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Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 high-level radioactive waste storage pool at risk of catastrophic fire

A recent photo of the Unit 4 reactor building, with workers in white radiation suits (under girders) beside HLRW storage pool surfaceJapanese diplomat Akio Matsumura has been warning for many months about the potentially catastrophic risk, as due to another powerful earthquake, of Fukushima Daiichi's damaged and listing Unit 4 high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) storage pool (photo, left) completely collapsing. Robert Alvarez of Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) has documented that the Unit 4 pool contains nearly 10 times the radioactive Cesium-137 (Cs-137) than was released by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. If the pool's floor falls out, or the entire Unit 4 reactor building collapses, the pool's cooling water supply will drain away, and the HLRW could catch on fire within a short period of time. Up to 100% of the volatile Cs-137 would then be discharged directly to the environment in the fire and smoke, as the pool lacks any radiological containment whatsoever. Former Japanese Ambassador to Senegal and Switzerland, Mitsuhei Murata, recently warned not only the Japanese Parliament about this risk, but also the Japanese Prime Minister and United Nations Secretary-General. There are a total of 7 HLRW storage pools at Fukushima Daiichi, containing 85 times the Cs-137 released at Chernobyl (this figure does not even account for the Cs-137 in the three melted down reactor cores). If Unit 4's pool goes up in flames, it would make the entire site a deadly radioactive zone which would have to be abandoned by workers, risking the other 6 pools also boiling down and catching fire. The "common pool," containing the most HLRW of all on site, is just 50 yards away from Unit 4.

Alvarez et al. (2003) have documented that U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) studies, carried out by Sandia National Lab (2001) and Brookhaven National Lab (1997), reported that a HLRW pool fire in the US could cause: as many as 143,000 latent cancer fatalities, up to 500 miles downwind; up to 2,700 square miles of agricultural land condemned; and property damage and economic losses due to evacuation and condemnation surmounting $765 BILLION (adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollar figures). Beyond Nuclear and IPS have warned that US irradiated nuclear fuel storage pools, especially those at 24 General Electric Mark I boiling water reactors, are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents or attacks. In fact, most US GE BWR Mark I pools contain more HLRW than Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 to 4 put together. The National Academy of Science confirmed such risks in 2005, yet NRC still does not require pools to be emptied into hardened on-site storage.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) recently took a fact-finding trip to Fukushima Daiichi -- donning a radiation protection suit and respirator. Wyden revealed that the situation at the rubblized complex is worse than reported, and has called on Japan to open up to international assistance, and on relevant US federal agencies (Energy, State, NRC) to provide it, to prevent even more catastrophic radioactivity releases in the near future than have already taken place over the past 13 months.

Wyden stated: “The scope of damage to the plants and to the surrounding area was far beyond what I expected and the scope of the challenges to the utility owner, the government of Japan, and to the people of the region are daunting. The precarious status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear units and the risk presented by the enormous inventory of radioactive materials and spent fuel in the event of further earthquake threats should be of concern to all and a focus of greater international support and assistance.” (emphasis added)

Please contact your own U.S. Senators and U.S. Representative and urge them to support Sen. Wyden's urgent initiative. Phone your U.S. Members of Congress via the congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121.

Thom Hartmann hosted Beyond Nuclear's Kevin Kamps on his television program "The Big Picture" on April 18th to discuss these risks. 

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