was heading east into the Pacific, which experts said would help carry away any radiation.
Across the region, though, many residents expressed fear over the situation.
People in the port town of Soma had rushed to higher ground after a tsunami warning Monday — a warning that turned out to be false alarm — and then felt the earth shake from the explosion at the Fukushima reactor 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Authorities there ordered everyone to go indoors to guard against possible radiation contamination.
“It’s like a horror movie,” said 49-year-old Kyoko Nambu as she stood on a hillside overlooking her ruined hometown. “Our house is gone and now they are telling us to stay indoors.
“We can see the damage to our houses, but radiation? … We have no idea what is happening. I am so scared.”
Meanwhile, 17 U.S. military personnel involved in helicopter relief missions were found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation after the flew back from the devastated coast to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 100 miles (160 kilometers) offshore.
U.S. officials said the exposure level was roughly equal to one month’s normal exposure to natural background radiation, and the 17 were declared contamination-free after scrubbing with soap and water.
As a precaution, the U.S. said the carrier and other 7th Fleet ships involved in relief efforts had shifted to another area.
While Japan has aggressively prepared for years for major earthquakes, reinforcing buildings and running drills, the impact of the tsunami — which came so quickly that not many people managed to flee to higher ground — was immense.
By Monday, officials were overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, with millions of people facing a fourth night without electricity, water, food or heat in near-freezing temperatures.
International scientists say there are serious dangers but little risk of a catastrophe like the 1986 blast in Chernobyl, where there was no containment shells.
And, some analysts noted, the length of time since the nuclear crisis began indicates that the chemical reactions inside the reactor were not moving quickly toward a complete meltdown.
“We’re now into the fourth day. Whatever is happening in that core is taking a long time to unfold,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the nuclear policy program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’ve succeeded in prolonging the timeline of the accident sequence.”
He noted, though, that Japanese officials appeared unable to figure out what was going on deep inside the reactor. In part, that was probably because of the damage done to the facility by the tsunami.
“The real question mark is what’s going on inside the core,” he said.
Overall, more than 1,500 people had been scanned for radiation exposure in the area, officials said.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged Dai-ichi complex, hydrogen blast, Japan, Japanese nuclear reactor, massive earthquake, Noriyuki Shikata, nuclear crisis, nuclear plant, radiation exposure, reactor meltdown, SOMA, Tsunami, Yukio Edano | Leave a Comment »
A group of more than 100 scientists and experts say in a new report that California faces the risk of a massive “superstorm” that could flood a quarter of the state’s homes and cause $300 billion to $400 billion in damage. Researchers point out that the potential scale of destruction in this storm scenario is four or five times the amount of damage that could be wrought by a major earthquake.
It sounds like the plot of an apocalyptic action movie, but scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey warned federal and state emergency officials that California’s geological history shows such “superstorms” have happened in the past, and should be added to the long list of natural disasters to worry about in the Golden State.
The threat of a cataclysmic California storm has been dormant for the past 150 years. Geological Survey director Marcia K. McNutt told the New York Times that a 300-mile stretch of the Central Valley was inundated from 1861-62. The floods were so bad that the state capital had to be moved to San Francisco, and Governor Leland Stanford had to take a rowboat to his own inauguration, the report notes. Even larger storms happened in past centuries, over the dates 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, according to geological evidence.
The risk is gathering momentum now, scientists say, due to rising temperatures in the atmosphere, which has generally made weather patterns more volatile.
The scientists built a model that showed a storm could last for more than 40 days and dump 10 feet of water on the state. The storm would be goaded on by an “atmospheric river” that would move water “at the same rate as 50 Mississippis discharging water into the Gulf of Mexico,” according to the AP. Winds could reach 125 miles per hour, and landslides could compound the damage, the report notes.
Such a superstorm is hypothetical but not improbable, climate researchers warn. “We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes,” Geological Survey scientist Lucy Jones said in a press release.
(A 2005 California storm: AP)
Tunisia’s government dismissed amid protests
// Atul Aneja
Caving under sweeping protests against spiralling food prices, Tunisia’s government has been dismissed and parliament dissolved.
The move comes despite Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s announcement during a late night televised address on Thursday that he would step down from his post in 2014 and push for greater freedoms and reforms.
The Tunisian opposition had welcomed the Presidential address, but there were enough skeptics among the country’s opinion makers who either counselled a wait-and-see approach or called for an escalation of protests. Despite Mr. Ben Ali’s olive branch, fresh demonstrations erupted on Friday in Tunis and in other parts. Police clashed heavily with protesters outside the interior ministry headquarters in Tunis. Gunshots were heard and police struck with tear gas grenades,
causing protesters to flee from the immediate vicinity. However, the protesters reassembled shortly afterwards and starting pelting stones, leading to running battles with the police which fired more teargas rounds. The clashes started earlier on Friday when crowds assembled shouting “No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues,” AFP reported.
In the western city of Sidi Bouzid, the origin of nearly month-long protests, thousands chanted “Ben Ali out”, the agency said.
Rioting has been rife in Tunisia for nearly a month after an unemployed educated youth, driven into selling vegetables set himself ablaze after officials prevented him for pursuing his trade. Apart from surging food prices, the denial of civil liberties and tainted elections has left a deep seated reservoir of discontent among various sections of the people, analysts say. Tunisia’s large tech-savvy middle class which has been miffed by the country’s mainstream politics has also deepened the protests. The Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al Yawm has pointed out that nearly 18.6 percent of Tunisians are on Facebook, a penetration that is higher than Germany’s.
Sixty-six people have died since the protests began, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights has tallied. Of these seven committed suicide in the wake of heavy unemployment and economic difficulties.
The Lebanese daily in Arabic, Al Akhbar has reported that ahead of Mr. Ben Ali’s address, cracks had begun to emerge in the Tunisian military. The daily said that the Tunisian Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Rashid Ammar, who was subsequently sacked, had on Wednesday refused to order the Tunisian army to use force against the protestors.
In his address Mr. Ben Ali, who has been in power for 23 years, said he would not seek re-election in 2014. Apart from offering greater freedoms, he promised investigations into the killing of protesters during the wave of demonstrations that have rocked Tunisia since December 17.
Soon after the address, Taoufik Ayachi, an opposition figure, and Naji Baghouri, a former journalists’ union chief, made a surprising appearance on television. Formerly blocked websites, including YouTube, Dailymotion and the site for French newspaper Le Monde, became accessible, Reuters reported.
Welcoming the main thrust of the President’s address, opposition leader Mohammed Nejib Chebbi, said it was a “positive fact” that Mr. Ben Ali has decided not to run for the presidency again. But dismissing the President’s offer, human rights activist Mohamed Abbou asserted that Mr. Ben Ali was “fooling the Tunisians with promises that have no tomorrow”.
The Un-Islamic Revolution
A secular, grassroots movement in Tunisia has sent the president packing. Protesters say this is not a religious revolution.
Hisham Ben Khamsa arrived early for this morning’s demonstration on Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s Champs-Élysées, to find the street filled with people from all walks of life—from poor mothers with children to denizens of the city’s upper class, all singing the national anthem and chanting, “Ben Ali, get lost.”
But around midday Ben Khamsa noticed a small group of people nearby who stood out for their religious attire—women behind veils and men with long beards and taqiyah, the caps worn by the devout. They were chanting a different slogan: “There is no God but Allah, and all the martyrs are loved by Allah.”
The word for martyr used by the men—shohada—has a special resonance in North Africa; it’s what they call the people who died in the independence wars. But Ben Khamsa worried the group was trying to portray those who have died since the unrest broke out in December as Muslim martyrs. Ben Khamsa went over to the men and told them to focus on the message of throwing Ben Ali out—and the people around him chimed in. The men put their heads down and joined in with the rest of the crowd.
“This has nothing to do with Islamists,” Ben Khamsa, a film producer, tells NEWSWEEK. “This Muslim fundamentalist thing in North Africa is a scarecrow.”
The uprising, which on Friday sent President Ben Ali fleeing abroad, casting the country into further turmoil, appears largely to be a secular, grassroots movement. And autocrats throughout the region should take note, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center.
“Today there is no doubt. This is going to be everywhere. There will be no way for Arab leaders to escape from this,” Hamid tells NEWSWEEK. “Tunisia’s reputation was of being the most stable in the Arab regimes. If it can happen in Tunisia, it can happen anywhere.”
Until last month, Tunisia’s government was seen as having the firmest grip on control. People in the region are watching the situation in Tunisia closely; last night millions of people watched Ben Ali’s speech as it was broadcast on two Middle East–based satellite channels, Hamid says. Protests have also been taking place lately in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait.
As Ben Khamsa puts it: “We proved in this country that we’re worthy of having a democracy … The proof is here. We threw that son of a bitch out just by taking to the streets.”