Japan Nuclear Crisis Worsens, Enters Critical Phase

Today's top nuclear policy stories, with excerpts in bullet form.

Stories we're following today - Monday, March 14, 2011:

Japanese Plant Races to Contain Meltdowns After Two Blasts; third reactor loses cooling capacity - Chico Harlan and Steven Mufson in The Washington Post [link]

  • A second explosion rocked Japan’s seaside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex Monday, this time destroying an outer building at unit 3. A Japanese government official separately said that a third reactor at the six-reactor facility had lost its cooling capacity, adding to the complications facing the engineers who try to limit the damage of a partial meltdown.
  • The explosion at unit 3 did not damage the core containment structure, and Japanese authorities asserted that there would be little increase in radiation levels around the plant. But the explosion -- a result of hydrogen build-up -- prompted Japan’s nuclear agency to warn those within 12 miles to stay indoors and keep air conditioners off.
  • The string of earthquake- and tsunami-triggered troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi plant began with the failure of the primary and back-up cooling systems, necessary to keep reactors from overheating.
  • The explosion occurred as Tokyo Electric entered day four of its battle against a cascade of failures at its two Fukushima nuclear complexes, using fire pumps to inject tens of thousands of gallons of seawater into two reactors to contain partial meltdowns of ultra-hot fuel rods.
  • The potential size of the area affected by radioactive emissions could be large. A state of emergency was declared briefly at another nuclear facility, the Onagawa plant, after elevated radio­activity levels were detected there. Later, Japanese authorities blamed the measurement on radioactive material that had drifted from the Fukushima plant, more than 75 miles away, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  • The IAEA noted that forecasts said winds would be blowing to the northeast, away from the Japanese coast, over the next three days.

[MJ Note: For the best up-to-the-minute analysis, follow Joe Cirincione, The Union of Concerned Scientists, or David Hoffman on Twitter.  Also, read "All Things Nuclear" from the Union of Concerned Scientists.] 

Disasters Fail to Follow Scripts - David Lochbaum in The New York Times [link]

  • The nuclear disaster in Japan is still unfolding, so it is not yet possible to fully assess it or its impact on American nuclear power policy. But we do expect the U.S. government to react the way it did following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster by evaluating what happened and identifying the necessary steps to better manage risks here at home.
  • The issues the government should address include whether reactors should be better protected against power outages and against earthquakes, whether fire protection deficiencies should continue to languish uncorrected, and whether emergency response plans should be broadened to better handle regional disasters.
  • The primary challenge for the Japanese reactors apparently resulted from losing both their normal and back-up power supplies. The reactors were designed to cope with this situation for only eight hours, assuming that normal or back-up power would be restored within that time. But the accident failed to follow that script, leading to serious problems cooling the reactor cores.
  • Most U.S. reactors are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours. Measures that increase the chances of restoring power within the assumed time period or providing better cooling options when that time runs out would make U.S. reactors less vulnerable.
  • The accident in Japan is the just the most recent reminder of the need to revisit emergency plans to ensure that people get the help they need even when disasters overlap.

The Next Steps in the U.S.-Russia Reset - Joseph R. Biden in The New York Times [link]

  • When we came into office two years ago, our relationship with Russia had reached a low point. The war between Russia and Georgia played a role in that decline, but even before that conflict erupted in August 2008, a dangerous drift was under way.
  • Two years later, the benefits to both our countries — and to international security — are clear, including: the new Start Treaty that further limits strategic nuclear weapons, cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, collaboration on Afghanistan that facilitates the flow of soldiers and supplies, and the most stringent sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea for their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
  • One way to realize the potential of that relationship is to bring Russia more fully into the international trading system. That is why we strongly support Russia’s effort to join the World Trade Organization.
  • Russians and Americans inside and outside of government have worked hard to overcome decades of mistrust, to identify common ground, and to foster a more secure and more prosperous future for both countries.

Japan Nuclear Woes cast shadow over U.S. energy policy - Jeff Mason and Will Dunham in Reuters [link]

  • Anxiety over Japan's quake-crippled nuclear reactors has triggered calls from lawmakers and activists for review of U.S. energy policy and for brakes on expansion of domestic nuclear power.
  • President Barack Obama has urged expansion of nuclear power to help meet the country's energy demands, lower its dependence on imported fossil fuels and reduce its climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
  • But as engineers in Japan tried on Sunday to avert a meltdown at three nuclear reactors following Friday's massive earthquake, some U.S. policy makers were reevaluating their take on nuclear energy even as the industry itself offered assurances about the safety of new and existing plants.
  • Since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, many Americans have harbored concerns about nuclear power's safety. Controversy has also dogged the nuclear power industry due to its radioactive waste, which is now stored on site at reactor locations around the country.
  • In February 2010, Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in nearly three decades
  • The White House said it was watching the events in Japan for lessons about nuclear safety but indicated that no major policy changes were imminent.

India tests two nuclear-capable missiles - AFP [link]

  • India tested two short-range nuclear-capable missiles along its eastern coast on Friday, an official said, as part of the nation's efforts to build up its nuclear deterrent.
  • "The test of both missiles was successful and met all mission objectives," test range director S.P. Dash told AFP.
  • Both missiles, which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, were developed domestically.
  • India's Defence Research Development Organisation is developing a series of missiles as part of the country's deterrent strategy against neighbouring Pakistan and China which also have nuclear weapons.
  • The tests were part of training exercises for the Indian armed forces, defence officials said. 
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