Fukushima Docs 4 – A Marathon Not A Sprint

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This post is part of an on-going series originally posted at DailyKos and republished by Enformable with permission of the author.  Through the series the author highlights and comments on FOIA documents released by the NRC in response to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.


In this fifth installment of documents released via FOIA from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission we’ll again be looking at what the NRC knew about the situation at Fukushima, what they were doing with the information they had, and how they were trying to control informationgetting out to the public about what was going on at Fukushima Daiichi. These particular documents are dated from March 16th through March 22nd, or Day-5 through Day-11 in the timeline forward from the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.

On the technical assessment [TA] front, the analysts and engineers serving the NRC contingent at the joint NRC/State Department OpCenter were busy working on the continuing dangers from the spent fuel pools, having already surmised that the three reactor cores were already well outside the reactor vessels and for the time being fairly well shielded by being below ground level in what remained of the containment structures.


From March 16 to March 21 an exchange thread circulating among the TA groups outlined changing priorities for the modeling. They’d been working on estimates of how long it would take the corium to melt through the containment liners and concrete into the lower levels of the plant. Those interested should definitely click on this link and follow the exchanges (bottom to top chronologically) as by the time the TA task force had a handle on a given projection, they inevitably found the corium had already melted beyond that. Finally throwing up their collective hands on gaming ‘unthinkable’ conditions that were consistently more unthinkable than they thought, the new priority took shape…

I recommend you drop all SOARCA work while we are developing a revised/improved Fukushima spent fuel pool source term. This is in response to NRC OpCenter requests for source terms.

The March 17 “Talking Points” is illustrative of NRC understanding of conditions, demonstrating that their true area of ignorance and/or confusion (based on what little TEPCO was releasing by way of real information) was the fuel pools, not the reactors.

As established in the last installment, the NRC was aware of the zirconium fires in the Unit-4 SFP, but there were also some serious concerns about the other pools. On March 18 @ 9:22 AM one of the outside consultants emailed the TA group to request that the Sandia end of the operation be a bit more precise in addressing the question of what salt deposition does to BWR fuel assemblies in the SFPs. An issue the Sandia crew considered urgent to prevent further fires in leaky pools. His concern was primarily the Unit-3 SFP, which he figured had the best chance of being a minimal source term per releases due to the fact that all its assemblies were relatively ‘old’ as opposed to fresh. Looks like he was trying to get a handle on whether that pool might survive without a zirconium fire straight to atmosphere if it ran dry…

Because all of the fuel in the Unit 3 pool is old, it is possible that air cooling of the outside of the shrouds around the assemblies may be able to prevent heating of pins in the center of the assembly to the temperature needed to initiate zirconium oxidation. If so, then salt is probably less of a problem because the flow area between the assembly and the rack, for low density racking, is pretty large, so it is more difficult to generate flow blockage with salt.

On March 18 @ 12:13 PM the possibility of a different approach to the spent fuel pools – beyond just spraying or dumping water in their general direction – was being discussed. This involved dumping sand or concrete [ala Chernobyl] into the pools still sitting precariously up on the 4th floor of utterly destroyed reactor buildings…

Although sand can trap aerosol, it is also a very good thermal insulator. Thus, introduction of the sand will only exacerbate the fuel heatup on the pool due to decay heat, thereby increasing fission product release. In fact, the increased release may actually offset any filtering benefits that the sand would offer.Pumping concrete or any other type of a slurry into the pool would be exceptionally detrimental, limiting heat transfer to conduction alone… and thereby negating the convection that is required to remove decay heat…

…not to mention that dropping sand from helicopters would damage whatever was left of the fuel assemblies, or even cause the skeletal buildings to finish collapsing.

By later that night, March 18 @ 11:15 PM a communique from an Argonne NL participant about analysis of the data so far on the SFPs wasn’t encouraging…

Frankly, in my opinion, the ball has already been dropped on SFPs number 3-4 and I would just try to get water in there ASAP to try to mitigate additional releases.I think a lot of the bad actors (Cs, I) have already left the house and now it is best to try to quench these beds and mitigate the damage. I wouldn’t be worried about H2 from the SFPs in Units 1, 3 and 4 as there’s no building left to accumulate it…

Of course, later in the same document the author surmises that the reactors themselves are “stable” and no longer melting – thus “coolable” – and that he stopped worrying about hydrogen from them “several days ago.” That certainly wasn’t the actual situation the NRC TA group at OpCenter was aware of, as they were busy planning nitrogen injection into the primary containments to prevent further explosions while the corium was busy melting into the basements from what used to be drywells.

Thus it was that by Monday, March 21 @ 3:17 PM the TA team working on the release source terms from the SFPs determined it needed to revise their estimates before passing those out to any of the non-NRC requestors of information…

1. Clarification and assessment of potential radiological release source terms for Fukushima Units 3&4 spent fuel pools, earlier estimates were made based on earlier Peach Bottom analysis and followup is needed to address Fukushima and complete dryout and concrete attack, clarification sought by the PMT2. We have received additional requests from Naval Reactors. These are being put on hold. Discussed with Brian Sheron

Meanwhile, on the coverup front…

As the source term estimates kept on growing day by day and ‘worst case scenarios’ became more and more dire due to reality, OpCenter’s descending circles of “need to know” analysts, engineers, NL and industry consultants became increasingly aware of the danger of fallout to U.S. territories between Japan and the bulk of the North American continent. We may conclude that the State Department had already agreed in some fashion NOT to challenge the grotesque falsehoods coming out of Japan (from TEPCO and NISA) about the real danger levels, and was able to keep the various agencies tasked for public protection inactive and silent when the plumes hit.

An exchange related to the morning’s Commissioners Assistants Briefing of Tuesday, March 22the subject of keeping information about possible high Iodine-131 doses in Midway and Alaskaout of the document collections subject to FOIA and away from everybody outside the NRC itself became a regular Big Deal…

The Bounding Plausible Analysis, which needs peer review, would indicate elevated child thyroid dose to those in Midway Island and Alaska…This assumes 1 core and 2 SFPs released. (25% U2 Core, 50% U3 SFP, 100% U4 SFP).

If you’re wondering about these figures, recall that Unit-4’s spent fuel pool contained its entire active reactor core, so it counted as that plus all its collected spent fuel assemblies. And don’t forget that we all now know that all three reactors, all of the U4 SFP and quite a lot of U1-3’s SFPs contributed to the plumes. Thus it was worse than even these estimates.

When asked if this information could be forwarded to consultants and staff even if kept away from the FOIA pile, the response was short and not sweet…

No they are not to be forwarded. They are full of speculation from many sources and are not to be quoted.

Throughout this period the Office of Public Affairs was having its own issues with what should or could be released to the public, and the subject of doses from fallout was very much a part of that. Not because OPA was anywhere close to “need to know” on such technical subjects, but because the press and public kept asking uncomfortable questions about it.

Interestingly, I have not yet encountered the presumably public “assessment” (of doses/levels to be expected from plume fallout) mentioned in this email from Skip Mahon, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for DHHS’s Indian Health Service to OPA, importance level “High” in the thus-far posted FOIA documents. It’s likely in there somewhere, or it would have to be FOIA’d from DHHS (the list of involved governmental departments and agencies keeps on growing)…

Thank you for the update … can I assume the Alaska assessment includes the Aleutians Islands? We have Tribes in those locations who are expressing concern about radiation fall-out and affects.

Obviously, someone was keeping track of the plumes, mapping them, and trying to factor possible dose rates for at least one state (Alaska). By what would normally have been quitting time for the Office of Public Affairs, they were discussing the Environmental Protection Agency’s RadNet monitoring system and how the public would be able to interpret the available readings…

RadNet isn’t all its cracked up to be. People have to go through a registration process and the web site does not give dose. It gives a lot of highly technical information that the public would have no chance of interpreting…

OPA was of course right about the “user friendly” shortcomings of the RadNet system. Which has long been kept as user UNfriendly as possible because it is required by regulation to be publicly available. Recall that by the end of March – when Unit-3 at Fukushima was busy re-melting and its fuel pool likely went critical around the same time (ascertained in later documents to have been the source of those pesky neutron beams), EPA used the pretty good excuse that RadNet is too user UNfriendly to be of value to the public to help justify ending the 24-hour live feeds and going back to once a month sampling. Their other very bad excuse was that the disaster was going to keep going for months or years, and there was no reason for a 24-hour live feed. Getting to the bottom of that particular coverup cauldron of bat-head soup will have to wait on FOIA responses from EPA, DHS and FEMA.

It was a long day. By Thursday, March 17 @ 10:02 PM the Public Affairs staff got a welcome note of thanks and kudos from “The Chairman” – Jaczko…

As reporters, many of us had front row seats at history. Today, we are part of making history and it is a time we will never forget. The days will continue to be long, but hopefully we can start giving folks some time off. One thing to remember: This is a marathon, not a sprint. (Yeah, how many times have you heard that metaphor used?) Pace yourself. Take time to go outside and enjoy the spring, feel the sun on your face, and come back knowing you are doing a damn fine job.

They were certainly trying hard, but they weren’t “in the loop” with OpCenter and the TA task forces, who did actually have a good idea of just how bad things really were in Japan. And how bad it was likely to be here in the U.S. and Canada, even lowballing the release source terms by more than half. They just couldn’t yet incorporate the idea that they had to go higher than Chernobyl. At just less than half, they were just under that record, and able to conceive of a Japan that wouldn’t have to abandon a third of its physical territory to a radioactive ‘dead zone’.

The less than half figures are what still governs the IAEA rating of 7 (as bad on some levels as Chernobyl) to this very day. Despite what we’ve learned in the months since, once the Japanese couldn’t maintain their coverup. We can hope that in the final analysis the international nuclear community will allow for the truth about Daiichi so that its long term damages to populations around the world can be fairly assessed.

As for what the OPA staff knew about radiation and the dangers of fallout plumes from Fukushima Daiichi, a response from OPA Resource to a question about the adequacy of the Japanese recommendations to people outside the evac zone but closer than 50 miles is telling. On Friday, March 18 @ 1:16 PM the answer to an academic question: “can sealing the doors of their homes help” was simple…

…Overall, the sealing of the doors has very little effect on the efficiency of the sheltering in-place.

On Tuesday, March 22 @ 11:04 AM we meet the NRC’s Office of Congressional Affairs. Which has by that time accumulated so many sternly-worded letters from Congresscritters about the situation that one staffer urged her communicants to “Pray for no more…” While scrambling to put a lid on how much real information would be given. Looks like OCA has the same tasking as OPA per making sure whole levels of data don’t get shared with public or their governmental representatives.

Markey wants daily reports (SitReps) on the status of the Japanese plants. OCA will extract certain information from those reports, and take care of this (plant status only). We will write an “interim response” letter back that will provide him with high level information, provide the link to the Japan box on the website.Kucinich, and Boxer/Carper – We can use this interim boiler plate language to respond to them as well

Blumenauer wants specific information on radiation monitoring so OCA will give us a POC at EPA we can work with on this and we will develop some sort of response with their input.

Lowey will also get an interim response but we are getting info from Brian W. on what type of information we are providing the NY delegation today so we can be consistent.

Boxer/Feinstein – we are trying to get this one transferred to a briefing instead since they have been regularly getting information from us and OCA is accompanying them on a trip to the CA plants. Becky will let us know if this works out.

Previous posts to this series:

Fukushima Docs 1: NOT A DRILL
Fukushima Docs 2: I Feel Like Crying
Fukushima Docs 3: Heavily Redacted

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