TEPCO’s do or die mission to save nuclear reactor may have caused largest radiation leaks during Fukushima disaster

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Researchers from the University of Tokyo, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and other experts have examined the crisis response log from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. They also checked radiation levels in surrounding areas, namely the radiation data from the Fukushima Daini plant 10 kilometers south of the Daiichi plant.

They found that workers attempts to prevent explosions at the Unit 2 reactor may have in fact caused a substantially large radiation leak.  They proved that hypothesis by pairing data of the recorded radiation levels which rose sharply 3 times at Fukushima Daini monitoring posts over a period of 5 hours during the night of March 14th.

The report reveals that by that time, the amount of nuclear fuel which had already melted down in the core was already leaking into the containment vessel, filling it with radioactive materials, prior to the start of seawater injection operations.

The researchers report shows that workers were unable to get coolant water into the Unit 2 reactor, due to the high pressures inside of the containment from steam leaking out of the reactor pressure vessel due to core damage and fuel meltdown.

When the water level in the reactor pressure vessel increased after the seawater injection, the pressure in the containment rose as well until it reached over two times the designed limits, which combined with the extreme heat would threaten to crack or damage the concrete containment vessel.

These rises came 1 hour after each time workers at Unit 2 released radioactive steam from the core in a critical effort to lower its pressure, and prevent an explosion the likes of which had devastated Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactor buildings.

The experts propose that the radioactive materials escaped from cracks in the concrete containment vessel, and were carried south towards the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant.

This is also corroborated by what data has been revealed regarding the radiological release, which also implies a substantial amount of radioactivity was released prior to the explosion at 06:00 JST on March 15th.

The largest spike of radiation measured at Fukushima Daiichi in the first week, were measured around or shortly after 00:00 on March 15th, which correlates with TEPCO’s documented ‘dry vent’ of Unit 2.  A ‘dry vent’ operation refers to releasing gas directly from the drywell pressure release valves into the outside air, without passing it through the pipes and the water in the suppression chamber, which may filter part of the isotopes.

As the fission products were being directly released into the environment, inside of the reactor their absence would have been quickly replaced by newly-produced steam from the melted nuclear fuel.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, says opening the valve was the only solution at the time.

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Masamichi Chino says the leaks were serious and need to be further studied even though they occurred as a result of work to protect the reactor.  Researchers say the radiation from Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 was 10 to 20 times higher than the other Units onsite which were devastated by catastrophic hydrogen explosions.

After the explosion was heard inside of Unit 2, the data also suggests that even larger amounts of radioactivity were released, possibly in combination with other units.

TEPCO would later hypothesize due to elevated temperatures, among other factors, that a breach roughly 10 cm wide was created in the reactor’s containment vessel 21 hours after the quake.  Tepco also said it believes that parts used to ensure air tightness may have broken from overheating.

Earlier this year the details emerged that the core of Unit 2 had completely liquefied, and has yet to be located inside of the reactor building.

March 14th – March 15th, 2011 – Unit 2 Timeline

March 14th

After the explosion of the Reactor 3 building just before noon on March 14th, workers were unable to open the suppression chamber valve, and were also unable to inject water from the fire engine due to the high radiation fields and equipment damaged from debris.

The malfunctioning valve continued to prevent workers from manually venting the containment vessel to release pressure and maintain injecting seawater into the reactor.

At 11:30 JST workers noted that the reactor water level began to drop.  As a result, the nuclear fuel in that reactor was exposed for many hours, and may have caused a breach of the container vessel releasing even more radioactive particles.

At 13:18 JST on March 14th, the reactor core isolation cooling system for Reactor 2 stopped and shortly afterwards, the water level within the reactor continued falling.

At 13:25 JST, workers confirmed that the RCIC function was lost

Around 16:34 JST, the plant manager at Fukushima Daiichi ordered for seawater injection to begin to cool down the damaged fuel in the reactor pressure vessel.

By 18:00 JST, the reactor pressure again began a downward trend.

Approximately 20 minutes later by 18:22 JST the top of the fuel was exposed to the air.

At 18:35 JST, workers tried to open both the large and small S/C vent valves, but were unable as the air pressure from the compressor was insufficient to overcome the forces inside of the containment.

19:20 JST, the fire truck pump stopped after running out of fuel, and was restored at 19:57 JST.

By 19:30 JST on March 14th, the water level readings inside of the Unit 2 reactor were reported to be showing below minimum possible values.

At 19:54 JST, the workers attempted to restart injecting seawater into the reactor from a fire engine.

At 21:20 JST, workers opened 2 safety release valves, the water level recovered, and the reactor pressure decreased.  The small S/C vent valve opened slightly, and the vent line was complete except for the rupture disk.

A short while later, around 21:37 JST, radiation levels at the front gate had reached levels where annual limits would be exceeded in 20 minutes.

Around 22:50 JST, pressure levels in the Dry-Well exceeded the maximum usage pressure, and within 40 minutes workers were forced to attempt to vent the pressure out of the system by opening a small valve in the D/W vent.  This drywell vent may be attributed to a large radiological release from Reactor 2.

The workers encountered an increasingly difficult situation as they found that the D/W pressure was trending upwards whereas the S/C pressure was stable, meaning they were not unified.

At 23:00 JST, workers are further set back when it is found that 1 safety relief valve was closed because the reactor pressure had increased.

As the S/C pressure was lower than the working pressure of the rupture disk, and D/W pressure still increasing, the workers opted to open the D/W vent valve to vent the reactor.

The Unit 2 reactor pressure vessel lost pressure around one hour before midnight on March 14th, which may indicate the time when more of the melted nuclear fuel may penetrated the pressure vessel.

March 15th

In the early hours shortly after midnight on March 15th, workers opened up safety release valves in an attempt to vent some of the pressure out through the vent stacks leading from the Unit 2 reactor, but these attempts were unsuccessful.

Instead workers for forced to open a small vent valve which allowed the radioactive materials to dry vent from the D/W.  They managed to create the vent line and hold the valve open for a few minutes.

Then at around 06:14 JST, an explosion rocked the suppression chamber and the S/C pressure zeroed, Tokyo Electric Power said that after the explosion inside of the Unit 2 reactor, pressure had dropped in the “suppression pool” — a section at the bottom of the reactor that converts steam to water and is part of the critical function of keeping the nuclear fuel protected.

Government officials at the time to said that there was a very high probability that a portion of the containment vessel was damaged.

The reliability of all of the measurement instruments after the explosion is certainly suspect, and TEPCO workers have continually been plagued by broken gauges and measurement devices.

After that pressure drop occurred, radiation levels outside the Unit 2 reactor were reported to have risen sharply to over 400 millisieverts an hour.  Even at that rate, a mere 7 minutes of exposure would effectively cause a worker to exceed the maximum annual dose allowed, and 75 minutes of exposure would likely lead to the subject exhibiting symptoms of acute radiation sickness.

Later that morning, TEPCO announced that it had fixed the broken suppression chamber valve and resumed seawater injections, but admitted that it had detected possible leaks in the containment vessel that prevented water from fully covering the fuel rods.

On the night of the 15th, around 20:00 JST, a majority of the fuel in Reactor 2 is thought to have completely collapsed inside of the reactor pressure vessel, and the explosion which had occurred the day before had further damaged the containment structure.

Source: TEPCO

Source: METI

Source: NHK

Source: The Japan Times

Source: New York Times

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