Uphill struggle to cool Fukushima 1 unit 1

After pumping increased amounts of water into the reactor core of Fukushima 1 unit 1 with the aim of bringing it to a “cold shutdown”, TEPCO had to conclude that the water level in both the reactor core and the containment is much lower than expected and their plan appears not to be succeeding.

Previously it was believed that the lower half of the fuel rods in the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) was covered in water. Now it appears that part of the RPV is dry and the fuel rods (or what’s left of them) are fully exposed. However, due to the damage to the rods much of the uranium pellets inside may already have spilled into the bottom portion of the RPV and may thus receive some cooling after all. TEPCO had only recently revised its estimate of core damage for unit 1 down from 70% to 55%.

The plan to provide ouside cooling to the RPV by flooding the dry well of the containment surrounding it with enough water to raise the water level to above the top of the fuel rods has not worked yet. Even after pumping more than 10,000 m3 of water, the water level in the 7,400 m3 containment is still below half, not even reaching the bottom of the RPV, let alone its top.

If the water level doesn’t rise further because of leaks then it seems quite unlikely that it will be possible to repair those leaks using manual labour, especially at dose levels of 10 millisievert and more per hour. Even when it looked like the plan might work for unit 1, it was questionable if the same procedure could then be applied to unit 2 or 3, which were already assumed to have a leaky containment.

TEPCO has not yet discussed any alternative plan if flooding the containment won’t work for some or all of the units.

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