[UPDATE: The sudden interest in this subject and the subsequent glut of traffic that that interest has generated has also, not quite coincidentally, generated a number of requests for my "nuclear credentials" and "my scientific qualifications." As a bartender, I am of course eminently qualified to discuss these and similar issues, and I refer all curious readers to the following: Interview]
In the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, one article I wrote just over a year ago entitled “Nuclear Waste Does Not Exist” has generated, in the past two days, an astonishing amount traffic. It is no secret that I’m a proponent of nuclear energy — for reasons I outline in a different article called Wind Or Nuclear? — and so I’ve watched with great interest and dismay as misinformation about nuclear energy spreads faster than the Code Red virus infected the world’s computers.
Fortunately, people like Dr. Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, among others, are working very hard to dispel the mass hysteria building around the Japanese nuclear facilities.
Dr. Oehmen is a PhD scientist whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry. Dr. Oehmen writes:
I am writing this text (Mar 12, ) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.
There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.
By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.
I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.
Also edifying is William Tucker’s excellent explanation, which reads, in part:
Even while thousands of people are reported dead or missing, whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, and gas and oil fires rage out of control, press coverage of the Japanese earthquake has quickly settled on the troubles at two nuclear reactors as the center of the catastrophe.
Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime opponent of nuclear power, has warned of “another Chernobyl” and predicted “the same thing could happen here.” In response, he has called for an immediate suspension of licensing procedures for the Westinghouse AP1000, a “Generation III” reactor that has been laboring through design review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for seven years.
Before we respond with such panic, though, it would be useful to review exactly what is happening in Japan and what we have to fear from it.
The core of a nuclear reactor operates at about 550 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the temperature of a coal furnace and only slightly hotter than a kitchen oven. If anything unusual occurs, the control rods immediately drop, shutting off the nuclear reaction. You can’t have a “runaway reactor,” nor can a reactor explode like a nuclear bomb. A commercial reactor is to a bomb what Vaseline is to napalm. Although both are made from petroleum jelly, only one of them has potentially explosive material.
Once the reactor has shut down, there remains “decay heat” from traces of other radioactive isotopes. This can take more than a week to cool down, and the rods must be continually bathed in cooling waters to keep them from overheating.
On all Generation II reactors—the ones currently in operation—the cooling water is circulated by electric pumps. The new Generation III reactors such as the AP1000 have a simplified “passive” cooling system where the water circulates by natural convection with no pumping required.
If the pumps are knocked out in a Generation II reactor—as they were at Fukushima Daiichi by the tsunami—the water in the cooling system can overheat and evaporate. The resulting steam increases internal pressure that must be vented. There was a small release of radioactive steam at Three Mile Island in 1979, and there have also been a few releases at Fukushima Daiichi. These produce radiation at about the level of one dental X-ray in the immediate vicinity and quickly dissipate.
If the coolant continues to evaporate, the water level can fall below the level of the fuel rods, exposing them. This will cause a meltdown, meaning the fuel rods melt to the bottom of the steel pressure vessel.
Early speculation was that in a case like this the fuel might continue melting right through the steel and perhaps even through the concrete containment structure—the so-called China syndrome, where the fuel would melt all the way to China. But Three Mile Island proved this doesn’t happen. The melted fuel rods simply aren’t hot enough to melt steel or concrete.
The decay heat must still be absorbed, however, and as a last-ditch effort the emergency core cooling system can be activated to flood the entire containment structure with water. This will do considerable damage to the reactor but will prevent any further steam releases. The Japanese have now reportedly done this using seawater in at least two of the troubled reactors. These reactors will never be restarted.
None of this amounts to “another Chernobyl.” The Chernobyl reactor had two crucial design flaws. First, it used graphite (carbon) instead of water to “moderate” the neutrons, which makes possible the nuclear reaction. The graphite caught fire in April 1986 and burned for four days. Water does not catch fire.
Second, Chernobyl had no containment structure. When the graphite caught fire, it spouted a plume of radioactive smoke that spread across the globe. A containment structure would have both smothered the fire and contained the radioactivity.
If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact.
William Tucker, incidentally, is the fellow I quoted at length in my initial article, along with Dr. Pierre Guelfe, chief engineer of France’s main nuclear facility.