'Long road ahead' for Fukushima crisis: French experts

20th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

French experts on Sunday said the immediate crisis at Fukushima was far from over as they spoke of the task of restoring cooling capacity to the crippled nuclear plant.

"There is a long road ahead," Olivier Gupta, deputy director-general of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), told a press conference in Paris.

"The situation remains serious and precarious. This has not changed significantly for several days."

Gupta cautioned that, even if power cables had been reconnected to the plant, "it still isn't possible to use them because of the risk of a short circuit."

"Checks have to be made, junction box by junction box, and equipment by equipment."

Overheating reactors at the plant have caused a buildup of hydrogen through a chemical reaction with the water surrounding the reactor core. This gas is highly flammable and since March 12 has already caused several blasts and a fire.

Beyond the problem of short circuits, engineers also have to see if coolant pumps have survived the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and pipes bringing water to the reactor units are unobstructed.

"Pulling cables (to the plant) does not mean the problem is resolved," said Gupta.

"It's a first necessary step for getting control of the situation, but it's still only a first step and many others will be needed before things are stabilised."

In a press release, the ASN said "this serious accident has already led to major releases of radioactivity, which are continuing.

"Regardless of how the situation develops, Japan will have to manage, over the long term, the deposits of radioactivity resulting from these releases."

Gupta said his special concern was for a tank at the No. 3 reactor unit that houses spent fuel rods.

These rods have to be constantly immersed in cooling water to prevent their external sheathing of zirconium from melting, which would releasing high doses of radiation to plant workers in the near vicinity.

Gupta also referred to a so-called suppression pool located at the base of the No. 3 reactor.

This ring-shaped water tank has until now dampened levels of radioactivity in gas that engineers have deliberately vented from the containment vessel in order to ease pressure inside the reactor.

"If the suppression tank no longer works because of damage, that would lead to higher releases of radioactivity," Gupta said.

Information about technical conditions at Fukushima is clouded by "many uncertainties," he added, pointing to the risk that sensors had been destroyed or damaged.

"It is extremely difficult to get a precise view of the situation on certain points, not just for us but also for the plant operator and the Japanese authorities themselves."

© 2011 AFP

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