Japan: 48 hours to another Chernobyl?

The United States has expressed growing alarm about leaking radiation in Japan.

Tokyo: A French nuclear safety official has warned that Japan runs the risk of experiencing a catastrophe that could be worse than the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.

Describing the evolving situation as very risky, Thierry Charles, a safety official at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), said: “The next 48 hours will be decisive. I am pessimistic because, since Sunday, I have seen that almost none of the solutions have worked.

When asked about the maximum possible amount of radioactive release, he said “it would be in the same range as Chernobyl”.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster had occurred in Ukraine on April 26, 1986 when a reactor vessel had exploded due to a sudden power output, resulting in large amounts of radioactive leakage into the atmosphere spreading over a large area including many neighbouring countries. The disaster is said to have caused 57 direct deaths, and about 4,000 deaths from cancer.

Last night radiation levels were said to be “extremely high” at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This could now mean that radiation could escape into the atmosphere.

A failure of the cooling system has crippled the entire plant leading to water boiling in the No 4 pool.

Meanwhile, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) has said there is no water left in the pool, resulting in “extremely high” radiation levels. An earlier fire and explosion in the reactor building is said to have damaged the protective walls around the pool.

A USNRC statement said: “We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”

Tokyo Electric, the operator of the plant, said five workers had been killed at the site, two were missing and 21 had been injured.

A US nuclear safety chief said the Japanese Government has failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and warn citizens effectively.

Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said, if ‘extremely high’ radiation levels increased it would become impossible for workers to continue to take ‘corrective measures’ at the plant as they would have to leave.

A US nuclear safety official warned that if the water is gone, there is nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

Japan has resorted to increasingly desperate measures, including dumping sea water into the reactors and blasting water with police cannons into the overheated reactors and pools. There have been accusations that the situation has gone “out of control”.


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