Fukushima reactor shell ruptured?

'What the hell is going on?' fumes Japanese PM

The head of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) says that the concrete shell enclosing the troubled No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi complex is "no longer sealed," and that the disaster should now be ugraded to Level 6 on the seven-level International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), placing it one step above Three Mile Island and one step below Chernobyl.

"What the hell is going on?" Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan angrily asked executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in a Tuesday meeting, as reported by Kyodo News, echoing what many worldwide observers are thinking as they try to sift through the uncoordinated reports flowing out of northeastern Japan.

The ASN president, Andre-Claude Lacoste, made his INES-ranking comments at a press conference on Tuesday. "The incident has taken on a completely different dimension compared to yesterday. It is clear that we are at level six," Lacoste said, according to AFP. "The order of gravity has changed," he said.

Other experts are more reserved. "We don't know enough to assess the long-term or short-term effects of this," Dr. Kirby Kemper told CNN, which identified him as "a noted nuclear physicist, physics professor and vice president of research at Florida State University."

The director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research David Brenner told CNN: "I've been asked to put a number on it a few times and I've resisted."

TEPCO's press office has been less than helpful. As The Reg files this story on Tuesday afternoon San Francisco time, it is Wednesday morning in Japan – but the most-recent information available from TEPCO about the status of the Fukushima Daiichi complex merely confirms an explosion that occurred at 6am Japan time on Tuesday in the No. 4 reactor building.

Multiple independent sources, however, have reported that two explosions occured at reactor No. 2, one at 6:10am and a second at 10am – but TEPCO has issued no report on any Tuesday explosions at reactor No. 2.

In a press statement (Google translation), France's ASN said that those explosions "probably caused damage to the confinement vessel which is the source of the significant increase in detected radioactive releases."

Anger about the lack of information is growing. The Los Angelese Times reports, for example, that the mayor of one town partially within the evacuation zone told the Japanese broadcaster NHK: "The government and Tokyo Electric Power have neglected to update residents with accurate information."

Kyodo News also reports that Fukushima's governor phoned prime minister Kan to tell him that "the fear and anger of residents in the prefecture are reaching the limit." At best, the government's sometimes conflicting statements betray confusion engendered by a rapidly changing situation.

According to Reuters, there are historical reasons to mistrust TEPCO. The company's president and four executives were forced to resign in 2002 "after TEPCO was suspected of falsifying nuclear plant safety records." More irregularities and falsifications were discovered in 2006 and 2007.

There's one bit of history, however, that TEPCO won't repeat: due to the radically different designs of the Chernobyl and Fukushima power plants, it is vanishingly unlikely that such an explosive catastrophe as occurred on April 26, 1986 in Ukraine will befall the residents of Japan.

However, it's also unlikely that those struggling with the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini can accurately predict the exact outcome of their disaster-mitigation efforts.

As Kemper told CNN, "We don't know enough."

That uncertainty, however, is enough for a number of countries and organizations to take precautionary measures. China is beginning to evacuate its citizens from affected areas and has cancelled flights from Beijing and Shanghai to Tokyo. Multiple countries – including the US but not, as of yet, the UK – have issued travel warnings, and many airlines in addition to Air China have cancelled flights.

And as if Japan weren't suffering enough, on Tuesday at 10:31pm local time an earthquake measured variously to be between magnitude 6.1 and 6.4 shook Shizuoka Prefecture and its vicinity – which includes both Tokyo and Mount Fuji.

Preliminary reports indicate that the Shizuoka quake, southwest of Tokyo, was unrelated to last Friday's massive, tsunami-causing Miyagi quake in the northeast of Japan. But its occurance so close to Japan's capital most certainly raised the tension level among that city's 13 million residents. ®

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