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UC Berkeley engineers concerned about reactor leak

March 12, 2011 12:19:34 AM PST
States of emergency are in effect at five nuclear power plants in Japan. Evacuations are underway as the concern grows about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.

Berkeley nuclear engineers say the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which is now shut down, is about 40 years old. The 8.9 earthquake caused the reactor to leak radiation in a way that they say they could not have anticipated and caused evacuations of 50,000 people, within six miles of the plant. Japanese engineers are now concerned about cooling the reactor and avoiding more leaks.

"This increase of radioactivity in the control room makes me very nervous," said UC Berkeley Professor Joonhong Ahn.

Ahn was born in Japan. He and every engineer in UC Berkeley's nuclear engineering department is concerned about the quake damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the release of radioactivity that's resulted.

Professor Ahn says the radiation in the control room is now 1,000 times higher than normal. He says it is not dangerous, but unprecedented.

"But of more concern is the reason why such a high radioactivity is observed in the control room," said Ahn.

Ahn says Fukushima is one of Japan's first-generation nuclear power plants. Even though it's old, the plant has a series of safety features that should have prevented the release of any radiation, but no one could predict an 8.9 earthquake.

"The reactor is guarded by multiple barriers, so this time apparently some of the barriers were broken, but we still have barriers in the system," said Ahn.

He says that's the reason the radioactivity has so far been confined to the control room and not the atmosphere. At this point, Japanese engineers are trying to safely cool the reactor down by first releasing steam which contains some low levels of radioactivity and then slowly pouring coolant into the system.

"They have to do it within a few days at most. So within, maybe over this weekend well see some major results," said Ahn.

Japanese engineers now say they are concerned about a possible core meltdown, a China syndrome. That's a meltdown of the nuclear core which would be catastrophic. Meanwhile, t hree other reactors in the affected area have also been shut down for inspection.


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