Japan: Emergency water drop operations begin at Fukushima; new photos show damage at stricken nuclear plant

(screengrab of NHK TV coverage of the third helicopter water drop in the current operation, around 10am local time in Japan.)

Two helicopters, modified to help protect pilots from radiation, have just begun missions to drop tons of sea water on the quake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima 1 plant in Japan. The live TV coverage of the water drops has been chilling to watch, knowing what is at stake both for the pilots and the population they hope to protect.

Separately, according to reports in the US and from news agencies in Japan, the US military will also soon fly unmanned aerial drones over the plant to take photos of the inside of the building that houses the No. 4 reactor.

"The water is depleting rapidly at the number 3 and number 4 units, and the government is placing urgent priority on providing water now," says a senior commentator on NHK right now, as I type.

An explosion occurred at reactor No. 4 on Tuesday, and was believed to have been a hydrogen explosion. White smoke has been rising from this site on Wednesday, and the spent fuel is believed to be heating up. The status of the spent nuclear fuel there is of greatest concern right now.

Currently, Japan ground self-defense force (GDF) helicopters are scooping water from the ocean and dropping it over the reactor, 7.5 tons at a time. The helicopters spraying water onto these reactors are protected by lead mats underneath, and the pilots are wearing protective suits and carrying dosimeters. In a press conference just now, a Japan nuclear safety agency official explained that the flights are limited to a certain minimum altitude, and no more than 40 minutes per helicopter per day, to limit exposure for pilots. The maximum permissible exposure level for Japan's self defense forces is typically 50 millisieverts; during this operation, the level has been raised to 100 millisieverts. When the pilots reach the limit, they have to leave. Normally, they would hover in one spot; given the extremely high risk of radiation exposure, they must move.

Given the dimensions of the spent fuel pools, and the fact that that not all the water dropped will actually make it into the pool, they will need to make hundreds of these water drop operations.

Tokyo police force water cannon vehicles carrying 4 tons of water at a time have also arrived at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The water spray they shoot will target the storage pool that holds spent fuel rods; again, this is the focal point of grave concern at this time.

If these efforts fail and current conditions within the spent fuel pool continues, officials on NHK are saying the spent fuel rods in the storage pool would likely become more exposed and damaged, and release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

Responders are also urgently trying to restore the power supply, using power lines to run electrical lines to the location, so the plant's cooling system can be operated once again using sea water. It will take time to restore those capabilities, though, because the pumps have been damaged.

A Japan nuclear safety agency official is on NHK saying: "Regarding the No. 5 unit, the pressure is rising, and the water in the unit is decreasing. We have to prevent the same thing [fires/explosions] from happening in reactors No. 5 and 6. We have to secure the healthy conditions of the storage pools for units No. 5 and 6."

The live video NHK is airing of the helicopter water drops was shot 33km southwest of the plant. The winds in the area are currently are blowing to the southeast, toward the sea, and are expected to continue in that direction on Friday.

Below, the Institute for Science and International Security posts these images, with analysis, from DigitalGlobe: new satellite photos of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear site in Japan taken at 9:35AM local time on March 16, 2011. You can view the images in larger resolution at the Digital Globe site, and there is a PDF here with full Nuclear Facility Damage Analysis.

[In Fig. 1], damage to the Unit 1 reactor building from a previous explosion can still be seen. Damage to the Unit 3 reactor building from an explosion can be seen as well. Steam can still be seen emitted from the top of the damaged building. The angle of this new image, however, shows what appears to be more extensive damage to the Unit 3 reactor building than can be seen in previous satellite imagery. The image also shows damage to the reactor building for Unit 4 from an explosion. Steam can be seen venting out of a hole in the side of the reactor building for Unit 2. Workers likely removed a panel in the side of the building to vent the steam. Figure 2 shows the reactor buildings for Units 5 and 6. The side and roof of the buildings appear intact and there is no sign of steam venting from the building.

Figure 1. DigitalGlobe commercial satellite image of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site taken at 9:35AM local time on March 16, 2011.

Figure 2. DigitalGlobe commercial satellite image taken of the same site, showing reactor buildings for Units 5 and 6.

(thanks, @linmu)


  1. The pilots are taking a risk and will have to be circulated
    out. One pass per life. Just like Chernobyl.

    the Japanese are getting increasingly desparate, not looking
    good. “Terrorist” ™ commandoes couldn’t have done this.
    It would have been fixed in hours.

  2. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but Japan has also seemed be a center for fantastic robotic innovations. Where the hell are the remotely operated vehicles to do this? Admittedly, the helicopters would be pretty damn tough. However, I would think a small tank-like vehicle with a huge-ass water hose is at least feasible.

    Violin playing robots are cool and all, but in retrospect we really should have been building robots that fire canisters of liquid Helium.

    1. I was thinking the same thing – hack remote controls and wireless cameras onto a fire-truck with an internal tank and a water cannon.

      1. Damn water for being so heavy!

        I was vaguely of unmanned drone helicopters and I also recognize the impracticality of the situation. How often do you need an unmanned helicopter capable of dumping huge amounts of water? There just isn’t anyone willing to fund that kind of project because of the extreme rarity of it every being needed.

        I also agree with Thebes in #25. A few years ago I was fighting a grassland fire in Central Montana and every time a BLM plane (Bighorn Land Management) went over, the damn fire retardant landed on me – a good 15m away from the actual flames. Accuracy of dropping liquids from heights isn’t that great. Albeit, the helicopters did seem to be more accurate than the planes.

    1. the fact that most air drops don’t do much on normal fires

      You should re-read that story more carefully. I doesn’t say that “most air drops don’t do much on normal fires.”

      It says that many air drops are ineffective because people insist on using inappropriate equipment (especially military fixed-wing tankers) on inappropriate terrain (steep hillsides, deep canyons) in weather that renders them ineffective (high winds, low visibility), against out-of control fire fronts that can’t be contained by aerial attack.

      Used correctly – employing highly maneuverable helicopters in tight canyons and on steep slopes; using aggressive heavy-lift helitac during a fire’s early stages, and as a delaying tactic pending arrival of ground crews; reserving fixed-wing tankers for ridgelines and other accessible targets; and only during wind conditions that don’t defeat their higher-level drops – aircraft can make a tremendous difference.

      They can’t fight the fires all by themselves; but they can make a huge difference in the overall outcome.

      The fact that they *also* make many drops that aren’t effective, that are done only to appease people with political connections who want to see “something being done” doesn’t mean that they’re not effective when they’re used properly.

  3. I shall oppose the evil effects of the relentless tsunami with my equally relentless optimistic spirit!

    Go radio-active substance control, go!!

    * no no no – the japanese style just does not fit me*

    plus it’s too soon

  4. Even the Russians rigged up some remote control helpers on the fly. Their electrical systems evidently didn’t last long with the intense radiation, but still contributed a lot.

  5. There have been overhead photos that show the spent-fuel beds sitting in racks up there. So, yes, they need re-filling, but what does the force of a couple thousand liters of water dropped from 500 meters above them do to any semi-melted radioactive (spent) fuel?

    Ah well, it was that or the brown-paper-and-string, I guess…

    1. Giant dirigibles, (water cargo protects the crew) ferrying back and forth from the ocean.

      But how do you hold the dirigible down while loading it up with water? OTH I wonder if you could pump tons of liquid nitrogen at the reactors?

  6. I pray these people are strong. The future of many rides with them. I would not wish this task upon anyone. I cannot even imagine what’s actually happening there.

  7. These dudes are cowboys. It’s about friggin time they started an innovative plan. Even if it doesn’t work, the next thing is a lead armored tank with a big squirt gun. Go Japan, Go!!!!

  8. Considering the control rods are in place would the reactors actually be able to experience an excursion event if the core became completely uncovered?

    Or are we dealing with massive amount of heat/hydrogen/fire?

    I wonder if you could get a sub in close enough to pull a fire boat that was rigged on remote control? The sub should be fairly well protected from the radiation. Just a thought.

    1. I wonder if you could get a sub in close enough to pull a fire boat that was rigged on remote control?

      Quite seriously, they should give Adam and Jamie a call.

  9. Why did they not immediately bring in large portable Gensets like
    they use for concerts and amusement rides?
    I am sure any military would have many of these for immediate transport and deployment, not to mention TEPCO themselves out to have Gensets for immediate emergency deployment.

    1. Why did they not immediately bring in large portable Gensets like they use for concerts and amusement rides?

      As I understand it, there was some sort of natural disaster in the area, which caused delays. Also, when they did arrive, half the wiring on-site was flood-damaged or even still flooded, so they couldn’t be just plugged in and started up.

  10. Are there other types of power generating facilities that suffer from this runaway problem of exothermic reaction in the fuel? Even worse, exothermic reactions in the waste products?

    Who ever thought that a fission reactor *that depends on active systems to maintain its safety* was a good idea should have been laughed out of the first engineering meeting.

  11. At the VERY LEAST you could set up a catapult to launch big ass water balloons. I suspect the accuracy would be better than the helicopter drops, thus delivering more water to a specific area. Use the weakest material that can be made to hold together until impact.
    I’m thinking catapult becuase you can grab the plans for a make shift catapult off the net and have many of them up and operational within a shiort amount of time.

  12. I think this post is incorrect about the pool depth which is more likely about 10 meters. They are stored vertically in the pools and then transfered to horizontal dry casks after several years, so they could not fit into a 1 meter deep pool, much less be covered with several meters of water as needed.

    The plant’s total onsite pool storage (in 7 pools) was about 18 reactor cores as of March 2010.

    I, also, question the wisdom of dropping water on it from that height. I would think it might spread the extremely hot materials into the atmosphere. But I guess its all they can think of to prevent a super catastrophic Chernobyl type event.

    1. Originally when making my comment about pool depth the bb post had said 1m deep. That has been edited now.

  13. I am surprised by how low the maximum dose is. 100mSv is the minimum dose shown to cause a clear increase in cancer rates. While it’s certainly understandable to be on the safe side, um… one cancer death might prevent many. I hope officials take this into consideration.

    1. > I am surprised by how low the maximum dose is. 100mSv is the minimum dose shown to cause a clear increase in cancer rates.

      I believe 100mSv PER YEAR is shown to cause cancer rate increases in humans. These exposures are being measure PER HOUR.

  14. Considering we’re almost a week into a nuclear emergency, I’m a little surprised the best they’ve got so far are helicopters and fire trucks.

    Can’t that helicopter drop hoses directly into the building? Pump water continuously from firefighting boats? Or like bcsizemo suggested, a sub.

  15. I am not a nuclear specialist but an interdisciplinar scientist. From what I have learned reading on the internet some science articles it has been that liquid helium could be of big help. They must find the way how to use it. Desperate situations make people use desperate measures, which most of the time are extremely creative. Just in WWII the Nazi have been forced to use coal for producing vehicle and aviation fuels. Also they invented the first supersonic aircraft, made the first balistic misile (the “V”)acompanied by the first cosmic flight, invented the “stealth”. In US, Howard built the largest airplane ever, the Russian built great tanks.
    Maybe some robots can be used for some of the missions.
    The developed countries have such extraordinary technologies, which could be used in many amazing but novel ways for this extremely difficult task. What about baloons to monitor the evolution of radioactivity above the reactors? What about mounting radioactivity wireless sensors all around the area? What about bringing in a large sea-crane (the site is on the seashore) from the nearby port? The arm of the crane could be used (with extensions) for many useful tasks, including for spraying water over the reactor building and inside it. Spraying water outside the building will reduce the contamination by radioactivity.

  16. “While it’s certainly understandable to be on the safe side, um … one cancer death might prevent many.”

    Off you go then. Head on over there and tell the Japanese Government that you’re happy to suck up those curies and take one for the team.

    “I hope officials take this into consideration.”

    You can’t /tell/ people to be heroes. The guys working at the plant have already earned that moniker, as far as I’m concerned, and the helicopter pilots and crews are rapidly earning it for themselves. But if they all collectively turned around, right now, and said ‘fuck this shit – I’m going home to collect my family and fly somewhere far, far away’ I’d say fair enough. And they’d /still/ be heroes for what they’ve already done.


  17. they need a very large fire fighting crane that can be remote operated. Or something along the lines of a long beam concrete pouring crane outfitted to bump water. I know that who ever operates something like this would die. but the risk far out weighs the cost. something operating on hydrolics would be less prone to signal error than say remote wire. remote hydrolic control would fair better. stainless braided hoses would be less prone to failure. i know that they have large cranes that can be modified for this.
    the problems i see long term would be electronic failure. rubber in hydrolic system hoses melting from radiation and ambient heat. if pump is part of crane refueling would be week link. hell even a gantry crane could have pipe welded on to position water flow.

    or position pump near ocean. lay pipe up to the hot spots. reroute some mains power to pumps and let it go. a sub station of some sort would have to be set up to run the pump.

    im sure that crane engineers could come up with something.
    something like a DMAG WOULD BE A REAL HELP.

  18. Those pilots can not be effectively shielded from radiation. Essentially the whole craft becomes irradiated. It was one of the main problems with the design of nuclear aircraft.

  19. Hmmm.. so I guess there was some concern that these nuclear power plants were unsafe. But that doesn’t mean we should start playing the blame game.

    Eighteen months before Japan’s radiation crisis, U.S. diplomats had lambasted the safety chief of the world’s atomic watchdog for incompetence, especially when it came to the nuclear power industry in his homeland, Japan.

    “For the past 10 years, the department has suffered tremendously because of (deputy director general) Taniguchi’s weak management and leadership skills,” said one dispatch on Dec. 1, 2009.

    “Taniguchi has been a weak manager and advocate, particularly with respect to confronting Japan’s own safety practices, and he is a particular disappointment to the United States for his unloved-step-child treatment of the Office of Nuclear Security,” said another, which was sent on July 7, 2009.

    Separate cables quoted a Japanese lawmaker as telling visiting U.S. officials in October 2008 that power companies in Japan were hiding nuclear safety problems and being given an easy ride on commitments to renewable energy by the government.

    Taro Kono, a supporter of renewable energy who in 2009 bid unsuccessfully for leadership of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), also said Japan had no solution for nuclear waste storage. He asked if there was anywhere appropriate to store waste given that Japan was the “land of volcanoes.”


  20. Something I’ve been wondering about, and it appears the US military is making it happen:

    “Separately, according to reports in the US and from news agencies in Japan, the US military will also soon fly unmanned aerial drones over the plant to take photos of the inside of the building that houses the No. 4 reactor.”

    My question: Why the hell did it take so long for them to make this happen? Why the hell weren’t they immediately rigging something from the fricken floating city that’s nearby? Certainly the U.S.S. Ronnie Raygun can put some drones on target to help monitor the situation? And if not, why not? Wouldn’t that be a useful system for them to have on board? Seems remarkably shortsighted of them (US leadership, US military leadership, *Japanese civilian/military leadership) to have taken this long.

    *The Japanese have certainly had their hands full doing all sort of other things, which is why they come third in my little list.

  21. I am wondering if Ocean supertankers have a pumping system that could supply enough water to cool off the nuclear reactors ?

  22. connection isn’t working for me in your comments area as to suggestions in Washington Post. But I judge this important enough to get it into your hands

    I have been thinking about the fire crowd control water cannon and helicopters stuff. Then for some reasonI considered fireboats which are used in harbors to control marine fires. You see them on Jul4 celebrations, and welcoming Quenn Elizabeth2 ,etc. They have 4+ nozzles and are dedicated to the one task ….huge water volumes

    Thinking that the reactor is only a few hundred feet from shore I thought to check the range and power of the water on fireboats. There must be quite a few in japan because of all the shipping and the harbors would have to have vessels of this type, which could be on site in a few hours.

    Anyway, the range of this first New York boat is 900ft!! and volume up to 17,500-50,000 gals a minute. Plus, I figure given these urgent conditions they could haul the things up on sleds or wheels even closer, since the cost of a boat is piddling to write off in comparison to all the damage the nuclear destruction could be. The hull opening for the water intake could be connected to the water a few hundred feet away comparatively easily.

    Their big value is these boats are all ready to go. And they have remote controls.

    look at FDNY fireboats video . It appears to be the most powerful fireboat made in recent years.

    Imagine 4-6 boats all at once. Then you have some control.



    photo #10 looks like longest water range in use is only about 500 feet

    Lena,…. 2nd e-mail

    So my question would be why not some of these fireboats at the reactor? The pictures were taken close by in Chiba.

    Incidentally, the range of the FDNY boat is 900 feet to get at fires on New York bridges from the water, therefore that could be the workable outer limit in any modifications to be made.

    R Dever

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