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The World

March 18, 2011

Experts knock notion of burying Japanese reactors

Why not just bury them?

The idea of smothering and sealing Japan's overheated nuclear reactors in sand or concrete to stop the crisis is appealing. But experts say that it's too early for something that desperate and that it could be a big mistake that could make matters worse.

Most urge continuing the current efforts to cool the radioactive material, and at least one suggested massive spraying to hold down radioactive dust.

Fires, explosions or partial meltdowns have struck four of the six reactor units at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. There are few options for stopping the dangerous overheating of nuclear materials there. Military fire trucks sprayed tons of water Friday, and workers hope to restart cooling systems once a new power line is installed.

Reporters in Japan raised the notion Friday of sealing the reactors and fuel rods in concrete as an emergency measure. But officials with Japan's nuclear safety agency and the plant's operator did not embrace the idea.

"We believe it is not a realistic option," said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. And Teruaki Kobayashi, a manager at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., said the utility would not rule out entombing the reactors but thinks the probability is low.

It's true that concrete tombs may someday stand at the troubled nuclear complex, one expert said, but only as a long-term strategy once the radiation has cooled.

The entombment idea has been touted on American television by Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City College of New York and a television host on the Science Channel. He has talked about dumping a combination of boric acid to dampen the nuclear fission, sand and eventually concrete to seal off the nuclear material.

Such a massive effort would take days if not weeks to plan, so he argues preparation should start now in case it becomes necessary. He envisioned an armada of helicopters and workers to dump sand and then concrete to smother the spent-fuel pool and other damaged nuclear material.

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