Japan running out of options to deal with nuke crisis: U.S. experts
By Ben Dooley
WASHINGTON, March 18, Kyodo
Japanese government efforts to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture are ''desperate,'' a group of U.S. nuclear experts said Friday during a panel discussion held at the National Press Club in Washington.
The steps being taken by Japan ''are not steps that are anywhere near the top of the options'' normally available, said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and an adviser to the U.S. secretary of energy in the 1990s.
Beginning Thursday, Japan has used trucks and helicopters to dump water on the damaged reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in an attempt to cool their overheating nuclear materials.
The efforts, Alvarez said, were ''improvisations on the playbook'' for stopping a nuclear meltdown.
Alvarez's claim that there are no good options left for addressing the crisis is evidenced by the risky approach Tokyo has taken to cooling the reactors.
When combined with the high heat at the reactor site, the seawater currently being poured on the facilities could destroy their cooling pumps or even corrode the containment vessels holding the plant's nuclear fuel, increasing the difficulty of containing the radioactive material.
''This is what you call the last-ditch stuff,'' Alvarez said, noting that the severity of the crisis had taken the standard, safer options for responding ''off the table.''
In the short term, Alvarez expects that even these extreme measures will be unable to stop the crisis.
''It doesn't appear at this time that they are working. The accident is likely to unfold over a period of weeks,'' he said.
In the meantime, the Japanese government has raised the incident's severity rating from 4 to 5 on an international scale of seven. The move puts the crisis on a par with the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, when the combination of an engineering failure and human error led to the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in the northeastern United States.
Asked about the decision to change the rating, Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he expected the threat level would be raised again.
''It's very hard for me to believe that at the end of the day, this accident will be seen as being the same level as Three Mile Island, which was also a level 5,'' Bradford said.
Jeffrey Patterson, a radiation exposure specialist, had an even bleaker assessment.
Unlike natural disasters, such as earthquakes, with nuclear accidents, ''the end never comes,'' Patterson said.
''This just goes on forever, because the effects of radiation go on forever,'' he said.
Saturday, March 19, 2011