TOKYO (AP) — Inside the troubled nuclear power plant, officials knew the risks were high when they decided to vent radioactive steam from a severely overheated reactor vessel. They knew a hydrogen explosion could occur, and it did. The decision still trumped the worst-case alternative — total nuclear meltdown.
At least for the time being.
The chain of events started Friday when a magnitude-8.9 earthquake and tsunami severed electricity to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of here, crippling its cooling system. Then, backup power did not kick in properly at one of its units.
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From there, conditions steadily worsened, although government and nuclear officials initially said things were improving. Hours after the explosion, they contended that radiation leaks were reduced and that circumstances had gotten better at the 460-megawatt Unit 1. But crisis after crisis continued to develop or be revealed.
Without power, and without plant pipes and pumps that were destroyed in the explosion of the most-troubled reactor's containment building, authorities resorted to drawing seawater in an attempt to cool off the overheated uranium fuel rods.
Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser to the U.S. secretary of energy, said in a briefing for reporters that the seawater was a desperate measure.
"It's a Hail Mary pass," he said.
He said that the success of using seawater and boron to cool the reactor will depend on the volume and rate of their distribution. He said the dousing would need to continue nonstop for days.
Another key, he said, was the restoration of electrical power, so that normal cooling systems can be restored.
Officials placed Dai-ichi Unit 1, and four other reactors, under states of emergency Friday because operators had lost the ability to cool the reactors using usual procedures. Local evacuations were ordered.
Officials began venting radioactive steam at Unit 1 to relieve pressure inside the reactor vessel, which houses the overheated uranium fuel.
Concerns escalated dramatically Saturday when that unit's containment building exploded.
It turned out that officials were aware that the steam contained hydrogen, acknowledged Shinji Kinjo, spokesman for the government Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. More importantly, they also were aware they were risking an explosion by deciding to vent the steam.
The significance of the hydrogen began to come clear late Saturday:
—Officials decided to reduce rising pressure inside the reactor vessel, so they vented some of the steam buildup. They needed to do that to prevent the entire structure from exploding, and thus starting down the road to a meltdown.
—At the same time, in order to keep the reactor fuel cool, and also prevent a meltdown, operators needed to keep circulating more and more cool water on the fuel rods.
—Temperature in the reactor vessel apparently kept rising, heating the zirconium cladding that makes up the fuel rod casings. Once the zirconium reached 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 Celsius), it reacted with the water, becoming zirconium oxide and hydrogen.
—When the hydrogen-filled steam was vented from the reactor vessel, the hydrogen reacted with oxygen, either in the air or water outside the vessel, and exploded.
A similar "hydrogen bubble" had concerned officials at the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania until it dissipated.
If the temperature inside the Fukushima reactor vessel continued to rise even more — to roughly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 Celsius) — then the uranium fuel pellets would start to melt.
According to experts interviewed by The Associated Press, any melted fuel would eat through the bottom of the reactor vessel. Next, it would eat through the floor of the already-damaged containment building. At that point, the uranium and dangerous byproducts would start escaping into the environment.
At some point in the process, the walls of the reactor vessel — 6 inches (15 centimeters) of stainless steel — would melt into a lava-like pile, slump into any remaining water on the floor, and potentially cause an explosion much bigger than the one caused by the hydrogen. Such an explosion would enhance the spread of radioactive contaminants.
If the reactor core became exposed to the external environment, officials would likely began pouring cement and sand over the entire facility, as was done at the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a briefing for reporters.
At that point, Bradford added, "many first responders would die."
AP National Writer Jeff Donn reported from Boston.