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Meltdowns may have occurred in two reactors: Japan govt

Top of fuel rods above water at Japan nuke plant: operator
Tokyo (AFP) March 13, 2011 - The operator of quake-hit Japanese nuclear reactors said Sunday the top of fuel rods had been three metres (10 feet) above water, an indication of a possible meltdown. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) warned that the number three reactor at Fukushima No. 1 plant was overheating and that so much of the cooling water had briefly evaporated that mixed oxide fuel rods were exposed to the air, Kyodo news said. A TEPCO spokesman later told AFP that the rods were covered again. An explosion that destroyed the building around the No. 1 reactor at the same plant Saturday came despite the operator's efforts to control high temperatures and growing pressure.
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) March 13, 2011
Japan's top government spokesman Yukio Edano said Sunday that radioactive meltdowns may have occurred in two reactors of the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.

Asked in a press conference whether meltdowns had occurred, Edano said "we are acting on the assumption that there is a high possibility that one has occurred" in the plant's number-one reactor.

"As for the number-three reactor, we are acting on the assumption that it is possible," he said.

earlier related report
US experts fear 'Chernobyl-like' crisis for Japan
Washington (AFP) March 12, 2011 - US nuclear experts warned Saturday that pumping sea water to cool a quake-hit Japanese nuclear reactor was an "act of desperation" that may foreshadow a Chernobyl-like disaster.

Several experts, in a conference call with reporters, also predicted that regardless of the outcome at the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant crisis, the accident will seriously damage the nuclear power renaissance.

"The situation has become desperate enough that they apparently don't have the capability to deliver fresh water or plain water to cool the reactor and stabilize it, and now, in an act of desperation, are having to resort to diverting and using sea water," said Robert Alvarez, who works on nuclear disarmament at the Institute for Policy Studies.

"I would describe this measure as a 'Hail Mary' pass," added Alvarez, using American football slang for a final effort to win the game as time expires.

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on Friday set off the emergency at the plant, which was then hit by an explosion Saturday that prompted an evacuation of the surrounding area.

Workers doused the stricken reactor with sea water to try to avert catastrophe, after the quake knocked out power to the cooling system.

What occurred at the plant was a "station blackout," which is the loss of offsite air-conditioning power combined with the failure of onsite power, in this case diesel generators.

"It is considered to be extremely unlikely but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades," said Ken Bergeron, a physicist who has worked on nuclear reactor accident simulation.

"We're in uncharted territory," he said.

The reactor has been shut down but the concern is the heat in the core, which can melt if it is not cooled. If the core melts through the reactor vessel, Bergeron explained, it could flow onto the floor of the containment building. If that happens, the structure likely will fail, the experts said.

"The containment building at this plant is certainly stronger than that at Chernobyl but a lot less strong than at Three Mile Island, so time will tell," he said.

Peter Bradford, former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said that if the cooling attempts fail, "at that point it's a Chernobyl-like situation where you start dumping in sand and cement."

The two worst nuclear accidents on record are the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and the partial core meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in the US state of Pennsylvania in 1979.

Early Sunday, nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power said radiation levels had surpassed the legal limit at its Fukushima No. 1 plant, hit by a blast the previous day, Kyodo News reported.

"If it continues, if they don't get control of this and... we go from a partial meltdown of the core to a full meltdown, this will be a complete disaster," Joseph Cirincione, the head of the Ploughshares Fund, told CNN.

Cirincione said the presence of radioactive cesium in the atmosphere after the plant was vented indicated that a partial meltdown was under way.

"That told the operators that the fuel rods had been exposed, that the water level had dropped below the fuel rods and the fuel rods were starting to burn, releasing cesium," he said.

Japan's nuclear safety agency rated the Fukushima accident at four on the International Nuclear Event Scale from 0 to 7. The Three Mile Island accident was rated five while Chernobyl was a seven.

The government declared an atomic emergency and said tens of thousands of people living within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the plant should leave after an explosion at the nuclear plant Saturday.

Paul Gunter is the US organization Beyond Nuclear, told Fox News that the evacuation zone might be too small: "If that containment is lost... this will spread a tremendous amount of radioactivity, and it will then be borne on the weather."

The NRC said it has sent two experts to Japan -- experts in boiling water nuclear reactors who are part of a broader US aid team sent to the disaster zone.

Bradford, the former NRC member, said: "This is obviously a significant setback for the so-called nuclear renaissance."

"The image of a nuclear power plant blowing up before your eyes on the television screen is a first."

But World Nuclear Association spokesman Ian Hore-Lacy told CBS News that the threat of a full meltdown is minimal.

"That possibility is remote at the best of times and is diminishing by the hour as the fuel gets cooler and generates less heat," he said.

earlier related report
'Partial melt' of fuel rod at stricken reactor: Japan envoy
Washington (AFP) March 12, 2011 - Japan's US envoy insisted Saturday there was no evidence a stricken nuclear reactor had gone into full meltdown but acknowledged there had been a "partial melt" of a fuel rod at the quake-hit plant.

Radiation was detected leaking from the Fukushima plant after Friday's massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and an explosion there Saturday sent authorities scrambling to avert a major meltdown.

But a somber Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki said: "We do not see evidence of that at this time."

"What our government has announced is, that it was a blow-up of the outer building," he told CNN.

"There was a partial melt of a fuel rod, melting of fuel rod. There was a part of that... but it was nothing like a whole reactor melting down," said Fujisaki, adding that he was being briefed hourly on the situation.

An explosion blew off the roof and walls of the structure around the reactor at Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo after a killer earthquake and tsunami flattened the region.

The fear has been that evaporating cooling liquid would expose the fuel rods to air, triggering a nuclear meltdown and major radiation leak.

Authorities say the blast did not rupture the container surrounding the reactor and that radiation levels had fallen afterwards.

With tensions soaring over the nuclear crisis, the ambassador tried to put a brave face on the trying times in Japan, expressing gratitude for the aid offered by more than 50 nations during "one of the biggest challenges in our history."

"We are working every minute, every second, in order to have the situation under control," he said.

Fujisaki said the number of households without power had dropped from more than six million on Friday to 2.5 million late Saturday.

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Japan scrambles to stop quake-hit nuke plant accidents
Tokyo (AFP) March 12, 2011
Japan scrambled Saturday to prevent nuclear accidents at two atomic plants where reactor cooling systems failed after a massive earthquake, as it evacuated tens of thousands of residents. Radiation 1,000 times above normal was detected in the control room of one plant, although authorities said levels outside the facility's gates were only eight times above normal, spelling "no immediate hea ... read more

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