Updated: Current State of Reactors in Japan

*Update on April 12th at 11:30am EST:

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency has raised the rating for the Fukashima disaster from a 5 to 7. Seven is the highest ranking for a disaster and is the same number used for Chernobyl. Some experts feel this is not as bad as the Russian disaster 25 years ago because there was no containment for Chernobyl like there is in Japan while other argue this correct because the radiation released at this point is higher than a level 7 requires (though is less than Chernobyl).
  • TEPCO is no longer dumping water into the Pacific ocean after many concerns were raised about the long-term effects of that decision.
  • Diplomatic ties with neighboring countries are strained due to the radiation threats from the lingering issues.

*Update on April 4th at 10:30am EST:

  • Tons of radioactive water is being dumped in the Pacific Ocean in an effort to move the radioactive water out of the plant. Reactors 5 and 6 are dumping 11,500 tons of water and reactor 6’s water is the highest level of radiation.
  • Workers are dealing with the crack in the reactor wall by trying several methods of plugging the hole including saw dust, newspaper and chemicals (?!)
  • Since Thursday there have been no reports of radioactive levels of the water or air around the plant.\
  • It is important to note that this particular plant only provided 3% of the Japan’s power! This has continued to spur the debate about the value of nuclear power around the world. Renewable energy has come to more of the forefront in recent days as it is clear that the long-term care and effects of nuclear power plants is expensive financially and to the global health of all animals. Regardless of where you fall the debate has definitely picked up attention, sadly at the expense of the health of the Japanese.  

*Update on March 23th at 9:50am EST:

  • Black smoke is rising out Reactor 3 and crews have been evacuated from the immediate area.
  • Power was restored to Reactor 3 control room yesterday however it has not been reported if that power has been able to restore any of the cooling systems. It appears not given the evacuation and the smoke but that is not confirmed.
  • Last night the Tokyo water supply was test at 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine per kilogram which is still below what is considered safe for adults: 300 becquerels per kilogram, this is however double what is considered safe for an infant.
  • The government has urged the citizen of Tokyo and the surronding area to not hoard water or be concerned about the levels as they are still considered safe.
  • The US has issued an import alert covering milk, milk products, fresh vegetables and fruit from any of four prefectures near the Japanese reactors — Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma. Under the alert, those products will be prevented from entering the United States.

*Update on March 22th at 9:30am EST:

  • A Japanese nuclear safety official said on Tuesday that a pool for storing spent fuel at the crippled nuclear plant was heating up, with temperatures around the boiling point.
  • The hot storage pool is another complication in bringing the plant under control and ending a nuclear crisis that followed the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast. If water in the pool bubbles away and exposes fuel rods, more radiation would be released.
  • Nuclear safety agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama told reporters that the high temperatures in the spent fuel pool are believed to be the cause of steam that has wafted from Fukushima Dai-ichi’s Unit 2 since Monday.
  • Meanwhile, seawater near the Fukushima plant was showing elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium, prompting the government to test seafood.
  • Also on Tuesday, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), said power lines had been hooked up to all six reactor units. TEPCO cautioned that workers must check pumps, motors and other equipment before the electricity is turned on.

Reconnecting the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex to the electrical grid is a significant step in getting control of the overheated reactors and storage pools for spent fuels. But it is likely to be days if not longer before the cooling systems can be powered up, since damaged equipment needs to be replaced and any volatile gas must be vented to avoid an explosion.

*Update on March 18th at 9:05am EST:

  1. Japan has raised the nuclear warning from a 4 to 5 — putting it on par with the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island. According to the International Nuclear Events Scale, a level 5 equates to the likelihood of a release of radioactive material, several deaths from radiation and severe damage to a reactor core (for comparision Chernobyl was rated as a 7).
  2. Japan’s Prime Minister has vowed to improve communications with the world over what is happening at the plant after pressure from the entire world community including a meeting with the head UN Atomic Agency
  3. Efforts underway yesterday are still working today, air drops of water on the cooling ponds(which have been widely recogized as ineffective), the use of water cannons, and efforts to restore power to the plant.
  4. In a rare release of information about radiation levels it is reported that Thursday’s levels hit 20 millisieverts per hour at an annex building where workers have been trying to re-establish electrical power, “the highest registered (at that building) so far,” a Tokyo Electric official told reporters.By comparison, the typical resident of a developed country is naturally exposed to 3 millisieverts per year.The company said Friday afternoon, though, that radiation levels at the plant’s west gate, at .26 to .27 millisieverts, have been fairly stable over a recent 12-hour span.
  5. It still appears that reactor 3 is the MOST at risk for a possible meltdown as the spent fuel rods are beleieved to be exposed and that seems to be where the main focus of the efforts have been. Reactor 4 has also sustained substancial damage and no tempertature readings of the spent fuel pool have been taken since Monday. Reactor 1 is starting to also gain attention as there are concerns.
  6. If power is restored it will likely only be enough to power reactor 1 and 2 cooling units.
  7. The wind patterns in Japan are changing and there are some growing concern about where radiation may go with this shift in wind. Prior to today the prevailing wind was blowing most of the radiation out to sea.

*Update on March 17th at 2:50pm EST:

  1. The US is sending chartered planes to get US citizens who want to leave Japan out of the country. The goal is allow those who want to leave the opportunity while minimizing the number of seats on commercial flights Americans will take from others. Other countries like Spain are doing the same.
  2. There are efforts to get power restored to Fukushima so that the pumps could start working again and keep the water levels high enough without requiring human intervention. As of right now there is still no power to the station and they are still trying to dump water from helicopters on the spent rods that are exposed.
  3. There is also efforts underway to use water cannons to shoot water into pools that are low. This also obviously requires human interaction. The concern is that as radiation levels rise people will not be able to actually get close enough to do the work needed to keep the water levels up therefore compounding the problem.
  4. Radiation: there are some reports of 20 people being treated for radiation sickness due to exposure. Since information from the area particularly from TEMPCO it is unclear if these are workers or citizens still in the area. There is little/no risk for the US for radiation exposure with the current situation or if it worsens. People are not recommended to take iodine pills in Japan yet much less the US, there are possible health effects from taking the pills unessecarily. The pills only provide a window of protection and if they are taken at the wrong time it could not provide the protection expected.
  5. As stated above information from the area is not easy to get therefore the US has a different evacuation recommendation than Japan. If they can restore power and the systems that used that power are not damaged it will be good news that this crisis can be slightly more controlled than it currently is but it is very hard to tell what the dangers are, the damage, and what is actually going on right now.

*Update on March 16th at 6:20pm EST: Disturbing pictures of the reactors here Spent fuel rod in reactor 4 are exposed and high levels of of radiation. There are more hero employees at the plant that previously reported up to 180 people are there working on the plant. “What we believe at this time is that there has been a hydrogen explosion in this unit due to an uncovering of the fuel in the fuel pool,” Gregory Jaczko told a House energy and commerce subcommittee hearing. “We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”  The US military is going to be sending up un-man drone planes to take pictures of the plant to monitor is damage. No US military are to be in the 50 mile range of the Fukushima plant.

*Update on March 16th at 1:50pm EST: US Embassy just announced recommendation that the precautionary zone around the nuclear power plant be increased to 50 miles.

*Update on March 16th at 1:10pm EST: International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano will travel to Japan “as soon as possible, hopefully tomorrow (Thursday),” he said Wednesday, to get the latest on the situation surrounding Japan’s nuclear plants and to see “how the IAEA can help them,” he said. It will be a short stay of just one night, he added. (editorial comment: He probably should have planned to go there sooner)

Here is a list of each reactor detailing what is happening to it and the risk of its current state:

What is happening: Tepco said on Wednesday that resolving problems at this reactor was the top priority because it had the highest radiation levels. This reactor is the only one that includes plutonium in its fuel mix.
The operator has been pumping sea water into the reactor to prevent overheating. The building housing the reactor was hit by an explosion on Monday.
An attempt by a military helicopter to drop water on the reactor failed on Wednesday probably because radiation levels were too high, Kyodo reported. The Japan nuclear agency had said earlier in the day that the pumping of sea water was proceeding smoothly.
Tepco said the spent fuel pool may have heated up, producing steam. The temperature has risen to around 60C from the usual 30C-40C but the change was not critical, it said.
What are the risks: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Tuesday that the primary containment vessel, the first line of defence against a radiation leak, appeared intact. However, government spokesman Yukio Edano said on Wednesday there is a “possibility” the vessel had been damaged, Kyodo reported.
If that is the case, authorities will be worried that radiation may leak through the first containment wall into the secondary containment building. The spent fuel pools present a radiation risk if the spent fuel is exposed to the atmosphere. When a rod is exposed to the air, zirconium metal on the rods will catch fire, which could release radiation contained in the fuel, said Arnie Gundersen, a 39-year veteran of the nuclear industry who is now chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates Inc.

*important to note reactor 3 is the only one with plutonium in it which means that if this has a meltdown it is more likely to have more harmful health effects due to the radiation that would be emitted.

What is happening: TV on Wednesday showed smoke or steam rising from the facility after flames were seen earlier. The reactor had been shut down for maintenance when the earthquake and tsunami struck.
On Tuesday, a pool where spent fuel is stored caught fire and caused an explosion. Japan’s nuclear safety agency says the blast punctured two holes around 8-metres square in the wall of the outer building of the reactor.
Tepco has said it may pour water through the two holes within two or three days to cool spent nuclear fuel that is inside. Workers cannot prepare to pour water into the pool sooner because of high radiation levels, Kyodo said. Instead, Tepco plans to bulldoze a road to the reactor building so water-pump trucks can approach and hose water inside, said Kazuya Aoki, a director of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
What are the risks: Exposure of spent fuel to the atmosphere is serious because there is more radiation in the spent fuel than in the reactor, said Gundersen. The spent fuel pool is not inside a containment facility either.
“They need to keep water in those pools because the roof over the building housing the pools is already damaged and radiation will escape,” he said.
The pools contain racks that hold spent fuel taken from the reactor. Operators need to constantly add water to the pool to keep the fuel submerged so that radiation cannot escape.Exposing the spent fuel to the atmosphere will release radiation. (This is particularly worrisome if operators need to abandon or evacuate the plant again like they did briefly yesterday. Also there are normally 750+ employees working at the plant at any given time now the crew is down to 50 and working non-stop)

*Spent fuel rods are now exposed and high levels of radiation are currently being emitted as of 6:00pm EST on March 16th

What is happening: An explosion rocked the plant on Tuesday, damaging a suppression pool, into which steam is vented from the reactor to relieve pressure. The roof of the reactor building is damaged, Jiji news agency reported. Tepco said on Tuesday the fuel rods were fully exposed. Kyodo reported an estimated 33% of the nuclear fuel rods have been damaged at the No 2 reactor. However, on Wednesday, Japan’s nuclear agency said the pumping of sea water into the reactor was proceeding smoothly.
What are the risks: When fuel rods are no longer covered in coolant they can heat up and start to melt, raising the risk of a radiation leak.
The suppression pool is part of the primary containment vessel, which is designed to prevent a leak, but the IAEA said the blast “may have affected the integrity of its primary containment vessel.”
Still, beyond the primary containment vessel is the containment building, which is also designed to prevent radiation from escaping.

What is happening: An explosion occurred at the reactor on Saturday. Kyodo reported on Wednesday an estimated 70% of the nuclear fuel rods have been damaged.
Authorities are pumping sea water into the reactor to prevent overheating, and pressure levels were stable, Edano said on Tuesday.
The Japan nuclear agency said on Wednesday the pumping was proceeding smoothly.
What are the risks: The IAEA said on Tuesday the primary containment vessel appeared intact. If the fuel rods in the reactor are not covered by coolant, they can heat up and start to melt.

What is happening: The reactor had been shut down for maintenance at the time of the quake and tsunami.
Tepco said on Wednesday water was being poured into the reactor and that temperatures in the spent fuel pool were rising slightly.
What is the risk: Reactor 5 and reactor 6 are seen less at risk than reactors 1 to 4.

What is happening: Tepco said on Wednesday water was being poured into the reactor and that temperatures in the spent fuel pool were rising slightly.

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