The chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave a significantly bleaker appraisal of the threat posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis than the Japanese government, saying on Wednesday that the damage at one crippled reactor was much more serious than Japanese officials had acknowledged and advising Americans to evacuate a wider area around the plant than the perimeter established by Japan.
The announcement marked a new and ominous chapter in the five-day long effort by Japanese engineers to bring four side-by-side reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by an earthquake and tsunami last Friday. It also suggested a serious split between Washington and Tokyo, after American officials concluded that the Japanese warnings were insufficient, and that, deliberately or not, they had understated the potential threat of what is taking place inside the nuclear facility.
Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the commission, said in Congressional testimony that the commission believed that all the water in the spent fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station had boiled dry, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation. As a result, he said, “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.”
On Thursday morning a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power, the Daiichi plant operator, and a spokesman for Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, denied Mr. Jaczko’s account, saying the situation at reactor No. 4 had not changed and that water remained in the spent fuel storage pool. But both officials said the situation was changing and that the reactor had not been inspected in recent hours.
"We can’t get inside to check, but we’ve been carefully watching the building’s environs, and there has not been any particular problem," said Hajime Motojuku, the spokesman for Tokyo Electric.
Takumi Koyamada, the spokesman at Japan’s nuclear regulator, said that as of 12 hours ago water remained and the temperature reading was 84 degrees Celsius and that no change had been reported since then. "We cannot confirm that there has been a loss in water," he said. "But we face a very unpredictable situation." If the American analysis is accurate and Japanese workers have been unable to keep the spent fuel at that inoperative reactor properly cooled — it needs to remain covered with water at all times — radiation levels could make it difficult not only to fix the problem at reactor No. 4, but to keep workers at the Daiichi complex from servicing any of the other problem reactors at the plant.
The problem is the panic over the leaks is taking away from the very real and present danger of millions of Japanese citizens with no power, light, or heat, facing dwindling food and water supplies in a snowy March spring, with nights getting down to below freezing. The humanitarian crisis is very real right now, radiation or no radiation.
All the nuclear plant issues are doing is making it impossible to get help to people who badly, badly need it.