(Updated) Fukushima animation shows how difficult clean-up is going to be

The Fukushima animation below is TEPCO-produced, so beware the spin and the feel-good “nothing to see here” certainty.

(Also beware the nice American offering guarantees at the end; he has the sound of a paid shill, who exist in great and secret numbers. I may check on him later; if you get the goods on him first, please let me know in the comments. His name is Dr. Dale Klein, chairman of the “Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee.”)

UPDATE: Excellent. Commenter John Deever has the goods on Dr. Klein. He’s indeed a shill. More at the link. Do read the entire thread; lots o’ info. Thanks, John, and thanks to all of you.

But the video below will give you a great working view of what the site and the spent fuel containment pool looks like in pristine condition. I found it an invaluable aid to understanding other Fukushima discussions.

What TEPCO wants you to think about the spent fuel pool

Watch; this TEPCO-produced video is short. I’ll have comments after you’re done. You’ll need to keep these images in mind when you watch the second video, showing what that spent fuel pool looks like now.

Some notes on the TEPCO video:

▪ Early on you can see the orientation of the spent fuel pool relative to the building and the reactor. The room with the spent fuel is indeed high off the ground (about 100 feet) and filled with water.

▪ You can also see the mechanized operation of the cranes that move fuel rod “bundles”  to containment casks, prior to the removal of the casks from the building.

At 1:29 you can see a number of workers looking at a fuel rod “bundle.” This gives you a sense of the scale of each one. The individual rods themselves are, as Arnie Gundersen describes below, about the diameter of your finger, and about 12 feet long. The bundles appear to be either 9×9 or 8×8 packages of rods, again about 12 feet long.

At 2:00 in the video, the crane hooks a bundle by a kind of handle. But look at the whole room. What’s shown is a water-filled space with multiple “racks,” each containing 30 bundles of rods. At least 15 “racks” are visible in the animation. If the room contains only these, that implies 450 bundles. It appears certain that the term “fuel rods” refers both to the bundles and as well as to the individual thin rods.

This is confirmed by the Gundersen video below, at about 7:05. The room at Reactor 4 must contain about 50 of these racks.

▪ There are perhaps 1500 bundles in the room, which implies over 1500 individual removal operations.

▪ At 2:30, the room is shown with a 5-by-9 array of these containers, each containing 30 bundles. That multiplies out to 1350 bundles or about the right number of spent fuel rods in the room. There are also about 200 unspent fuel rod bundles in the same chamber (Gundersen says 300 below).

▪ Note also how like a pack of cigarettes each “rack” or container of 30 bundles appears to be.

▪ And of course, according to the video, no worker will ever be harmed or put in danger anywhere on the site by any cleanup operation. That’s been proved a lie, but that’s a separate discussion.

A “crumpled pack of cigarettes”

Recall that I once described the contents of the pool this way (emphasis, comments and reparagraphing added):

TEPCO_animation_spent-fuel-poolThis is the problem today. There are about 1500 fuel rods [bundles] stored in that room [about 1300 spent and 200 “live”], packed together vertically in racks. Think of a pack of cigarettes standing upright with the top of the pack removed. Normally, the movement of fuel rods [bundles] is done by a computer-driven machine that reaches into the room from above and removes or replaces a fuel rod [bundle] by drawing it upward or lowering it downward.

The machine knows to the millimeter where each [bundle] is located. Also, the rods are undamaged — perfectly straight. The problem is that this pack of cigarettes is crumpled, and the process must done manually. Therefore, the likelihood that some of the fuel rods will break is high.

You can now see why that “pack of cigarettes” metaphor is accurate. The scene at 2:00 is a very close parallel to the above description (which I got from Arnie Gundersen here). You can also see why “crumpled pack of cigarettes” could easily describe the groups of fuel rods in their present condition.

Obviously, in the comforting TEPCO animation, none of the rods, bundles, or racks are crumpled, broken or distorted in any way.

What’s really going on with the spent fuel pool

For comparison, check out the real-life camera view inside the pool at 3:20 in the video below. It shows an underwater room filled with a number of tightly packed 3×10 racks, or “cigarette packs.” But notice the condition of the room — far from pristine.

Please do watch the whole thing. It shows Arnie Gundersen, an industry engineer and Fukushima critic, explaining what’s going on at Reactor 4, and what could go wrong, as far as he knew, as of the time he made the video, about a year ago.

Pay attention also as he discusses the importance of the presence of an unspent nuclear core in the spent fuel rod room.

Note that this video was uploaded in August 2012. Some information, such as the exact count of fuel rod bundles, could have been updated since then. Also, when he says “in early July” the water cooling system failed (8:10), he’s likely referring to July 2012.

Gundersen has since said that he’s very concerned that the fuel rods in the pool are damaged — per the “crumpled pack of cigarettes” comment — and that the odds of getting the rods out without them touching each other and starting a fire are fairly low (though he doesn’t put a number on it).

The absolute worst-case scenario, though, is still another earthquake of significant magnitude, and an accompanying tsunami. Just in the last two weeks, we’ve had multiple earthquakes in the area, though lower in magnitude than the 2011 earthquake, and no tsunamis. So far.

I’ll stay on this story. We’re told that the period for TEPCO to test the removal of a containment cask (presumably empty) from the spent fuel pool — see the start of the first video for what that operation looks like — is no longer than two weeks, or sometime on or before November 22. Assuming that test goes successfully — or assuming we’re told the truth about whether it went successfully or not — the real work will then begin.

Stay tuned. Me, I’m riveted.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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34 Responses to “(Updated) Fukushima animation shows how difficult clean-up is going to be”

  1. karlInSanDiego says:

    “If it had been up to me, i’d have have had those pools emptied in the first month.

    With the fuel pools empty, you can drain the water down into the basements.”

    Not so fast. Their embedded crane was destroyed in the quake and hydrogen explosion, so no one was moving anything without a purpose built functional crane. There was also the matter of No Containment after the hydrogen explosion. Lot’s of Monday Morning quarterbacking, but at least two smart steps were to reconstruct/repair the crane, and build a makeshift containment anticipating that something will go wrong during the ONE YEAR process that this will become. TEPCO sucks, and I barely believe them when they tell me that they’ve performed those two steps, but everyone must agree, those steps were important.

  2. Indigo says:

    I see the Obamabots have arrived.

  3. LibertyDwells says:

    *LMAO* It’s impossible to take seriously anyone with a POV so skewed as this.

  4. John Deever says:

    That’s well put. I always like to remind people of two things. The first is that nuclear power was billed as “the peaceful atom” and its output as “too cheap to meter” at a time when the world was horrified by the realization that we could now wipe out civilization with atomic bombs — so the desire to find positive, beneficial uses of fission was strong, and its use went mostly unquestioned. It’s not some “good idea,” then, just because it’s doable. It is a not-quite-so-bad offshoot of a *really* bad idea (i.e., immolating innocent civilians on a massive scale for ideological purposes). Nuclear weapons aren’t even “weapons” per se, as you can only use them on mass numbers of people who are not really your target anyway, if we assume that the leaders of a country are the ones most responsible for its deeds.

    The second reason nuclear power can never be a good solution is, in the U.S. anyhow, the subsidy it gets on liabliity. The nuclear priesthood realized early on that on regular days nuclear power produces energy without incident, but one really bad day (like Fukushima suffered) is catastrophe: therefore, the industry did not want to have to pay for cleanup if shit went down hard. And thus we have the (fairly recently renewed) Price-Anderson Act https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price%E2%80%93Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act

    … a federal government guarantee to insure losses in a big disaster like a meltdown. No other energy source receives such a “priceless” (har, har) subsidy. Essentially, nuclear cannot compete economically without a bailout always in its back pocket.

    As we hippies have long said, nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous, and expensive. Nothing about that can change.

  5. siyousyanamae . says:

    Dr. Mita addresses the need of blood examination among children in Tokyo
    11 Nov 2013, World Network for Saving Children from Radiation
    Dr. Mita, Mita Clinic in Tokyo: Our patients mostly come from Tokyo. Reference value of white blood cells for healthy children is 4000, but it has shifted to 2500. It is lower than the threshold value of 3000. We think these points at a serious problem.
    And when these children spend some time in West Japan, they get better. But our real hope is to have not just children but also adults move away from Tokyo. The adult conditions are definitely different compared to how it was before the nuclear accident.
    With elderly people, it takes more time for asthma to heal. The medication doesn’t seem to work. We also see more patients with diseases that had been rare before; for example, polymyalgia rheumatica. Before the nuclear accident, we had one or less patient per year. Now, we treat more than 10 patients at the same time.

  6. Arnd-Peter Mauruschat says:

    You fucked it up, TEPCO !

  7. zorbear says:

    I read that first time through as “a neurotic fusion” and thought “That sounds like something Woody Allen would have…

  8. donniagw595 says:

    my Aunty
    Sophie recently got a fantastic gold Infiniti QX50 SUV by working parttime off
    of a pc. hop over to these guys w­w­w.B­I­G­29.c­o­m

  9. Monoceros Forth says:

    Fusion power still presents some of the same problems that fission power does. Most important you still have to deal with the flood of high-energy neutrons shooting off from the nuclear reaction and doing great damage to any conceivable material used to house the reactor. There are potentially usable fusion reactions that do not produce neutrons as a chief product (“aneutronic fusion”); some of these require the rare helium-3 isotope, as can be seen in the science documentary “Mobile Suit Gundam”.

  10. patb2009 says:


    I think they will probably be able to get the fuel bundles out. Even if some bundles are stuck,
    the packs will usually have one that you can get unstuck. Think of this not like a crumpled pack of cigarettes but like a skewed rack of EMT Electrical tubing. The racks have shifted but you can usually find one end where they aren’t stuck and pull those ones out from there.

    besides what choice do we have. We can’t leave the fuel up there and TEPCO has been
    dithering for 2 years.

    If it had been up to me, i’d have have had those pools emptied in the first month.
    With the fuel pools empty, you can drain the water down into the basements.

    ease structural loads and flood the molten cores.

  11. emjayay says:

    Yeah, so it would seem. Getting tons of heat from not burning stuff just seems like such a cool thing. And non-global warming and non-polluting.

    Again, if we could just figure out the fusion thing, without blowing up half the country or something, that would really be cool. Haven’t heard anything about it in a long time. Maybe everyone decided it just wasn’t gonna happen.

  12. Monoceros Forth says:

    In the end, assuming that there will be an end to look back from, I daresay that fission power will be regarded as one of those technological ideas that, while clever and even elegant in theory, just had too many problems to be feasible in practice–a engineering dead end rather like bubble memory or the laserdisc.

  13. Donuts says:

    I get that now. Three cores melted. Obvious in hindsight. So what about the pools? What does common sense say?

  14. BeccaM says:

    Total power loss + seismic damage + tsunami = worst case scenario in nuclear energy, pretty much.

  15. BeccaM says:

    Let’s start with the fact you don’t know how to spell ‘lead’ and how 1/8 of a mile is roughly .20 kilometers, not 1/4km.

    After that, you might want to study up on college-level civil engineering before attempting to pursue a career as a highly-paid professional energy and disaster mitigation consultant.

    Or, you could just hang by that phone and keep wondering why British Petroleum and TEPCO haven’t put you in charge of their disasters.

  16. Nickaljia Powers says:

    So why can’t we divert the river flowing under Diaichi, build a giant 1/8 mile (1/4 km) led cyllinder, something like I wanted to do for the gulf oil leak area except much bigger diameter and made of led, place it around the entire thing with a base starting 50ft into the ground, fill it with cement, and be done with it?

  17. emjayay says:

    I guess that’s what you get when you combine post WWII optimistic futurism, trying to make up for atom bombs, and 50’s technology, all doing something that has never close to having been done before.

    Now, how about fusion energy. See, harnessing the energy in this bit of matter the size of a dime or something, we could…..

  18. Donuts says:

    Once again I’m realizing that I gave the powers that be the benefit of the doubt when they didn’t deserve it. After the accident, like you, my assumption was that things were not that bad. Looking back I can see I was a fool. Total power loss to a nuke plant is a worst case scenario. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding (and trust in that understanding) would have known on day one there had been three meltdowns. So, then what does my layman’s common sense say about SFP #4? Boiled dry.

  19. Monoceros Forth says:

    You’re right, this article does seem just a bit histrionic, but it’s not implausible. Certainly (at the very least) we really can’t trust the dribble of information we’ve been getting from TEPCO. Hell, how many months did it take for us on the outside to learn that there was a complete meltdown and loss of fuel from three of the four reactors at Fukushima? Until then I thought, based on the news I read, that there had been some partial core damage, as with the loss-of-coolant accident at Three Mile Island, but not a total destruction of the core. And yet now we know that it’s not quite certain where all of the fuel from the ruined Fukushima reactors has gone…that’s just insane.

    The important point in all this is that we don’t know what the hell is going on.

  20. Donuts says:

    There is another narrative about SFP #4 circulating, most notably promulgated by http://hatrickpenryunbound.com. It has a bit of the conspiracy-crazy stink, but I would like you to investigate the following:

    Given that,:

    * When water circulation is lost, SFP #4 climbs by 10C/day.
    * A window of about two weeks exists to restore circulation before a fire begins.
    * After the earthquake and tsunami, there was no circulation in SFP #4 (Power grid out. Backup diesel generators out)
    * TEPCO desperately used helicopters and fire trucks to try and get some fresh water into SFP #4, with questionable efficacy. (This proves normal cooling was offline)
    * Radiation was so high that no one could actually get into reactor building #4 and take a good look at the pool.

    Shouldn’t we then wonder:

    * How long was normal cooling offline? How long did TEPCO attempt the desperate measures such as helicopters and pump trucks?
    * Was there any evidence of boiling in SFP #4 during this time? Was steam ever seen?
    * There was an explosion in reactor building #4, but the reactor was offline for maintenance. What exploded?

    It is not unreasonable to wonder about the state of SFP #4 in days and weeks after the accident. The unquestioned narrative in the TEPCO video, and even in the Fairewinds video, is that the pool made it through the disaster mostly intact. Although this is probably true, I think this assumption needs to be throughly checked.

  21. Indigo says:

    I agree, it’s disturbing. Equally disturbing is recognizing that Ronald Reagan now sounds like a contemporary moderate leftist. Go figure. The shift to the right is virtually tectonic, globally.

  22. karmanot says:

    “the political pressure from the Japanese right is too great” Japanese nationalism has crept in fast and furious—-not a good sign.

  23. Monoceros Forth says:

    Gundersen seems dispassionate and reasonable enough to me, anyway. All of the concerns that he brings up are plausible and sensible. It should be stressed also that there’s no need for an actual nuclear disaster–a criticality, that is–to result in a catastrophic release of radiation. The Kyshtym disaster at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyshtym_disaster ) is proof enough of that: a chemical (not a nuclear) explosion in nuclear waste that had been badly stored led to a massive release of radioactive fallout. The death toll is highly uncertain, partly because the effects of such contamination may be delayed for years, but it must have ranged in the hundreds to thousands.

    Zirconium is tricky stuff. It’s used as an engineering material in nuclear reactors because its a poor absorbent of neutrons and it’s also relatively inert under normal conditions, somewhat the same as aluminium or magnesium because it forms a chemically resistant oxide layer that “passivates” the bulk metal. But get it hot enough and it’s nasty. It will abstract hydrogen from water, just as Al and Mg do; it was just such a reaction that led to the explosions that laid waste to the Fukushima reactor buildings, because water came into contact with hot zirconium alloy to produce hydrogen gas that then exploded as a fuel-air mixture.

  24. lynchie says:

    You are right Gundersen is clearly non partisan. The pols are all bought off both Dem and Repub and lack the intelligence to even understand how a reactor works and how long the “spent” fuel rods are dangerous and how lethal the situation in Japan is.

  25. Monoceros Forth says:

    Oh, make no mistake, there are a host of secondary difficulties with fission power. Sensitive location of the plants, just as you say; the problem that much of the uranium we can mine is in politically troubled areas; the risk of nuclear proliferation. The thing is, though, even if you could somehow eliminate all of these problems, the inherent difficulty of maintaining a fission reactor is impossible to remove.

  26. Indigo says:

    It doesn’t help that many of the existing reactors are built in geologically sensitive areas or along seashores where bleeding into the ocean can easily happen.

  27. Indigo says:

    Difficult under ordinary conditions but the current conditions are not really ordinary. The conservative Prime Minister Abe is trying to put a smiling face on the issue but the facts belay his effort. Even Abe’s colleagues are demanding the Japanese government take over the clean-up but so far, the political pressure from the Japanese right is too great to deal honestly with the situation. Sound familiar?

  28. John Deever says:

    Interesting. Although, as bad as so many Bush appointees were (can you say “John Bolton” and “top ten floors of the UN”?), even Democrats in the NRC are gonna be blindly pro-nuclear. But none of them can tell the great Arnie Gundersen “oh, it’s all safe, you just don’t get the science.” Another physicist I’ve worked with in the nuclear safety community worth listening to is Arjun Makhijani. Also, lots of more clear-eyed assessment available at NIRS.org, a nonprofit doing great work providing realistic information about nuclear safety.

  29. lynchie says:

    Money money money it’s a rich man’s game. More safety, dedication and creativity means cost.

  30. lynchie says:

    Besides he was a Bush appointee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

  31. John Deever says:

    Dale Klein is the former chair of the NRC (think pope of the pro-nuclear priesthood) and in fact working for TEPCO right now.

    What he can tell us about Fukushima is a lot like what Angelo Mozilo could tell us about Countrywide,


  32. Monoceros Forth says:

    I used to think better of fission power and tended to regard as overblown the fear that it inspires. Even the Chernobyl accident didn’t put much of a dent in my beliefs, as horrible as it was; since that disaster occurred only after a team of unimaginably reckless men systematically circumvented every procedure and disabled every mechanism in place to to run the reactor safely, it was easy for me to say that the Chernobyl accident was an extraordinary event that didn’t say anything about the safety of a nuclear plant being operated in a halfway sensible fashion.

    My warm feelings about nuclear power have been cooling for a while and the stream of bad news from Fukushima has finally chilled them altogether. I should have known better. I have to admit that I had some vague notion–and I suspect that a lot of nuclear energy proponents harbor the same notion–that all you really needed to do was heap a bunch of fissile material in one place, put in some control rods and a cooling system, and then you could just let the reactor sit there and make electricity for years and years, needed only maintenance and not a constant supply of gas or diesel or coke like an ordinary power plant. The reality is, as this latest bit of news demonstrates, rather more complicated.

    Why does the problem described above even exist? Why are there vast numbers of fuel rods that now need to be extracted from their precarious perch in Fukushima’s cooling ponds? Because there’s absolutely no way to avoid it. Long before a nuclear plant’s fuel rods are exhausted of their fissile material the build-up of fission products in the fuel, if allowed to continue without interference, grinds the fission reaction to a halt because many of those fission products are strong absorbers of neutrons (“neutron poisons”), soaking up the neutrons needed to maintain the fission reaction. Therefore the fuel rods need constantly to be replaced and recycled; so the old rods are removed, allowed to “cool” for some years until the shorter-lived (hence more intensely radioactive and dangerous) fission products have had sufficient time to decay, and then dissolved in acid so that the uranium or plutonium in them can be separated chemically from the neutron poisons and used to make new fuel rods. The result? Massive quantities of nuclear material need to be stockpiled during the ordinary operation of a nuclear plant–just what’s causing trouble now–and then you’ve got the problem of handling and processing this large amount of dangerous material. It’s worth adding that the majority of nuclear “criticality accidents” over the years, caused by the accidental assembly of a critical mass, have occurred during the chemical processing of uranium and plutonium in solution.

    To make the problem worse, the materials used in the construction of a fission plant take a incredible beating from the operation of the reactor. The constant bombardment from high-energy particles and gamma radiation breaks down the crystal structures in metals and ruins their mechanical strength; also, depending on the substance, neutron bombardment makes them radioactive by “neutron activation”, i.e. the capture of a neutron by a stable atomic nucleus to produce one that is unstable and radioactive. So it’s not just the fuel in a nuclear reactor that needs constant replenishment, it’s all the other parts of a reactor as well.

    So now I think that it’s just not worth the trouble in the end to build fission reactors–and, if we actually tried to supply all our energy needs with nuclear reactors, we’d have to build a huge number of them. Dr. Nathan Lewis, in his “Powering the Plant” lecture that I like so much, estimated that we’d have to build a new 1 GW reactor every other day for fifty years to satisfy the world’s energy consumption at its current level. (Yes, you could build bigger reactors–the Fukushima station was rated about 5 GW–but the bigger the reactor the less safe it is.)

  33. BillFromDover says:

    Hard work, dedication and creativity?

    Why weren’t these used in the original design of this plant?

    Oh well…

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