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Imagining The Unimaginable

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster continues to worsen:

Ken Belson and Hiroko Tabuchi, Confidence Slips Away as Japan Battles Nuclear Peril

The recent flow of bad news from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has undermined the drumbeat of optimistic statements by government and company officials who have at times tried to reassure a nervous public that significant progress is at hand — only to come up short.


The setbacks have raised questions about how long, and at what cost, Japan can keep up what experts call its “feed and bleed” strategy of cooling the reactor’ fuel rods with emergency infusions of water from the ocean and now from freshwater sources.

That cooling strategy, while essential to prevent full meltdowns, has released harmful amounts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere and set off leaks of highly contaminated water, making it perilous for some of the hundreds of workers at the plant to further critical repair work.

Moreover, the discovery of radioactive elements that experts say could come only from the core of a reactor suggest that the government’s strategy may not be working and that partial fuel melting has not been completely halted.

The continuing crisis also underscores the unprecedented scale and complexity of the problems facing Fukushima: a plant ravaged by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and 45-foot tsunami, and three reactors and four spent fuel pools with no proper cooling system yet and containing more long-lived radioactivity than the Chernobyl reactor, according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Takoma Park, Md.

This is why, despite the damage caused by the efforts so far, Japanese officials have little choice but to continue down the feed-and-bleed path. “The worst-case scenario is that a meltdown makes the plant’s site a permanent grave,” said Tetsuo Iguchi, a professor in the department of quantum engineering at Nagoya University. “In a small island nation like Japan, that’s just not an option. That is why the government is trying to prevent a meltdown at any cost.”

But the price tag — in effort, materiel, and lives — might not be the deciding factor.

Plutonium found in the soil is almost certainly an indication of melted nuclear fuel, which means that at least a partial meltdown has already occurred.

And the cooling techniques being used require enormous amounts of water — 200 tons or more a day — which has led to leaks in water and air.

Japan is now in a situation that will require years, if not decades, to manage the gradual cooling of the nuclear plants, and the strong likelihood of continued radiation leakage. And that’s the best case scenario.

Meanwhile, our collective attention is off in the Arab Spring, watching jets strafe Libyan military installations, and rooting for anti-government demonstrators in a dozen Arab countries, which is a lot more fun than worrying about plants in Japan going China Syndrome.

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