The chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said today that all of the water from reactor 4's pools of spent fuel rods is gone. Japanese officials have denied it. If the water is indeed gone, there is nothing to stop the spent fuel rods from getting hotter and melting down. There is also the danger that the outer shell of the rods could explode with sufficient force to propel the radioactive fuel within the rods over a wide area. The NRC and the U.S. DOE both have experts on site at the Fukushima Daiichi's complex of six reactors. But NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko would not say how he came by the information. Japan's nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric Power company, which has faced scandal in the past for falsifying plant safety records, deny that water is gone from the pool. A spokesman for the utility company claimed condition at Reactor 4 is "stable."
Without the pools of water, radiation levels could make it difficult to perform what Jaczko calls "backup backup" cooling functions like dumping water on overheated fuel and letting the radioactive steam vent out. It could also keep "the 50" workers at the Daiichi complex from servicing any of the other crippled reactors. Japanese military have already delayed an unusual cooling tactic, dumping water from helicopters, for fear the helicopters would fly into the steam.
Based on Jaczko's findings, the Pentagon expanded the no-go zone around the plant to 50 miles for U.S. forces. Although exceptions might be made, spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said:
"We train and equip all of our people to operate in all kinds of environments. So we know how to measure [radiation], we know how to test. We know how to respond. We know how to take precautions."
But Japan doesn't seem to share that sense of caution. The government's no-go zone is significantly lower at just 12 miles for evacuation and 18 miles to stay indoors. The Japanese government also — mind-bogglingly — says it will be disseminating less information about the crisis. (Likely for fear of financial repercussions.) The information it has put out has been at times confusing. Officials now say Reactor 3, which was deemed a priority yesterday on account of the visible steam being released, is unlikely to result in severe damage.
Hopefully the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, which is calling a rare emergency meeting to discuss the crisis, can exert pressure on Tokyo to step up precautions. A recent WikiLeaks cable showed an official from the IAEA warning Japan back in December 2008 that its safety rules were lacking and that strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations.
NRC: No water in spent fuel pool of Japan plant [AP]
U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High’ and Urges Deeper Caution in Japan [NYT]
UPDATE 1-US forces kept 50 miles away from Japan nuke plant [Reuters]
UN Calls Emergency Meeting as Japan Nuclear Crisis Deepens [Bloomberg]