The presence of highly radioactive water in three turbine buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is widely understood to be from the damaged fuel rods in the reactors. This has rightly raised concerns because it indicates several problems including extensive fuel damage and leaks in the piping system. Less attention has been paid to the presence of a very short-lived radionuclide, chlorine-38, in the water in the turbine building of Unit 1. The following paper evaluates whether its presence provides evidence of a serious problem – one or more unintended chain reactions (technically: unintended criticalities) – in the reactor. Such chain reactions create bursts of fission products and energy, both of which could cause further damage and aggravate working conditions that are already very difficult.
Chlorine-38, which has a half-life of only 37 minutes, is created when stable chlorine-37, which is about one-fourth of the chlorine in salt, absorbs a neutron. Since seawater has been used to cool, there is now a large amount of salt – thousands of kilograms – in all three reactors. Now, if a reactor is truly shut down, there is only one significant source of neutrons, namely, the spontaneous fission of some heavy metals which are created when the reactor is working and remain present in the reactor fuel. The most important ones are two isotopes of plutonium and two of curium. But if accidental chain reactions are occurring, it means that the efforts to completely shut down the reactor by mixing boron with the seawater have not completely succeeded. Periodic criticalities, or even a single accidental one, would mean that highly radioactive fission and activation products are being (or have been) created at least in Unit 1 since it was shut down. It would also mean that one or more intense bursts of neutrons, which cause heavy radiation damage to people, have occurred and possibly could occur again, unless the mechanism is understood and measures taken to prevent it. Measures would also need to be taken to protect workers and to measure potential neutron and gamma radiation exposure.
This paper examines whether spontaneous fission alone could be responsible for the chlorine-38 found in the water of the turbine building of Unit 1. If that could be the only explanation, there would be less to be concerned about. However, the analysis indicates that it is quite unlikely that spontaneous fission is the sole or even the main explanation for the measured concentration of chlorine-38. Presuming the reported measurements are correct, this leaves only one other explanation – one or more unintended chain reactions. This paper is presented in the spirit of encouraging discussion of whether further safety measures might be needed, and whether supplementary measures to bring the reactors under control should be considered. It is also presented as a preliminary analysis for scientific discussion of a terrible and technically challenging nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Arjun Makhijani March 30, 2011
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