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Sunday Update on Fukushima Reactors

As of 7 pm EDT Sunday 3/13/11

We reported earlier about the situation at Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor Unit 1.  The nuclear crisis in Japan took a turn for the worse as serious problems developed in reactor Unit 3.

Officials from Tokyo Electric reported that after multiple cooling system failures, the water level in the Unit 3 reactor vessel dropped 3 meters (nearly 10 feet), uncovering approximately 90 percent of the fuel in the reactor core.  Authorities were able to inject cooling water with a fire pump after reducing the containment pressure by a controlled venting of radioactive gas.  As they did with Unit 1, they began pumping sea water into Unit 3, which is highly corrosive and may preclude any future use of the reactor even if a crisis is averted.

However, Tokyo Electric has reported that the water level in the Unit 3 reactor still remains more than 2 meters (6 feet) below the top of the fuel, exposing about half the fuel to air, and they believe that water may be leaking from the reactor vessel.  When the fuel is exposed to air it eventually overheats and suffers damage.  It is likely that the fuel has experienced significant damage at this point, and the authorities have said they are proceeding on this assumption.

One particular concern with Unit 3 is the presence of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in the core.  MOX is a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxides.  In September 2010, 32 fuel assemblies containing MOX fuel were loaded into this reactor.  This is about 6% of the core.

I have done considerable analysis on the safety risks associated with using MOX fuel in light-water reactors.  The use of MOX generally increases the consequences of severe accidents in which large amounts of radioactive gas and aerosol are released compared to the same accident in a reactor using non-MOX fuel, because MOX fuel contains greater amounts of plutonium and other actinides, such as americium and curium, which have high radio-toxicities.

Because of this, the number of latent cancer fatalities resulting from an accident could increase by as much as a factor of five for a full core of MOX fuel compared to the same accident with no MOX.  Fortunately, as noted above, the fraction of the fuel in this reactor that is MOX is small.  Even so, I would estimate this could cause a roughly 10% increase in latent cancer fatalities if there were a severe accident with core melt and containment breach, which has not happened at this point and hopefully will not.

While the authorities continue playing down the possibility of a breach of the primary containment at these reactors, I remain concerned.  Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor Units 1, 2, and 3 are boiling water reactors with Mark I containments.  The Mark I is unusually vulnerable to containment failure in the event of a core-melt accident.  A recent study by Sandia National Laboratories shows that the likelihood of containment failure in this case is nearly 42% (see Table 4-7 on page 97).  The most likely failure scenario involves the molten fuel burning through the reactor vessel, spilling onto the containment floor, and spreading until it contacts and breeches the steel containment-vessel wall.

The Sandia report characterizes these probabilities as “quite high.”  It’s not straightforward to interpret these results in the context of the very complicated and uncertain situation at Fukushima.  But they are a clear indication of a worrisome vulnerability of the Mark I containment should the core completely melt and escape the reactor vessel.

Edwin Lyman is a senior staff scientist in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, DC.  This article was first published in the All Things Nuclear blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  It is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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