Guest Post: Explosion and Fire at Fourth Japanese Nuclear Reactor … Government Says High Levels of Radiation Being Released

Washington’s Blog

Kyodo News noted earlier that Reactor Number 4 has caught fire:

The Herald Sun reported:

RADIATION levels near a quake-stricken nuclear plant are now harmful to human health, Japan’s government says after explosions and a fire at the facility.

“There is no doubt that unlike in the past, the figures are the level at which human health can be affected,” said chief government spokesman Yukio Edano.


Although the number-four reactor was shut for maintenance when the quake and tsunami struck last Friday, “spent nuclear fuel in the reactor heated up, creating hydrogen and triggered a hydrogen explosion”.

He said radioactive substances were leaked along with the hydrogen.

“Please keep in mind that what is burning is not nuclear fuel itself,” Mr Edano said. “We’ll do our best to put out or control the fire as soon as possible.”

AP now says the fire has now been put out, although the Japanese government says that high levels of radiation are being released:

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from four reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima province, one of the hardest-hit in Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that has killed more than 10,000 people. “The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out,”


The fire was put out. Even though it was unoperational, the fourth reactor was believed to be the source of the elevated radiation release because of the hydrogen release that triggered the fire.


“It is likely that the level of radiation increased sharply due to a fire at Unit 4,” Edano said. “Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health.

Hopefully, Edano is right, and the high levels of radiation were due to a temporary fire, which has been put out.

However, high radiation levels were reported before the fire, when reactor number 2 exploded earlier today, and the government said that its containment core had been breached.

The Christian Science Monitor notes that a design feature of the Fukushima reactors may mean that spent fuel rods release far more radiation than the reactors themselves:

A particular feature of the 40-year old General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor model – such as the six reactors at the Fukushima site – is that each reactor has a separate spent-fuel pool. These sit near the top of each reactor and adjacent to it, so that cranes can remove spent fuel from the reactor and deposit it in a swimming-pool-like concrete structure near the top of the reactor vessel, inside each reactor building.

If the hydrogen explosions damaged those pools – or systems needed to keep them cool – they could become a big problem. Keeping spent-fuel pools cool is critical and could potentially be an even more severe problem than a reactor meltdown, some experts say. If water drains out, the spent fuel could produce a fire that would release vast amounts of radioactivity, nuclear experts and anti-nuclear activists warn.

“There should be much more attention paid to the spent-fuel pools,” says Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the anti-nuclear power Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “If there’s a complete loss of containment [and thus the water inside], it can catch fire. There’s a huge amount of radioactivity inside – far more than is inside the reactors. The damaged reactors are less likely to spread the same vast amounts of radiation that Chernobyl did, but a spent-fuel pool fire could very well produce damage similar to or even greater than Chernobyl.”

But another scientist said while the spent-fuel pools have capacity for high volumes of radioactive material, the amount of fuel currently in the spent-fuel pool might be less than widely believed, based on data he has seen showing only about as much spent fuel in the vulnerable pool as contained in the reactor.

“The inventory numbers I’ve seen for the spent-fuel pool [that was losing coolant] is well below capacity,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with UCS, which describes itself as neither pro- nor anti-nuclear power, but which says nuclear safeguards today are not adequate. “That could limit the damage.”

It is stunning that the reactors were so poorly designed.

BBC reports (scroll down on left side):

Japanese engineer Masashi Goto, who helped design the containment vessel for Fukushima’s reactor core, says the design was not enough to withstand earthquakes or tsunami …

Goto was speaking about the reactor core. I’m certain he would say the same thing about the spent-fuel pool.

As MSNBC notes, there are 23 virtually-identical reactors in the U.S.

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George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. Ricardo

    Seems really dumb in hindsight to put spent fuel above the reactors, but I think it just shows the hubris (or cheapness and/or greed and/or complete disregard for human life) of the companies responsible for the design/operation of the reactors.

    Supposedly Obama recently secured loans for the Japanese company that owns the Fukushima nuclear plants to build nuclear plants in Texas. Yeehaw!

  2. Ricardo

    I’m not sure if this is the blog for it, but it would be interesting to see a discussion of what energy sources are viable for the future. Here’s what I see as a layperson:

    Nuclear – potential for extremely long-lived mega-disasters; where to store all the spent fuel?; can newer designs solve these issues?

    Natural Gas – Seems to be the popular choice of DC power brokers, but can it be extracted safely (fracking)?; burning for energy is generally considered cleaner than other sources, correct?; Cars/trucks would need to be retrofitted to use

    Oil – Major sources in geopolitically unstable areas; offshore drilling can lead to major disasters (see Gulf of Mexico); burning for energy dirtier than NG, correct?; Cars/trucks can use as-is

    Solar – How big of a percentage of total energy source can this become?; Would love to see massive subsidies from government; Any trouble procuring material for panels?; Cars/trucks need to be electric to access

    Wind – Again, how much percentage-wise can this source supply? Would love to see massive subsidies from government; Cars/trucks need to be electric to access

    So nuclear sucks for obvious reasons, but does it suck more than oil or natural gas? Can renewables like solar and wind ever provide a significant portion of the energy supply that is needed? Any other significant sources?

    1. Paul Repstock

      Don’t call for subsidies Ricardo. The consumer has to pay in the end anyway. Why make it an unfair burden. Besides, subsidies stiffle, not promote innovation. The ones getting the biggest part of the subsidies are the ones with the biggest lobby power. If you want to really promote alternative energy sources, then open the field to competition like the ‘X Prize’.

      1. Ricardo

        Don’t call for subsidies? Do you think ‘the market’ is going to somehow stop this nuclear disaster?

        You need to join the rest of us here in the real world. Corporations, executives, banksters, non-renewable engergy companies, nuclear companies, chemical companies, and companies involved in genetic modification all ignore tail risk. The tail doesn’t even have to be long and skinny; it can be fatter than the body so long as it extends beyond next quarter’s bonus a company executive isn’t going to care about it.

        And who gives a rat’s if solar companies have the biggest lobbying power? That would be great because they can’t do a lot of damage to the environment. I’d much rather see solar and wind-power companies dominating the lobbying scene. Do you think a Japanese consumer is going to care if they have to pay up for solar? Is nuclear a better option because they could have gotten it cheaper than solar for 40 years until it made a large portion of their country uninhabitable?

        We need to neuter the companies that can hurt society — oil companies, chemical companies, genetic-modification companies, nuclear companies, banks — while promoting companies that can help society, such as organic farms, solar power companies, wind-power companies, etc.

        Brazil has a state-owned oil company with a great safety record (Petrobras). The U.S. let a foreign oil company (BP) drill in the Gulf of Mexico for profit. BP cut corners in order to boost executive bonuses and it led to disaster.

        There are some areas where the market sucks. Energy is one, banks are another. I say nationalize the energy companies along with banks. Genetic engineering should be outlawed. Chemical companies should be heavily, heavily regulated.

        1. Paul Repstock

          Whoa buddy! All I see at the present from the situation in Japan is a risk, which I wish would not have occured. The only concrete news we have is that there have been releases of radioactive particles which may be a health hazzard. A single nuclear bomb or test would probably put more radiation into the environment than if all five Japanese plants melted down completely. Not that I approve of any discharge or carelessness.

          As to your blithe acceptance of the situation where one company could monopolize solar power, Are you that fearfull, or just some corporate shill?

          1. KnotRP

            Someone is pointing out that the market ignores externalized costs (i.e. tail risk) and you call them a shill?

          2. Paul Repstock

            Wrong! Things are getting messy, so “sombody”, calls for pulling the corporations under the protective wing of the government (Nationalize), then I call them a “shill”.

          3. william

            @Paul Repstock says:
            March 15, 2011 at 11:51 am
            Wrong! Things are getting messy, so “sombody”, calls for pulling the corporations under the protective wing of the government (Nationalize), then I call them a “shill”.

            It’s pretty stupid to lie about what you wrote when it’s written clearly for everyone to see, remember your post said:

            “acceptance of the situation where one company could monopolize solar power, Are you that fearfull, or just some *corporate* shill?”

            Yea, we believe you, you meant the ‘nationalizing corporate shills’. Corporations love being nationalized, they love having their share holders wiped out and seeing their boards of directors and CEO’s sacked. That’s why the corporations threw money at Reagan, he was elected so he could nationalize lots of stuff. AHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAAHAHHAHAHHAHA

      2. RDE

        In the real world massive subsidies are granted to energy production from oil, coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. If solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal are to compete on a an equal basis, they should receive similar levels of subsidy during their development phases while subsidies for hydrocarbon and nuclear are phased out.

        On a level playing field, large scale solar thermal plants are directly cost competitive over a life cycle basis right now compared to new unsubsidized nuclear (including insurance cost) or coal with full carbon capture. Solar thermal technology is not in its infancy, but there is still a large potential for development and improvement which will make it even more competitive.

        In the Southwest, distributed solar PV is more economical than new centralized nuclear power when you factor in the cost of grid distribution, full liability insurance, and cost of capital. And it is far more reliable because of its localized redundancy.

        There is enough base load energy in the shallow subsurface track of the Yellowstone hot spot that underlies the Snake River Plain to provide 50% of the electric power for the entire US, potentially at a cost less than conventional pulverized coal burning. No research or development capital has been invested to develop the technology to tap this resource.

        There is no energy shortage, but rather a shortage of societal vision and will. At this point we have built an entire civilization upon fossil fuel energy, and are far past the point where the transition to sustainable sources of energy can smoothly replace it without a massive collapse of the existing societal and technological systems.

      3. Ming

        Ah, Mr. Paul Repstock, let’s look at the history of some major innovations in the 20th century, shall we? Nuclear power, computer technology( the vacuum tube and the transistor), the jet engine, the Internet, laser technology…. All these goodies were incubated and developed either directly by the government or subsidized by the government to the military industrial complex. It was only after these technologies had developed to a commercially viable level, that the independant private sector took over the development. So why not have the government push the development of alternative energy sources so that try can also become reliable and available to the public. Afterall, if the government can spend hundreds of
        billions on building military weapons, and commit trillions to bail out the investment bankers (via the pseudo private owned government backed entity) called the Federal reserve, then why not spend some billions in a truly beneficial initiative like alternative energy?

        And btw…. The government is not constrained by fiscal deficits… If the Federal reserve can print trillions for the financial system, it can print money for alternative energy and ‘loan’ it to the US government at 0%.

    2. attempter

      For what definition of “needed”? If you mean according to the physical needs of corporatism (and the psychological needs of growth fundamentalism), then no, nothing can keep the zombie upright for much longer.

      If we took back our country on an economically democratic basis toward the goal of transforming our food production and distribution for the post-fossil fuel age, renewables can play a significant role in that.

      (As current events are demonstrating, we’re certainly incapable of competently administering nuclear energy, although it’s clear today that literally nothing could ever dissuade the pro-nuke Taliban.

      And even if these horrific physical disasters weren’t endemic to it, nuclear still involves massive concentrations of political and economic power, corporate consolidation and Big Government. IOW, in every political and economic way it heads in a direction exactly the opposite of that in which we need to be heading.)

      Here’s a good basic primer on what alternative energy can and can’t do.

      1. Ricardo

        Interesting. Thanks for the link. So basically there is no energy source that allows society to continue as-is. We are all going to have to cut back to levels that allow us to satisfy very basic needs and live with intermittent energy supply.

      2. LeeAnne

        It also takes a lot of water. There was a time when oil appeared to be a unlimited resource.

        On T. Boone Pickens: “… Water is another of the tycoon’s recent underground exploits. Directly below his 68,000-acre ranch lies the Ogallala Aquifer: A quadrillion gallons of water. This is one of the largest aquifers in the world and stretches from South Dakota to Texas.

        In Texas, the land and any groundwater under are subject to different ownership rights. This means that if Pickens can successfully access the aquifer, on a large enough scale, he will be able to supply it to Dallas/Ft. Worth – which is exactly his intention. “

    3. leroguetradeur

      You cannot get there from here. People including the environmentalist movement keep arguing that alternative energy will somehow spare us from having to change our lifestyles – all the malls and freeways and chemical and industrial agriculture can continue, just we will generate electricity from the wind and use electric cars.

      This is wrong. You cannot. If we really do propose dramatically to reduce energy consumption, we really will have to go back to lifestyles which in many ways are those of the early 1900s. Cars, malls, suburbs will have to go, agriculture and food production and distribution will have to change.

      It will not be exactly the same since we have made huge scientific and technical advances, but it will be a much lower consumption lifestyle, and the agricultural aspects will involve far more manual labor.

      Its not clear that it will actually be a lower standard of living. It will certainly be lower consumption, but so much of the consumption today is of a sort that adds nothing to human wellbeing. Think of the pleasures of flying to business meetings, commuting to work on freeways, driving to the supermarket or mall in the company of all the other polluting vehicles. Would the loss of that really be losing anything of value?

      The other error people commonly make is to enthuse about microgeneration in an alternative energy context. It makes no sense at all, any more than micro smelting of steel in your backyard makes any sense. You are still, even in an alternative energy economy, going to have large utility companies. Scale is the only way to deliver reasonable cost and reliable electricity, whether from wind, solar or whatever. I don’t believe that either wind or solar are practical engineering technologies for anything but a tiny proportion of use, wind totally useless in fact, solar a little better. But putting up either in our back yards is part of the problem not part of the solution, just as it would be if we all tried to make steel there.

      1. Paul Repstock

        You have a point Rogue; but, what I suspect we will see if people get serious about energy, is a huge increase in taxes and surcharges on travel. If gas cost $10 per gallon and the average cost of an airline ticket was taxed an extra $200, then fuel consumption would drop drastically. Auto manufacturers, Boeing, and the Airlines would probably stop any move in that direction.

        1. Anon

          What the **** is wrong with energy efficiency?

          Average US household uses 15 times what similar does in Europe – and is Europe back in the Amish era? Of course not.

          Our current energy and distribution methods are wasteful and inefficient – and will cost us the earth, literally, as we are seeing in Japan.

          Energy gneration and distribution can be changed, it just requires investment, but hey, that’s the rub, isn’t it, for energy oligarchs and their margins?

          (As a side note, the city in which I live has a continuous history of habitation more or less since the Romans, 2,000 years. Of those, 1,900 were without any electricity at all, and yet a vibrant, memorable civilization was still had, and its products have endured – you may have heard the names of some of those involved, such as Shakespeare.)

          If we are more intelligent in our selection of generation methods than we have been up to now, then we can continue to live. The nuclear path, however, is suicide.

          I am particularly concerned about what has happened up at Rokkasho, the vast Japanese nuclear waste storage facility in the far north of the main island, which is also currently being powered by back-up generators.

          As this Wikileaks cable from 2008 reveals, Rokkasho was only ever conceived as a “temporary” home for Japan’s nuke waste:

          7. (C) Kono also raised the issue of nuclear waste, commenting that Japan had no permanent high-level waste storage, and thus no solution to the problem of storage. He cited Japan’s extensive seismic activity, and abundant groundwater, and questioned if there really was a safe place to store nuclear waste in the “land of volcanoes.” He noted that Rokkasho was only intended as a temporary holding site for high-level waste. The Rokkasho local government, he said, had only agreed to store waste temporarily contingent on its eventual reprocessing. Kono said that in this regard, the US was better off that Japan because of the Yucca mountain facility. He was somewhat surprised to hear about opposition to that project, and the fact that Yucca had not yet begun storing waste.

          (“US embassy cables: MP criticises Japanese nuclear strategy”, 14 March 2011,

          According to Der Spiegel on 12 March, Rokkasho holds 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, which needs to be continuously cooled.

          That sum is equivalent to the contents of 25-30 atomic reactors.

          (“Radioaktives Cäsium sickert aus japanischem AKW”, 12 March 2011,,1518,750459,00.html)

          As Der Spiegel noted yesterday, Fukushima marks the end of the nuclear era. This is 9-11 on steroids.

          (“Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era”, 14 March 2011,,1518,750773,00.html)

  3. Paul Repstock

    Too bad this had to happen. I hope they can find ways to control the situation. It would have been so much better if my opinion had proven true..:(

    We should all hope now that Murphy’s Law relents. finger pointing and politics on’t help at this stage.

    1. Jim the Skeptic

      Paul Repstock says: “We should all hope now that Murphy’s Law relents. finger pointing and politics on’t help at this stage.”

      That sums up my thoughts too.

      There will be time later to determine if this was caused by a design flaw or operator errors. We need to know much more about the operators’ actions immediately after the earthquake.

      For now we just don’t have enough facts.

      1. Rex

        J Skeptic said, “For now we just don’t have enough facts.”

        You don’t, maybe. If you had been following the better coverage, it’s pretty simple. The reactors require water flow even when shut down; also for the spent fuel storage. Several levels of failure from the earthquake made that water flow not happen. As time passes more and more crap is going wrong.

        There is a good chance this may get worse than Chernobyl.

  4. CaitlinO

    This has all the smell to me of yet another TBTF tax-payer bail-out about to be:

    Insurance policies on nuclear plants in Japan exclude coverage for property damage or liabilities caused by earthquakes or tsunamis, a person familiar with the situation said on Monday.

    Those exclusions would apply to Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc’s (9501.T) Fukushima reactors, which were damaged in last Friday’s record temblor.

  5. ronald

    This is a totally relevant comment:

    Tetsuo: “Kaneda!”

    Kaneda: “Tetsuo!”

    Why? Because Akira revised Japanese history as an era between (nuclear) apocalypses, channeling post-reconstruction anxieties about nuclear weapons and fears about the effect of big city life and high technology on traditional society.

    This dialogue is most famous from the anime version and represents the moment when Tetsuo, overwhelmed by his growing power, loses control. Tetsuo, his body filling the stadium with biologically gargantuan irrational mutations, calls out to his former friend and mentor, the teen-aged Kaneda, who can only open fire upon the monster.

    But still it is too late! The apocalypse arrives to restart Tokyo.

  6. steelhead23

    This is really hard to blog about. I have long been a fan of nuclear power. Having lived in Denver, where severe smog alerts were common, I saw nuclear power as relatively pollution-free with a good safety record. Today, I am stunned. If the containment vessels are lost, or if the spent fuel pools melt down it will be clear – the risks of nuclear power are far larger than I had imagined. Now what?

  7. Ron

    Japan is the first modern hi technology society to crumble and is liable to undermine the carefully constructed global banking and trading economy. Modern economies have been crafted on cheap global energy sources clearly this event and its aftermath is an indication that human society will again move toward local sustainable lifestyles.

  8. Dark Entropy 646

    The problem begins from the fact, that these reactors where some 40 years old technological dinosaurs, which should have been decommissioned out of service on their 30 year life circle end, instead of trying to keep them running, in order to boost profit.

    Nuclear energy is safe, as long as you give some damn respect to it and play within the rules. If not, forget it. There are lead reactors, breeding reactors, liquid metal reactors in general, which can be far more safer, than a monster which needs emergency cooling, with active electrical pumps, even when it’s completely shut off.

    Lessons haven’t been learned from Chernobyl era, when experiments of stupidity with the auxiliary cooling system had blown up the whole reactor. A nuclear device which needs active components to be running, when it’s completely turned off, like this reactor, which needs the auxiliary cooling system, in order not to explode, when all control rods are inside to it, it’s a pure suicide in extreme geophysical conditions. You don’t need to be an engineering genius in order to understand this.

    Now they do pay the price, of the hubris of not replacing the damn thing, with something safer. And I still wonder. The reactors are located beside the sea. Haven’t ever passed from their brain the possibility of a tsunami? Even it it wasn’t such devastating, how on earth someone could feel safe? Was it guaranteed that with a tsunami of say 5 meters instead of 10 meters, everything would keep functioning?

    1. aletheia33

      apparently something like it. this tsunami overtopped the tsunami protection walls at the site.

  9. kievite

    The problem begins from the fact, that these reactors where some 40 years old technological dinosaurs, which should have been decommissioned out of service on their 30 year life circle end, instead of trying to keep them running, in order to boost profit.

    That’s easier said then done. Reactors are expensive and true cost of “savings” is realised only during such catastrophes. Now a lot will be done in this area. So in a way Japan with its tragic experience helped to improve safety of the future generation of reactors. May be dramatically so as this was increadible stress test (huge eathquake plus tsunami)

    In any case it is important not to overreact. It is important to avoid panic mode. Panic mode is more dangerous then neutrons ;-)

    Chernobyl catastrophe happen 40 km from a major city (the capital of Ukraine — Kiev, around 1.5 million people). The level of contamination was high everywhere to the extent that military radiometers showed the contamination on the streets, balkones, etc. Food was contaminated too as it was impossible to relace all the food for such a huge city in the system that existed with food shortages everywhere. Some food was redirected from south but that lasted only for several months.

    The dealing with catastrophe was complicated due to poor standard of living and inefficiency of state run economic system which was in terminal decline. Centralization helped and protective Sarcophag was erected pretty quickly due to bravery of “likvidators” — workers who were assigned to deal with the catastrophe, but other then that, there not much was done.

    Still there was not noticeable increase of birth of children with Dawn syndrome or other chromosome anomalies, thyroid cancers, children cancers, etc. Many people who lived during the catastrophe in Kiev and got substantial doze of radiation now reached age 85 or higher.

    Actually there are many survivors among so called “liquidators” and personnel of the station that worked in the building during the catastrophe and got tremendous — I mean close to letal dozes of radiation.

      1. kievite

        How many children have suffered from Chernobyl

        I don’t know. I guess one or two orders of magnitude less then were crippled or died in auto accidents for the same period. I guess most of them were among evacuees from the Pripyat.

        Here is the quote from Wikipedia:

        Emergency Workers being studied, 216 non-cancer deaths are attributed to the disaster, between 1991 and 1998. The latency period for solid cancers caused by excess radiation exposure is 10 or more years; thus at the time of the WHO report being undertaken, the rates of solid cancer deaths were no greater than the general population. Some 135,000 people were evacuated from the area, including 50,000 from Pripyat.

        1. kievite

          Here are some figures:

          Late in 1995, the World Health Organisation (WHO) linked nearly 700 cases of thyroid cancer among children and adolescents to the Chernobyl disaster, and among these some 10 deaths are attributed to radiation. However, the rapid increase in thyroid cancers detected suggests that some of it at least is an artifact of the screening process.[citation needed] Typical latency time of radiation-induced thyroid cancer is about 10 years, but the increase in childhood thyroid cancers in some regions was observed as early as 1987. Presumably either the increase is unrelated to the disaster or the mechanisms behind it are not well understood.[citation needed]

  10. Herman Sniffles

    General Electric, the same sociopaths who brought you the Vietnam War and crappy appliances.

  11. GregG

    It should be the TEPCO executives and nuclear policy makers that have to drive the cement mixers and bulldozers into the approaching mess. But you know it’s going to be plant workers and first responders who will be asked to “take one for the team”.

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