Fukushima Daiichi’s Little Known Hydrazine Problem

hydrazine-propellant-loadingRecent Roadmap reports on activity at the plant have shown that hydrazine is still in use. The chemical was used in 2011 in an attempt to combat corrosion in the reactors and spent fuel pools. It is an oxygen scavenger, this may have been an additional reason for using this additive beyond the anti-corrosion benefit.

Hydrazine has been well identified as a toxic chemical harmful to humans and the environment. Japan has had their own reporting rules for hydrazine use since 2006. Any use, even small amounts are subject to mitigation efforts and must be documented. The rules require closed tanks and measures to reduce releases.

Hydrazine is considered a dangerous chemical, Some of the health problems it can create:
Symptoms of acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edemaseizurescoma in humans. Acute exposure can also damage the liverkidneys, and central nervous system. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver,spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine.[42]

In 2008 the US shot down a spy satellite due to the hydrazine tank on board. The 1.4 meter tank contained half a ton of hydrazine, used as rocket fuel. This small tank was considered such a risk to humans on earth that they used a missile to destroy it before it could fall to earth. NASA confirmed that the risk of the frozen tank of hydrazine falling to earth, then thawing and evaporating was a serious risk to the public.

There are also serious environmental concerns:

Due to the extreme corrosive potential of this chemical and its reactivity with moisture and oxidants, Hydrazine in the environment is of great concern. While the ecotoxicity is not known, the products of biodegradation of Hydrazine are more toxic than the parent compound. Potentially hazardous short and long term degradation products are to be expected (MSDS 2005).”

It is also toxic to the marine environment above certain concentrations.

TEPCO’s new report shows that they are continuing to use hydrazine in the reactors and spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi. Units 3’s spent fuel pool still has open access to the environment. Unit 1, 2 and 4 eventually had their spent fuel pools enclosed over time. Unit 3’s containment vessel is known to leak to the environment through the reactor well. Units 1 and 2 have the same problem but are currently covered and have the exhaust air run through a HEPA filter bank.

Since the water injected into the reactor vessels eventually mixes with groundwater and to some extent still leaks to the ocean, this is another potential release to the environment. TEPCO reports the use of hydrazine and the intention to continue to use it through September in their new report. They also confirm the use of the chemical in all four spent fuel pools.

There is no public accounting for the amounts of hydrazine used. No estimate of how much might leak to the environment through evaporation, containment leaks or through groundwater leaks has been conducted. TEPCO has also not publicly documented if they have any way of safely removing hydrazine from the contaminated water processed at the plant site.

The image accompanying this article shows the type of equipment required for handling hydrazine when used as a rocket fuel.

Image Credit | Eads.net

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