Fukushima’s Boiling-Water Reactors Continue to Boil and a Sarcophagus Looms

Japan’s Disneyland reopens.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan makes a plea to his countrymen to “live life as normal”.

It would be churlish to deny scared kids or worried parents a hug from Mickey Mouse, if that’s what might console. But the proliferation of fantasies regarding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plants continues at a ferocious pace – and behind-the-scenes, plans for a sarcophagus solidify.

The New York Times talks of the possibility of returning the land to a “greenfield” state. Denis Flory, a Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Association insists Fukushima is not Chernobyl. At a recent meeting, Flory explains, “At Chernobyl a nuclear reactor exploded. In Japan… there may be…” The Deputy Director pauses and looks abashed, “some leaks, but containment is here.”

This absurd claim is made, despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Association’s own data asserts that 70% of the radioactive fuel in reactor no. 1 is damaged. In reactor no. 2, 30% of the fuel is damaged and it’s 35% in reactor no. 3. (Damaged means crumbled, cracked and/or melted fuel. It is now accumulating at the bottom of the reactor vessels and impeding cooling of, as yet, undamaged fuel.)

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency opines that high radiation readings above the irradiated fuel pool at reactor no. 4 may be from “rainwater.”

And, Big News, on Monday, April 18, TEPCO admits its month-long, much-ballyhooed effort to cool the reactors isn’t working, hasn’t worked and won’t work. A new cooling system will have to be designed and installed to bring the temperature of the fractious reactors under control.

A staggering admission.

The term boiling-water-reactor has a new punch. At the Fukushima plants water inside reactors vessels 1, 2, and 3 is hot. In the hottest reactor the water temperature is 338 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the boiling point. (The other two reactors aren’t much cooler.) Weeks and weeks of spraying by helicopters and pumping have been to little avail.

Take the Japanese government’s, TEPCO’s, and the world media’s hard labors to create the belief that the situation is “improving.” Combine this comforting notion with good-old, ordinary denial, with a highly understandable human desire to deny the magnitude of the tragedy, and it’s hard to keep one’s eyes fully open, right on-the-ball.

But here it is before our eyes: Three reactors still reeling out-of-control. Three reactors whose coolant is at a roiling boil — much like the bubble-filled and steam-generating water all of us know from cooking up a bit of pasta for dinner. One of these reactors, no. 2, has a steel containment vessel that may be cracked. Plus, at reactor no. 4, one steaming, over-heated, spent fuel pool the concrete support of which is a tad sketchy.

Unlike our pasta water, in the case of the Fukushima reactors, the boiling water is contaminated with fission products such as cesium, strontium and plutonium. And said water with its toxic load has to go somewhere, i.e. outside the reactor. So at Fukushima there is an ongoing program of what in nuclear parlance is called “feed and bleed.” Or, in simple language, feed water into the reactor vessel and release radioactive steam to the environment. And then there’s the advertent leaks to adjacent turbine buildings, outside ditches, and, alas, the ocean.

The current TEPCO estimate is that this will go on a long time. Month in and month out. Probably, until December. Regular burps of radiation into the atmosphere and regular releases of radioactivity into the ocean for 6 to 9 months?

That’s the short term outlook.

The longer term is 10 to 30 years to remove all the fuel, cut up the reactor vessels, cart the contaminated pieces of steel away, cut up the contaminated concrete and lug that away, take the intact fuel somewhere (the Rokkasho reprocessing facility?) and do what with the damaged fuel? Leave it in place, as was done at Chernobyl? Where, 25 years after the Chernobyl explosion, radioactivity is currently seeping out, requiring the emplacement of a second, larger sarcophagus?

Fukushima, Chernobyl. It’s not a pretty picture.

In the meantime, why not cover-up those ugly skeletal remains at Japan’s crippled plants? With some improvised coverings and, down the road, a sarcophagus or two or three?

Recently, the sarcophagus-approach came a couple of steps closer with the arrival in Japan of two immense concrete pump trucks.

Each of these behemoths, known as 70z’s, weighs 190,000 pounds. They are manufactured by a German company, Putzmeister. In 1986 this company was responsible for the construction of the concrete sarcophagus around the graphite reactor at Chernobyl.

The 70z’s weigh so much they had to be transported by Russian Antonov’s, the world’s second-heaviest cargo planes. Previously used to transport the Russian space shuttle, the planes were specially sent from Russia to the US to pick up the hefty pumps. And where did these pumps come from in the US? From Los Angeles, CA and Atlanta, GA.

One of the pumps was pulled off of the construction site for the MOX-fuel fabrication facility being constructed by the French-government-owned company, Areva, at the US Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. To interrupt a $4.86 billion dollar project (already 5-years behind schedule and $3 billion over-budget) is unprecedented.

Obviously, arrangements were made at high levels of the US, French, Russian and Japanese governments for the deal to go through. What was particularly telling about the deal?

It was already in the works by the end of March. At a time, when the Japanese government and TEPCO were endlessly intoning about getting the stricken Fukushima reactors “under control,” already the giant concrete pumps were being readied for transport to Japan.

On March 31, a spokesman for the company providing concrete for the MOX Fuel facility, was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle, “Our understanding is, they are preparing to go to the next phase and it will require a lot of concrete.”

March 31? “A lot of concrete?”

Of course, it never did make sense that such huge pumps would be necessary for cooling purposes. (Albeit the amazing stretch of the 70-meter crane would reduce radiation exposure of workers, as would impressive remote-control features.)

But why the need for the giant behemoth pumps flown in by Russian super-cargo plane? After all this was the company that poured concrete for the 10-mile-long Gotthard Tunnel burrowing under the Alps, between Switzerland and Italy. The company that, after the 1989 California earthquake, rebuilt the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The company that built the world’s highest tower, the Burj Dubai.

And the only company in the world to have experience building a giant, nuclear- sarcophagus.

After the pumps arrived in Japan, a company spokesman was still saying the giant pumps were for cooling the Fukushima reactors. (For weeks a somewhat smaller pump, also a Putzmeister, was pouring water into the wrecked irradiated fuel pool of reactor no 4.)

When pressed by a CNN reporter, the spokesman admitted pouring concrete was a “plausible scenario.”

Throughout the disaster of the past five, going on six weeks, TEPCO, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Japanese government has seemed bumbling and inept to the point of absurdity. Behind the bland announcements, the silly re-assurances was a different reality: three-plus weeks ago, detailed, complicated plans were being made to stop some key work at the MOX fuel plant in South Carolina and arrange for the special transport of the immense concrete pumps to Japan.

What other secret plans are currently underway – that we will hear about a month from now, if we’re lucky?

What exactly is the proposed design for the sarcophagus or sarcophagi? Drawings up on the TEPCO site suggest a three-sided structure, one with a top and sides – but no bottom. That means the distinct possibility of melted fuel, if it is left on-site (as happened at Chernobyl), migrating downwards toward vital water tables and/or washing out to contaminate the sea. Toxins washing-down and out, continuously, for decades and decades and…

Japanese refugees in the required and voluntary evacuation zones, critics in the Japanese government, Japanese environmentalists, Tokyo residents, fishermen, abalone-divers, dairy farmers, agricultural workers and citizens of the world must demand more transparency regarding these critically important plans.

If the Fukushima clean-up project is left to the nuclear boys-in-the-back-room, the plan is bound to be contaminated. Contaminated by thinking distorted by the bottom-line – and warped by the desire to protect the nuclear industry.

Let’s not let that happen.

Mina Hamilton served on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace, USA. She was a co-founder and co-director of the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign and President of the Delaware Valley Conservation Association. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones magazine, the Progressive, the Nation and is a frequent contributor to dissidentvoice.org. She lives in Western Massachusetts. Read other articles by Mina.