Workers Struggle To Cool Fuel Rods In Japan Plant

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At Japan's beleaguered nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture, the only good news appears to be that the situation hasn't gotten substantially worse. Workers at the facility are focusing much of their attention on the most urgent problem: Two pools used to store nuclear fuel should contain enough water to cover the fuel rods — but they don't. The water keeps the rods cool and also acts as a radiation shield. So, it's vital. In the past 24 hours, Japan's military has tried to get some water into the pools by dropping it from helicopters and spraying it from water cannons on the ground.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

At Japan's beleaguered nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, the only good news appears to be that the situation hasn't gotten substantially worse. Workers of the facility are focusing much of their attention on the most urgent problem: two pools used to store nuclear fuel should contain enough water to cover the fuel rods, but they don't.

The water keeps the rods cool and also acts as a radiation shield, so it's vital. In the past 24 hours, Japan's military has tried to get some water into the pools by dropping it from helicopters and spraying it from water cannons on the ground.

And joining us with the latest in this effort is NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, how's that operation going to get the water into those pools?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Michele, not that well, actually, as far as we can tell. First, the military tried using the helicopters to dump water from above. We saw four flights on TV.

And the helicopters had been shielded with lead, but even so, they had to fly quite high in order to avoid the worst of the radiation. So the water, as it sprayed out of the buckets they were carrying, ended up sort of being scattered in a wide cloud rather than hitting a specific target.

Next, a police riot control water cannon came in on the ground, but officials tell us the water cannon couldn't get close enough because of the high radiation levels at the reactor building, so its stream fell short.

Finally, the military brought in five water cannons and they are reporting that those trucks did manage to spray some water into one of the reactor buildings. They say they sprayed about 30 metric tons of water, which sounds like a lot. It's not that - but not really anything close to what they need. But it is better than nothing because there's not going to be enough to replenish those pools.

NORRIS: So, success is still outside of their grasp. What's the plan moving forward?

HARRIS: Well, officials say they are planning to resume those spraying operations this morning. It's clearly - this is Friday here. This is clearly a stop gap, though, because they really have to devise a better system to get water in these pools. They just have to move more water faster. And one way they are hoping they can do that is by restoring electricity to the power plants, so they can start using the pumps that are built into the power station.

NORRIS: And we're hearing that they might be able to restore electric power soon. What's going on with that?

HARRIS: Well, the International Atomic Energy Agency says the utility has indeed laid a new power line, at least to one of the reactors, reactor number two. But they have not hooked it up as yet. The International Atomic Energy Agency says they're waiting for the water spraying operations next door at unit three to wrap up first.

And I should add that it is good to have power. It's essential to have electricity eventually at this plant, but that's not the whole thing. Apparently, the pumps in the plant have by now been gummed up with all the seawater that they have been using. So the utility says it will have to plumb in new pumps, essentially, to do some of the things they need to do.

NORRIS: Richard, let's take a step back. Up until now, every day seems to bring a new complication, a new explosion or fire or some other trouble. It sounds at least like the situation is not going downhill so rapidly. And I think we may have lost Richard. Richard, are you still with us on the line there?

HARRIS: I'm with you. Can you hear me?

NORRIS: I can hear you. I can hear you. We just had some trouble there on the line. Let me just repeat the question, if I can. I wanted you to take a step back.

HARRIS: I heard the question.

NORRIS: You heard the question. So it sounds like at least the situation is not going downhill so rapidly in the last 24 hours.

HARRIS: That's true. And it is harder to work at the plant, though, because water usually covers the spent fuel, as you mentioned. And it's a very effective radiation shield in addition to being a - cooling down the fuel. And without the water, there's very large levels of radiation in the part of the plant where the spent fuels are - pools are.

People can't get in there even long enough to, like, drag a hose and put a hose into place, which you would think, well, why don't they just put a hose in? And that's why it's just - it makes it very difficult to work there.

NORRIS: You know, it's difficult to ask these questions and to even think about it, but I have to ask about a worst-case scenario. How bad could this be?

HARRIS: Well, let me start with the best-case scenario is that even if they can't get water back into those pools, it is possible that the fuel would just simply sit there and continue throwing off radiation at the reactor site, this very high rate. But the radiation from those pools is like radiation from a flashlight beam. It's not a cloud that's drifting into the air.

Losing the water is not an automatic catastrophe, but it could be because the fuel is covered with this metal material called zirconium. And as the fuel continues to heat up, the zirconium can crack, hydrogen gas can evolve and trigger explosions. And that could spew large amounts of radiation into the air. That would, of course, contaminate the reactor site also, making work there even more difficult and it would be blown downwind.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, thank you very much.

HARRIS: OK, Michele.

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