Japan orders 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors after nuclear leak; Update: 6.2-magnitude quake rattles Tokyo

posted at 8:48 am on March 15, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

News got worse overnight from Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  The containment pools covering the fuel rods now appear to be boiling in the reactors that have already been shut down, and storage pool walls have been damaged.  Earlier today, Japan took the unusual step of ordering nearby residents to seal themselves in their homes — 140,000 people:

Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors Tuesday after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by a deadly tsunami.

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from the four stricken reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant along Japan’s northeastern coast. The region was shattered by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummeled the world’s third-largest economy.

Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the reactor fire was in a storage pond and that “radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere.” Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool, where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, might be boiling.

The order applies to people living within a 19-mile radius of the plant.  They have been ordered to stay inside and seal doors and windows and “make your homes airtight,” which will be nearly impossible, and unsustainable after a few days even if it weren’t.  Eventually, people will need to exchange the stale air in their homes with the outside to maintain proper oxygen levels, and will have to find water and food as well.

Radiation levels south of the plant are now 100 times normal levels, which isn’t a problem for short-term exposure but could be a big problem for people who live there.  Their fear now is less the radiation leaking at the moment, and more that the containment vessels won’t hold and the fuel rods will explode into the atmosphere.  That will generate fallout that could poison the area for years.

However, the biggest issue facing Japan’s population may not be radiation, but a lack of heat and water.  With electricity and with oil distribution disrupted, the cold winter presents immediate problems:

When Japan lost a large chunk of its electricity-generating capacity to the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami, the narrative in parts of one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies was transformed overnight into one of Third World hardship.

For most Japanese, the rolling outages instituted in the wake of the twin disasters translate to inconvenience, sacrifice and economic loss. But for tens of thousands who are now homeless and huddled in evacuation centers in the hard-hit northeast, the stakes are much higher.

“Evacuation centers have half a million people in centers and schools that don’t have water, electricity and oil,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And the temperatures are near freezing. … (In some places) it is snowing. The immensity of this crisis cannot be understated.”

The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has occupied the attention of nuclear-power experts, for obvious reasons, but that means that Japan cannot get its other undamaged reactors back on line quickly.  Japan gets 35% of its electricity from nuclear plants, and there wouldn’t be enough excess capacity in other sources to cover that kind of loss.  Other power sources need imported raw materials, which would be difficult to distribute internally in this crisis anyway.  The shortage has required power companies to ration electricity through rolling blackouts until their supplies can reliably stay on line.

Update (AP): Both the Journal and the Times report that the situation at reactor number two has stabilized in some respects, with a core group of 50 emergency workers remaining behind to pump sea water into the containment vessel. Radiation levels near the plant are reportedly down sharply after soaring following the explosion at reactor two. As Ed noted, the major concern right now appears to be the possibility of spent fuel rods boiling over; according to the NYT, that area is now so dangerous that workers can’t approach it.

Update (Ed, 10:41 am): The Boss Emeritus has followed reports on Twitter that a quake measuring 6.2 magnitude struck the center of Japan today, hitting Tokyo.  That’s within manageable range, but may complicate matters for responders if more damage occurs — or if this was a foreshock of a larger quake coming.

Update (Ed, 2:11 pm): I conflated two different alerts.  The quake that hit today and rattled Tokyo was in the center of Japan, not off the west coast; that was an earlier quake report.  I’ve fixed the headline and the last update.


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unseen on March 15, 2011 at 2:25 PM

I already did. But I’m glad to be done with you any way. Run along.

MJBrutus on March 15, 2011 at 2:28 PM

Those poor people. How much more will they have to endure? Somehow you think if a culture modernizes and becomes tech savvy and everything life will just be easy.

Without nuclear power they would not be able to be the 3rd largest economy, because all that production depends on energy. So they got the energy, built the economy and society based on it, and now… I don’t know. Who could foresee something like this?

petunia on March 15, 2011 at 2:42 PM

This report is very disturbing. If they’re starting to have secondary problems with the spent fuel storage it probably means things are starting to get out of hand. My biggest worry is their staffing, since their A-team has probably been running very long hours and working on multiple situations at multiple reactors for the last week and may be making fatigue-induced mistakes or missing things. They’re also probably getting second-guessed and pounded by questions by their management (who are getting pounded by the government and the press). I hope their management recognizes the risks and knows how to make things better instead of worse.

Socratease on March 15, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Socratease on March 15, 2011 at 2:44 PM

As I understand it, they’ve got skeleton crews working on site due to the dangerous conditions. You’re right, a lot is on their shoulders and they’ve got to be physically and mentally stressed to the max.

MJBrutus on March 15, 2011 at 2:56 PM

Socratease on March 15, 2011 at 2:44 PM

You’re doing a LOT of speculation.

First of all – you really don’t need to worry about the “A-Team” … because Japan has MANY nuclear “A-Teams” and … they aren’t producing a lot of nuclear power at the moment so there are plenty to cycle in and out of the problem.

Second – the whole concept of “alert operators” was developed in the nuclear reactor world. Their “on watch” and “off watch” time is monitored better than a truck driver’s. In addition – the guys on the site aren’t the ones making the calls – unless an emergency arises. They are feeding data and info back to a team of experts who are then “gaming out” the appropriate responses. This team should include many engineers from other countries – as the Japanese did request such. We have our own nuke experts over there providing input.

This is not being run by the “night shift”.

I think this casualty is winding down. #2 Daiichi is the only real concern right now – as it was somehow damaged. Be that as it may – the damage hasn’t resulted in anything but a momentary increase of radiation at the plant – and it appears there is no more pressure building in #2. No pressure means easier to cool as long as they can keep pumping water to it.

The fuel ponds ARE heating up – but this has been identified and a corrective solution will be found.

HondaV65 on March 15, 2011 at 2:57 PM

There are dome incredibly brave and selfless souls at work right know and my thoughts are with them

much like the firemen at Chernobyl

Sonosam on March 15, 2011 at 3:03 PM

Does the US army have any of these to spare to get electricity/heat to the Japanese population?

http://ammtiac.alionscience.com/pdf/AQV4N3_ART01.pdf

journeyintothewhirlwind on March 15, 2011 at 3:24 PM

journeyintothewhirlwind on March 15, 2011 at 3:24 PM

Your tax dollar grant money at waste. it is funny that the article avoids showing the energy balances. Might be good for reducing solids waste but not necessarily an efficient use of energy required to produce less energy.

Kermit on March 15, 2011 at 3:33 PM

Not sure about clean drinking water problems but I saw this article after the Haiti earthquake:

http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20101219/news/712209871/

journeyintothewhirlwind on March 15, 2011 at 3:37 PM

Kermit on March 15, 2011 at 3:33 PM

Not thinking about energy balance. I am thinking about tons of debris that needs to get cleaned up, lack of space for land-filling it, and people who need heat and electricity now.

Do we have any to spare and could Obama get off his skinny you know what and get them sent there.

journeyintothewhirlwind on March 15, 2011 at 3:40 PM

HondaV65 on March 15, 2011 at 2:57 PM

AFAIK this is the most current situation there. Care to analyze what Kyodo is reporting?

I don’t know the exact hour this was posted, just says March 16.

The agency said among the three, the situation is the severest at the No. 4 reactor because all the fuel rods are stored in the pool due to the change of the reactor’s shroud. At the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors, up to one-third of the rods are being kept in the pools. The more fuel rods are kept in a pool, the more radioactive substances could be emitted.

The new development followed a critical situation at the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima plant earlier in the day, in which part of the reactor’s containment vessel was damaged following an apparent hydrogen explosion at 6:10 a.m.

TEPCO said the problem could develop into a critical ”meltdown” situation, in which fuel rods melt and are destroyed, emitting massive amounts of radioactive materials into the air.

The fact that containment is breached – which I believe means primary containment in this case (the metal dome)- means there is a greater threat of dispersal of dangerous material outside of the reactor, doesn’t it?

I’d be happy to be wrong here.

fiatboomer on March 15, 2011 at 4:08 PM

You’re doing a LOT of speculation. First of all – you really don’t need to worry about the “A-Team” … because Japan has MANY nuclear “A-Teams” and … they aren’t producing a lot of nuclear power at the moment so there are plenty to cycle in and out of the problem.

Yes, it’s speculation, but it’s speculation based on experience. I work at an electron synchrotron light source that runs 24/7. We have highly trained operators as well, but there is a core group of people that know the facility like the back of their hand and can take seemingly insignificant facts and combine them to synthesize a great amount of detail about what is going on inside the machine as well as come up with innovative solutions. My assumption is that the nuclear plants have a similar dynamic and that, in an emergency, that core group can’t keep working on the problems themselves but have to hand it over to others that are still good, but not quite as good, and also that their expertise is going to be split between multiple crises.

Just an observation, take it for what it’s worth.

Socratease on March 16, 2011 at 12:17 AM

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