In the compounding layers of tragedy sweeping Japan, a Chernobyl-style release of nuclear material into the environment continues to present a grave concern. Despite valiant efforts, the government’s response in attempting water drops by helicopter has utterly failed, in one expert’s opinion.
“It’s like using a squirt gun against a raging forest fire,” Physicist Michio Kaku PhD, a professor at City University of New York, told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.
Initially slow to respond, government officials publicly minimized the enormity of the crisis. “They are overwhelmed,” Dr. Kaku said. “They are floundering. They just don’t know what to do.”
Prayers are being lifted up for churches and missionaries within the evacuation zone, currently assessing the best way to respond to the disaster or whether they should evacuate themselves.
U.S. officials have raised fresh concerns about the spent fuel in reactor 4, a worry shared by Dr. Kaku. “Hollywood likes to focus on the meltdown – the melted core and the exposed uranium. But old fuel is actually more dangerous than the meltdown because there is more radiation in the unguarded spent fuel pond than in the reactor itself,” he said.
The Japanese nuclear crisis has the potential to be larger than Chernobyl, because there are hundreds of tons of nuclear waste stored in the reactor cores that could be lofted into the environment. “We have cracks in the containment vessels of reactors one, two, and three. If those cracks grow, or if there is an explosion, this could be something beyond Chernobyl, because of the fission products stored in the reactor,” Dr. Kaku said.
Something as simple as a lit cigarette or flipping a light switch presents a danger for explosion. “You could have fireworks, like Roman candles, because zirconium will oxidize with air, releasing hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas can ignite, not just in the reactors, but in the containment vessel itself and rip the vessel to pieces.”
Dr. Kaku believes the crisis is close to the point of no return due to excessive levels of radiation zapping rescue workers on site. “The radiation levels are near lethal right now. At a certain point they will have to abandon ship. There will have to be a suicide mission to go in,” he said.
“Once you abandon ship it is inevitable you will have meltdowns in all three of the reactors,” he added.
On March 15, Dr. Kaku first called for a final, Chernobyl-style solution using the Japanese military. “The last ace in the hole is the Japanese Air Force. The military may have to take over at some point and bury these reactors in concrete, just like we did at Chernobyl, sandbagging the reactor with 5,000 tons of concrete, boric acid and sand.”
“The best case scenario is if there is no massive release of fission products because the containment vessels hold. If we have meltdown in all three reactors, but the containment vessels hold, we’re in a stable situation, hanging by our fingernails, but it’s stable. But we now have cracks in all three containment vessels and it’s not certain how stable those vessels are.”
French officials were the first to categorize the Japanese nuclear crisis as “Level 6,” with Level 7 as the highest level. “Level 7 is Chernobyl: uncontrolled release of fission products,” Dr. Kaku noted. “We’re not at level 7 yet, but we have more cores, more radiation than we did at Chernobyl sitting there.”