March 16th, 2011
08:00 PM ET

Official: Spent fuel rods exposed, heightening concerns

CNN Wire Staff

Tokyo (CNN) - Spent fuel rods in Unit 4 of Japan's stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been exposed, resulting in the emission of "extremely high" levels of radiation, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday.

"What we believe at this time is that there has been a hydrogen explosion in this unit due to an uncovering of the fuel in the fuel pool," Gregory Jaczko told a House energy and commerce subcommittee hearing. "We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures."

The water served to both cool the uranium fuel and shield it. But once the uranium fuel was no longer covered by water, its zirconium cladding that encases the fuel rods heated, generating hydrogen, said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former official with the Department of Energy.

That caught fire, resulting in a situation that is "very, very serious," he told CNN. He said the next solution may involve nuclear plant workers having to take heroic acts. Asked to be more specific, he said, "This is a situation where people may be called in to sacrifice their lives. ... It's very difficult for me to contemplate that but it's, it may have reached that point."

Photographs of the building released Wednesday by the power company showed a hole in a wall and deterioration of the roof.

A Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopter aborted its mission to drop water over the reactor because of the high radiation levels in the area, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Officials have been working to resolve cooling problems at four of Fukushima Daiichi's six reactors in the wake of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan Friday.

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soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Kara Jones

    There has been numerous reports that radiation will not effect the west coast of the United States, however I think people are forgetting that the west coast includes Alaska. I currently live in Dutch Harbor, Alaska which is located on the aleutian chain. I fear for my family and what may come from this disaster.

    March 17, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  2. stephen peters

    this plant is right on the water, that was its downfall. But they are ignoring the potential of using the close proximity to the coast to their maximum benefit. they need to be using fire boats to shoot water on the reactor while keeping personnel out of harms way.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:46 am |
  3. Yuko Mattingly

    I've been watching both CNN news and NHK new on Yahoo Japan for last 4 days since my family, relatives and friends live in Yokohama, Fukushima Pref. and Yokosuka. I was worried about my aunt who lives 30 miles from that nuclear power plant. I spoke with her last night and I was surprised that she is still at her home. She still has no water, fortunately she has power and some food but all the stores and hospitals are close and can't go outside because of nuclear meltdown. In cese of emergency she will move to Tochigi Pref. but she is not sure she has enough gas to get there. I'm overwhelmed and I know she is too. All I could do is to pray for the quick recovery but it's very depressing.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  4. judy

    40 years ago, the United States was very fearful of radiation. The public was told that if "the Big one" ever occurred, it would be the end of civilization on earth. The Japanese started WW2 and the US started the radiation on it's way. I believe the Japanese and the US are trying to curb panic. This is avery serious situation and it's time to admit that no one knows what to do. It's not right to let the populations think it's going to be alright.

    March 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  5. Dean-Paul, UK

    I agree. What is the figure for Ground radiation contamination? Also, I dont understand why spent fuel rods require water to stay cool. I had assumed they'd have to be in-use, in order to heat up..

    March 16, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  6. Paula

    Confused... What I heard the head of the NRC say was that our information about the pool being dry was from a souce inside the plant to our team that was in Tokyo, but everyone is reporting that a US team went to the plants themselves. He was asked and said that it was a reliable source that it came from. So... Did a US team ever actually step foot in any of the plants or was the information we received from people on the phone from inside the plant?

    March 16, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  7. Jeff

    Are they dropping water to try and scrub some of the radiation from the air coming out of the reactors? It seems like they really aren't succeeding in getting water to actually hit the building.

    March 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  8. randy

    whats the difference between rads and millisieverts?

    March 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm |