Nuclear Crisis: NRC Says Spent Fuel Pool at Unit Four Lost Massive Amounts of Water; Japan Disputes Claims

Japan says the condition at unit four is stable.

ByABC News
March 16, 2011, 8:48 AM

March 16, 2011 — -- America's top nuclear official told Congress today that the pool cooling spent fuel rods at the crippled Japanese nuclear complex had lost most of its water or all of its water, a potentially catastrophic situation.

The Japanese quickly challenged that statement, but gave few details saying only that the situation at the holding pool was "stable."

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said that the fuel pool at unit 4 at the the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had lost massive amounts of water.

"We believe at this point that unit 4 may have lost a significant inventory, if not lost all of its water," Jaczko told a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "What we know at unit three, and again our information is limited, what we believe is that there is a crack in the spent fuel pool for unit three as well, which could lead to a loss of water in that pool."

The spent fuel rods are kept in pools of water to prevent them from overheating and ultimately melting down. The outer shell of the rods could also ignite with enough force to propel the radioactive fuel inside over a wide area.

Japan's nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the complex, deny water is gone from the pool. Utility spokesman Hajime Motojuku told the Associated Press the "condition is stable" at unit 4.

Radiation levels have risen rapidly at the plant and there is a fear that the situation is heading for the worst. If levels continue to rise the doses emergency workers experience near the reactors could be lethal. One U.S. Official told ABC News that "it would be hard to describe how alarming this is right now" and that a suicide mission might not even be enough to avert disaster.

Jaczko recommends that American citizens living within 50 miles of the Fukushima nuclear power plant evacuate the area.

"For a comparable situation in the United States we would recommend an evacuation to a much larger radius than has been provided in Japan," he said. "As a result of this recommendation, the Ambassador in Japan has issued a statement to American citizens that we believe it is appropriate to evacuate to a larger distance, up to approximately 50 miles."

Japan's current evacuation zone is 12 to 19 miles.

The recommendation comes as the Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced that the power line to the plant is almost complete and that the company plans to try it "as soon as possible." The line would revive electric-powered pumps, enabling a steady water supply to be maintained at the troubled reactors and spent fuel storage ponds, keeping them cool.

Surging radiation levels temporarily halted work to cool the troubled reactors at the plant earlier today, raising worries that officials are running out of options to stabilize the escalating catastrophe.

"We're very close now to the point of no return," Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, said. "It's gotten worse. We're talking about workers coming into the reactor perhaps as a suicide mission and we may have to abandon ship."

Radiation levels were as high as 10 millisieverts per hour today, the equivalent of getting a CT scan for every hour of exposure. Radiation levels have since dropped and the plant workers are planning to return to work, officials said.

The Japanese government has actually amended its national safety standard on how much radiation workers can be exposed to so that workers can return to the plant. The limit is now 250 millisieverts, 2.5 times the previous limit.

In the aftermath of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, the growing fear of a nuclear meltdown has spread throughout Japan.

Emperor Akihito, a figure deeply respected in Japan, spoke for the first time since the Mar. 11 earthquake that has left at least 4,340 people dead. He tried to ease worries about the country's nuclear crisis.

"With the help of those involved I hope things will not get worse," Akihito, 77, said.

He offered his condolences to a grieving nation where at least 9,083 people are still missing and 434,00 are homeless.

"It is important that each of us shares the difficult days that lie ahead," Akihito said. "I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy."

In another sign of escalating nuclear danger, Cabinet Secretary Edano acknowledged that the containment vessels of some of the reactors are likely damaged. The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum confirmed damage to Units 2 and 3.

The last step in a nuclear meltdown is the breaching of the containment vessels. The fact that at least two containment vessels are damaged makes nuclear experts nervous.

"We have cracks now, cracks in the containment vessels...and if those cracks grow or if there's an explosion, we're talking a full blown Chernobyl, something beyond Chernobyl," Kaku said.