Even in their most dire assessments, some experts had not expected even bursts of re-criticality to occur, because it was unlikely that the fuel would melt in just the right way — and that another ingredient, water, would be present in just the right amounts — to allow for any nuclear reaction.
If episodes of fission at Fukushima were confirmed, Mr. Koide said, “our entire understanding of nuclear safety would be turned on its head.”
“Re-criticality would produce more harmful radioactive material, and because the reactors are damaged, there would be a danger of a leak,” said Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, whose prescient warnings about nuclear safety have won him respect in Japan.
Mr. Koide holds that the nuclear fuel at the three reactors probably melted through containments and into the ground, raising the possibility of contaminated groundwater.
If much of the fuel was indeed in the ground early in the crisis, the “feed and bleed” strategy initially taken by Tokyo Electric — where workers pumped cooling water into the reactors, producing hundreds of tons of radioactive runoff — would have prevented fuel still in the reactor from boiling itself dry and melting, but would not have done anything to reduce danger from fuel already in the soil.
Tokyo Electric does not deny the possibility that the fuel may have burrowed into the ground, but its officials say that “most” of the fuel likely remains within the reactor, albeit slumped at the bottom in a molten mass.
An engineer, who has worked at all three nuclear power complexes operated by Tokyo Electric, spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified by his former employers.
He said that tiny fuel pellets could have been carried to different parts of the plant, like the spaces under the reactor during attempts to vent them in the early days. That would explain several cases of lethally high radiation readings found outside the reactor cores.
“If the fuel is still inside the reactor core, that’s one thing,” he said. But if the fuel has been dispersed more widely, then we are far from any stable shutdown.”