Why Sensationalize an Already Sensational Event?

March 12, 2011 | By | 11 Replies More

Scientific American reports, Radiation leaking from Japan’s quake-hit nuclear plant as part of the devastation in Japan from the record setting earthquake. Sure, four out of five nuclear facilities immediately shut down safely. But of one unit at the fifth, they say

The blast raised fears of a meltdown at the facility north of Tokyo as officials scrambled to contain what could be the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 that shocked the world.

Uh, yeah. Actually, this looks more like the Three Mile Island “disaster” to me. Chernobyl used a reactor technology that was considered too unstable outside of the Manhattan project or the U.S.S.R. that involved a big pile of carbon graphite to regulate the reaction. Graphite burns. Chernobyl burned. Chernobyl also exploded wide open. People stood miles away touristically looking directly into the reactor core, and then dying from the gamma ray exposure. The G.E. reactors in Japan are water filled steel containers. They don’t burn.They didn’t burst. The reactor was idled within hours.

The quake broke the outer concrete containment structure (but not the inner steel one) and also interrupted all three safety backup systems. So the reactor overheated before they got it under control, and they had to vent some probably radioactive steam to prevent the inner containment from also rupturing. I say “probably radioactive” because the cooling water certainly contains tritium (Hydrogen-3)  and traces of other isotopes. But so far there are no reports of measurable radiation beyond the reactor premises. I’m sure there will be.

Personally, I take this as a sign that we really need to move beyond the 1970’s style Cold War reactors to the 1990’s style ones now being specified in Europe. These are designed to fail safe even if all the active safety systems fail. Sure, they cost a little more to build. But they are pretty much proof against flood, earthquake, and bomb attacks short of nuclear warheads releasing radiation.

I have also advocated building next generation fast neutron reactors that can use depleted uranium, thorium, and most current generation reactors waste as fuel. A past post of mine: Whatever Became of Thorium? These reactors are also inherently safer, because they are using less volatile fuel.

This should be an opportunity to discuss the future safer implementation of this inevitable successor to coal power, rather than to propagate, “Gee whiz, isn’t noocular power dangerous?”

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (11)

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  1. Tony says:

    There has been CLEARLY an explosion:


    Do your research, or otherwise you look like a shill for the nuclear industry. "Defending" technology against vegan tree-hugers is one thing, but defending something we should gotten rid of 20 years ago is another.

    And please, look into LFTR, if you want to see a viable alternative to this nuclear idiocy.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_reactor

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Yes, "explosion" is a nice, colorful, evocative word for the outer containment building failure. When a water moderated reactor gets too hot, the fuel rod casing dissociates water and absorbs the oxygen, and hydrogen escapes. Hot hydrogen then mixes with air, and recombines. Boom. Much live steam is produced, and has to be released.The heat ignites whatever combustibles are in the area.

    I agree that safer reactor designs should be used. But it is neither politically nor economically feasible to shut down existing older reactors until replacements are ready to go. And it is almost impossible to get permits to build newer, safer reactors when they would cost more, and haven't been built before to prove them safe.

  3. Jim Razinha says:

    I was a nuclear reactor operator in the Navy. It is not an unsafe technology. Even in the commercial sector. But in the US it so prohibitively expensive to be "safe" that the ROI is not there, even if Europe demonstrates superior designs that work and pay.

    And LFTR is still nuclear, though not "idiocy".

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    As of this evening, there are two reactors with partial meltdowns, and two others unable to go back online after their shutdowns. There are still no reports of radiation contamination on all the people who were evacuated from the power plant areas, and who are all being carefully examined.

    Although it actually is the "worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl," it is still much closer to the scale of TMI.

    And this is from 40 year old (Mark I) power reactors.

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    William Saletan makes some good points here: http://www.slate.com/id/2288212 (Nuclear Overreactors – Let's cool the political meltdown over Japan's damaged nuclear power plants.)

  6. Dave Jenkins says:

    Dan,

    I am hopeful and confident you will get your wish for safer, newer designs coming out of Japan in the aftermath of this incident. Japan, with no oil or coal reserves, pretty much _must_ ride the nuclear dragon in some form or another. Nuclear power accounts for over 30% of their mix.

    If anything, the Japanese will double-down on their development budgets and R&D. What had been a great political swamp of buck-passing and avoidance of responsible politics may dry up in the coming months: this is their 9-11 (gah, forgive me for that phrase, but it's true from what I'm reading in the threads https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1UmFXi9xx… )

    The plants that are failing are indeed 40 years old, and designed in unsafe locations (next to beaches above a sublimation zone). Japan is going to have to face a very harsh, very unsavoury discussion about nuclear power, but my bet is that they'll go for the new designs, double down on the safety measures, and come out of this a different country 6 years from now.

    As we've already seen the large cultural changes that happened after the Hanshin quake in 1995, this will further the progressives, the ones who cut down on bureaucracy, the ones who Have A Plan ™.

    日本がんばれ!

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Pharyngula reports: So it's somewhere between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and getting worse.

    Granted, he's not a specialist in nuclear energy. But his sources are. It's not looking good. But neither is it an all out disaster.

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    I saw on the news last night that, because of 9/11 most U.S. nuclear power plants are now supposedly rated to be able to safely shut down if all utilities fail. A shill for the industry said that these improved old plants would probably not have blown their tops under the hit taken in Japan.

    We can hope.

    Too many are still the old Cold War plutonium breeders like those being highlighted in Japan. Pity that strong political resistance has prevented any new plants from being built for four decades, forcing the old ones to stay online for longer than they were originally expected.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Tony, the much broadcast video of the top blowing off the outer reactor building shows that they really need to put a platinum catalyst mesh over the emergency vent pipe to burn the hydrogen as it is released, instead of letting it build up and burn with a boom.

    Let's hope the U.S. reactor retrofitters take heed.

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