The New York Times today explains what’s most worrisome about Japan’s post-tsunami Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station crisis:
[As the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,] Mr. Jaczko’s most startling assertion was that there was now little or no water in the pool storing spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, leaving fuel rods stored there exposed and bleeding radiation into the atmosphere.
The spent fuel pools can be even more dangerous than the active fuel rods, as they are not contained in thick steel containers like the reactor core. As they are exposed to air, the zirconium metal cladding on the rods can catch fire, and a deadly mix of radioactive elements can spew into the atmosphere. The most concern surrounds Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and can get into food supplies or be inhaled.
Does this mean that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is heading for a meltdown? Maybe:
In the worst case, experts say, workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to meltdown, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.
Could Japan’s calamity be the trigger that stalls the rickety global economic recovery? I notice that Japan’s Nikkei average is off another 1.44% today (at 8962 as of this post). And it can’t be good for global oil prices if Japan, as a matter of policy, starts moving away from nuclear power stations and toward greater oil consumption.