"So there's some advantages to the BWR in terms of severe accidents. But one of the disadvantages is that the containment structure is a lightbulb-shaped steel shell that's only about 30 or 40 feet [nine to 12 meters] across—thick steel, but relatively small compared to large, dry containments like TMI. And it doesn't provide as much of an extra layer of defense from reactor accidents as containments like TMI [do]. So there is a great deal of concern that if the core does melt, the containment will not be able to survive. And if the containment doesn't survive, we have a worst-case situation."
And just what is that worst-case scenario? "They're venting in order to keep the containment vessel from failing. But if a core melts, it will slump to the bottom of the reactor vessel, probably melt through the reactor vessel onto the containment floor. It's likely to spread as a molten pool—like lava—to the edge of the steel shell and melt through. That would result in a containment failure in a matter of less than a day. It's good that it's got a better containment system than Chernobyl, but it's not as strong as most of the reactors in this country."
Finally, Bergeron summed up the events so far: "Based on what we understand, the reactor has been shut down, in the sense that all of the control rods have been inserted—which means there's no longer a nuclear reaction. But what you have to worry about is the decay heat that's still in the core—that will last for many days.
"And to keep that decay heat of the uranium from melting the core, you have to keep water on it. And the conventional sources of water, the electricity that provides the power for pumps, have failed. So they are using some very unusual methods of getting water into the core, they're using steam-driven turbines—they're operating off of the steam generated by the reactor itself.
"But even that system requires electricity in the form of batteries. And the batteries aren't designed to last this long, so they have failed by now. So we don't know exactly how they're getting water to the core or if they're getting enough water to the core. We believe, because of the release of cesium, that the core has been exposed above the water level, at least for a portion of time, and has overheated. What we really need to know is how long can they keep that water flowing. And it needs to be days to keep the core from melting.
"The containment, I believe, is still intact. But if the core does melt, that insult will probably not be sustained and the containment vessel will fail. All this, if it were to occur, would take a matter of days. What's crucial is restoring AC power. They've got to get AC power back to the plant to be able to control it. And I'm sure they're working on it."