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Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Plant Counting Down To Meltdown

Norman Byrd's picture

As nuclear fuel rods overheat at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan, worries continue that the reactors, sans the plant's cooling system, are headed for meltdown.

U. S. officials are warning American citizens in Japan to leave the country as the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, its cooling systems made inoperable by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, becomes increasingly unstable as reactor temperatures rise. At the same time, water-laden helicopters and trucks with water cannons doused the reactors with water. As cooling measures continue to prove ineffective, power plant operators rush to install a new power cable that could restore electricity to the downed cooling systems and hopefully prevent what could become a catastrophic meltdown.

Japanese officials have noted that there has been little progress made with regard to cooling the reactors at the Fukushima plant. Two Chinook helicopters were rotating dropping tons of seawater onto a highly radioactive spent uranium fuel pond that is overheating. Trucks armed with water cannons, normally used by authorities for crowd control, fired water at the plant as well in an effort to cool overheating fuel rods that are in danger of meltdown. However, as NPR reports, the water dropped by helicopter seems to be mostly dispersed by the wind and the water cannons were called off when radiation levels around the nuclear plant registered at dangerous levels and the trucks couldn't get close enough to be effective.

Although panic seems to be on the rise, the Associated Press reported that nuclear experts maintain that individuals not in the vicinity of the plant have nothing to fear. Those at the greatest risk of radiation contamination are those working to restore operations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on March 15 that Japanese authorities had completed a 20-kilmotre (12.4 miles) evacuation of the area around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Nuclear meltdown occurs when the systems meant to cool fuel rods or plates fail or are rendered ineffective and said rods and/or plates exceed their melting point and literally begin melting down. This in turn causes a release of fissionable materials from the deteriorating state of the fuel material into the containment areas or into the atmosphere. The most serious of meltdowns occur when radiation escapes into the surrounding environment, causing contamination and fallout, such as occurred at Chernobyl in Russia in 1986.

Problems began at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant shortly after the March 11 earthquake, the strongest ever registered in Japan, rocked the island nation. Authorities believe that either the earthquake or the subsequent massive tsunami that swept ashore just minutes later may have in some way disabled the cooling systems. There have been three explosions and several fires at various reactors at the plant, the extent of damage from which is at present unknown.

The IAEA reported on March 17 that the Japanese government has released confirmation that 23 people have been injured in the containment efforts. Two people are currently missing. The agency also noted that 20 people have been treated for radiation exposure and contamination. All were plant workers, subcontractors, and first responders.

It is believed that all measures taken to cool the nuclear fuel rods and the cooling pond are merely stop-gap efforts that are forestalling a meltdown and that the only certain method of prevention is the restoration of power to the plant.

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