Workers Race To Cool Fuel Rods At Crippled Plant

Attempts by helicopters to dump water into a pool of overheated nuclear fuel at Japan's Fukushima reactor complex did little to dissipate radiation ledges at the plant. Water cannon are next. Efforts have moved to filling two spent fuel pools as water levels dropped.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Egypt. Workers at Japan's crippled nuclear power complex are increasingly turning their attention to pools of water that contain spent fuel rods. Pools at two of the reactors have lost a lot of water, water that keeps those fuel rods from catching fire. Helicopters have been dumping water, and workers have tried to use water cannon, but that has not worked.

NPR's Christopher Joyce is in Tokyo, covering this effort, and he joins us now. Chris, good morning.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Good morning to you.

WERTHEIMER: Chris, this idea of dumping water from helicopters, it sounds a bit desperate. What happened?

JOYCE: It was desperate, and it didn't work. They had four helicopters -they carried these slings of - big buckets on slings underneath the helicopters. And they flew them over the ocean, picked up water, and then tried to drop the water onto one of the reactors, reactor number three, where they've got a problem with the spent fuel pool.

And you could see the images on the television, and they were trying, gamely, to get the water into the reactor area. But it didn't work. They missed most of the time. And afterwards, they measured the radiation level, and it was no lower than it was before they've made the attempt, so they abandoned that. It was actually quite dangerous because the radiation levels above the reactor are quite high.

WERTHEIMER: What happened with water cannon?

JOYCE: Well, that was the second tier of the approach, and that was very much delayed. They kept saying they were going to try it, they were going to try it. They had trucks lined up. These are actually water cannons that are designed for crowd control. They had 11 of them. And they drove them, finally, onto the nuclear power complex, and they were not able to get close enough. They have a range of about 100, 150 feet. But in the end, it was also very hot, very radioactive in the area, and they weren't able to get it into the - these spent fuel pools. And it was a failure.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when this all started, Chris, it was the reactors that were in danger of going dry and overheating, maybe even melting down. Why is the attention now on these pools for spent fuel rods?

JOYCE: Well, the pools have a lot of these spent fuel rods, which are uranium fuel that's been inside the reactor for years, possibly. And when they're used up, they put them in these spent fuel pools. And they thought that they were OK, that they weren't going to cause a problem. They were more focused on the reactors themselves because that's where they were losing the water that keeps the reactors cool. They seem to have got that under reasonable control even though they had explosions in three of the reactors, at least.

But in the meantime, they sort of lost control of these spent fuel pools. These things do get hot even though they're old ro ds that - they've been used before. And apparently, the water that keeps them cool has been evaporating - either that, or there's been some water that's leaked out because the pools - they're not on the ground. They're 150 feet up inside these buildings. And they could have lost water, or it could be evaporating because they haven't been able to keep them cool enough. And you know, these things are quite dangerous. They can create a lot of heat, and they're very radioactive. And now, they've become the center -or the focus of the desperate attempt to try to keep these things from burning up.

WERTHEIMER: Is there an end in sight here?

JOYCE: Well, they've tried just about everything. It's not as if they're not trying. After this, they've been talking about getting the electric power back into the nuclear complex. They can't get the pumps to drive the water up into these nuclear - the ponds that they end up - in the pools that they keep these spent fuel rods in. And until they get good alternating current and lots of power, everything else seems to be sort a stopgap attempt.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Chris.

JOYCE: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: We've been speaking to NPR's Christopher Joyce in Tokyo.

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