15 march 2011

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a meeting on the situation around the nuclear power plant in Japan

Even the worst-case scenario at Japan's nuclear power plants poses no threat to Russia's Far East. This was the main conclusion reached by conference participants. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin nonetheless ordered a review of the current condition, future plans and development prospects for Russia's nuclear industry. He also proposed accelerating oil and gas projects in the Far East to increase supplies to Japan.

Transcript of the meeting:

Vladimir Putin: Colleagues, I have called you here to talk about the situation with our neighbours, keeping in mind that it is within close proximity of the Russian border. And in general, it seems that dire consequences await our Japanese friends. Either way, the global economy and the environment will be impacted – especially, of course, on the Japanese islands.

Let's talk about it more broadly. Let's start with the situation that, according to available data, is developing at the nuclear power plant. Mr Kiriyenko (addressing general director of Rosatom, Federal Atomic Energy Agency), if you please.

Sergei Kiriyenko: Mr Putin, the information that I'll report on now has been culled not only from Tokyo provided by our Japanese colleagues, by the IAEA, but also from of our own simulations, because the information that our colleagues give us, unfortunately, lags behind in time, or is insufficient. But given the fact that we have formed a think tank that enables us to model the situation, we understand it as follows. If I may, Mr Putin, I'll show even some pictures to you. The pictures we have are the following...

Vladimir Putin: Yes, go ahead.

Sergei Kiriyenko: This station had six reactors. Three of them were idle – they were under repair – and three were operational.

Vladimir Putin: And they pose a threat?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Unfortunately, all six could pose a threat at this point. I will explain why.

In the first stage, the reactor design looks like this. There is the reactor vessel, which contains the rods. In a normal state, these rods must be completely immersed in water. What has happened to them? First, the power went out because of the earthquake and then the tsunami destroyed the drives, so water was no longer being pumped into the emergency diesel generators' cooling system.

Vladimir Putin: In other words, the earthquake destroyed the normal operations of the cooling system, and the tsunami destroyed the emergency system?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Exactly. After that, the batteries snapped on, but they only lasted seven to eight hours. During this time, cooling water had to be fed into the reactor. They were unable to do this, and as a result, the water boiled and the temperature continued to rise. They were forced to open the valves, otherwise the pressure would have breached the reactor vessel. Then the water level began to fall, so parts of the rods were not immersed in water. In the areas where they were not immersed in water, the rods began to melt. This is what actually caused the first and third reactors to explode, because the melting zirconium rods and steam give rise to a zirconium-steam reaction, which releases hydrogen.

Vladimir Putin: And the rods melted like putty and slid down?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Yes, they slid down, exactly. And accordingly, it went (I’ll finish drawing the picture below) ... There is a protective containment vessel around this. An airtight protective containment vessel with the required foundation which prevents the release of radioactive materials. It is surrounded by an airtight reinforced concrete structure, plus a general structure and an external building.

What happened there? When that steam spewed out, they were forced to direct it inside the containment vessel. When pressure started building up inside the containment vessel, they had to vent it, and the steam was directed upwards, under the roof of the main building. Actually, that was when the explosion at the first reactor took place. This is what happened at the first reactor. The explosion destroyed the upper section of the external building and the reactor body. The first reactor's containment vessel remained intact. Consequently, gases are being vented into the atmosphere. These are mostly short-lived isotopes ...

Vladimir Putin: Their half-life is several hours, right?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Yes, several hours, Mr Putin. The main isotope, iodine-131, has a half-life of eight days. This is still quite a lot. Considering the fact that most of this drifts in the direction of the Pacific Ocean, such residual radiation is short-lived. The cloud, which formed after explosions at the first, third and second reactors, drifted in the direction of Tokyo. When the cloud reached Tokyo, its radiation levels dropped to 400 microroentgens per hour. Almost the same radiation levels are registered inside the cabin of an aircraft.

Several hours after Tokyo was subjected to peak radiation levels, they dropped to 40 microroentgens per hour. This is only about two times higher than the normal background radiation level, just like at any granite embankment.

Vladimir Putin: Does this threaten human lives and health in any way?

Sergei Kiriyenko: No. Short-term radiation levels of 400 microroentgens pose no hazard, while a level of 40 microroentgens is absolutely normal. Some people spend their whole lives in areas with even higher radiation levels.

This is the first reactor. The situation there remains the same. By all estimates, the reactor's body is intact, also protecting the containment vessel. However, steam continues to be released. They continue to pump water inside the reactor and the containment vessel in order to cool the reactor from the outside. So much for the situation at the station's first and third reactors.

And now a few words about the second reactor, which fared much worse. They failed to ensure an uninterrupted water supply to the reactor's body because a pump valve had jammed. They used fire engines to pump water because there was no electricity. They failed to resolve this malfunction. Consequently, all the water disappeared from the reactor's body. The core melted down and, in our opinion, penetrated ...

Vladimir Putin: Burned through.

Sergei Kiriyenko: ... Burned through the reactor's body. That's what we told you last night. The water supply had disappeared by nightfall. They were racing against this because it would take three to five hours to penetrate the reactor's body. This is what happened tonight. We realise that the current situation will look the same for the second reactor. The core melted down through the entire reactor's body and is now encased in the containment vessel. It did not get past the reinforced concrete structures ... Still there is a risk that the core may burn through the reinforced concrete and penetrate the ground.

Vladimir Putin: Will it pass into the groundwater?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Yes. Their second reactor was rocked by an explosion tonight. As far as we understand, nothing is left in the reactor's body because the explosion ripped through the containment vessel. This explosion has damaged the reactor-body shell and the containment vessel, as well as the upper section of the external building. Consequently, this may now become the main source of radiation leaks. Of course, most radioactive substances were trapped inside the containment vessel. Gases spewing out have substantial radiation levels, but they are mostly made up of short-lived isotopes. And only an insignificant amount of long-lived and heavy isotopes are being vented into the atmosphere.

Vladimir Putin: Long-lived and heavy isotopes are found ...

Sergei Kiriyenko: Mostly here. Only some of these isotopes are being vented with the continued steam release. Japanese specialists had pumped water here, and there is still residual water plus steam here.

Vladimir Putin: Is this not a hydrogen explosion?

Sergei Kiriyenko: No, this explosion is not linked with a nuclear reaction. On the whole, our specialists estimate that such an explosion is impossible here, unless our Japanese colleagues are hiding some information from us. But we proceed from the premise that we are assessing the entire situation in their place, and that we comprehend it completely. Anything to add?

Vladimir Putin: I would like to ask the following question in this regard. Are Russian specialists, who are ready to go to Japan, cleared for work at the power plant?

Sergei Kiriyenko: No, Mr Putin. The situation is bad. Our specialists have been waiting in Khabarovsk for over ten hours because the Japanese side has not given the go-ahead. That Emergencies Ministry plane is carrying two world-class specialists who were involved in the Chernobyl clean-up effort and who have both scientific and managerial experience. The delegation is headed by the first deputy director-general of Rosenergoatom, a doctor of sciences and a professor who experienced the entire Chernobyl disaster. He is among the world's leading experts in this field. The Tokyo centre of the World Association of Nuclear Operators is ready to receive him. But the plane with equipment and rescue workers onboard has been waiting in Khabarovsk for ten hours because Tokyo has not accepted them. They could render substantial assistance, consultative services, to say the least.

Vladimir Putin: Is this the decision of our Japanese partners?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Yes, Mr Putin. And what has been added? What's making us worried, and what our Japanese colleagues still don't tell us? But our own forecast is as follows.

These are three reactor units (this is unit number two) that were operating at the time of the earthquake and the tsunami. There are three other units nearby that were not in operation, and in general we did not consider them to be…

Vladimir Putin: A threat.

Sergei Kiriyenko: A threat. Anyway, what exactly happened as a result of the fire and the explosion that occurred at the station’s number four reactor during the night? What happened was the following: The reactor core is empty, that is, all the fuel has been removed. If you looked at this reactor once again you would see the following picture… Here, to the side of the main containment, there is a spent fuel pool. When the reactor is under repair that pool is filled with water, and spent fuel from the core is transferred here, that is, all the fuel rods are removed from the reactor and are stored in this pool. They are cool, kept at about 30-40°С. That’s virtually room temperature, but water still has to be fed there, not with the same intensity as into the reactor, but water must be constantly pumped in.

Honestly, we can’t understand why this hasn’t been done because it is a simple operation technically. It is not even inside the containment vessel, that is, basically any fire engine – and according to our Japanese colleagues there are some on site – could pump water in there. Perhaps our Japanese colleagues believed that units number one and three were more important and posed more threat and so committed all their resources to them, but as a result, as we understand, the following happened: They did not pump water into the fuel pool, the water drained away and the pool remained dry. After that, it was the same scenario as it would be with the reactor vessel. First, the upper parts of the rods began to melt…

Vladimir Putin: How do you know all that?

Sergei Kiriyenko: That is the only thing that could happen. When the Japanese announced that there was a hydrogen explosion in reactor unit number four we made a complete model and assessed various scenarios, and there is no other way to explain the appearance of hydrogen in that unit causing an explosion. We calculated that from the beginning. Later on, our Japanese colleagues said that an explosion had occurred – that there’d been a fire with an ensuing explosion in the fuel pool, which corroborates our analysis.

Vladimir Putin: Because the reactor wasn’t working.

Sergei Kiriyenko: The reactor isn’t working: there is no fuel in it. Then, what happened was that the tops of the fuel rods began to melt, again, then there was steam, all this produced hydrogen, and a fire and an explosion ensued. The fire started here – which they are now saying they’ve extinguished – but at the time, when the fire broke out, an explosion happened and activity began to increase. The worst part about this is that nearby there are two similar units, reactor five and reactor six, and just now, 20-30 minutes ago reports came in that the temperature inside the containment vessels of these reactors is rising. Since there’s no fuel and the reactors are off line, apparently we are talking mainly about the fuel pools. Why they can’t pump water in there is hard to say; they can’t provide information on the issue.

The final part of the report. Nevertheless, since Saturday we have reviewed all the scenarios in accordance with your instructions, and we considered the worst-case scenarios in which all this spreads to the other reactors. We have now added to these calculations the absolute worst-case scenario when the reactor core melts down not only in the three working reactors but in all the spent fuel pools in the fourth, fifth and sixth…

Vladimir Putin: That is the worst scenario.

Sergei Kiriyenko: The very worst scenario. For reactors number one, two and three. The main conclusion (and my colleagues may provide more details) is that, even if we assume that everything melts down, there still will not be a nuclear explosion, so, what we are talking about is only a release of contamination into the atmosphere, and there is no energy to send it up to a great height. This is bad for the area around the station (my colleagues may give you calculations showing the characteristics of the area around the station; of course a large exclusion zone has been created). But even if one calculates the worst-case scenario for leaks, and even if that worst-case scenario is compounded by the worst-case scenario for the wind… we have considered such an apocalyptic scenario regarding the wind, that is, if all the winds are blowing towards the Russian Federation, high-speed winds blowing several days in a row…

Vladimir Putin: And you stopped there… (laughter).

Sergei Kiriyenko: My point is that there is no threat to the Russian Far East because, as we said, these are mainly short-lived isotopes that practically cannot cover the distance. Even under this most dramatic scenario, which is not actually supported by Roshydromet’s data, the weather service, the winds will be blowing in the opposite direction (my colleagues can give more detail on this). I am concluding my report with the following thesis: even in the worst-case scenario at this nuclear station in Japan, and in adverse weather conditions, there is no threat to the Russian Far East.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Leonid Bolshov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Nuclear Safety Institute, give us your assessment and forecast of the situation, please.

Leonid Bolshov: We calculated the ultimate scenario for one reactor as early as March 11 and, drawing out the worst scenario to its limit, we arrived at a value for the Russian Far East that is several times less than the level under which countermeasures are recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

Factoring in potential problems with all the reactors plus the fuel pools, we can drop the totally unrealistic scenario, staying within the limits of common sense, and confirm our forecast that the radiation doses, even in the worst case, realistically only can be within the limits of 20 millisieverts (mSv).

The International Commission on Radiological Protection does not advise any countermeasures at such a level. Speaking about the territory of Japan, at a distance of 5 km the figure stands at 50-150 mSv over ten days, that is how the acute phase is usually calculated. The base is 10 mSv … How much is that? It is a complete CT scan of an individual. Even if this amount were multiplied, it would not yet be a disaster. Especially since the Japanese have evacuated everyone within 20 km and they have now extended this exclusion zone to 20-30 km. And against the background of everything else that has happened in the country (the devastation, destruction of the infrastructure and loss of life), there are no catastrophic consequences for human health. In short, these are not the main problems, although, of course, they are unpleasant. It is that need to have an exclusion zone following the serious accident at the nuclear station.

Vladimir Putin: But not a catastrophe. What is your assessment of the situation in the Russian Far East? Obviously, if it does not have catastrophic consequences for Japan, for us…

Leonid Bolshov: No countermeasures will be required for the Far East. Nothing like evacuation, the provision of emergency shelters, iodine tablets – none of this is needed. What should be done from our point of view? It is necessary to constantly monitor the situation and to work with the public because, as everybody knows, the worst thing that can happen during radiation leaks, if they are not catastrophic, is panic and exaggerated fears.

Vladimir Putin: I see. Now about observations. Alexander Frolov, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring. How are you structuring your work and what have the results been?

Alexander Frolov: All the events have been triggered by an underwater earthquake about 300 km from Honshu Island which caused a tsunami. Roshydromet supervises the operation of the tsunami service. Within 8 minutes a warning was issued and calculations were made showing that the South Kuril Islands and the Sakhalin Region were under threat. No tsunami threat was announced for the Primorye Territory or the Kamchatka Peninsula. Observations show that the wave reached us within about an hour and five minutes or an hour and ten minutes.

The heights of the waves were registered as predicted: 3 m near Malokurilsk, 1.89 m near Yuzhnokurilsk and 1.6 m near Severokurilsk. In all the other observation points – and we have 23 automatic points taking satellite data on the sea level every minute – the sea level did not rise by more than 30-40 cm anywhere.

Immediately after reports came in of accidents at nuclear stations our territorial branches were put on a high state of alert. Weather stations have taken radiation readings every hour, the data have been reported every two hours to the local authorities and the media, and published on websites. Our current information is that between March 11 and this moment radiation levels have not exceeded the natural background radiation dose in our country, and in some places are even lower than usual.

Our agency, which also provides international services for Asia by offering transfer models for the event of a nuclear accident within the World Meteorological Organisation and the IAEA, has carried out calculations regarding the recent events. I can demonstrate the data on the spread of concentrations at elevations of 500 m, 1500 m, and 3000 m. They are mainly connected to the direction of the wind and current weather conditions. It is now the winter monsoon season and the prevailing winds are from the mainland towards the ocean, with the exception of the lowest layer of under 50 m, where there is local swirl and the winds blow to the south-east from the nuclear station. And according to our data, there is a certain threat to Tokyo and the whole country. That movement will continue for about 24 hours.

Vladimir Putin: Well, as specialists have been telling us, the level of contamination does not pose a real threat to people’s health. I am interested especially in our Far East.

Alexander Frolov: Russia’s Far East is normal, absolutely normal. We are conducting …

Vladimir Putin: I need you to keep up the environmental monitoring schedule in the Far East. What is the Emergencies Ministry doing?

Ruslan Tsalikov: You have instructed us, Mr Putin, to inspect all our plans and resources. Your instructions have been fulfilled. All of the plans related to mobilisation, interaction and evacuation have been checked on. Since yesterday, emergency training exercises have been held along with our colleagues present here, with other federal agencies and the local subdivisions in the Far East at the level of governors and heads of emergency response commissions. I would like to report that the high alert issued in accordance with your instructions will remain in force until we are convinced that the situation has finally stabilised.

Regarding the reserves. Absolutely all the reserves that may be called upon in this situation have been verified. We are ready, if necessary… The signs are that there is no such need, but nevertheless we are ready to help both our people and Japan, as part of a humanitarian effort, if we are asked to.

As for our unit, it is located in the city of Sendai and is actively engaged in the relief effort. It is currently in the reconnaissance phase. We are constantly in touch, communicating through video links to monitor the background radiation, although the unit has all the necessary protective equipment.

Vladimir Putin: We should think about Russian citizens living in Japan. I am referring to the staff of the Emergencies Ministry who are working there, other specialists from various agencies who are in Japan, and people in the media who are close to the disaster zone. Everyone should understand the situation they are working in, and they should be guided accordingly.

Of course, we should be ready to respond to any turn of events, anything that could possibly happen. I heard your forecasts, I assume that these forecasts are absolutely objective, but even so the manpower and the resources must stand by to respond to any developments.

In this regard, I want to ask the ministry… Do we have any nuclear stations in seismic zones? Not a single one?

Sergei Kiriyenko: Not in Russia.

Vladimir Putin: And we are not planning to have any?

Sergei Kiriyenko: No, we are not.

Vladimir Putin: Still, I’d like to ask the Energy Ministry, Rosatom, and the Ministry of Natural Resources to review the current condition, future plans and development prospects for the nuclear industry, and to submit the results of the review to the government.

And secondly, it is obvious that our neighbours will have shortfalls in nuclear power production for quite some time. In connection with this, we must see what we can do to accelerate our plans to develop projects for hydrocarbon extraction, especially gas in the Far East.

I am referring in particular to the Sakhalin-3 project. See how you can do this with your own resources and with the help of foreign partners, and submit your proposals.

At the same time, work must be expedited on the South Stream in an attempt to increase supplies to Europe. And of course the Nord Stream project should proceed at a steady pace.

Finally, humanitarian issues. Our colleagues have asked the Emergencies Ministry to supply certain goods. What are they?

Ruslan Tsalikov: Tents and blankets. We have them in stock and we are ready to start delivering them as soon as we get the signal.

Vladimir Putin: That is how you should proceed. And Rosatom of course must continue to offer its services. If our colleagues feel it is necessary, then assistance must be provided.

By the way, I talked with some members of the Russian Judo Federation; they have constantly been in touch. I suggested that we invite Japanese team members, along with their families, for joint training. The reason I’m saying it is that we have partnerships with Japan, between sister cities, between educational institutions and various organisations. Everything must be done so that we can fully support our neighbours and friends in all these areas.