The 8.9 earthquake in Japan, which generated a tsunami wave that reached the west coast of the United States has resulted in severe damage to several of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Daiichi prefecture. It appears that trouble started when cooling water pumps failed to operate, leading to runaway conditions within the cores of reactors #1, #2, #3, and #4. (update: reactors #5 and #6 are now threatened) These reactors are all relatively early boiling water reactor designs built in the 1970's by General Electric and Toshiba. Toshiba's reactor #3 utilized 75 TONS (150,000 pounds, or 68,182 kilograms) of MOX (recycled nuclear weapons material in the form of Uranium and Plutonium Oxides(Metal Oxide-MOX)) fuel in the core which contains Plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years so it remains in the environment for a very long time. Explosions have occurred in three reactors and several cooling ponds are now overheating leading to a release of radiation. Japanese officials have resorted to trying to cool the reactor cores and fuel rod pools with seawater which Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. secretary of energy, considers a desperate measure (a desparate measure which promises to deliver plenty of highly contaminated water directly to the ocean waters nearby. ) According to Mr. Alvarez, sattelite imagery shows the roof blown off the fuel rod pool next to reactor #4. He and other experts are warning that any release of radioactivity from the spent-fuel pool could make the releases from the reactors themselves pale in comparison.
As the situation worsens, it is likely that crews may have to pull back and the entire complex will meltdown with the result being an unimaginable environmental catastrophe of unparallelled magnitude.
Fires in the fuel rod pools (rectangular basins about 40 feet deep, made of four- to five-foot-thick reinforced concrete lined with stainless steel) where used fuel from the reactors are stored pose a greater environmental hazard as they are not enclosed as the reactor cores are and will vent directly to the atmosphere. Each reactor has its own fuel rod pool sitting atop the main concrete structure and surrounded by thin metal roofs and walls. According to one expert, the fuel rods rest at the pool's bottom and typically rise no higher than 15 feet from the bottom. Depending on the freshness of the spent fuel, the water in an uncooled pool will start to boil in anywhere from days to a week and would boil off to a dangerous level in another week or two. Once exposed, it can catch fire. Fresh fuel rods have more of the most deadly and short lived Iodine-131. All contain Cesium-137, which still contaminates much of the land in the Ukrain around Chernoble, and has a half life of 30 years. A 1997 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island described a worst-case disaster invlolving uncovered spent fuel in a single reactor cooling pool, estimating 100 quick deaths would occur within a range of 500 miles followed by 138,000 eventual deaths. The study also found that land over 2,170 miles would be contaminated and damages would hit $546 billion.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are almost 100 spent-fuel pools in the United States.
US Military aid forces have been pulled back from Japan's coast after encountering radioactive plumes.
If significant amounts of radioactive material is lofted into the jet stream from the damaged reactors, it could arrive on America's western coast within several days.
Japan had 54 nuclear reactors online before the quake and 8 more in construction.
According to the August 22nd, 2010 publication of Japan Today, the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is the third in Japan to use highly toxic and long-lasting reutilized Plutonium fuel. The other two are the No. 3 reactor of Kyushu Electric Power Co's Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture and the No. 3 reactor of Shikoku Electric Power Co's Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture.