Sunday 4 December 2016

'Kamikaze' bid to cool nuclear fuel rods and avert meltdown

Gordon Rayner in Tokyo

Published 18/03/2011 | 05:00

In their bid to avert a nuclear disaster, the authorities are using helicopters to scoop up seawater and douse the Fukushima nuclear plant. Photo: AP
In their bid to avert a nuclear disaster, the authorities are using helicopters to scoop up seawater and douse the Fukushima nuclear plant. Photo: AP

Fuel rods overheating in a dried up storage pool, now open to the elements after its walls were blown away, are threatening a nuclear meltdown at Japan's stricken Fukushima power plant.

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Close-up pictures of the destroyed No 4 reactor building show the gaping hole through which radiation is escaping into the atmosphere as the fuel rods break down.

Last night the UN's nuclear safety body said it was "too early to say" whether yesterday's desperate attempts to cool the rods by spraying water into the building had been a success.

Photographs taken from an aircraft by an employee of the company which owns the plant showed for the first time the full extent of the damage to the reactor units at the power plant.

In unit No 4, a whole wall is missing from the area where spent fuel rods are stored while they cool to a safe temperature.

Inside the building, a green-painted crane which is used to move the fuel rods caught the daylight flooding into the hall.

Beneath the crane, just out of shot, is the pool containing the fuel rods, which should contain water 45ft deep but which has now boiled dry.

Other pictures show the collapsed metal frames of the roof of another reactor unit twisted beyond recognition.

Workers who volunteered to risk their lives to save the plant from meltdown spent another day frantically trying to get water into the dried-up storage pool by every possible means.

Attempts to dump thousands of gallons of seawater from helicopters appeared to have had little success, and efforts to use a water cannon had to be abandoned at one stage because radiation levels outside the plant became unacceptably high.

Battle

There were fears that the volunteers were fighting a losing battle in what one expert likened to a kamikaze mission.

The day began with an ambitious plan to cool the crippled reactors by dumping water from Japanese military Chinooks.

The helicopters scooped up 2,000-gallon payloads of seawater in giant gourds, before dumping them on the plant.

But dangerously high radiation levels meant they could not fly low enough to direct the water with any accuracy.

Television footage showed much of the water dispersing on the wind, and after just four sorties over the course of 10 minutes the plan was abandoned.

Hopes were also raised when police water cannons were brought in and used to blast water toward the empty pool.

Again, the high radiation readings meant the machines could not get close enough.

So once again the fate of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant fell to the courageous efforts of a few dozen technicians, firemen and soldiers.

Some of them said they were prepared to sacrifice their lives to prevent a meltdown. By last night they had succeeded only in preventing the situation from getting any worse.

"I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," said Professor Keiichi Nakagawa of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital.

Without water, the spent fuel rods will overheat and emit radioactive material because the outer shell of the building was destroyed.(©Daily Telegraph, London)

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