Years of procrastination in deciding on long-term disposal of highly radioactive fuel rods from nuclear reactors is now coming back to haunt Japanese authorities as they try to control fires and explosions at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Some countries have tried to limit the number of spent fuel rods that accumulate at nuclear power plants — Germany stores them in costly casks, for example, while Chinese nuclear reactors send them to a desert storage compound in western China’s Gansu province. But Japan, like the United States, has kept ever larger numbers of spent fuel rods in temporary storage pools at the power plants, where they can be guarded with the same security provided for the power plant.
Figures provided by Tokyo Electric Power on Thursday show that most of the dangerous uranium at the power plant is actually in the spent fuel rods, not the reactor cores themselves. The electric utility said that a total of 11,195 spent fuel rod assemblies were stored at the site. That is in addition to 400 to 600 fuel rod assemblies that had been in active service in each of the three troubled reactors. In other words, the vast majority of the fuel assemblies at the troubled reactors are in the storage pools, not the reactors.
Now those temporary pools are proving the power plant’s Achilles heel, as the water in the pools either boils away or leaks out of their containments, and efforts to add more water have gone awry. While spent fuel rods generate significantly less heat than newer ones, there are strong indications that the fuel rods have begun to melt and release extremely high levels of radiation. Japanese authorities struggled Thursday to add more water to the storage pool at reactor No. 3.
Four helicopters dropped water, only to have it scattered by strong breezes. Water cannons mounted on police trucks — equipment designed to disperse rioters — were deployed in an effort to spray water on the pools. It is unclear if they managed to achieve that.
Nuclear engineers around the world have been expressing surprise this week that the storage pools have become such a problem. “I’m amazed that they couldn’t keep the water in the pools,” said Robert Albrecht, a longtime nuclear engineer who worked as a consultant to the Japanese nuclear reactor manufacturing industry in the 1980s and visited the Fukushima Daiichi reactor then.
Very high levels of radiation above the storage pools suggest that the water has drained in the 39-foot-deep pools to the point that the 13-foot-high fuel rod assemblies have been exposed to air for hours and are starting to melt, he said. Spent fuel rod assemblies emit less heat than fresh fuel rod assemblies inside reactor cores, but the spent assemblies still emit enough heat and radioactivity that they must still be kept covered with 26 feet of water that is circulated to prevent it from growing too warm.
Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made the startling assertion on Wednesday that there was little or no water left in the storage pool located on top of reactor No. 4, and expressed grave concern about the radioactivity that would be released as a result. The spent fuel rod assemblies there include 548 assemblies that were only removed from the reactor in November and December to prepare the reactor for maintenance, and may be emitting more heat than the older assemblies in other storage pools.
Even without recirculating water, it should take many days for the water in a storage pool to evaporate, nuclear engineers said. So the rapid evaporation and even boiling of water in the storage pools now is a mystery, raising the question of whether the pools may also be leaking.
Michael Friedlander, a former senior nuclear power plant operator who worked 13 years at three American reactors, said that storage pools typically have a liner of stainless steel that is three-eighths of an inch thick, and they rest on reinforced concrete bases. So even if the liner ruptures, “unless the concrete was torn apart, there’s no place for the water to go,” he said.