Remaining Staff at Fukushima Plant Told to Leave (Temporarily?); Intrade Predicts IAEA Will Upgrade Accident Level (Updated)

Markets like Intrade are only as good as the intelligence (as in G2, not IQ) of the people making the bets. Given the dearth of real information coming from Tokyo Power, it’s hard to reach informed conclusions about whether the powers that be are making progress in getting the damaged reactors in the Fukushima power complex under control. Japanese are just not big on Western-style disaster presentations: “Here is what happened,” (with a few schematics) “here is what we’ve done and this is what we are going to do next” with backup plans sketched out if the first line of attack fails. Their reflex is instead a combination of apologies and sincere vows to do better, plus and inward hiss if they are asked a really uncomfortable question. So the collective nervousness is based on the legitimate concern that Something Really Awful still could happen, and the incomplete and often inconsistent tidbits don’t provide much reassurance.

A wee vote of confidence is that the Nikkei has rebounded by over 3% and the Topix by over 4%. But the Washington Post (which has been doing a very good job on this beat) reports that the 50 workers trying to get the facility under control have been ordered to leave. It isn’t clear what is happening with reactor 4. A fire started there yesterday, and the concern was that it was in the spent rods pool, which is a real weak point in the design (this cooling pool evidently has its own container, separate from the reactor, and it isn’t clear whether it is intact). Some reports say the fire has been put out; others say it has been subdued but is still burning:

The fire at the No. 4 reactor erupted because an earlier blaze was not put completely out.

The causes of the fire was unknown because workers have been unable to get near the troubled reactor.

With it unclear whether the latest explosion damaged the container to reactor 4, BBC reports that the normally stoic Japanese are getting rattled and those that have options are starting to leave Tokyo.

Even though one can credibly call press coverage a tad alarmist, some experts are concerned. Per MSNBC:

“It’s more of a surrender,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who now heads the nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group that opposes the expansion of nuclear power. “It’s not like you wait 10 days and the radiation goes away. In that 10 days things are going to get worse.”

“It’s basically a sign that there’s nothing left to do but throw in the towel,” Lochbaum said.

And Intrade wagers are on the side of matters getting worse before they get better:

Screen-shot-2011-03-16-at-1.22.59-AM.pngUpdate 1:30 AM: A chart posted by Brad DeLong from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum is probably meant to be reassuring but isn’t since it fails to flag the spent fuel from reactor 4 as a risk, when it seems more accurate to categorize it as a major unknown.

Update 2:15 AM: I was remiss in not spelling out the risk of the spent fuel. This extract comes from a post by Kirk James Murphy at FireDogLake:

Two days later, the nearby building containing the plutonium-uranium (MOX) fueled Fuksuhima Daichii reactor unit 3 exploded. So why bother about the rubble of reactor No 1? The WaPo quotes a nuclear engineer who knows the answer:

Although Tokyo Electric said it also continued to deal with cooling system failures and high pressures at half a dozen of its 10 reactors in the two Fukushima complexes, fears mounted about the threat posed by the pools of water where years of spent fuel rods are stored.

At the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, where an explosion Saturday destroyed a building housing the reactor, the spent fuel pool, in accordance with General Electric’s design, is placed above the reactor. Tokyo Electric said it was trying to figure out how to maintain water levels in the pools, indicating that the normal safety systems there had failed, too. Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that unit 1’s pool may now be outside.

“That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1.

We’d be lucky if we only had to worry about the spent fuel rods from a single holding pool. We’re not that lucky. The Fukushima Daiichi plant has seven pools for spent fuel rods. Six of these are (or were) located at the top of six reactor buildings. One “common pool” is at ground level in a separate building. Each “reactor top” pool holds 3450 fuel rod assemblies. The common pool holds 6291 fuel rod assemblies. [The common pool has windows on one wall which were almost certainly destroyed by the tsunami.] Each assembly holds sixty-three fuel rods. This means the Fukushima Daiichi plant may contain over 600,000 spent fuel rods.

The fuel rods must be kept submerged in water. Why? Outside of the water bath, the radioactivity in the used rods can cause them to become so hot they begin to catch fire. These fires can burn so hot the radioactive rod contents are carried into the atmosphere as vaporized material or as very small particles. Reactor no 3 burns MOX fuel that contains a mix of plutonium and uranium. Plutonium generates more heat than uranium, which means these rods have the greatest risk of burning. That’s bad news, because plutonium scattered into the atmosphere is even more dangerous that the combustion products of rods without plutonium.

Update 3:15 AM. Bloomberg reports the workers have returned to the plant. But no one seems to know the status of the spent rods near reactor 4. There are concerns the water inside is boiling. If the rods catch fire, it could become too hazardous to fill the spent rods pool with a fire hose (!), which is the apparent remedy. More information on the risks of the number 4 reactor spent fuel pool at Washington’s blog.

Originally published at naked capitalism and reproduced here with permission.