Japan nears key fix for nuclear plant, but could it come too late?
A top nuclear regulatory official testified Wednesday that Japan's nuclear plant might already be too dangerous to allow repairs, even though external power could soon be available to run crucial water pumps.
For embattled workers at a quake- and tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant on Japan's northeast coast, the cavalry may finally be arriving – in the form of electricity from outside the plant to run pumps needed to supply critical cooling water to reactors and spent-fuel pools.Skip to next paragraph
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If the electricity arrives in time and workers can prevent the Fukushima I plant's predicament from becoming more grave, the utility faces a long road to what several nuclear engineering specialists say will be the eventual closure of the plant.
In the meantime, US and Japanese officials are increasingly at odds over what is transpiring at the plant and how dangerous its environment has become to workers seeking to gain control over the plant's reactors. Since the 9.0 quake and tsunami deprived the plant of external power, reactors have been beset by partial meltdowns and the buildings damaged by fires and explosions of hydrogen gas. Radioactive steam plumes have risen from the damaged buildings.
Over the past two days, concerns have grown over the status of large, concrete, water-filled pools that provide temporary storage for spent nuclear fuel. In testimony before Congress on Wednesday, US Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jazcko told lawmakers that all the water in the spent-fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor likely had run dry.
Japanese officials dispute that. But if Dr. Jazcko is right, that leaves a full core's worth of fuel – removed from the reactor by workers in November during a maintenance outage – to overheat and spew radiation. If the temperature rises high enough, the metal cladding that encases the uranium fuel pellets in the fuel rods can catch fire.
Even absent a fire, radiation leaks from spent fuel in an empty pool are sustained releases, not sporadic, specialists say. According to an account in the New York Times, Jazco added that the higher radiation levels could prevent workers from cooling reactors and stored fuel with seawater and fire hoses.
The arrival of electricity from the wider grid would, in principle, allow workers to pump larger volumes of water into the reactors and empty spent-fuel pools.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant, has nearly finished running a outside power line to the facility, according to company spokesman Naoki Tsunoda.
According to the Associated Press, Mr. Tsunoda said the company would activate the new power line "as soon as possible," although he gave no estimate for how soon plant workers, residents evacuated from the area, and a tensely watching world could expect relief.
With so little specific information coming from the utility about the events over the past few days, nuclear engineers speak only in general terms about what could happen in the coming months if workers succeed in stabilizing the facility.