Update: Fire burns at reactor 3 and food contamination concerns rise

by Jess Miller

March 22, 2011

Damage at plant

The Fukushima/Daiichi nuclear crisis continues, marked by confusion and a lack of information and transparency.

Our team of nuclear experts and monitors followed reports of grey smoke coming out of the spent fuel pool of the nuclear plant’s reactor 3 for at least two hours.

Authorities reported that they could not identify the cause of the smoke or what was burning but assured that radiation levels had not increased. All workers were apparently evacuated from the immediate area, and as far as we can observe, work was stopped overnight.  

From official monitoring reports our team of experts later concluded that radiation levels around the plant did increase significantly during the fire.

While the “Faceless 50” – the heroic workers who are risking their health to contain the crisis – made news over the weekend, it now seems that as many as 700 workers have been working close to the site in order to restore power and cooling capacity and have probably received high doses of radiation.

Reactor 3 had already caused alarm on Sunday, when the plant’s owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) unsuccessfully fought rising pressure inside the reactor pressure vessel. Later on Sunday, NISA made assurances that relieving pressure by venting radioactive steam and air into the atmosphere was unnecessary and would not happen, claiming that the pressure rise was due to their increased pumping of seawater into the reactor.

Later statements from TEPCO said that the temperature of reactor 3 had been very high, reaching up to 385 Celcius, indiciating very high pressure inside the reactor close to its the design pressure. The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) reported that the pressure in reactor 3 was now ‘unknown’ instead of ‘stable’ as in Sunday’s report. This hardly reassuring either.

Also on Monday, reports came of a “white smoke” pouring from the building that houses reactor 2. TEPCO said that it “believed” that the smoke was “water vapour” and “probably did not originate from the reactor itself or the spent fuel pool”. This is yet another unclear situation – very little information has been available, but will keep monitoring.

Food safety

A World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman was quoted as saying that contaminated food in Japan is a “serious situation” and that food contamination is no longer just a localized problem, as previously thought.

Over the weekend, The WHO had called import screening unnecessary, saying there is no problem. Today, WHO changed its view, saying that “it’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem could be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers”. Japan’s government has issued orders for four prefectures to stop shipments of milk and two kinds of vegetables.

Meanwhile, radiation levels in the rest of Japan have stayed at roughly the same elevated levels as in previous days, although traces of radioactive substances have been detected in water in nine prefectures.

According to a TEPCO report, radioactive cesium and iodine many times higher than normal had been detected in seawater near the Fukushima plant. It is still too early to assess the contaminated seawater’s impact on fisheries.

Further information: To help you decipher the complex information around radiation and health we have created a radiation guide covering effects, safety and basics of the Fukushima 1 radiation releases.

Additional resources

Latest updates via our Twitter stream
Our Q and A on the Fukushima nuclear crisis

Main Fukushima nuclear crisis page

Photo – Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant Damage © DigitalGlobe

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