Reports of mysterious steam from Fukushima’s Reactor #3 have led to an array of speculation about the cause and probability of new dangers. Is this the sign of a new meltdown and danger to those on the West Coast of the U.S.?
Reports of steam emanating from the reactor began on December 19. The steam was not constant, but did reappear on December 24, 25, and 27.
Tepco has stated that it believes the steam is originating from the fifth floor, but the cause is yet unknown because inspectors cannot enter the building due to lethal levels of radiation. In late December 2013, a report from Tepco mentions the steam, as seen in this translated passage:
At around 7:00 am on December 19, and confirmed by the camera that from Unit 3 reactor building, 5th floor near the center, steam is generated. Have not been identified abnormal plant conditions of 55 minutes at 7:00 am the same day, the indicated value of the monitoring post (meteorological data of 40 minutes at 7:00 am, 5.6 ? temperature, 93.7% humidity). Then, in 58 minutes around 7:00 am December 24, steam is no longer observed. It should be noted, have not been identified abnormal plant conditions in a 3-minute time at 8:00 am the same day, the indicated value monitoring posts, etc. (meteorological data of 50 minutes at 7:00 am, 4.1 ? temperature, 74.9% humidity).
Some fringe websites have issued alarmist warnings, advising people on the U.S. West Coast to “begin preparing for another possible onslaught of dangerous atmospheric radiation!” The popular conspiracy website Infowars described the steam as “smoke” and suggested that “harmful levels of radiation MAY ARRIVE at the West Continental US as early as TOMORROW…” No official warnings, however, have been issued from Japan or the United States relating to the steam coming from Fukushima.
Because TEPCO has not discovered the cause of the steam, several possible explanations have been offered. The Ecologist suggests three:
- A possible meltdown
- “Corium” reaching groundwater
- Rainwater on stray fuel pellets and reactor rod fragments
Fairewinds Energy Education suggests that the “the only time we visibly notice these ongoing releases is on the cold days with atmospheric conditions cold enough to condense hot vapor into steam.”
While the reactor can stop generating the actual nuclear chain reaction, the atoms left over from the original nuclear chain reaction continue to give off heat that is called the decay of the radioactive rubble (fission products). The heat from this ongoing decay of radioactive rubble is constantly releasing moisture (steam) and radioactive products into the environment. The radioactive decay is gradually slowing down, as fission products decay away. The cold moist winter air at this time of year is making steam from the ongoing decay easily visible.
Earlier Steam Incidents
This is not the first report of steam coming from the reactor. In July 2013, TEPCO also reported steam of an unknown cause. At that time it was reported that “Neither the temperature of the reactor nor readings at radiation monitoring posts have gone up. We do not believe an emergency situation is breaking out although we are still investigating what caused this.”
That event did not lead to the dire results suggested with the latest reports of steam coming from the reactor.
While steam of undetermined origin has been reported at Fukushima, no official – or reputable third party – sources have issued any warnings related to this development. It is not the first report of steam from the reactor, and previous incidents did not lead to disaster.
- Steam seen in Fukushima Reactor 3 building: TEPCO (AsiaOne: July 18, 2013)
- Fukushima meltdown? Mystery steam rising over Reactor 3 (Oliver Tickell, The Ecologist: December 31, 2013)
- Mystery Steam Over Fukushima Could Be Sign of Another Meltdown (Ashley Feinberg, Gizmodo: December 31, 2013)
- Plumes of mysterious steam rise from crippled nuclear reactor at Fukushima (RT: January 1, 2014)