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A crash course in nuclear wessels.
March 12, 2011 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Amidst the massive aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami being discussed in this thread, the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plants continues to unfold. For objective information, discussion, and analysis of the ongoing efforts to stabilize the fuel cores in the boiling water reactors of the type in Fukushima, nuclear engineers such as @arclight are providing laypeople with a much needed crash course on the inner workings of nuclear reactors. posted by Dr. Zira (3157 comments total) 184 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't Panic.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:10 PM on March 12, 2011


Don't tell me what not to do.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:11 PM on March 12, 2011 [50 favorites]


Living on the west coast of California, I'm monitoring myself on a minute by minute basis; no additional limbs or superpowers yet, but I'm presuming it's only a matter of time.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:12 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thank you, Dr. Zira.
posted by islander at 9:13 PM on March 12, 2011


Thanks for putting this together - I haven't had a lot of time to read the c. 20,000 comments and it's been difficult reading each of the myriad threads-within-a-thread (earthquake, tsunami, Japan based members, nuclear, etc.) cohesively.
posted by doublehappy at 9:13 PM on March 12, 2011


Don't use goggles. I hear they do nothing.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:13 PM on March 12, 2011 [12 favorites]


I for one welcome our new Japanese nuclear emergency thread.

Please keep it unfighty, as noted repeatedly in the precursor. We're down some mods this week.
posted by mwhybark at 9:15 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've found @Touruma (sometimes retweeted by @arclight) to be a good reporter of news from the Japanese media.
posted by zippy at 9:15 PM on March 12, 2011


FYI: arclight is scheduled for a CNN interview in about 10 minutes.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:15 PM on March 12, 2011


And there's a little page on the unofficial MetaFilter wiki that's the start of a summary from the mega-thread. If no one else does so, I'll update it tomorrow.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:15 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Assuming this thing goes into meltdown -- what are the best and worst case scenarios?

I assume the best case scenario is that containment holds and they dump a bunch of concrete on it? How much area would have to be evacuated?

What happens if they lose containment? What are the odds that it explodes? If it explodes, what would cause the explosion? Can it hit the jet stream?

Is there a middle ground? Can it partially lose containment?
posted by empath at 9:15 PM on March 12, 2011


There is zero chance of a nuclear explosion.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:17 PM on March 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


There are other explosions possible besides nuclear ones.
posted by empath at 9:18 PM on March 12, 2011


"There is zero chance of a nuclear explosion"

Well, then there's nothing to worry about...

Comments like mine and furious's are why this thread was created...
posted by Windopaene at 9:19 PM on March 12, 2011


empath: If they had full meltdown with containment holding why is any concrete necessary, by definition containment is containment.

Re: middle ground. I don't fully understand the logic that could lead one to such a conclusion. A breach in containment is a breach in containment. Partial loss is loss.

As to actual numbers, I don't think anyone can give those and anyone that tries is suspect.

But I do agree that there is zero chance of a nuclear explosion and the containment in question has already survived one explosion... not to mention that pesky earthquake and tsunami and pressure/temperatures beyond that which it is designed to operate under on a daily basis.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:20 PM on March 12, 2011


There's no chance of a nuclear explosion, no doubt. But after that little hydrogen blowup it's probably not out of the realm of crazy to hope there isn't some kind of run-of-the-mill explosion causing the fissile materials to spread around dirty-bomb style. I have no idea if such a thing is possible.
posted by floam at 9:21 PM on March 12, 2011


[this thread is fine. If you. flag, please also move on. Thank you. ]
posted by jessamyn at 9:22 PM on March 12, 2011 [16 favorites]


empath: "Assuming this thing goes into meltdown -- what are the best and worst case scenarios?

I assume the best case scenario is that containment holds and they dump a bunch of concrete on it? How much area would have to be evacuated?

What happens if they lose containment? What are the odds that it explodes? If it explodes, what would cause the explosion? Can it hit the jet stream?

Is there a middle ground? Can it partially lose containment
"

I'll take a crack at this just based on living in the other thread for a couple of days.

best and worst case:
unsure. Best is the shutdowns complete without meltdown.

capped and contain but still in meltdown: how much evac?
unsure, my guess is that maybe no evacuation becasue if it was contained there would be no additional external radiation.

What happens if they lose containment? What are the odds that it explodes? If it explodes, what would cause the explosion? Can it hit the jet stream?

a) radiation levels in the area would increase

b & c) well, that's tricky, as there has been an explosion. you mean just the core itself, correct?

d) again, uncertain. It would take a hot and exposed fire to get the material into the jetstream. knowledgeable commenters in the other thread are very clear that such an eventuality is unlikely.

if so, I don't think it is supposed to be likely, but there is a pressure issue which is why they were venting the hydrogen that caused the non-core explosion.
posted by mwhybark at 9:23 PM on March 12, 2011


Thanks for this thread. I was really wanting to see a Mefi Japan/nuke thread. The earthquake and the tsunami (and recovery) are big and bad enough to have their own thread. The nuke problem is still playing out, and of course has a strong technical element that merits a forum for clear discussion.

I know it's not really kosher, but I come to Mefi to follow up on news stories. Even the best news sources focus on the real time elements in a superficial way; I count on MeFites to throw in some exceptional knowledge, commentary, and links to community vetted sources that are good for a greater depth of understanding.
posted by Xoebe at 9:23 PM on March 12, 2011 [17 favorites]


I wasn't suggesting a nuclear explosion, but what happens inside a plant when it melts down and containment is breached? I assume chemicals are released by the intense heat? There's no chance of them being flammable? As you said, this plant has already had one explosion. Chernobyl exploded when it melted down -- can this one explode after a containment breach or not?
posted by empath at 9:23 PM on March 12, 2011


If there is absolutely no chance of explosion, then why have 50,000+ people been evacuated from the regions near the two reactor sites?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:24 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Or some other unforseen event that causes additional failures. Several times since the quake we have heard that the situation is "under control" only to see that change rapidly to "additional evacuations are now underway".
posted by Windopaene at 9:24 PM on March 12, 2011


It's significant to note that large-scale reactors are old tech, new tech being small-scale reactors - pebble-bed and 4s. A cataclysmic earthquake would simply ramp down nuclear reactions, rather than cause a meltdown due to loss of cooling.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:25 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Best case scenario: Containment holds. Some further radiation leakage but limited. People will be allowed to return home soon.

Worst case scenario: Containment fails. Core debris ejected into the atmosphere. Prevailing winds carry debris over Japanese coast and local area. Exclusion zone around reactor becomes essentially permanent. Radioactive isotopes contaminate Pacific fishing grounds. Some radiation reaches the US Northwest and BC, though it's more panic than real harm to humans and wildlife.
posted by dw at 9:25 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm curious to hear (from those in Japan or with background/experience there) about what we can expect from the Japanese media on this topic now and going forward?

More specifically, is the Japanese news media going to provide the best source for what's going on, and if governmental officials begin to downplay certain realities or possibilities (for fear, understandably perhaps, of spreading panic) might we expect the Japanese news media to help keep the news relatively spin-free?
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:26 PM on March 12, 2011


So, there is nothing preventing any investors from building nuclear power plants in the US, they choose just not to finance them.

Anyone have any links that might explain why?

Advocates today have been made the argument(repeatedly) that rational analysis would seem to indicate that there is a manageable risk level using modern nuclear and civil engineering.

Are they not profitable? Is it that there is no one willing to insure investors if there is a messy, but non-fatality making incident that might render their investment worthless(or even a financial liability)?

How do other countries that are still building new reactors for power production manage these resources(public finance, private finance, hybrid)?
posted by dglynn at 9:26 PM on March 12, 2011


Well, I think they're saying there's 0% chance of an 'fission bomb' happening, and I think everyone understands that here. But any sort of explosion after a containment breach would be bad, even if it's diesel fuel or hydrogen, i would think.
posted by empath at 9:26 PM on March 12, 2011


As you said, this plant has already had one explosion. Chernobyl exploded when it melted down -- can this one explode after a containment breach or not?

No, it can't. Chernobyl happened because of a design fault that is not present in this case.

Worst case scenario: Containment fails. Core debris ejected into the atmosphere.

Please explain how this occurs.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:26 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


... is the Japanese news media going to provide the best source for what's going on

Probably not.

if governmental officials begin to downplay certain realities or possibilities (for fear, understandably perhaps, of spreading panic) might we expect the Japanese news media to help keep the news relatively spin-free?

Probably not.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:27 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I would think the potential liabilities that could be incurred by a nuclear plant would scare most investors off.
posted by Windopaene at 9:27 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the clarification, jessamyn
posted by filthy light thief at 9:28 PM on March 12, 2011


OK, the explosion that happened at reactor 1 this morning for example. Had the core vessel been compromised, such an explosion would have been catastrophic.

Seems pretty obvious, unless you are just trolling.
posted by Windopaene at 9:29 PM on March 12, 2011


If there is absolutely no chance of explosion

I believe the only "absolutely no" anybody is talking about is a nuclear detonation of some sort. It's just beyond the laws of physics based on what's in there. It is safe to assert that it cannot occur under any scenario. Nobody is sure of much, but that will not happen.
posted by floam at 9:30 PM on March 12, 2011


New reactors with passive safety designs have started up.
posted by davel at 9:31 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


(It's also significant to note that the Fukushima power plants all have old, old reactors. The situation there is Not Good, but hopefully can be ameliorated by superlative safety design, including containment vessels if all else fails.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:31 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Potential liabilities, public viewpoint, and concern for prolongued protests and legal battles. The return on investments for a public or private entity wouldn't happen for a long time, and funding / inveestors might move elsewhere in the meantime.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:32 PM on March 12, 2011


Sure, a nuclear detonation is impossible, but a fire involving nuclear fuel and irradiated debris is possible. The risk seems to be diminishing, but it could still happen.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:33 PM on March 12, 2011


OK, the explosion that happened at reactor 1 this morning for example. Had the core vessel been compromised, such an explosion would have been catastrophic.

It would have been catastrophic long before the explosion, had containment already been breached. The core is built to withstand the pressure, the facade that exploded was not.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:34 PM on March 12, 2011


New reactors with passive safety designs have started up.

I'm dumb as a rotten post but this seems blatantly obvious as a design goal.
posted by BeerFilter at 9:34 PM on March 12, 2011


empath, I highly suggest reading the other thread, many of your questions are answered in that locale.

As I understand it based on the information available in the other thread, a core breach could result from a buildup of hydrogen in the core itself. I could be totally wrong about this.

As to the possibility of the core exploding like an atomic weapon, It is my understanding that that is not going to happen. I think that also did not happen at Chernobyl.

Again, knowledgeable commentators in the other thread have been very clear that the design of this reactor is sufficiently different from that at Chernobyl that what happened there can't happen in Japan.

The details of that difference remain outside my knowledge.

Please remain civil, folks. Sniping at one another will make this thread useless. That means if you are skeptical about the information being presented by TEPCO and other nuclear-industry folks, don't insult the nuke people that are in here voluntarily contributing. It also means if you are a nuclear partisan, please don't assume that only idiots and fools disagree with your position.

Insulting, derogatory, and belittling remarks cannot possibly help us understand the situation. We did a very good job in the other thread. Let's do it again here.
posted by mwhybark at 9:35 PM on March 12, 2011 [15 favorites]


Rather than talking of some sort of nuclear explosion, it may be more useful to consider the possibility of the damaged core going critical again (i.e. restarting a fission chain reaction). How likely is that? (And please explain why.)
posted by ryanrs at 9:35 PM on March 12, 2011


It's my understanding that liability of operators is limited by agreement with the US government. But even after avoiding absolute liability, ownership of an asset incapable of producing revenue would still be a loss on any investor's balance sheet.
posted by dglynn at 9:35 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please explain how this occurs.

It's not going to explode like a bomb, but if the reactor core goes straight through the bottom of containment, there is a possibility it will hit the water table and create a steam explosion. The steam would carry radioactive particles into the jet stream.

Possible. Not bloody likely, though.
posted by dw at 9:37 PM on March 12, 2011


There is zero chance of a nuclear explosion.

A) Are you high? Gimme some of that shit, it must be tasty.

B) You know, I really wish you wouldn't do that. People keep saying "This won't happen" and then it happens.

C) Oh, you mean a supercritical fission explosion as though from a nuclear weapon? No, you're right. That's not going to happen. But an uncontrolled core meltdown can breed a number of nasty isotopes both short and long lived. A plain old gun type fission nuclear bomb can be clean burning by comparison due to the higher temperatures and more complete use of the fuel. Just because there isn't an earth shattering kaboom and a giant mushroom cloud doesn't mean that the corium slag left over isn't going to be more radioactive for longer.

Let's put it this way. I'd much rather go picnicking in the sand at Yucca Flat where they tested hundreds of nuclear weapons than I would in the unquantifiable corium debris of Chernobyl. Yucca Flat is nice and clean compared to Chernobyl.
posted by loquacious at 9:37 PM on March 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think the most interesting reactor on the horizon has got to be the traveling-wave reactor Bill Gates has been trumpeting as a solution to man's ills. But I am curious, after reading about it a bit, can someone with more knowledge of the physics explain under what mechanism it would be shut down if such a thing were wanted/required? I can imagine some people may not like the idea of a reaction that runs for 60 years by itself, no matter how great it is. I presume that's not the case?
posted by floam at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2011


It would have been catastrophic long before the explosion, had containment already been breached. The core is built to withstand the pressure, the facade that exploded was not.

Yes, but you are saying there is absolutely 0% chance of an explosion at a plant which has already had an explosion and which is the middle of a meltdown, even if containment is breeched. I'm curious what you're basing that opinion on. Are you a nuclear engineer and familiar enough with that plant that you can rule out any explosive reaction of any chemicals present in a 40 year old power plant with temperatures approaching 2000 degrees celcius after a containment breach?
posted by empath at 9:38 PM on March 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


As officials struggle with the specter of meltdowns at two plants in Fukushima, many Japanese don't trust authorities are telling them everything they know.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:39 PM on March 12, 2011


Bill Gates says it's reliable, does he? Hmph.
posted by ryanrs at 9:40 PM on March 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


Guys, just go read Wikipedia.

Well that settles it.
posted by empath at 9:41 PM on March 12, 2011


Yes, but you are saying there is absolutely 0% chance of an explosion at a plant which has already had an explosion and which is the middle of a meltdown

I just popped your balloon with a needle, so who is to say I can't pop a bowling ball?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:41 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


In technical discussions, analogies are usually the language of the ignorant.
posted by ryanrs at 9:42 PM on March 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


It's my understanding that liability of operators is limited by agreement with the US government.

LOL that's one way of putting it. Another way: taxpayers are responsible for paying any damages caused by nuclear power plants.
posted by stbalbach at 9:43 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yes, that is what he is saying. The containment vessels are safe. Everything is under control...
posted by Windopaene at 9:43 PM on March 12, 2011


Yes, but you are saying there is absolutely 0% chance of an explosion at a plant which has already had an explosion and which is the middle of a meltdown

No, furiousxgeorge thought we were talking about a nuclear explosion, but he agrees that there is a chance that there could be a conventional explosion that could spray radioactive material into the environment.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011


Guys, just go read Wikipedia.

[CITATION NEEDED]

furiousxgeorge, can you please give the noisy one-liners a rest? People are actually trying to have a conversation about this, and I feel you're being... well, really juvenile and jerky.
posted by loquacious at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


In technical discussions, analogies are usually the language of the ignorant.

Ok, explain how is is feasible the containment will be broken. How will this occur? No analogies, technical details, go.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011


goddamit, stop it. There is a fucking nuclear emergency going on that people want to learn about and cockwaggling does not contribute to that goal one whit.
posted by mwhybark at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011 [18 favorites]


Wow, I didn't know that re liability. I wonder if that's the way it is the world over?

Sucks to be a taxpayer in that case.
posted by Windopaene at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011


Worst case scenario if the reactor melts down? I don't know, but I've started to estimate how much fuel is in the reactor.

There are 400 fuel assemblies containing 97 uranium control rods, each rod 3.66m long. I don't have figures on the mass of the fuel (or the diameter of the rods) however. I also don't know how fresh the fuel is.
posted by zippy at 9:44 PM on March 12, 2011


Guys, just go read Wikipedia.

Already ahead of you, skimming the Chernobyl entry. If nothing else, the design of Chernobyl is different then the design of the Japanese reactors.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:45 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fuel melts, pools at bottom of reactor vessel, goes critical, melts through floor. Taa, daa!

No idea how likely, though.
posted by ryanrs at 9:46 PM on March 12, 2011


dglynn: There are a lot of reasons nuclear plants haven't been built in the US in a while. This Congressional Research Services Report gives a lot more information, but the big reasons are:
  1. They cost a lot of time and money to build, return on investment is measured in decades, investors hate that.
  2. Operations costs are high, and we have abundant cheap fossil fuels (primarily coal).
  3. Public distrust. Applying to build a nuclear plant requires federal, state, and local approval.
That said, in the last decade, several energy companies have started thinking about applying to build new plants (up to 30 around the country, I believe), likely most of them won't be built, but the US may be seeing another one or two in the next 25 years or so.
posted by thebestsophist at 9:46 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the (LA Times) news link I just posted:

As many people here are well aware, the company, known as Tepco, has a history of not being forthcoming about nuclear safety issues, particularly those surrounding earthquake-related dangers. In 2003, all 17 of its nuclear plants were shut down temporarily after a scandal over falsified safety-inspection reports. It ran into trouble again in 2006, when it emerged that coolant-water data at two plants had been falsified in the 1980s.

Critics have long expressed deep concern about safety at many of Japan's nuclear facilities, some which date back to the 1970s and 1980s. Fukushima has long been on critics' radar, but so has the Hamaoka plant, just 100 miles southwest of Tokyo, which perches on an active fault line.

"I have been warning about Japan's possibility of a genpatsu shinsai — a nuclear disaster," said Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and professor emeritus at Kobe University. He said Fukushima was only one of a number of nuclear complexes in seismically unsafe locations.

posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:46 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Already ahead of you, skimming the Chernobyl entry. If nothing else, the design of Chernobyl is different then the design of the Japanese reactors.

Yes, that is the lesson you should take from it. Different to the point where a Chernobyl type accident can't occur.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:47 PM on March 12, 2011


furiousxgeorge, you are speaking the language of "It shouldn't happen" - this is reasonable. It's worthwhile to talk about Japanese vs. Soviet Bloc power plant design.

What other people are pointing out is that there are corner cases, and in the event of the most powerful quake in Japanese history, where we saw tsunamis 60 klicks or more inland, some of those corner cases need to be taken very fucking seriously.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:47 PM on March 12, 2011


Ok, explain how is is feasible the containment will be broken. How will this occur? No analogies, technical details, go.

You have a runaway reaction that melts the uranium into a a white hot slag that melts through the bottom of a containment system which may or may not have been severely damaged by a series of earthquakes. That is what a meltdown is. You really don't know what you are talking about.

I mean, I barely do, but I know more than you, surely. An uncontained meltdown is surely in the realm of possibility here.
posted by empath at 9:47 PM on March 12, 2011


Interactive graphics at The New York Times: The Crippled Japanese Nuclear Reactors
posted by hat at 9:49 PM on March 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


Wow, I didn't know that re liability. I wonder if that's the way it is the world over?

All I believe. The reason is no insurance company will take on the risk given the potential liability of a nuclear meltdown. It's a super sweet deal for the electric companies. Even the oil companies have to pay to clean up their mess (some of it anyway). The nuclear power industry is so heavily subsidized by governments that it could not exist otherwise, no one would insure them, they are "too big when failed".
posted by stbalbach at 9:49 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, furiousxgeorge thought we were talking about a nuclear explosion, but he agrees that there is a chance that there could be a conventional explosion that could spray radioactive material into the environment.

To be honest, I thought everyone was talking about a nuclear/atomic-bomb style explosion too. A conventional explosion that spreads radioactive material seems possible, as far as I know.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:49 PM on March 12, 2011


is the Japanese news media going to provide the best source for what's going on,

At the moment, the people on the scene (TEPCO, Japanese government) are the only primary sources that I know of. My impression is that TEPCO reports accurately, but delays reporting of bad stuff, and then reports it in a way that downplays it but is otherwise accurate.

One example of this - TEPCO releases updates almost every hour on each reactor (unit) at the two Fukushima stations. Rather than saying "water has leaked out" they instead say "water hasn't leaked" in all of the OK reactors, so I sometimes have to read between the lines to figure out what badness has happened.

Other government's sources probably won't be more accurate until there's something they can a) measure, and b) talk about (i.e., they measured radioactive contaminant with unclassified detectors).
posted by zippy at 9:52 PM on March 12, 2011


Fuel melts, pools at bottom of reactor vessel, goes critical, melts through floor. Taa, daa!

Also known as a worst case scenario called the China Syndrome. The myth is that such a meltdown in the US could melt through the crust and go all the way to China. The informed speculation is that it might reach a depth of 10 meters before cooling down enough to stop moving, and that if that's wrong and it reaches the mantle, it would be dispersed.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:53 PM on March 12, 2011


I also don't know how fresh the fuel is.
zippy, could you explain this a bit further? Since the uranium is converted into solid (ceramic?) pellets for use as fuel, how does the freshness of the fuel factor into the analysis? Does the solid fuel have a shelf life?
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:54 PM on March 12, 2011


An uncontained meltdown is surely in the realm of possibility here.

There is no reason to believe this will be the case, the containment is built to withstand these events.

Georgia Tech Nuclear expert: Japan's nuclear plant doesn't sound dire

Even if the reactor core were to melt down (this has not even happened yet, remember), Rahnema said it probably would not produce the dire consequences seen in Chernobyl. That plant had few of the safety features required in Japan. Even if the Fukushima reactor were to melt the central pressure vessel that contains it, he said, the radioactive fuel would still be held within a concrete containment, something he said was lacking in the Chernobyl design.

The experts are saying the situation is dire, I repeat, don't panic.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:54 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


*isn't.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:54 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Guardian is reporting the Fukushima reactors are using MOX as fuel. MOX uses a plutonium oxide. Not sure what the significance of MOX fuel is.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 PM on March 12, 2011


Even the oil companies have to pay to clean up their mess (some of it anyway).

Well, there are funds set up by Uncle Sam that will pay for oil clean up in the event it is required, I believe from a tax on each barrel of oil. The government can write a check to clean up an area, and then go after the responsible party later if there's anyone with any money to be gained. With nuclear, there's zero liability for the corporations at all?
posted by floam at 9:55 PM on March 12, 2011


There is no reason to believe this will be the case, the containment is built to withstand these events.

That is absolutely not true. It wasn't built to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude.
posted by empath at 9:55 PM on March 12, 2011


Yes, reactor #3, the new one that has gone into meltdown uses plutonium as part of its fuel.
posted by Windopaene at 9:56 PM on March 12, 2011


There is no reason to believe this will be the case, the containment is built to withstand these events.

And we've already seen that the concrete containment can go boom...
posted by Windopaene at 9:58 PM on March 12, 2011


The NYT is reporting that TEPEC has been playing fast and loose with safety standards since at least the '80s. If you're relying on solid engineering and maintenance from the company who owns those reactors, you may be in for a surprise.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:58 PM on March 12, 2011


I was given to think that the containment proper was inside the big concrete boxes. Was I wrong?

And what magnitude earthquakes was it built to withstand?
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:59 PM on March 12, 2011


We have seen concrete go boom. Not containment concrete by the way. And the containment concrete survived the boom intact. While your survey size is small, and time is still ticking, your results prove the case that the containment is adequate.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:01 PM on March 12, 2011


The big boxes are the secondary containment. The primary containment is inside that.
posted by Windopaene at 10:01 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


How the containment system can be broken, scenario 2: the core becomes hot enough to generates a large amount of hydrogen. The hydrogen and oxygen in the reactor vessel combine explosively and blow the reactor open.
posted by zippy at 10:01 PM on March 12, 2011


And we've already seen that the concrete containment can go boom...

...which was not built to withstand the pressure that blew it.

And what magnitude earthquakes was it built to withstand?

7.3 at least, looking into it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:01 PM on March 12, 2011


Designed to withstand 8.0 I think I recall reading.
posted by Windopaene at 10:02 PM on March 12, 2011


There's a long way from "core so hot it's damaged" to "melted to liquid metal." The second instance is what meltdown means. There's no evidence that a meltdown has occurred and the only time it appears in sourced quotes is somebody saying it's not impossible. Not impossible is pretty sloppy.

There is no information to suggest that a meltdown has occurred, except for one guy who keeps getting quoted over and over and over and over and over again because he said meltdown:
"There is a possibility, we see the possibility of a meltdown," said Toshihiro Bannai, director of the international affairs office of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety, in a telephone interview with CNN from the agency's Tokyo headquarters. "At this point, we have still not confirmed that there is an actual meltdown, but there is a possibility."
We do know that both reactors got hot enough to damage the cores. This means hot enough for the zirconium cladding to oxidize and create hydrogen. It has to get much hotter to melt.

The fears about melted cores are that the rods are spaced apart so there is considerable empty space in the core. A full meltdown would put all the material in a much smaller volume and the reaction rate would increase. This is because the neutrons become more likely to split atoms in a denser mass. It would get hotter. Hot enough to melt metal into a liquid, but not hot enough to boil it. Think a couple of thousand degrees. Bright orange hot.

The reaction rate would never go high enough for a supercritical chain reaction like occurs in an A-bomb. That involves temperatures in the plasma range. No reactor can do that. None. Never. Zero. It is impossible.

The explosion that would follow a meltdown would be due to steam or gases created when the really hot liquid metal hits water or thomething else tha flashes to gas. As explosions go, it would be less briscant than black powder and less than a hydrogen explosion. As explosions go, it would be a very slow explosion.

It would be local. It would really nasty, but local. It is not going to drift across the Pacific and irradiate the West coast. Cliff Mass says so in his blog:
You may not believe this, but some of the survivalist and anti-nuclear web sites are already going nuts about the "threat."
Older fuel will be dirtier because it will have more fission products. New fuel will be relatively pure. Spent fuel is much much dirtier than new fuel. That's why fuel isn't very hazardous to move around, but waste is.
posted by warbaby at 10:02 PM on March 12, 2011 [28 favorites]


The big boxes are not containment structure. They are simply buildings. That's what I've heard from all sides. The containment structure is a different beast altogether.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:02 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


SciAm: Nuclear Experts Explain Worst-Case Scenario at Fukushima Power Plant

(haven't read it yet, Xeni just posted it and i saw it in my BB feed)
posted by mwhybark at 10:03 PM on March 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Does the solid fuel have a shelf life?

I would imagine that since it is radioactive material, that over time, it radioactively decays into material that can't be used for fission.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 10:03 PM on March 12, 2011


how does the freshness of the fuel factor into the analysis? Does the solid fuel have a shelf life?

No shelf life, per se. Fission is the process of transmuting elements into other elements. As the fuel is used, the composition of the fuel changes, and that also means the risks change.
posted by Chuckles at 10:03 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would venture that the bottom line is we don't know now, and won't know for some time, what the immediate and long-term dangers in fact are. That the evacuation radius appears to have been extended may merely be a precautionary measure, or it may be indication that meltdowns (with all the vagueness of that term) are actually underway. Unless I'm missing something, it appears very difficult to say with any degree of accuracy what the situation is.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:03 PM on March 12, 2011


Though I have no doubt that the authorities have been downplaying the possibility of a China Syndrome in Japan -- have we heard any more about the 'coolant' shipped in to prevent such a thing happening? The coolant presumed to be sodium polyborate?

Not gonna panic just yet, seeing as how there's dick all I can do about it anyway.
posted by Capt. Renault at 10:04 PM on March 12, 2011


Nuclear safety experts were seeking answers to other questions about Japan's nuclear facilities that have been obscured by the focus on the Fukushima reactors. The nuclear plants also have spent fuel pools that some experts say may have spilled during the earthquake and its aftershocks. Tokyo Electric has not commented yet on those pools, which in the case of the GE-designed reactors are located on the roof, possibly making them vulnerable.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:05 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


For what it's worth, I live 35 miles from a General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor, identical to the Fukushima facilities and built almost exactly at the same time. I have no worries about it.

Also for what it's worth, while the entire world is freaking, I am certain that the GE Mark I was designed and built by the best nuclear engineers of the time, and the Fukushima incident is being attended by the best nuclear engineers in the world.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:05 PM on March 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah yeah yeah, the building that blew up is insignificant. So now whatever caused that building to blow up is venting directly into the atmosphere. Seems like one would rather the buliding didn't blow up, really.
posted by BeerFilter at 10:06 PM on March 12, 2011


It would be local. It would really nasty, but local.

I don't think you understand how huge the Chernobyl exclusion zone is. A nuke going off isn't the problem, and almost everyone knows it. The problem is the irridation of people, homes, and communities... some of them a way far away from the plant itself.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:06 PM on March 12, 2011




Yeah yeah yeah, the building that blew up is insignificant. So now whatever caused that building to blow up is venting directly into the atmosphere. Seems like one would rather the buliding didn't blow up, really.

Hydrogen, vented from the reactor vessel, caused the explosion.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:08 PM on March 12, 2011


From the SciAM link mwhybark posted above:

"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 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. 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."
posted by Windopaene at 10:08 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


From @arclight:

This important to stress: Most of the 100s of workers at Fukushima Daiichi live close to the plant so it's their families & houses at risk.

Seriously. Put yourself in their shoes. Two massive natural disasters, a severe reactor accident where they are the only line of defense...

... and they know if the plant breaks open and lets out that cesium & iodine, it's their wife & kids downwind. How do you process that?

Those guys are heroes in the sense they are doing precisely what they are trained to do when nobody would blame them for cutting & running

posted by Artw at 10:08 PM on March 12, 2011 [14 favorites]


With nuclear, there's zero liability for the corporations at all?

There may be some liability for the corps, but consider the potential liability of a single nuclear accident could be 100s B or even Trillions of dollars (imagine Chernobyl outside NYC, or Tokyo). It's impossible to find a private insurer for that. Thus, the government promises to pay for damages over X amount. The government (taxpayers) are the insurer. Most insurance policies will cap how much is paid out, depending how much you pay in - not so with nuclear insurance, no limit paid out, very little (if at all) paid in. Good deal, huh?
posted by stbalbach at 10:08 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


hat: "Interactive graphics at The New York Times: The Crippled Japanese Nuclear Reactors"

This is extremely helpful and informative, everyone. Looks like some other news sources are coming online finally.
posted by mwhybark at 10:09 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, warbaby, that's the comment I was looking for when I asked my questions.
posted by empath at 10:09 PM on March 12, 2011


Wow, I didn't know that re liability. I wonder if that's the way it is the world over?

Sucks to be a taxpayer in that case.

Check out the Vienna Convention of Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage. If governments did not limit liability, nuclear plant operators would simply not be able to get insurance and no plants would get built. Governments have judged (correctly) that there is a societal benefit to having nuclear power plants, and limiting liability creates the commercial conditions to allow nuclear plants to get built.

Governments protect taxpayers (also called citizens) from picking up the tab for accidents/suffering the effects of accidents through extremely rigorous safety regulation. Instead of trying to protect the public by striking fear of lawsuits into nuclear plant operators, safety is dealt with in regulation of plant design and operation. It's actually an extremely cost-effective way to deliver clean, reliable power. So, no, it doesn't suck to be a taxpayer.

We'll see how this incident plays out, but if it's anything like Three Mile Island, there will be very little release of radiation and no effects on human health. There have already been reports that allowable radiation levels around the plant have exceeded legal limits, and while I don't know this for sure, I would guess that that's probably more a reflection of the very conservative limits on allowable radiation levels than it is any danger posed to the public. We'll see. Either way, this disaster is certainly an argument for investment in the latest generation of nuclear plants with passive safety technology.
posted by Dasein at 10:09 PM on March 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Also known as a worst case scenario called the China Syndrome. The myth is that such a meltdown in the US could melt through the crust and go all the way to China.

I'm too young to be familiar with The China Syndrome when it first came out. Was this really the premise? Because it's completely idiotic.
posted by ryanrs at 10:10 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Seems like one would rather the buliding didn't blow up, really.

Obviously if they built a building there, it would generally be good to have it around. But if the emergency cooling process generates a lot of hydrogen gas, then it is much better to vent it out to the atmosphere than confine it in a building. The loss of the outer paneling may be a good thing in this case.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:10 PM on March 12, 2011


I also don't know how fresh the fuel is.
zippy, could you explain this a bit further?


It's something @arclight brought up in one of his tweets.

You start with Uranium Oxide, I believe "enriched to 7% 235U. That's fresh fuel.

Over time, as you 'burn' the fuel in normal operation*, you have less energy - less 235U. You also have fission products, "every element from zinc through to the lanthanides."

Some of them are nasty: "Many of the fission products are either non-radioactive or only short-lived radioisotopes. But a considerable number are medium to long-lived radioisotopes such as 90Sr, 137Cs, 99Tc and 129I."

* burn here means liberating energy that holds the atom together, as opposed to normal burning, where you liberate energy that holds the molecule together.
posted by zippy at 10:12 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The coolant presumed to be sodium polyborate?

I linked this in the main quake thread, but Bob Cringely (who was an advisor for Three Mile Island) is reporting exactly that.

You should read that post/article.

Note that he also says:
An earthquake with such loss of life is bad enough, but Japan has also just lost 20 percent of its electric generating capacity. And I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that none of those 11 reactors will re-enter service again, they’ve been so compromised.
posted by loquacious at 10:13 PM on March 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think there may be translation issues going on involving the term "meltdown," or just an imprecision in terminology. As warbaby says, there's a long distance from "damaged by heat" to "melted to liquid metal," but news sourced in Japan are using the term roshin youyuu -- which I've seen translated as "meltdown" in several places -- to describe the heat damage that has already happened.
posted by Jeanne at 10:13 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


which in the case of the GE-designed reactors are located on the roof, possibly making them vulnerable.

Ya, I noticed that in the New York Times graphic (not exactly the roof, but way up high). Considering the explosion that did happen, it must be a problem.
posted by Chuckles at 10:13 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really, in the case of the outer building, if the inner containment is breached then having the outer building intact would mean jack-diddly-poop, aka nothing. Losing the outer building, with respect to containment of a possible meltdown outside of the inner containment, is a moot point.

The fact that there is a condition to cause explosions is never good, but still, she's holding and that's what matters. Not only is she holding, but she's holding in the face of things she obviously wasn't foreseen to experience (see battery power failing, 9.0 magnitude, etc). Testament to the usage of a proper safety factor and planning for aging effects from the engineers of the past.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:16 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The coolant presumed to be sodium polyborate?

TEPCO says "sea water and boric acid" in their English-language press release.
posted by zippy at 10:17 PM on March 12, 2011


Here's a random question -- why do they build these things so big that one reactor melting down would be completely catastrophic?

Is it possible to build a smaller plant with less of a critical mass of Uranium and Plutonium?
posted by empath at 10:18 PM on March 12, 2011


Lots of small reactors (of the same design as the big one), I believe, would result in more deaths, as there would be more points of failure.

They would be harder to regulate and would require even more trained staff to monitor and operate. Each event might be less bad than a big reactor, but odds are you'd have more of them, and the sum of events would be worse.
posted by zippy at 10:21 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


So...do the Japanese store all their spent on-site like we do? Anybody hear about the condition of the spent fuel pool? Are the older fuel rods shipped elsewhere, or do they just keep 'em stacked in a corner of the employee parking lot?
posted by ryanrs at 10:21 PM on March 12, 2011


That the evacuation radius appears to have been extended may merely be a precautionary measure, or it may be indication that meltdowns (with all the vagueness of that term) are actually underway.

Initially, the Japanese government claimed no radiation was released. Then some was released, but a safe amount. And then some radiation was being released, but there was no change in the measured amount of radioactivity around the plant.

Now the government has been making last-ditch attempts to shut down the cores, some of which may have already partially melted down, according to the NYT, and now more reactors may be having serious cooling problems.

Radioactivity levels outside the plant have now reached over twice the legal limit per hour. The number of workers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation has shot up from 4 to 160, three of which are suffering "full-on radiation sickness".

It seems, perhaps, that the main source of information on this has been not so straightforward with its people or with countries downwind, not only about the risks but about the state of what appears to be a consistently worsening nuclear disaster.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:22 PM on March 12, 2011 [12 favorites]


empath: absolutely, but this reactor was built in the late 60's. there are much better solutions at the present moment, and i've seen it said that Unit #1 was scheduled to go dark at the end of the month.
posted by Mach5 at 10:22 PM on March 12, 2011


I'm too young to be familiar with The China Syndrome when it first came out. Was this really the premise? Because it's completely idiotic.

Yep, and yep, it's pretty idiotic. But they didn't know as much about the earth's core and mantle back then, and to put that in perspective - more than a few respectable scientists were worried that the first nuclear test at Trinity might be hot enough to ignite the atmosphere. I mean, all of it. And start a run away reaction that snuffed out all life on the earth.

Obviously they went and tested the gadget anyway.

Sure, if the core of a dozen reactors melt down and burrow straight through the crust into the earth and actually reach magma - and the magma doesn't come spouting back out like a new volcano, well... that wouldn't really be too bad. The cores would melt into the magma/mantle, disperse nicely and that would pretty much be that. Geological time scale disposal, far out of the reach of humans. And more or less for free.

But it's examples like these kinds of retrospectively ridiculous thoughts that give me pause whenever an expert starts talking in terms of absolutes like "This will never fail, because we've thought of everything." We're still learning stuff. This reactor is just an object lesson in how much we're still learning, and how little we knew 40-50 years ago, and how much more we need to learn.

And how "good enough" often really isn't unless you're drunk and/or mad and playing horseshoes and hand-grenades.
posted by loquacious at 10:22 PM on March 12, 2011 [10 favorites]


One point from above: genpatsu shinsai is not just "nuclear disaster," it's the specific term for a nuclear incident caused by seismic forces. Ishibashi coined it himself; more here from the Times, wrt the 2007 Niigata 6.8 quake.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:23 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


The 160 number for people exposed to radiation actually includes a number of patients and staff at a nearby hospital who were outdoors when the roof blew.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 PM on March 12, 2011


Good enough. I'm glad Japan is in the hands of you experts.
posted by BeerFilter at 10:26 PM on March 12, 2011


Is it possible to build a smaller plant with less of a critical mass of Uranium and Plutonium?

I imagine yes, though the safety really depends on the exact design. I imagine that one that depended on a powered backup for a cooling system would be considered unthinkable.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:26 PM on March 12, 2011


METI minister, news reports ask people to conserve electricity. Planned electricity rationing.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:26 PM on March 12, 2011


Jeanne: I think there may be translation issues going on involving the term "meltdown," or just an imprecision in terminology.
Indeed. A couple of my nuclear engineer friends (somehow I have more than one…I don't know how), as well as @arclight have said that "meltdown" isn't actually a term used by nuclear engineer.
From what I've read, most likely the fuel rods in 1 and 3 have been damaged from fuel rods melting. I doubt anyone (including the engineers trying to cool these things down) could say anything beyond that.

empath: Is it possible to build a smaller plant with less of a critical mass of Uranium and Plutonium?
I remember seeing a couple different plans for small (think 2-3 story building-sized) reactors that would be manufactured completely sealed, shipped by container ship, and literally just dropped onto a pad. When the fuel was spent, they'd be picked up, and shipped back to the manufacturer for reprocessing. These designs were by companies such as GE. From my understanding these would have a very tiny chance of catastrophe because of their size.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:26 PM on March 12, 2011


ryanrs, I'm having trouble finding a decent link, but I'm pretty sure Japan reprocesses spent fuel.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:29 PM on March 12, 2011


It's actually an extremely cost-effective way to deliver clean, reliable power.

..unless your the taxpayer paying to clean-up a nuclear accident, then it's neither cost effective or clean. Platonic ideals of fail-safe technology are rhetorical games that ignore the messy realities of nuclear power.
posted by stbalbach at 10:29 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is it possible to build a smaller plant with less of a critical mass of Uranium and Plutonium?

A few miles south of me there are small reactors made by NuScale being tested. They are a completely different type of technology however.
posted by floam at 10:33 PM on March 12, 2011


Yeah, I think I remember lack of reprocessing was a US-specific thing. Pretty stupid, too, in terms of long-term sustainability.
posted by ryanrs at 10:33 PM on March 12, 2011


They are from Japan Nuclear Fuel, Ltd., so take with a grain of salt, but the following two articles detail Japan's nuclear fuel recycling/reprocessing program.

Japan's Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities
Why is Japan Pursuing a "Closed" Nuclear Fuel Cycle?
posted by ob1quixote at 10:33 PM on March 12, 2011



So...do the Japanese store all their spent on-site like we do?


No, the Rokkasho Reprocessing plant in Aomori is designed to take the spent fuel but has been a politically contentious project (NIMBY) and is currently still in development afaik.
posted by gen at 10:34 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I'm too young to be familiar with The China Syndrome when it first came out. Was this really the premise? Because it's completely idiotic.

Yep, and yep, it's pretty idiotic. But they didn't know as much about the earth's core and mantle back then, and to put that in perspective - more than a few respectable scientists were worried that the first nuclear test at Trinity might be hot enough to ignite the atmosphere. I mean, all of it. And start a run away reaction that snuffed out all life on the earth.


Neither the China Syndrome nor worries about igniting the atmosphere are idiotic. Both are great scenario planning exercises.

When you are designing a new thing, the responsible thing to do is think about the possible failure modes and plan around them. Nuclear reactions are all about self-sustaining and potentially long-lived very hot reactions. If you've got something like that going, what is to stop it from melting all the way down to the center of the earth?

Once you've asked that question, you can start to design around preventing such a scenario. You can also quickly realize that dropping a nuclear chain reaction into the center of the earth is probably not going to do much. The bigger problem is breaking through the floor of your powerplant and contaminating the local groundwater - a much more likely scenario that is a sub-case of the China Syndrome.

Engineering is all about coming up with crazy scenarios like this, and either proving that they can't happen, or developing ways to prevent them. You want your engineers thinking about outlandish scenarios like this.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:34 PM on March 12, 2011 [16 favorites]


"Melting to China", as described in a previous comment, IS idiotic. Gravity doesn't work that way except in cartoons.
posted by ryanrs at 10:36 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


..unless your the taxpayer paying to clean-up a nuclear accident, then it's neither cost effective or clean.

Compare the cost of nuclear, on a full life-cycle basis, including the cost of dealing with releases of radiation when they do occur (rarely, and without effect on public health so far in the West), to any other form of power except hydro, and nuclear power comes off very well. Governments have been comfortable taking the risk because they know that even in a critical incident, like this one, large amounts of radiation are not going to be released.
posted by Dasein at 10:36 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is electricity much cheaper in France or Japan than in countries that rely on coal?
posted by ryanrs at 10:38 PM on March 12, 2011


"Melting to China", as described in a previous comment, IS idiotic. Gravity doesn't work that way except in cartoons.

Sure, but you need a catchy name for your studies and whitepapers. China Syndrome is easy to remember, even if the hypothetical mass would only ever get to the center of the earth.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:39 PM on March 12, 2011


It was the '70s, and yes, China was on the opposite side of the earth in the '70s...
posted by atomicmedia at 10:39 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Platonic ideals of fail-safe technology are rhetorical games that ignore the messy realities of nuclear power.

Yes and no. The problem is that our current sources of energy (I'm mostly talking about coal), have messy realities that are, honestly, a lot worse than nuclear. The difference is that we don't calculate the environmental costs of coal because it is diffused over every single second the plant is in operation. But a traditional coal fire plant, even the newest cleanest ones that are going up will produce more radiation through exhaust in a single year, than the average nuclear power plant will in its lifetime. With all other variables constant, I would choose the environmental impact of a modern nuclear plant over a modern coal fire plant any day. Does that mean I'd want all nuclear all the time? Hell, no. But we have a certain way of life, and that includes a shit ton of energy, and our beloved renewables aren't going to be able to keep up with demand any time soon (although I seriously wish it could).

I'm hoping that well-regulated nuclear power is to world energy consumption to what hybrids are to cars: a stepping stone away to reduce fossil fuel consumption until we can finish getting the real solution in place.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:40 PM on March 12, 2011 [24 favorites]


The sixth photo in this photo set (posted in the other thread by Catch) shows a before-and-after aerial satellite view of the Fukushima facility.
posted by hat at 10:44 PM on March 12, 2011


What is the "real solution"?

And with the Leaf and the Volt coming out soon, there's no real need for hybrids anymore, (other than to protect oil company profit margins).
posted by Windopaene at 10:44 PM on March 12, 2011


Another question: if there was a Chernobyl-style meltdown of graphite-moderated reactor in Japan, how long would it take for the fallout to reach the US West coast?
posted by ryanrs at 10:45 PM on March 12, 2011


Any news on Japan's other nuclear reactors?
The one closest to the epicenter and tsunamis, Onagawa, was fortunately (and probably purposely) built high enough to not be affected by the incoming waves. Nevertheless it had a fire that was later put out.

And Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was damaged in a 2007 earthquake, and therefore closed down. It was just reopened last month! Fortunately it was retrofitted to do better in earthquakes.

I assume no news is good news when it comes to these reactors.
posted by eye of newt at 10:45 PM on March 12, 2011


And I thought coal was A-OK. I keep hearing ads on the radio about "Clean Coal".

/sarcasm
posted by Windopaene at 10:46 PM on March 12, 2011


"Melting to China", as described in a previous comment, IS idiotic. Gravity doesn't work that way except in cartoons.

You know, even 50 years ago, our top quantum and nuclear physicists were actually pretty good at Physics 101 material. It was clearly tongue-in-cheek, I hope you realize? There are some awesome online videos of physics lectures given by Feynman I wish I had saved...
posted by floam at 10:46 PM on March 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


ryanrs: "Another question: if there was a Chernobyl-style meltdown of graphite-moderated reactor in Japan, how long would it take for the fallout to reach the US West coast"

Well, Cliff Mass isn't modeling that, nor does he say what the particles he is modeling are, but have a look.

His charts end on 3/22.
posted by mwhybark at 10:48 PM on March 12, 2011


Gravity doesn't work that way except in cartoons.

I knew I shoulda taken that right toin at Albakoiky!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:48 PM on March 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


> which in the case of the GE-designed reactors are located on the roof, possibly making them vulnerable.

Um, no. The spent rods are kept in a containment pool at ground level, separate from the reactor facility. I heard specific discussion of the spent reactor pool at one of the government press conferences, although there have been so many it would be hard to track it down.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:49 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]




ryanrs  Another question: if there was a Chernobyl-style meltdown of graphite-moderated reactor in Japan, how long would it take for the fallout to reach the US West coast?

A couple to several days. Check out this North Pacific jet stream wind prediction model.
posted by hat at 10:49 PM on March 12, 2011


All I know about The China Syndrome is what I've read in these two threads. Didn't know it was by Feynman.
posted by ryanrs at 10:50 PM on March 12, 2011


But, by the way, that doesn't address the effects of dilution or dissipation and rain-out. The Pacific is a really big ocean.
posted by hat at 10:50 PM on March 12, 2011


eye of newt: "I assume no news is good news when it comes to these reactors"

In those specific instances, probably so. However, it's been noted that TEPCO uses omission to convey negative facts in their blow-by-blow updates on the current situation.
posted by mwhybark at 10:51 PM on March 12, 2011


There's been some mention on NHK of elevated radiation levels at Onagawa. This TEPCO graph seems to indicate fairly steady but elevated levels of radiation; I'm reading the Google autotranslated version, so someone with better written Japanese will have to break it down further.

There has been speculation on Twitter that what the detectors at Onagawa are picking up is radiation released from Fukushima Daiichi, which is 100km away.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:52 PM on March 12, 2011


I don't think Feynman had anything to do with it, ryanrs, that was just an example of a mind in the circles of the time and the state of physics.
posted by floam at 10:55 PM on March 12, 2011


if there was a Chernobyl-style meltdown of graphite-moderated reactor in Japan, how long would it take for the fallout to reach the US West coast?

About 2-6 days. It depends a lot on altitude of the particles in the cloud, how much the jetstream is meandering and the speed of the current.

When you look at records or simulations of the jetstream it looks a lot like a river like the Mississippi with oxbow-like activity happening, just much faster. Or similar to a rivulet of water down an inclined plane. It's really dynamic and chaotic and wiggles back and forth between the arctic circle and the equator.
posted by loquacious at 10:56 PM on March 12, 2011


However, it's been noted that TEPCO uses omission to convey negative facts in their blow-by-blow updates on the current situation.

That is one of the most semantically meaningless sentences I have ever read.

I encourage people to read the TEPCO Press Release website and read their reports, which are issued mostly hourly, frequently more often. See if you can find omitted negative facts (whatever the hell that means).
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:56 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


All I know about The China Syndrome is what I've read in these two threads. Didn't know it was by Feynman.

Wikipedia credits Ralph Lapp. I think Feynman was just an example of the intellectual caliber we are talking about. Not everyone had the communication skills of Feynman, but there were plenty of other scientists as smart or smarter than him.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:57 PM on March 12, 2011


In a nutshell, wasn't Chernobyl actually on fire?
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:58 PM on March 12, 2011


hat: "But, by the way, that doesn't address the effects of dilution or dissipation and rain-out. The Pacific is a really big ocean."

Correct, and Professor Mass clearly indicates that he does not expect any actual threat from a release event. It's 6000 miles, farther than the distance the Chernobyl plume had measurable effects, or possibly about the farthest it did, I have seen different information.

Here's a look at it that might be helpful.
posted by mwhybark at 10:59 PM on March 12, 2011


You can. Earlier, when the plant was OK, it said, "there has been no loss of coolant" or "no damage to the core". On the reactors going bad, it didn't say, "there has been loss of coolant" or "bad things are happening", those original phrases just weren't present.
posted by Windopaene at 10:59 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]



There is no reason to believe this will be the case, the containment is built to withstand these events.

That is absolutely not true. It wasn't built to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude.


I've been trying to figure this out, but I can't quite figure out what the intensity of the quake was at the plant. If the design limits were exceeded, it was not by much.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:00 PM on March 12, 2011


@Windopaene: I have no friggin' clue.
Likely, a clever combination of renewables coupled together with much more intelligent building construction techniques (building construction and maintenance actually uses 60% of the country's energy, so imagine how much energy would be saved by just installing double-pained glass, citation), other energy consumption reduction programs including mass transit.

My issue with the Volt, Leaf, and Teslas is that while they are clever and neat, they don't match our lifestyle, which means it will take a lot of effort to get people to adopt them. We are used to being able to drive and just pull into a gas station when we're out of fuel, push a couple buttons and we're good to go for another few hundred miles. Electric cars are a step back from that.

Sure, a few hundred miles a charge is good enough for most trips, but the idea of having to remember to plug in every night, but if you forget, or need to drive just a little bit further, or if you live in an apartment complex and your parking spot doesn't have a plug near by (which…let's be serious, most don't), you're fresh out of luck. (Yes, I know about quick charging and battery swapping, my point stands, there's a lot of extra effort.)

Personally, my bet is with the Honda Clarity and hydrogen (it has been ever since that episode of Scientific American so many years ago). You drive for a few hundred miles, you stop at a gas station, press a few buttons and you're good to go. It's the same, it's what people are used to, we don't need to install electric plugs at every single parking spot in every single apartment complex and office building. It just works.

But I digress, we's talkin' 'bout nukes.
posted by thebestsophist at 11:01 PM on March 12, 2011


(I realize Feynman didn't write disaster movies. Should have included eye-roll emoticon.)
posted by ryanrs at 11:02 PM on March 12, 2011


charlie don't surf: "However, it's been noted that TEPCO uses omission to convey negative facts in their blow-by-blow updates on the current situation.

That is one of the most semantically meaningless sentences I have ever read.

I encourage people to read the TEPCO Press Release website and read their reports, which are issued mostly hourly, frequently more often. See if you can find omitted negative facts (whatever the hell that means)
"

Well, GOSH, that sure is a respectful tone there chuckles! Thanks for keepin' it real!
posted by mwhybark at 11:02 PM on March 12, 2011


I've been trying to figure this out, but I can't quite figure out what the intensity of the quake was at the plant. If the design limits were exceeded, it was not by much.

The Fukushima plants were designed to withstand a direct hit from a 7.9 earthquake. An 8.9 quake is about 10 times the intensity of a 7.9 (it's a logarithmic scale, each point is 10x). Consider it a miracle of engineering that they didn't fall to pieces instantly.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:03 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Fukushima plants were designed to withstand a direct hit from a 7.9 earthquake. An 8.9 quake is about 10 times the intensity of a 7.9 (it's a logarithmic scale, each point is 10x). Consider it a miracle of engineering that they didn't fall to pieces instantly.

This was not a direct hit.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:04 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


An 8.9 quake is about 10 times the intensity of a 7.9 (it's a logarithmic scale, each point is 10x)

Each point is 32x not 10x.
posted by Justinian at 11:04 PM on March 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


It didn't originate from the movie, ryan, Ralph Lapp, part of the Manhattan Project, came up with the term.
posted by floam at 11:05 PM on March 12, 2011


Well, we are talking about energy.

We are getting a Leaf in a month or so. Theoretically, there will be quick-charge stations from here, (Seattle), to Portland and beyond, so even long distance travel will be possible. Saying they "don't match our lifestyle" is a cop out. Our lifestyle is a bit on the bogus side, and we will need to change it to progress.
posted by Windopaene at 11:05 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Each point is 32x not 10x.

I stand corrected. But the point stands, the reactors were very close to the epicenter, and withstood more far punishment than their design limits.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:06 PM on March 12, 2011


Wow, I didn't realize the earthquake hit directly under the powerplants. I thought it was out to sea a bit.

** this is tongue in cheek. Assume that 'designed to take 7.9' is valid. What exactly did the plant see? And you haven't yet provided a citation for this number and the safety factor used by the designers...
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:06 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


And with the Leaf and the Volt coming out soon, there's no real need for hybrids anymore, (other than to protect oil company profit margins).

Give the drum-beating a rest? Stop polluting the thread?
posted by ambient2 at 11:06 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Would a breach of containment by excess pressure explosion be worse than one caused by a chemical explosion or not, for this type of reactor? I have a hard time using my somewhat basic physics knowledge trying to compare how the two things would spread all the nasty stuff around, particularly at the kind of insane pressures that seem to be involved to cause such a breach.
posted by Iosephus at 11:07 PM on March 12, 2011


I'm not sure if electric vehicles are the complete solution, but if Americans can't adopt around even slightly differently refueling habits we're really in trouble. Me, I was thinking maybe the solution was giving up on the whole suburb and commuting idea...
posted by floam at 11:07 PM on March 12, 2011


thebestsophist, I agree coal is a disaster but sheesh, I just can't support nuclear disaster instead.
posted by stbalbach at 11:08 PM on March 12, 2011


It would be local. It would really nasty, but local.

I don't think you understand how huge the Chernobyl exclusion zone is.

Not a reasonable comparison. At Chornobyl, irradiated graphite burned for two weeks, and the majority of the Zone is wherever the smoke went. The only graphite at Fukushima is in pencils. The parts of the Zone that were contaminated by other means are the reasonable basis of comparison, and they are vastly smaller.
posted by eritain at 11:11 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Somewhere, Jack Lemmon is spinning in his grave, in an idiotic, cartoonish manner.
posted by phaedon at 11:13 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Iosephus, a breach is a breach. I'm not sure one is worse than the other. Also, I don't think a hydrogen explosion can happen inside the reaction vessel itself (no oxygen).
posted by ryanrs at 11:13 PM on March 12, 2011


This is a good and informative thread, and it would be awesome if people could not be assholes when pointing out wrongness/disagreements with other people, so as not to dilute the goodness. Thank you all.
posted by rtha at 11:16 PM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Assume that 'designed to take 7.9' is valid. What exactly did the plant see? And you haven't yet provided a citation for this number and the safety factor used by the designers...

Source: TEPCO documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

I am checking the USGS Pager map, which represents the intensity but on a scale only loosely associated with the Richter Scale. Looks like Fukushima was just within the Category VIII area.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:16 PM on March 12, 2011


If the vessel is breached, the cooling water electrolyzes into H and O2, which then creates the explosive mixture. Read that somewhere, can't find the source though.
posted by Windopaene at 11:17 PM on March 12, 2011



I stand corrected. But the point stands, the reactors were very close to the epicenter, and withstood more far punishment than their design limits.


I'm gonna need a link for that, I can't find one either way.

Unit 1 was designed for a peak ground acceleration of 0.18 g (1.74 m/s2) and a response spectrum based on the 1952 Kern County earthquake.[7] All units were inspected after the 1978 Miyagi earthquake when the ground acceleration was 0.125 g (1.22 m/s2) for 30 seconds, but no damage to the critical parts of the reactor was discovered.[7]

The plant was in a .18 to .34 range so it's hard to say exactly to what degree it was exceeded for sure.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:17 PM on March 12, 2011


However, it's been noted that TEPCO uses omission to convey negative facts in their blow-by-blow updates on the current situation.

I was incorrect when I wrote this. I was remembering a discussion of a different press release in the other thread, and it was NOT the blow-by-blow TEPCO info that was noted to use omission as an information-management tactic.

yeesh, nested-in thread quotes using that metafilter quoting greasemonkey script are confusing!

Charlie, it would have been more productive to politely ask me for a cite than to engage with my original post in the manner you did.
posted by mwhybark at 11:17 PM on March 12, 2011


I don't think a hydrogen explosion can happen inside the reaction vessel itself (no oxygen)

I can't answer this authoritatively, but there is oxygen in the seawater currently being pumped in, and the fuel is uranium oxide.

Here's an excerpt from the pdf on Boiling Water Reactors on how hydrogen combustion is normally suppressed:

In addition, following a loss of coolant accident, the temperature of fuel cladding could rise
and hydrogen could be generated by a water-metal reaction, which could impair the
containment integrity due to hydrogen gas combustion. In order to prevent such a case, BWR
containments are kept inert with nitrogen gas (Mark-III type containment is designed not to
use the nitrogen gas, but it is not adopted in Japan) during normal operation, and the 11
flammability control system to prevent hydrogen combustion by recombining the generated
hydrogen gas with oxygen gas.


I presume some or all of these systems are not fully functional at this point.
posted by zippy at 11:20 PM on March 12, 2011


If the vessel is breached, the cooling water electrolyzes into H and O2, which then creates the explosive mixture.

Hot water doesn't really do that (unless you're talking about plasma). But at a certain temperature, the fuel rods' zirconium cladding will oxidize, stripping the oxygen from the water. The resulting hydrogen can't burn unless released from the reaction vessel, where it can mix with air.
posted by ryanrs at 11:22 PM on March 12, 2011


I'm hoping that well-regulated nuclear power is to world energy consumption to what hybrids are to cars

The two problems for nuclear energy are rooted in that there is simply too much money at stake to ensure doing things safely:

1. The technology is as much of an afterthought to nuclear operators as safety.
2. Nuclear power has never been well-regulated, and never will be.

After every disaster, what becomes clear is that regulatory bodies are almost completely ineffectual in their job of protecting people who live around and downwind nuclear facilities, in the events leading up to the disaster.

As a recent example, in the United States, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed Entergy to keep running a nuclear power plant in Vermont, despite numerous and egregious safety violations.

After the company lied the NRC and to Vermont about tritium leaks, the state of Vermont had to step in and forcibly shut the plant down. Entergy still denies any responsibility.

If web chat board proponents ran nuclear power plants, it might work. But the historical reality, one that plays out repeatedly, is that nuclear power is just not safe in public or private hands. Safety costs money, which is why safety is off the table.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:22 PM on March 12, 2011 [12 favorites]


Unit 1 was designed for a peak ground acceleration of 0.18 g (1.74 m/s2)..

Ah that is a number I can work with. Examining the USGS Peak Ground Acceleration map, Fukushima clearly exceeded 0.2g, but it is not clear by how much, I'd estimate maybe .22 by the look of the map.

And mwhybark, I still don't know any way to engage with the semantic difficulties in your post. I don't see how anyone could cite omissions of negative information (whatever the hell that means).
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:24 PM on March 12, 2011


charlie don't surf: "And mwhybark, I still don't know any way to engage with the semantic difficulties in your post. I don't see how anyone could cite omissions of negative information (whatever the hell that means)"

Classy.
posted by mwhybark at 11:26 PM on March 12, 2011


Thank you Blazecock for summing up what I've been trying to say in these threads for several days, in a most eloquent manner.

Theoretically, nuclear power is an awesome panacea. Just never seems to work out that way in practice. Reading the Chernobyl wikapedia page, it's mind boggling at the lack of understanding, training, and following established procedures that took place.
posted by Windopaene at 11:26 PM on March 12, 2011


charlie don't surf: From that link you just posted:

The company said in the documents that 7.9 was the highest magnitude for which they tested the safety for their No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in Fukushima.

This statement =! the plants are only designed for 7.9 magnitude quakes. It may indeed be that is the designed max, but is not necessarily true based upon this statement alone. That's like saying a car was tested up to 100 mph. That doesn't mean it won't go 120 mph...

As to the logic behind "why didn't they test it up to the maximum then?" I could only venture to say that it is probably VERY difficult to actually simulate this intense of an occurrence, even in a test environment. Again, I'm speculating.

As to the magnitude links, I can't really decipher much regarding magnitude from that page and will wait to hear more accurate information. I don't doubt your accuracy though, so what does that make the magnitude at Fukushima, according to that link anyway.

Thanks for the citations though, it does add to the information pool.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:27 PM on March 12, 2011


However, it's been noted that TEPCO uses omission to convey negative facts in their blow-by-blow updates on the current situation. ... I was incorrect when I wrote this

Actually, I believe you were correct. I noticed this on TEPCO's (almost) hourly updates on its reactor units.

From the other thread, I've noticed that with the six reactor units at Fukushima-1, TEPCO generates a report for each, and for the good units you'll see:

"However, we do not believe
there is leakage of reactor coolant in the containment vessel at this moment"

You won't see any statement about leakage for the troubled units.
posted by zippy at 11:28 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blazecock Pileon: I guess I'm just hung up on the part where almost nobody has ever been killed, despite the supposedly ineffective NRC. Just to make sure we're on the same page, my count has just three people killed in the US, and that was a decade before there was any regulation at all. I probably don't need to drag the coal stats back in here.
posted by floam at 11:30 PM on March 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


Windoaene: Saying they "don't match our lifestyle" is a cop out. Our lifestyle is a bit on the bogus side, and we will need to change it to progress.

I agree entirely, we really need to change the way our whole system works, but as a political philosopher, policy wonk (I used to work in a DC science policy nonprofit), user experience designer, and hobby anthropologist, I just don't see it happening for the majority of people in the timeframe needed to save the world (I say that without irony).

While it is easy to install quick-charge stations along I-5 from Portland to Seattle, it isn't as easy to do it from Portland to Los Angeles, or Seattle to Chicago. We have hundreds of thousands of miles of road (you'd think I got paid every times I used the word "of" with that phrase), and to pull enough current to run quick charge stations along all of them is impossible.

Furthermore, electric is fine for personal vehicles, but almost completely useless for commercial and farm equipment which means we're going to need a gas fuel no matter what (though really, we should be moving more stuff cross-country using just-in-time planning on trains instead of trucks). Unless we come up with battery systems with capacities orders of magnitude higher than what we have now, the use-cases for electric is powerfully limited. Chemical-based energy is just far more efficient and will be for the foreseeable future.

/derail

stalbach: I agree, I would rather have neither, but given our current level of scientific understanding, and the desperation of our environmental crisis, it looks like we're going to have to choose the lesser of two evils if we want a chance at surviving the next century. Nuclear power can be safe, basically the reason that Fukushima is a problem, is that the ones having issues are 40 year old reactors using 50 year-old designs. ALL of the modern reactors are shutting down safely, just as designed. Does that mean other things can't happen? No, but given the record of well-regulated, well-managed, nuclear power compared to well-regulated, well-managed coal power? (Since the alternatives still won't reasonably be available for decades.) I'm not sure we have a choice, and I'm certainly not holding my breath for cold fusion.
posted by thebestsophist at 11:30 PM on March 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


By the way, if anyone is paying attention @arclight has been spending the last half an hour teaching "How to shut down a nuclear reactor 101," it's absolutely fascinating.
posted by thebestsophist at 11:32 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah that is a number I can work with. Examining the USGS Peak Ground Acceleration map, Fukushima clearly exceeded 0.2g, but it is not clear by how much, I'd estimate maybe .22 by the look of the map.

So, safe to say, exceeded but not by much past the tested limits.


Worst case scenario: Containment fails. Core debris ejected into the atmosphere.

Please explain how this occurs.


You have a runaway reaction that melts the uranium into a a white hot slag that melts through the bottom of a containment system which may or may not have been severely damaged by a series of earthquakes. That is what a meltdown is. You really don't know what you are talking about.

I mean, I barely do, but I know more than you, surely. An uncontained meltdown is surely in the realm of possibility here.


I'm just not sure how you get from melting down into the ground and ejecting in to the atmosphere.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:35 PM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, with control rods in place I'm not sure where the runaway reaction is coming from.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:40 PM on March 12, 2011


Once again, consider the explosion in reactor 1.

If the outer shell had still been intactas it was at reactor 1, we can assume there was some hydrogen present in that space, and then if the containment breach occurred, that same explosion would have ejected material into the atmosphere.

Are you deliberately trying to be obtuse to obfuscate this?
posted by Windopaene at 11:40 PM on March 12, 2011


We are getting a Leaf in a month or so. Theoretically, there will be quick-charge stations from here, (Seattle), to Portland and beyond, so even long distance travel will be possible. Saying they "don't match our lifestyle" is a cop out. Our lifestyle is a bit on the bogus side, and we will need to change it to progress.

Look, I'm hesitant to start an electric car derail, but this is just so wrong that it can't go uncorrected. First, the Leaf is not initially going to be equipped with quick-charge capability. The best it can do right now is 8 hours to full charge using a Level 2 (240 volt) charge. With a Level 3 fast-charging station, it'll get to 80% charge in 30 minutes. 30 minutes! Nissan says the Leaf will have a 100 mile range (reviewers are getting less in real-world driving, unsurprisingly). If you're on a highway drive, would you be willing to wait 30 minutes every hour and half, at most, to recharge? Not a chance. Pure electric cars simply do not - and never will - meet the needs of the consumer. They will remain niche vehicles for people with significant disposable income who want to make an environmental statement, want a second or third car, and who do their driving within short distances of their house.

This is ignoring entirely the fact that widespread charging of electric cars during the day would crash the electrical grid. It would, by the way. Utilities are having headaches just planning for nighttime charging. Adding further peak power for millions of electric cars would be massively, insanely expensive - new plants, massive upgrades to transmission. Not happening.

Now, a plug-in hybrid/extended-range electric like the Volt could make good sense: displace your gas with electrons for your daily commute, but have a backup gas engine for longer trips. It's flexible, it meets the needs of every consumer, and you charge it off-peak, so the power is cleaner, cheaper, and doesn't crash the grid.

Except...the Volt is a car that gives you the size and interior amenities of a $20,000 car for $40,000. The technology is hugely expensive. Sure, it will come down in price, but if you want to get a sense of how eager the public is going to be to adopt it, just look at hybrid sales. They require no sacrifice in usability, their price premium is way smaller, and they are about 3% of the North American market. There's a reason for that: even with high gas prices, they take a long time to pay back their premium over small cars with small gas engines, which are the sensible choice for someone trying to save money. Pure electric cars will never see mass adoption. Plug-in hybrids may, depending on the price of the technology and the price of fuel. But a car like the Ford Fiesta or VW Golf with a small diesel engine, even with fuel at $8/gallon, makes more economic sense than the Volt, and will for a long time.
posted by Dasein at 11:41 PM on March 12, 2011 [7 favorites]



If the outer shell had still been intactas it was at reactor 1, we can assume there was some hydrogen present in that space, and then if the containment breach occurred, that same explosion would have ejected material into the atmosphere.

Are you deliberately trying to be obtuse to obfuscate this?


It had been explained to you repeatedly that the outer shell was not containment.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:42 PM on March 12, 2011


I guess I'm just hung up on the part where almost nobody has ever been killed, despite the supposedly ineffective NRC.

Yeah, it is also worth pointing out that Japan is the only country that ever had plutonium and uranium devices exploded over major metropolitan areas, and those cities have been continuously inhabited despite intense fallout levels at that time. Of course they didn't know any better...

I was just reading today about "hibakusha," the survivors of the nuclear bombings. These are people who received intense but sub-lethal doses of radiation. The hibakusha, oddly enough, are notorious for long lives, but current medical statistics indicate only 1% of them have long term illnesses directly attributable to radiation. It is also asserted that only 1% of them died earlier than expected per actuarial tables, but I did not see any stats on how much earlier they died. Of course there is a lot of jiggery-pokery about these stats, as the pool of survivors were presumably inherently tougher than the dead, and it is notoriously difficult to get certification that your illnesses are attributable to radiation from the attack.

Oh and while I'm at it, I feel like pointing out that the Fukushima plants are on the coast, and prevailing winds are seaward. So generally, any dispersal of radiation will immediately drift out to sea, not directly over inhabited areas.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:43 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Doesn't matter, though the interactive diagram described that as "secondary containment". But if there's hydrogen there, and the primary containment fails, there's going to be an explosion, regardless of what you call the outer shell.
posted by Windopaene at 11:44 PM on March 12, 2011



Doesn't matter, though the interactive diagram described that as "secondary containment". But if there's hydrogen there, and the primary containment fails, there's going to be an explosion, regardless of what you call the outer shell.


Any more hydrogen produced in this manner, with no building, is being vented directly into the atmosphere.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:46 PM on March 12, 2011


Then why did the first one blow up if all that hydrogen was being vented to the atmosphere?
posted by Windopaene at 11:47 PM on March 12, 2011


I'm just not sure how you get from melting down into the ground and ejecting in to the atmosphere.

Hot gases rise very quickly. A melting reactor core temps range from around 1,000-5,000 F, and can get much hotter than that. Roughly guessing from what I've read over the years we're talking as high as 15,000 F or more. I'm not sure if there's an upper boundary to that temperature. The only boundary would be at what point the melting or burning core materials turn sublimate immediately to gas, or if plasma if formed.

In all cases you have extremely hot, radioactive gas, dust, smoke and particulate easily lifting itself above the much, much cooler atmosphere.

The blast from Chernobyl wasn't what really injected the bulk of the material into the upper atmosphere. It was merely heat, and lots of it, turning metal and graphite and fuel into gas.

Same goes for a nuclear blast. It's not the shock wave or explosion that lifts the plume into the air, it's the heat of the gases and fireball, which is why it forms a torus/donut shape as the fireball rises. It's a smoke ring. You can replicate this at home with a stick of burning incense or a cigarette.

The same also goes for volcanoes. Again, it's not the blast that lifts the bulk of the ash cloud and debris but the heat. Even with an extreme volcanic blast like Mt. St. Helens it was the superheated mud and ash and steam cloud that lifted it into the stratosphere.

Let's bring the scale back down to human size. A simple campfire or bonfire on a calm day can lift smoke thousands of feet into the air, or until it reaches an inversion layer. Unless it's a really big fire, then it punches right through the inversion layer.

And remember as a rule of thumb, the higher in altitude you go the colder it gets. This can accelerate a hot gas/smoke plume to incredible heights.
posted by loquacious at 11:47 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, safe to say, exceeded but not by much past the tested limits.

No, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it exceeded design limits by about 20%. I wouldn't characterize that as "not much." It is also not clear to me whether these ground acceleration measurements are on a linear scale (I assumed that in my calculation).
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:48 PM on March 12, 2011


zippy: "Actually, I believe you were correct. I noticed this on TEPCO's (almost) hourly updates on its reactor units."

Huh, well, good to know. I scrubbed the other thread looking for you noting that and couldn't put my finger on it. Thanks for chiming in.
posted by mwhybark at 11:48 PM on March 12, 2011



Then why did the first one blow up if all that hydrogen was being vented to the atmosphere?


Because it was in the building.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:49 PM on March 12, 2011


Then why did the first one blow up if all that hydrogen was being vented to the atmosphere? It wasn't', because there were walls. Now there is a wall (roof?) missing, so any new hydrogen is going straight out into the air.
posted by exlotuseater at 11:50 PM on March 12, 2011


Well, I got here rather late. My brother (a nuclear student) was told by his department head that this site would be a best source to monitor for accurate and up to date information regarding these events.
posted by polyhedron at 11:55 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


who do their driving within short distances of their house

I'm no proponent of electric cars (as I think designing our cities around driving brings with it plenty of other problems: car accidents, obesity... talk radio). But I don't see why the 100-mile (or slightly less) charge distance would be a problem. Who commutes more than 100 miles each direction? Whose errands are more than 100 miles? Yes, if someone's lifestyle involved driving 3 hours to see grandma once a month, it wouldn't work for them. But I personally could live with a 100-mile trip distance and then for the occasional longer trip, I could either rent a car, or plan a lunch break at the 100-mile mark.

Sorry to continue the electric car derail. I have learned a lot from these links, and I appreciate everyone's efforts to keep this thread civil and informative.
posted by salvia at 11:57 PM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


While I'm on the topic of translating TEPCO press releases, I'll also note that what many of us would regard as an explosion of the building around Fukushima-1 Unit-1, TEPCO rather conservatively described as "the explosive sound and white smoke."
posted by zippy at 12:00 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


(and by translating here, I mean translating sometimes soft English-language statements into likely facts).
posted by zippy at 12:03 AM on March 13, 2011


Also, regarding venting, standard procedure is to vent through a device that removes radioactivity from the released gas. I don't know if they were doing that when the explosion occurred, or if they were venting straight into the atmosphere.
posted by zippy at 12:05 AM on March 13, 2011


Also, with control rods in place I'm not sure where the runaway reaction is coming from.

The control rods are probably melting. If they're not melting, they're certainly oxidizing, which is where the hydrogen came from. But if they haven't been able to keep the core cool enough, they're melting.

When they melt, the liquid metals exit the core and pool at the bottom as molten slag, likely taking the fuel rod packages with it. Corium is the name for this slag, as in "core" because after it melts it's no longer tidy, discrete packages of fuel rods and control rods and support structure. It's an unknown mix of fuel, metal, neutron absorbing material, cladding, ceramic and whatever else is in the core.

It's probably helpful to point out that control rods and fuel rods are not at all large in diameter. They're very thin. Depending on the reactor a "fuel rod" is actually a package of about a dozen small, thin tubes packaged together in a holder with a "bail" or handle at one end for attaching a hoist crane to and a support structure at the bottom that mounts to the bottom of the reactor vessel. In the Mark 1 the control rods are inserted through the bottom of the reactor through specially designed ports that are theoretically supposed to melt and/or ablate to self-seal when/if the core melts.

So modern reactors aren't monolithic blocks of metal or by any means solid. It's more like a stack of uncooked spaghetti strands with a fair amount of open space between the fuel rods and control rods. In that open space circulates either water or tubes for water or other coolant or moderators, depending on the reactor.

These fuel rod and control rod structures are actually rather fragile. If I handed you a fuel rod tube outside of a bundled fuel pack you could bend it with your bare hands. This is one of the reasons why the fuel and control rods are vertical - because they get so hot if they were horizontal they would sag and lose structural form.

If the control rods have melted, or if any portion of the core has melted into corium it can go subcritical and still be actively fissioning, just not at critical self-sustaining levels. Critical self-sustaining levels are possible, too, for a more dramatic meltdown.

But a complete meltdown or uncontrolled criticality doesn't need to happen for it to get hot enough to continue to melt, or to burn, or to form gas hot enough to inject into the atmosphere and rise like a hot air balloon.
posted by loquacious at 12:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


thebestsophist writes "My issue with the Volt, Leaf, and Teslas is that while they are clever and neat, they don't match our lifestyle, which means it will take a lot of effort to get people to adopt them. We are used to being able to drive and just pull into a gas station when we're out of fuel, push a couple buttons and we're good to go for another few hundred miles. Electric cars are a step back from that."

Uh, the Volt allows you to do exactly that. You can cruse to your heart's content without plugging in as long as you have regular access to gas stations.

Blazecock Pileon writes "But the historical reality, one that plays out repeatedly, is that nuclear power is just not safe in public or private hands. Safety costs money, which is why safety is off the table."

Even if that was true - it is possible to design and build nuclear power plants that are fail safe short of active sabotage - the alternative is worse no matter how you measure it: coal power.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


loquacious, none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:09 AM on March 13, 2011


(and by translating here, I mean translating sometimes soft English-language statements into likely facts).

That's not translating, that's interpreting. And when I say interpreting, I mean "guessing."

Realize that these documents were originally written in Japanese and translated to English. I have experience translating Japanese technical documents into English, and they are full of indirect expressions and circumlocutions that would seem like prevarication or outright omissions, but are standard language and easily interpretable in the original source document. I urge you not to attempt to read between the lines of a translated document. You will see what is not there.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:12 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Who commutes more than 100 miles each direction?

Workplaces aren't equipped for charging, so you need to be able to go both directions. Given that a 240-volt charge take 8 hours, trying to plug into a regular wall socket at work (even if you were allowed) would be pretty useless for your commute home.

Whose errands are more than 100 miles?

The 100 mile range is a claim by the automaker. Google around and you'll find that people are getting close to 60-80 miles. The problem is that the range is going to be affected in unpredictable ways by your speed, the terrain, the prevailing temperature, your use of heating or air conditioning, your use of other electric drains (like headlights), the inflation of your tires, the type of driving you're doing (city vs. highway), the traffic conditions. All these factors and more will conspire to mean that you will never have confidence in your range beyond a very conservative estimate. And because you can't just fill up with electricity, you get serious range anxiety. Sure, it's fine for errands close to home, but who pays $30,000 for a car with such limited use? My car needs to be able to go to the grocery store, but it also needs to be able to visit friends out of town if I feel like it, or spend a whole day running errands in different parts of the city, without having to worry that I'm going to be stranded if something comes up. Are you really going to buy a car only to be forced to rent every time you want to go out of town? What's the point? The answer to that question is yes only for a very, very few people who put their personal ideology ahead of practicality. Mass adoption of technology can't rely on personal sacrifice like that.

I'd also point out that the Chevy Volt's battery, which is good for a stated 40 miles, costs about $7000-8000 on its own. The only way Nissan has been able to get a 100-mile stated range in its car and keep its price down is by under-engineering its battery by omitting liquid cooling and heating, and opting for blowing air over the damn thing instead. As a result, it's going to lose range much more quickly over its operating life.
posted by Dasein at 12:12 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]




Basic question: I'd had a mental picture of a containment vessel, secondary containment, and then some sort of sheet-metal building with few structural characteristics (the building that was damaged by an explosion), but the NYT images make it look like this building is part of secondary containment. Can someone clarify -- two structurally-strong containment layers, or just one?
posted by salvia at 12:13 AM on March 13, 2011


loquacious, none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.

You keep using those words - like "none" and "never". I do not think it means what you think it means.
posted by loquacious at 12:14 AM on March 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


..the alternative is worse no matter how you measure it: coal power.

BTW, here's an article I ran across today, with photographs showing what that was like.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:15 AM on March 13, 2011



loquacious, none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.

You keep using those words - like "none" and "never". I do not think it means what you think it means.


Let's go with the odds are slim, much like the odds of the local dam breaking.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:17 AM on March 13, 2011


By the way, if anyone is paying attention @arclight has been spending the last half an hour teaching "How to shut down a nuclear reactor 101," it's absolutely fascinating.

Yes, this is brilliant, and worth reposting because it answers a bunch of questions upthread, so here is @arclight's series of Tweets, which I've edited together:

@arclight hey what's a 'fuel cladding failure' & is that what's worrysome at #Fukushima #1 ?

Nuclear fuel in a BWR is composed of three parts: uranium oxide pellets (fuel), zirconium alloy tubes (cladding) & structural bits. The fuel is sealed in the 12-15' long tubes, the tubes are arranged in a square grid & held together by a light frame & put in a shroud. The shroud is basically a square sheet metal tube (also made of zirconium alloy) which keeps water flowing up along the fuel. The fuel is arranged in a roughly circular grid to form a big cylinder inside the reactor vessel. Cold water enters the side of the vessel, goes down to the bottom & up past the fuel where it's heated to boiling temperatures (so) the reactor pressure is normally ~1000 psi so boiling temperature is ~565F or so.

The steam water mix goes through a twisty path called a steam dryer to keep water droplets from being carried into the steam lines. The (dry) steam goes into the high pressure turbine, expands & spins the turbine, then goes into the low pressure side into the condenser. The condenser is a huge heat exchanger right under the turbine that carries waste heat out of the plant. Condensed steam is pumped back to the reactor and the whole cycle begins anew. This will thrill the Buddhists in the audience :) So in a quick shutdown, the control rods enter from the bottom of the core and latch in place so they can't fall out.

Why the bottom? (DUDE! GRAVITY!?) The steam dryer is in the way. 2000psi water pushes them up & in. Also, if the control rod drive (CRD) pumps fail, you can vent water which sucks the rods in. Very elegant & counterintuitive design.

So shutting down the reactor is pretty easy & foolproof; it has to be. The next thing that happens is shutting the valves to the turbine.Once you stop the reactor, you stop making steam and you'll start sucking water into the turbine which is Very Very Bad. How bad? 42" turbine blades spinning at 1800 RPM breaking apart and flying around the turbine building bad. Bye bye turbine.

So when the rods go in, the main steam isolation valves (MSIVs) shut. But now there's no place for the water being pumped in to go. So at that point you switch to RHR (residual heat removal) which is a safety-related heat exchanger system to remove the decay heat. Recapping from yesterday: Decay heat starts ~10% and drops over the next few days. It's this decay heat that damaged the fuel at Unit 1.

The original question was "what is fuel cladding? This long-winded exposition is getting to that. I've avoided using the term cladding because it's jargon for fuel tube.

What has happened at Fukushima is that after an hour all AC power was lost at the plant and systems like RHR, pumps & valves had no power. There was one steam-driven pump called RCIC that supplied water to the core but it failed.

[I'll talk about containment pressure but I have to head to Google for a second.]

So with no electricity & no cooling the water in the reactor began to boil away and pressurized the reactor vessel. There are safety relief valves (SRVs) that open automatically at high vessel pressure and release steam into the suppression pool. The steam exits through pipes underwater in the big donut-shaped part of the containment. It's released underwater so the steam condense. If you just dumped dry steam into the containment it would pressurize & break open. Bad. Not containing anything after that. So it's important to keep water on the core, to keep containment pressure low, and keep water in the suppression pool from boiling.
If the suppression pool boils, you can't condense steam and containment pressurized. So in an accident, you see what your three top goals are: cover & cool the reactor, cool containment to keep pressure down.

Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 could not do that after they lost all AC power an hour after shutdown.
So they depressurized once they ran out of high pressure injection sources (RCIC, HPCI, CRD pumps). Then they manually controlled containment pressure by periodically venting. That led to early small radioactive releases. As time went on, the core inventory (water in the core) boiled off and the core uncovered. Bad because steam doesn't cool as well as water. They tried hooking up their fire suppression water system to the reactor but could not pump in enough water to make up for the boiling. Eventually the fuel tubes (cladding) broke open. This is the onset of core damage. Not meltdown. Core damage.

Eventually the steam & Zr cladding start chemically reacting to form hydrogen gas (EXPLOSIVE!), ZrO and more heat (dammit). (so) you see the positive feedback here. The hotter it gets, the faster the Zr reacts with steam, releasing H2 & heat, making it hotter...At some point the fuel starts falling apart because ZrO has no structural strength. Lots of fission products come out of the exposed pellets.

So we get to the point of asking whether the core is melted. I don't know. I know the fuel is damaged because of all the hydrogen & cesium.

posted by Dr. Zira at 12:17 AM on March 13, 2011 [47 favorites]


Unless you're an independent nuclear engineer on site I'd be very skeptical about what is and is not going to happen. Japan isn't being forthcoming. I think they are embarrassed, this is an anticipated disaster similar to Katrina.
posted by polyhedron at 12:19 AM on March 13, 2011


So, in the US, reactors as commercial power generators are expensive to build, expensive to run, and compete with cheap coal, so investors aren't naturally drawn to it.

I can understand why nuclear engineers, or just engineers for that matter, might find a complex system requiring designs with extreme forethought to produce masses of power out of apparently nothing. Believe me, I'm built that way too.

But this pet dragon doesn't live without government subsidy, without government regulation, without some force that would displace cheap coal, and replace it with more expensive electricity.

I don't think I'm clear on all the parts involved.
posted by dglynn at 12:19 AM on March 13, 2011


salvia: The Washington Post Diagram may help. As I understand it, the reactor vessel is a strong metal container, and the big concrete and steel primary containment is around that. The "secondary containment" is the building around all that. Tab #3 shows the secondary containment is what was damaged in the explosion, but to the best of my knowledge, the reactor vessel and the primary containment are still intact in both reactors.

There is, of course, question as to whether these have been weakened by the earthquake and subsequent events, but I haven't seen anything that indicates that they have been damaged yet.
posted by zachlipton at 12:19 AM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Blazecok Pileon Safety costs money, which is why safety is off the table.

Bullshit. Look, I'm as worried about the state of these reactors as anyone. This is only the third time in history that a power producing reactor has suffered a (partial) meltdown. It will have a huge effect on the industry. But safety is in every nuclear operator's best interest, because they all know one accident and they completely lose their (ginormously large) investment, and the ability to ever try again. The number of employees whose sole job is "reactor safety" makes up a sizeable fraction of any plant's payroll. The numbers back it up. You are less likely to be injured or killed at or around a nuclear plant than any other industrial facility - even during an earthquake!
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:20 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


For cryin' out loud, I didn't come here for the loquacious vs. furiousxgeorge show.

I was kind of hoping for more eriko, but in light of the "DEFINITELY DOOM" and "DEFINITELY NOT DOOM" I guess I'll just be heading back to twitter and the much more nuanced discussion with the likes of @arclight and @touruma.
posted by chimaera at 12:23 AM on March 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Let's go with the odds are slim, much like the odds of the local dam breaking.

You should say what you mean then, and choose your words much more carefully because when it comes to science and engineering absolute values and words like "never" are nearly impossible.

Also, you know what else was slim odds? A 9.0 megaquake hitting a densely populated area that relies primarily on nuclear powered electricity.
posted by loquacious at 12:27 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


furiousxgeorge writes "Any more hydrogen produced in this manner, with no building, is being vented directly into the atmosphere."

Hydrogen in concentrations below stoicometric ratio is pretty harmless.

Dasein writes "Sure, it's fine for errands close to home, but who pays $30,000 for a car with such limited use? My car needs to be able to go to the grocery store, but it also needs to be able to visit friends out of town if I feel like it, or spend a whole day running errands in different parts of the city, without having to worry that I'm going to be stranded if something comes up. Are you really going to buy a car only to be forced to rent every time you want to go out of town? What's the point? The answer to that question is yes only for a very, very few people who put their personal ideology ahead of practicality. Mass adoption of technology can't rely on personal sacrifice like that."

I haven't travelled more than a 100 miles in my car in 24 hours in at least a year, probably two. Lots of people have my usage. Heck many people manage with out owning a car at all. Shocking I know.
posted by Mitheral at 12:28 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I was kind of hoping for more eriko, but in light of the "DEFINITELY DOOM" and "DEFINITELY NOT DOOM"

Sorry, I'll try to refrain from engaging furiousxgeorge further. I'm trying to respond to and answer questions, even if they're rhetorical.

I'm not in the "DEFINITELY DOOM" camp, by the way. I'm in the "POSSIBLY DOOM BUT HOPEFULLY OK" camp.
posted by loquacious at 12:29 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]



You should say what you mean then, and choose your words much more carefully because when it comes to science and engineering absolute values and words like "never" are nearly impossible.

Also, you know what else was slim odds? A 9.0 megaquake hitting a densely populated area that relies primarily on nuclear powered electricity.


loquacious, none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.

Perhaps you might explain how you feel it might happen. I mean, it might heat up and melt through the ground when they are dumping water on it, but I don't understand how you feel that might happen so I went with slim to avoid going further. If you want to explain it go ahead.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:34 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I haven't travelled more than a 100 miles in my car in 24 hours in at least a year, probably two.

When I lived in LA, I worked with people who commuted more than 100 miles each way to work. Hell, in LA, people don't mind driving 50 miles to go to a restaurant for dinner. I did that plenty of times.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:34 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


re: electric cars. I though the Better Place idea was pretty good - people could switch their spent battery for a fresh one at petrol stations. Not sure the entrepreneur behind it is all that reliable, but the concept seems to address the concern about people not being used to having to stop to charge all the time. In Europe I believe there are little charging poles in carparks, which is another idea that could be expanded.
posted by harriet vane at 12:36 AM on March 13, 2011


My god, I thought web forums were awful. How do I use twitter without losing my mind?

Even in the worst case scenario it can't get so bad that nuclear power would be forever discredited. This is bad, it could get very bad, but it's not exactly a prime model for nuclear disasters in the 21st century. This event, as unfortunate as it is, will lead to further improvements in disaster readiness and safety protocols.

furiousxgeorge, I appreciate your sentiment but the situation over there isn't good. Almost anything could happen. Reactor 3 was supposed to be under control yesterday. Let's let it play out.
posted by polyhedron at 12:37 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even if there's no energy crisis or global warming, I think we should all agree the way LA does urbanism and transportation needs to change if at least for the suicide-in-driver-seat rate.
posted by floam at 12:38 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Reactor 3 will be getting the same treatment as 1, the seawater that apparently has a slim chance of not cooling stuff.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:38 AM on March 13, 2011


Yes, they are doing everything in their power. 9.0 magnitude earthquakes have unpredictable effects on infrastructure. Major disaster is extremely unlikely. Still doesn't mean Japan wasn't saying Reactor 3 was peachy keen.
posted by polyhedron at 12:40 AM on March 13, 2011


I'm pro-nuclear furiousxgeorge, but this "slim chance" thing is based on n=1. You are making a lot of very bold assertions.
posted by floam at 12:40 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Furiousxgeorge, just out of curiosity, what are your qualifications here - engineer, physics nut, what? You sound awfully dismissive and sure of yourself, but I haven't seen you offer much evidence of your claims. Do you have a citation for the fact that they'll be able to keep up the seawater level in either reactor, for example? I think that this has been an ongoing problem and that the extent of the water leakage is unknown - so your absolute certainty about the situation is perplexing.

It seems to me that if seawater was a cure-all like you're saying, they would have tried it way before the cores started getting damaged in the first place.
posted by dialetheia at 12:42 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nothing about the reporting suggests Japan would tell the world if something was seriously wrong at the facility before they absolutely had to.
posted by polyhedron at 12:43 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Two years ago I read a "techno-thriller" written by a retired nuclear engineer called "Rad Decision" about the damage suffered by a BWR type reactor following a terrorist attack. I shouldn't be too surprised, since the risks are well known, but the last few days have almost eerily matched the plot:

- Two independent power grids are knocked out
- The diesel generators are disabled
- The steam powered core cooling pump is sabotaged
- As a result, the reactor is shut down easily, but operators are unable to remove residual heat
- As the water level in the core drops, employees race to try to restore core cooling
- First the operators vent the reactor into the suppression pool (torus), which buys them a few hours
- Eventually they have to vent the pressure out of containment, sending a notable, but not deadly amount of radiation into the atmosphere.

I'm spoiling it, but in the book, there's no hydrogen explosion, and operators are finally able to fix the steam powered cooling pump (a suicide mission). However the result is about the same as today - small radioactive release, partially melt down reactor, and lots of suspense during.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:43 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


dialetheia, borated seawater destroys the reactor rendering it unsalvageable. That's why they'd hold off on using it.
posted by polyhedron at 12:44 AM on March 13, 2011


Why don't they punch a hole in the roof of building 3 and let that hydrogen out?
posted by bink at 12:44 AM on March 13, 2011


I haven't travelled more than a 100 miles in my car in 24 hours in at least a year, probably two. Lots of people have my usage. Heck many people manage with out owning a car at all. Shocking I know.

And lots of people don't like the idea of paying more for a car that can do substantially less than cheaper cars that have been on the market for years and have easily available maintenance options. Certainly a lot of people have your usage and many manage just fine without owning a car, but generally those who are in the market for $30K+ new cars want to have the ability to take their car up to Tahoe (or other geographically appropriate destination) for the weekend or go visit grandma or take a trip to visit a client or attend a training session for work or any number of other situations. Basically, they want to be able to use their car to the fullest. Most people don't want to be forced to have their car towed (or drive 100 miles or less at a time) if they decide to move. They want to be able to drive their car the hell out of town if there is an emergency. Even if an electric car with limited range works perfectly fine for your normal driving pattern, a lot of people making a substantial investment in a vehicle want something that is suitable for virtually all their needs, not just the majority of them.

That's not to say that the current model is sustainable (it isn't) or that electric cars are fatally flawed (they aren't). My point is just that there are good reasons why they aren't attractive to people today, and it's not because they enjoy trampling the environment.
posted by zachlipton at 12:44 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


loquacious, none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.

They're dumping boron-laced seawater on it because a partial meltdown has probably already happened. And now #3 is likely melting. We already know from the cesium that fuel rod cladding has oxidized - this means lots and lots of heat.

There are a number of things that can happen that would prevent the workers from continuing to cool the cores. More quakes. Power loss. A vessel breach and leak making it to hot to approach. The pumps could fail.

So you're using the words "none" again when the "none" you're talking about has already happened. Stop, man. Walk away from the thread. I'm doing the same.
posted by loquacious at 12:44 AM on March 13, 2011


none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it.

You are offering scenarios in which they aren't dumping sea water on it anymore?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:46 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]





Why don't they punch a hole in the roof of building 3 and let that hydrogen out?


Because it might explode in their faces.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:47 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because it might explode in their faces.

Isn't there a pretty good chance the outer building is going to do that anyway?
I wonder if there is some kind of vent they can activate or something, to try to keep it from blowing up like building 1 did.
posted by bink at 12:49 AM on March 13, 2011


dialetheia: the extent of the water leakage is unknown

Where have you heard that the primary containment was leaking? Tepco's press releases have said that the containment vessel was intact.

bink: Why don't they punch a hole in the roof of building 3 and let that hydrogen out?

The explosion kind of did that for them in building 1. These buildings are connected to ventilation stacks through charcoal filters, so you'd like to keep the envelope intact to limit how much radioactivity could make it to the atmosphere. Usually the buildings are equipped with hydrogen recombiners to prevent this scenario (my company tested a few back in the day), but they probably don't function without power.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:50 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's safe to guess no, or they have a reason not to be opening it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:50 AM on March 13, 2011


furiousxgeorge, with respect, you are adding nothing to this thread. Your apparent need to be an insta-expert on everything and your repetitive and aggressive posting style is getting in the way of learning from people who have well informed opinions. I'm asking you to knock it off or dial it back.
posted by Rumple at 12:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [13 favorites]


Who commutes more than 100 miles each direction? Whose errands are more than 100 miles?

Uh, plenty of people in Southern California where our public transportation is for shit? I can name any number of colleagues and family members who put in 100-200 miles a day on a regular basis.

posted by scody at 12:57 AM on March 13, 2011


furiousxgeorge, you literally are making up 10% of the comments here. You should maybe wait a few minutes between comments and at least address a few at a time instead of trying to moderate this so much.
posted by floam at 12:58 AM on March 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Where have you heard that the primary containment was leaking? Tepco's press releases have said that the containment vessel was intact.

You are right, I misunderstood - the issue is more that the coolant kept boiling off too faster than they could replenish it, is that right? Either way, my understanding is that up until now, they hadn't been able to keep enough water circulating to effectively cool the core, and at some point the fuel rods were exposed above the water level. If further difficulties arise with the pumping process (such as an unlucky aftershock or power failure), it seems possible that the fuel rods could end up above water again.

Does anybody know more about how they're pumping the seawater?
posted by dialetheia at 1:02 AM on March 13, 2011


Thanks, zachlipton.

Dasein, I agree with you that those limitations will be serious to some people, although if I understand mitheral, when you run out of electricity in the Volt, you can just fill up with gas. There are also plenty of people for whom that amount of driving is not necessary. (Even in LA, charlie don't surf, or so I've been lectured from my LA friends whenever I've tried to stereotype Southern California driving patterns.)

Here's some FHWA data showing that trips of more than 100 miles make up less than 1 percent of all trips. If you download the xls data (use table 4_6 -- not the link included to 4_5), you'll see that trips of 75 miles and up are still only 1.13% of all trips. This doesn't tell us much about trip linking (e.g., the day of errands you describe), because those would each be separate trips, I believe. But table 4-4 says that annual miles driven per licensed driver was 14,769 miles. If you divide by, oh, 340 days of non-sick, non-out-of-town driving, it comes to an average of 43 miles/day. I know my driving isn't averaged out like that: it's three road trips and then 48 weeks of driving much less. And if I'm reading this table right, the average distance of a trip to work by car or light truck was about 14 miles.
posted by salvia at 1:02 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Bullshit. Look, I'm as worried about the state of these reactors as anyone. This is only the third time in history that a power producing reactor has suffered a (partial) meltdown

Historically, it seems dubious to claim that a meltdown is the sole way a nuclear power plant has been unsafely operated. In fact, over the six decades nuclear plants have operated, accidents in handling reactor material and coolant have resulted in contamination and death of workers and the release of unsafe levels of radiation into the environment.

Indeed, as the link I provided shows, there is evidence that regulatory agencies are mostly toothless in regulating of commercial nuclear power operators, who seem to run their plants until an accident happens or until a local government has to step in actively shut them down.

It seems that nuclear facilities cannot be run safely and make a profit at the same time. In a legal climate that promotes profits over safety, i.e. monetized by insurance companies as "acceptable risk", a commercial operator has less incentive to place safety over profits, with predictable results.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:10 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


NHK reported partial meltdown likely at reactor 3.

Crap. Last night I mentioned to Loquacious that I was going to take a trip to the Gulf coast after the third meltdown, regardless of what the authorities said about the radiation hazard. And now look, we're two-thirds of the way there.


Does anybody know more about how they're pumping the seawater?

I imagine the pumps and plumbing are part of the original reactor design. They probably use sea water for the outer cooling loop in normal operation. If you look at pictures of the plant, it doesn't have the usual big cooling towers. So they already have pipes to the sea, filters, etc. So pumping sea water directly into the core can probably be done just by opening the right valves.
posted by ryanrs at 1:11 AM on March 13, 2011


I have put together a rough but detailed timeline of events at Fukushima-1 Unit-1 based on TEPCO's English Language press releases. I would appreciate it if several MeFites with an interest in the source material could take a look and see if this timeline can be improved.

Please do not republish. This is a draft that certainly contains errors. I'd like to get it right with the help of other Mefites.

Draft timeline of events at Fukushima-1 Unit-1

If you want to contribute, let me know and I'll figure out how to give you write access.

Note on dates. Where there's only a beginning date/time, it's stated explicitly. Where there's a begin and an end date, it's often because the source material does not explicitly state when the event occurred, and so it has been inferred from other known events in TEPCO documents as well as the approximate time of an undated announcement (for example, an undated annoucement being made between one at 3am and another at 5am).
posted by zippy at 1:12 AM on March 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


ryanrs: I thought I read they were using firetrucks, at least at some point, to pump the sea water?
posted by floam at 1:13 AM on March 13, 2011


I'd kind of be surprised if you could flip some valves and pump seawater into the reactor. Those loops should probably be completely independent, all things considered.
posted by polyhedron at 1:14 AM on March 13, 2011


polyhedron, valves reserved for special occasions.

I actually have no idea how the plumbing is set up, I just noticed the lack of cooling towers.
posted by ryanrs at 1:17 AM on March 13, 2011


Furiousxgeorge, just out of curiosity, what are your qualifications here - engineer, physics nut, what? ... It seems to me that if seawater was a cure-all like you're saying, they would have tried it way before the cores started getting damaged in the first place.

Sorry, I missed the part where you offered up your qualifications to make that last claim.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:37 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


They probably use sea water for the outer cooling loop in normal operation.

This would really surprise me - seems like a nuclear plant would want to use more tightly controlled materials, and the salty water would cause too much rust damage.
posted by dialetheia at 1:37 AM on March 13, 2011


I don't see the value in people who are not nuclear engineers or otherwise qualified to make these kinds of calls tossing around conjecture with such conviction in this thread. If anything it's just adding noise to a situation that's still unfolding. We're getting lots of that from various news outlets as it is.

The spokesman for the Japanese PM was very dismissive of the reactor issues on CNN a few minutes ago, saying that there is no evidence of core damage (which seems to contradict the roof blowing off no. 1 and earlier announcements) and that nothing has transpired that could reasonably be called a meltdown.

On the other end of the spectrum practically all major media outlets have been sensationalizing every part of this story so far. What ever happened to credibility?

I'd imagine the only people who really know what's going on are those at the site, and even they may not know the full extent of what's happened inside the reactors. It's somewhat surprising to be seeing reports ranging from "nothing's wrong" to "prepare for fallout" from supposedly trustworthy sources all at the same time.
posted by howlingmonkey at 1:45 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


Most power plants use once through cooling from a nearby water source to dump heat. I know the coastal plants in CA use ~1 billion gallons a day of seawater each*. Obviously they don't normally run saltwater through the reactor/ main power systems- it's a heat transfer. I would imagine that this reactor had the same setup and all the needed pipes etc are already in place. There are numerous pipes (for maintenance) so it might have been undamaged and is the obvious way to get cold stuff and put it on the hot stuff.

*(once through cooling was recently banned in CA due to potential effects on sea life, the effects are not radiation but entrainment in the inflow and the effect of raising the local sea water temperature. I know this because I am a marine biologist)
posted by fshgrl at 1:53 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Part of the confusion probably arises from the fact that meltdown isn't exactly an industry term. The fuel has been damaged and that is unequivocably bad. It sounds like it was damaged by residual heat and not by a critical reaction, which I think is what most people would consider melting down. However the fuel melted and released fission products from the reactor. Containment structures seem to be intact and functioning but honestly who the hell knows?

The term "partial meltdown" evokes Three Mile Island, but to my recollection 45% of the core was melted at TMI and it is unlikely that the damage at Daiichi is that significant. It is still quite possible that partial meltdown has occurred. They can guess at the extent of damage by the fission products emitted, but as far as I am aware the only way to be certain is to examine it directly.
posted by polyhedron at 1:55 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Which is really all I know about nuclear power. I was hoping this thread would be more informative, since the news is rubbish, but it seems to be more bickering than anything. What will happen will happen, it's not a competition to be "right" about predicting it. You all have a 50% chance of being right, OK? Can we keep the hyperbole down?
posted by fshgrl at 1:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Less talking heads, more analysis plz.
posted by zippy at 1:56 AM on March 13, 2011


Sorry, I missed the part where you offered up your qualifications to make that last claim.

Challenging an apparent flaw in someone else's logic doesn't require any qualifications, because no assertions of fact are being made.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:57 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Uh, plenty of people in Southern California where our public transportation is for shit? I can name any number of colleagues and family members who put in 100-200 miles a day on a regular basis.

Again with the SoCal bashing... sigh. Well, luckily, your colleagues and family members must be above average, scody. :) This sample of 20,000 drivers in Southern California (table 34) finds that average time to work for drivers is under 30 minutes. Anyway, maybe we should take this derail into memail or wait until the next electric vehicle thread?
posted by salvia at 3:01 AM on March 13, 2011


It sounds like TEPCO is trying to remove the hydrogen buildup. I am going by machine translation.
posted by polyhedron at 3:05 AM on March 13, 2011


it's not a competition to be "right"

But this is the internet!
posted by ryanrs at 3:23 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Most power plants use once through cooling from a nearby water source to dump heat. I know the coastal plants in CA use ~1 billion gallons a day of seawater each*. Obviously they don't normally run saltwater through the reactor/ main power systems- it's a heat transfer.

I've surfed in the edges outflow from San Onofre back in the 80s and 90s the heat was intense and kind of freaky. It was like surfing in a bath tub. Hey, it's a good break and you can camp nearby to the north. And it's really surreal surfing right under the huge containment domes. You could feel the difference between the cold water and the much warmer water very clearly, it was just a few paddle strokes between being in normally chilly 50 F Pacific sea water and suddenly being in a 90+ F jacuzzi. I never went too far into the flow, and never really saw people more than a 100 feet or so into the flow, but it wasn't really about radiation. It was just too warm,to be comfortable for too long with a wetsuit on, but it was nice to dip into to warm up. And if I recall most of the break was to the north anyway.

I remember the kelp and plankton being oddly abundant, like it was overgrowing. The water had a strange greenish tinge to it like an overfertilized lake or something, or maybe had too much air stirred into it from tiny bubbles from cavitation in pumps. It had a lot of reduced visibility.

Hey, how about a map? You can actually see the outflow and break in that.
posted by loquacious at 3:26 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I missed the part where you offered up your qualifications to make that last claim.

Not to keep this going, but since you asked: furiousxgeorge has generally presented his opinions with a great deal of confidence in this thread, so I assumed he must have some expertise in the subject, as do so many of the other people posting here with such confidence. I honestly just wanted to know what the basis of his certainty was. I, on the other hand, am not an expert, so I didn't make any claims that weren't preceded by some version of "seems to me."

Anyway, thanks for the info on the seawater cooling mechanism, everyone! I hope that the seawater somehow makes the difference - I don't quite understand why they expect the pumps to be able to keep up with the heat now when they couldn't before, but I sure hope it works.
posted by dialetheia at 3:27 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


for what it's worth, my qualifications are: 1) I'm an engineer, 2) I read a lot, 3) I'm very good at educated guesses, and 4) I have attention-excess disorder
posted by zippy at 3:33 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Between voluble non-experts taking sides, this is a nearly worthless thread. Nothing but conjecture and wild scenarios which seem very loosely based in actual fact, if at all. Disaster porn. Ugh.

I am looking forward to the entire Appalachian range being table-topped and burned so the east coast can plug in their cars, though.
posted by maxwelton at 3:38 AM on March 13, 2011


As for me, I'm just pessimistic.
posted by ryanrs at 3:41 AM on March 13, 2011


A lot of the problem here is assumptions that I'm claiming more than I am, such as the minor freak out when I pointed out there is no chance of a nuclear explosion.

In this case, my claim of "none of that is going to happen when they are dumping seawater on it" was conflated with "there is no possible way the flow of sea water could be interrupted."

I am not claiming things that are controversial or outside what is being reported by reliable media sources, a Chernobyl type disaster is not possible.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:43 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's not a competition to be "right"

That's going on and I apologize for my part in it, and will try to tone it down.

But there's a lot of stuff going on. Disaster psychology. Memories of Chernobyl and the lack of honesty, and past lack of honesty or transparency from the atomic industry at large both civilian and military.

Then there's the lack of initial information about a complicated scenario that has the potential to range beyond it's local area. People are earnestly trying to fill in the gaps about something that not only has a serious PR problem but is extremely complicated. And I think people are pretty burned out in general, above and beyond the last thread.

But another problem is that while this is the third such accident in many people's life times, this is the first time it's happened live in the internet age, and worse in the midst of a much larger catastrophe which may be straining response capability.

And as far as I know this is the first such incident that has involved so many individual reactors at the same time, at multiple plant locations.

Not being flippant, but this is like seriously bad zombie apocalypse sci fi disaster movie shit going on. A bit of panic and disinformation is going to happen as people try to fill in the blanks and engage those powerful self-preservation instincts.
posted by loquacious at 3:45 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


While looking for details on Fukushima-1 Reactor-1's fuel assembly construction (7x7R - I know, right?), I found this detailed paper on the spent fuel assemblies from

Compilation of Measurement and Analysis Results of Isotopic Inventories of Spent BWR Fuels (pdf), Toru YAMAMOTO, Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, February 2009

Reactors in this paper are described in more detail than I've seen elsewhere. Coverage focuses in reactors at Fukushima-Daini [Fukushima-2], including the size and arrangement of fuel rods, the fueling frequency, and the expected breakdown composition in spent fuel rods from each reactor.
posted by zippy at 3:53 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


Unicorn chaser.
posted by loquacious at 3:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


More sources: NEA's Spent Fuel Isotopic Composition Database including entries for Fukushima-Daiichi-3 and Fukushima-Daini-2

The pages go into great detail on the fuel assemblies, including composition when fresh and spent.
posted by zippy at 3:59 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even in the worst case scenario it can't get so bad that nuclear power would be forever discredited.

Yeah, some are saying this will discourage further nuclear power development around the world, if not leave it totally discredited. That's possible, but on the other hand if it does end such that "no one will receive a high enough dose of radiation to cause any negative health effects", it might do the opposite when people realize that even one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history didn't do more than cause a nuclear disaster that, while pretty bad, isn't anything more than an extremely small fraction of damage to everything else from the tsunami.
posted by sfenders at 4:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


more nerdery on this track - in the previous link you can click down into the arrangement of individual fuel assemblies - each one in the reactor - like Fukushima-1 Unit-3 assembly F3A3 and see the 8 x 8 matrix of the different types of rods. Click on a red "measured sample" rod, like A-1 and you can see its attributes as well as the measurements of individual samples.
posted by zippy at 4:08 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Challenging an apparent flaw in someone else's logic doesn't require any qualifications, because no assertions of fact are being made.

Implying that somebody else wasn't qualified to comment on technical matters, then immediately moving to make such comments sans those very same qualifications has SFA to do with pointing out logical flaws.

I, on the other hand, am not an expert

So furious should put up or shut up, but you can say whatever you like so long as you preface it with some kind of weasel words like 'it seems'? Gotcha.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:09 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


My opinion is that everybody should have a stiff drink and let's get back to what MetaFilter does best, viz. finding links to obscure shit on the Internet like zippy is.

I was looking earlier for information about the confirmed death at Fukushima Daini. The IAEA indicates that this was not due to radiological exposure.
Japanese authorities have reported some casualties to nuclear plant workers. At Fukushima Daichi, four workers were injured by the explosion at the Unit 1 reactor, and there are three other reported injuries in other incidents. In addition, one worker was exposed to higher-than-normal radiation levels that fall below the IAEA guidance for emergency situations. At Fukushima Daini, one worker has died in a crane operation accident and four others have been injured.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:12 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


For what it's worth, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute Marvin Fertel will be on Meet the Press this morning. He's a well respected nuclear reactor expert, a former chief nuclear officer, and extremely knowledgeable and personable. Expect a very informative, if slightly biased, interview.
posted by General Malaise at 4:23 AM on March 13, 2011


Is electricity much cheaper in France or Japan than in countries that rely on coal?

Ah. I can feel useful. Nearly 80% of France's electricity is provided by the country's soon-to-be 60 nuclear reactors, which is the largest percentage of nuclear-provided power in the world for a given country. Got those figures from this Wikipedia article. I only follow nuclear power issues casually, though I did work on several translations surrounding bids etc. for the European Pressurized Reactor planned to be built near Marseille. That wiki article quotes: "The Union of Concerned Scientists has referred to the EPR as the only new reactor design under consideration in the United States that '...appears to have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against attack than today's reactors.' "

As for electricity rates, yeah, it's even cheaper here than in my home state of Oregon. (Lots of dams in Oregon.) This page, if you click on the "Option Base" pull-down, has the base electricity rates as set by the French government: about 11 or 12 euro-cents per kWh, depending on your subscription. EDF is no longer publically owned; competition was opened a few years ago. So we can choose non-governmental rates too, but frankly, I've never seen any that work out any better than the set rate. My 45sqm (about 480sq.ft) apartment has a 6kVA/30A subscription with "option heures pleines/heures creuses", in brief, I pay cheaper rates between 10:30pm and 6am. Practical for setting things like 2kW water heaters to run, and timing your laundry loads for the low hours. Low hours are 8.64 euro-cents per kWh, while day-time rates are 12.75 euro-cents/kWh, a tad higher than the base rate. For me it works out to 35 euros/month, yearly subscription included. My appliances and light bulbs all have A or better energy efficiency rating, though; my laundry machine is even A+ and my freezer-fridge kicks ass with an A++ rating. I hardly ever hear it run.

Now back to the informative commentary on what's going on in Japan. I'm really appreciating these MeFi threads.
posted by fraula at 4:28 AM on March 13, 2011 [12 favorites]


I've been telling you, my dear.....
posted by McGuillicuddy at 4:30 AM on March 13, 2011


Convention on Nuclear Safety National Report of Japan for the Third Review Meeting (pdf) Government of Japan, Aug 2004, describes in some detail

TEPCO's falsification of leak data and the regulator's response (tl;dr, put TEPCO in world of reporting hurt, though regulators did find facilities were within limits)

Anyhow, Table 15-2, Dose Limits for the Public, I think will help in reconciling radiation release figures with statements like "8x normal" with regards to monitoring.

Effective dose: 1 mSv/ year
Equivalent dose for eye lens: 15 mSv/year
Equivalent dose for skin: 50 mSv/ year

I believe the above are for measurements taken off-site.

Then there's Table 15-1, Dose limits for personnel engaged in radiation work. Excerpts:

Personnel engaged in radiation works: 100 mSv / 5 year, but do not exceed 50 mSv for any year
Personnel engaged in emergency radiation works:
- effective dose 100 mSv/ incident
- equivalent dose for eye lens 300mSv/ incident
- equivalent dose for skin 1Sv/ incident

Table 16 – 1 Main Specific Events and the Nuclear Emergency specified in the Special Law for Nuclear Emergency is the most fascinating to me. It spells out when TEPCO has to make notifications (those Article 10 / 15 ones) and precisely what conditions trigger them. For example:

event: Loss of all AC power supplies
criteria for reporting: When all AC power supplies stops power supply for more than 5 minutes
conditions for declaration of National Emergency: When all measures for cooling reactor power supplies

This table lets me dig a bit further into TEPCO's mandatory announcements where they say "we had to notify people under Article Blah Section Foo." Often, they'll say there was an event like loss of power, but only give the time at which they notified authorities, rather than the time of the event itself. This table puts bounds on when the event must have occurred.
posted by zippy at 4:39 AM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


As for electricity rates, yeah, it's even cheaper here than in my home state of Oregon.

Upon looking for stats, I take that back. Electricity's cheaper in Oregon than in France. Figures here. I'd been comparing my electricity bills to those of friends in similar-sized places and with similar usage; I do pay less than them, but apparently they're using more than I realize.
posted by fraula at 4:42 AM on March 13, 2011


zippy, are those 'm' for milliSieverts as per standard SI notation do you think? I keep hearing the TEPCO people talking about doses in microSieverts.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:48 AM on March 13, 2011


For what it's worth, President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute Marvin Fertel will be on Meet the Press this morning.

Yes, be sure to tune in especially if you believe propaganda is synonymous with news. The only time a Meet the Press interview approaches news is in the days after when the lies told on the program are exposed. Having a trade group representative on MTP as an objective source is just par for the course for them.
posted by any major dude at 4:50 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Table 16-1 spells out "micro" for µ and appears to use m for milli, but a) it's a translation, and b) I'm not entirely sure if they're using m for milli.
posted by zippy at 4:51 AM on March 13, 2011


The Union of Concerned Scientists area pro-environment bunch with a good reputation.

Then there's the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, based in the Netherlands and very skeptical of nuclear power.
posted by tommyD at 4:52 AM on March 13, 2011


Following up, the document uses m the same way OSHA does for radiation exposure.

Japan: limit on public dose: 1 mSv/ year
OSHA: ... limit of radiation exposure to a member of the general public as 100 mrem/y (1 mSv/y)
posted by zippy at 4:55 AM on March 13, 2011


Please clarify for me which nuclear-related organizations that actually work with nuclear energy aren't "propaganda."

The fact of the matter is that the NEI is in a much better position to understand these events than you or Greenpeace. Their website seems a lot less axe-grindey too.
posted by polyhedron at 4:59 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no horse in the NEI race here, however it appears to be a trade group and its leadership roster (pdf) consists almost entirely of heads of what appear to be power companies.
posted by zippy at 5:04 AM on March 13, 2011


Also, you can buy NEI's simulated uranium pellet (pretty cool!)
posted by zippy at 5:07 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


A brief backgrounder on the history of the nuclear industry. Adam Curtis's A Is For Atom from his 1992 Pandora's Box series.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. (YT)
posted by imperium at 5:09 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm not saying they don't have a vested interest. In fact, they have a very significant interest in knowing what they're talking about.

I'm going to listen with the same skeptical ear I always do but to discount the NEI offhand before any statement is made is irresponsible.
posted by polyhedron at 5:09 AM on March 13, 2011


Just to help everyone keep focused on the real issues involved here.

http://i.imgur.com/xmbUr.png
posted by Duug at 5:18 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


And I am much more willing to trust the NEI regarding this issue after being directed there via this guy.
posted by polyhedron at 5:18 AM on March 13, 2011


Why I am not worried about Japan's Nuclear Reactors.
This post is by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston.

He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry. I asked him to write this information to my family in Australia, who were being made sick with worry by the media reports coming from Japan.
posted by purephase at 5:21 AM on March 13, 2011 [21 favorites]


Having a trade group representative on MTP as an objective source is just par for the course for them.

Isn't that the problem though? There aren't very many objective commentators on nuclear power, you can generally choose between pro-nuke industry groups and anti-nuke activists. In both cases they're probably sure that they're telling the truth, in both cases they have a position one way or the other.

I guess the Union of Concerned Scientists is probably as close as you can get.
posted by atrazine at 5:24 AM on March 13, 2011


polyhedron, one more thing before I put this to rest, why in the world would you trust to get anything more than the best possible scenario from the head of an organization who's chief responsibility is to promote the safety of nuclear energy? My post was not an indictment of him as it's an indictment of MTP, a program which has historically proven itself to be a corporate propaganda machine at all costs. It is not a public trust.
posted by any major dude at 5:28 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't watch TV. I am tired and misunderstood your point (about MTP). I would listen to him for an understanding of what is going on because his organization has an extremely significant interest in knowing exactly that.
posted by polyhedron at 5:34 AM on March 13, 2011


I am not claiming things that are controversial or outside what is being reported by reliable media sources, a Chernobyl type disaster is not possible.

You're making a lot of claims of certainty in a time where there is likely none, and that's what makes people a little...prickly at your style.

These reactors are marvels of human engineering, but they have a stress/fail point. Given everything that's happened that we know of, we're certainly a lot closer to that point than we ever hoped we'd be. We're not going to see an explosion, likely, but a number of bad scenarios exist which are scary.

I don't know what kind of groundwater is below the reactor (especially now, given the fact that the ground has moved so much), but a bad scenario is where the fuel liquifies and melts through the floor, drops through the ground and mixes with groundwater. Then you have radioactive steam and an increasing pressure on it to head up towards the surface.
posted by dflemingecon at 5:58 AM on March 13, 2011


Why I am not worried about Japan's Nuclear Reactors.

Oehmen is, indeed, worried, because he is a proponent of nuclear power, and an obvious catastrophe like this is problematic for nuclear engineers who claim, despite all evidence to the contrary, that nuclear power generation is impervious to natural disasters.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:03 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


It isn't a catastrophe yet.
posted by Catfry at 6:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


The video on UCS's front page starts with maddow suggesting nuclear energy is just a controlled nuclear bomb. The NIRS page showcases the picture of the hydrogen explosion at reactor 1. Both seem to feature fear. Compare to NIE's page on this incident. Much more sober and factual. I am habitually skeptical but really this is not the time to pollute the discourse with anti-nuclear rhetoric. They're talking about a disaster in progress, not lobbying for new construction, and I think it's unfair to assume they are incapable of a factual analysis. Among all the misinformation and bad reporting, it is nice to have a page to load whose descriptions of the event are factual and not a journalist's poor 6-th-grade-level reconceptualization of concepts they don't understand.
posted by polyhedron at 6:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Scientists have measured 1000 microSieverts per hour in the town of Futaba-machi, a couple of kilometers away from Daiichi. This is still pretty low in terms of health effects -- 1000 microSv is what you could get from two round trip flights from Tokyo to New York -- but worrying in that previously those levels had only been measured at the main gate of the plant.

There is apparently a problem with a valve at unit 3 and they're having trouble decreasing pressure. It's at 425 kPa, which is slightly over the design limit of 400. The explosion at Unit 1 did not occur until they reached 800 kPa.
posted by Jeanne at 6:13 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't stop thinking of the human element here. Does anyone know how many people would be on site through this? Would it just be the staff on duty two days ago or do we think/know they were able to bring in reinforcements? Can any of the emergency response be managed remotely?
posted by double bubble at 6:29 AM on March 13, 2011


"an obvious catastrophe like this is problematic for nuclear engineers who claim, despite all evidence to the contrary, that nuclear power generation is impervious to natural disasters."

Which engineers are you referring to? References?!
posted by markkraft at 6:30 AM on March 13, 2011


All I believe. The reason is no insurance company will take on the risk given the potential liability of a nuclear meltdown.

Also there was the Shoreham debacle on Long Island, NY. They built all this mega infrastructure in preparation, then there was a lawsuit challenging the evacuation plan, (the LIE is at a standstill during normal rush hours,) so the plan was derailed at a cost in the range of billions.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:33 AM on March 13, 2011


I think Maddow's explanation was on target in that she said that both a bomb and a reactor were fission reactions, but the reactor was a controlled fission reaction. I guess we only hear what we expect to hear.
posted by tommyD at 6:34 AM on March 13, 2011


...government spokesman Yukio Edano said that although seawater was being injected into reactor 3 at the Fukushima plant to cool it, gauges were not showing the water levels rising.

"We do not know what to make of this," he said.

posted by mediareport at 6:35 AM on March 13, 2011


Based on this thread and the previous one I understand that Chernobyl-type worries are not relevant in this case. However, what are the other more realistic risks that the Fukushima staff are attempting to avert?

on preview: I guess that includes water/coolant not staying where they put it.
posted by harriet vane at 6:37 AM on March 13, 2011


"on the other hand. . .it might do the opposite when people realize that even one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history didn't do more than cause a nuclear disaster that, while pretty bad, isn't anything more than an extremely small fraction of damage to everything else from the tsunami."

Indeed.

What would be interesting / instructive would be to hear from the more knowledgeable nuclear experts around here as to what their thoughts are on what the impact might've been, had we been dealing with the latest mainstream nuclear power plant technology, rather than something 40 years old. What potential risks would still exist... what wouldn't? And how would such a system likely do when facing the kind of impact we've seen in this case?
posted by markkraft at 6:41 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Trying to figure out if your emergency repair procedures are working using information from measuring equipment that itself may be damaged is not a situation I would want to be in. A good part of the rule book is useless right now.
posted by tommasz at 6:43 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would it just be the staff on duty two days ago or do we think/know they were able to bring in reinforcements? Can any of the emergency response be managed remotely?

I recall reading that the Japanese gov. used SDF helicopters to assemble a medical team trained in radiation treatment and decontamination protocols not far from the site. It would be unreasonable to think that the government have also put whomever they need (who they can also find) on site to deal with this.

From reading documents I've linked previously, but cannot recall right now, I believe there are meeting facilities both on site and in town dedicated to gathering experts and local officials to coordinate responses to nuclear incidents.
posted by zippy at 6:44 AM on March 13, 2011


However, what are the other more realistic risks that the Fukushima staff are attempting to avert?

on preview: I guess that includes water/coolant not staying where they put it.
posted by harriet vane at 2:37 PM on March 13 [+] [!]



They want the pressure vessel to maintain integrity. They want this in order to contain the core and the associated radioactive materials. The battle has been to keep the temperature inside the core low enough that it doesn't melt the walls of the pressure vessel. If it were to melt, contamination of the surrounding area would suddenly become much more difficult to prevent.
posted by Catfry at 6:45 AM on March 13, 2011


sorry, "would be reasonable"
posted by zippy at 6:45 AM on March 13, 2011


Trying to figure out if your emergency repair procedures are working using information from measuring equipment that itself may be damaged is not a situation I would want to be in.

Yeah, it was pointed out in the previous thread that gauges, etc. may be damaged. It's an almost unbelievably complex and shifting problem.
posted by mediareport at 6:56 AM on March 13, 2011


Based on this thread and the previous one I understand that Chernobyl-type worries are not relevant in this case. However, what are the other more realistic risks that the Fukushima staff are attempting to avert?

From better to worse, here are possible scenarios:

1) Cooling with seawater keeps temperature down and there is no further damage to the fuel, no long lived radio-isotopes escape

2) Cooling fails, core melts completely but remains contained, pressure build up managed by controlled venting. Possibly some long-lived radio-isotopes escape.

3) Cooling fails, core melts and hydrogen build up cannot be controlled, explosion ruptures containment vessel (possibly along a weld seam embrittled by radiation and damaged by the quake). Long lived radioisotopes contaminate plant leading to total write-off of remaining undamaged reactors.

Progressively worse scenarios are the same but with greater radioisotope spread contaminating larger areas. Most radioisotopes blown into Pacific Ocean where they precipitate out and may cause local seabed contamination (I don't know if there is any shellfish industry nearby), some soluble radioisotopes cause below detectability contamination of ocean water.

The kind of long burning, super hot fire required to pump radioactive smoke high into the atmosphere that happened at Chernobyl does not seem to be a possibility here, but I'm not an expert.

I should point out that I don't think the containment vessel will fail, but who really knows? None of us have any data on whether it was damaged by the quake.

Modern designs are in theory safer, because they're designed to passively stay cool enough to prevent core damage even after all active cooling fails. How they would have performed after a 8.9/9.0 earthquake is an open question though.
posted by atrazine at 7:00 AM on March 13, 2011 [14 favorites]


an obvious catastrophe like this is problematic for nuclear engineers who claim, despite all evidence to the contrary, that nuclear power generation is impervious to natural disasters.

Was just coming here to post the same link. Might be worth reading it before you blindly criticize it. Also, who said things were impervious to natural disasters? The plant was rated for an 8.2 earthquake, made it through an 8.9 plus a tsunami or two that knocked out its backup generators. Would you be bitching about nuclear power's risks if we just got hit by a giant meteor and were all about to die anyway? There's natural disasters and then there's the Wrath of $DEITY. He may be a biased source, but it's an interesting read and sounds like another case where good engineering saved some people.

Anyone else notice these pieces all take time out to suggest Chernobyl might not have won any design awards?
posted by yerfatma at 7:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


"The plant was rated for an 8.2 earthquake, made it through an 8.9"

Actually, they upped it to a 9.0.

Really... can anyone point out a single object in the entire world rated to survive a 9.0 earthquake?!
posted by markkraft at 7:13 AM on March 13, 2011


I'm pretty sure Jello® would survive it.

Hey, I just had a great idea for a nuclear containment design... a delicious nuclear containment design!
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:16 AM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yeah, but Jello® can melt, you know... and who wants to eat boron-flavored Jello®?
posted by markkraft at 7:18 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


The plant was rated for an 8.2 earthquake, made it through an 8.9 plus a tsunami or two that knocked out its backup generators.

A lack of catastrophic containment failure when your reactors are melting down is not the same thing as "making it through."
posted by enn at 7:21 AM on March 13, 2011


This is a great thread despite the back-and-forth that comes with such a topic.
Who says five bucks doesn't buy much? Not me, not here. It's more than value for your dollar though, isn't it? Sorry to derail a bit but this is the absolute best community in existence, I love it here, thank you all.
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:24 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Can you provide evidence that the containment failed? If not, you're wrong, mistaken, or speculating.

From the information we have to go on, the containment has not failed. This is the 3298374th time that's been said.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:51 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


[Couple comments removed. When you get to the point of commenting in a thread specifically to accuse people on not having lives for commenting in a thread it's time to just go for a walk or something instead. I know this whole subject is pretty complicated and charged and people have strong contrasting feelings about a lot of what's involved, but please try and just be decent to each other and leave any unnecessary scrapping and sniping by the wayside.]
posted by cortex at 7:52 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]




2) Cooling fails, core melts completely but remains contained, pressure build up managed by controlled venting. Possibly some long-lived radio-isotopes escape.


Are we already at this stage? There's already been controlled venting at reactor 3 and controlled and uncontrolled venting at reactor 1, and they've detected Cesium-137 in the surrounding area, which has a half-life of 30 years.
posted by Jeanne at 7:52 AM on March 13, 2011



2) Cooling fails, core melts completely but remains contained, pressure build up managed by controlled venting. Possibly some long-lived radio-isotopes escape.

Are we already at this stage? There's already been controlled venting at reactor 3 and controlled and uncontrolled venting at reactor 1, and they've detected Cesium-137 in the surrounding area, which has a half-life of 30 years.


There has been some venting, but cooling has not failed (still have seawater) and the core is not completely melted.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:58 AM on March 13, 2011


This is a great thread, as is the first earthquake thread, still going strong.

I do however note the defensiveness of the pro-nuclear position right now with some concern. Of course it makes sense to tamp down senseless panic, especially among those of us many thousands of miles from immediate danger. There are other things going on, other people dying right now, terrible times.

Of course we all hope this is more anxiety than reality. We hope containment holds, the design is solid, fate is on our side, and the engineers know what they're doing here. But the worst-case scenarios are bad enough even limited to the most sober assessments, and the thing about radiation is that it doesn't go away after a few days or weeks. We live in an biosphere already saturated with human-generated radiation compared to a century ago, much of it due to military nuclear testing (and bombing, let's remember Japanese may have more reason to be anxious about radiation than the average human), but a freedom to experiment with the basics of our ecology that has been too easily preserved under the "national security" banner in its transformation from military to industrial use. We have tons of radioactive waste that will last tens of thousands of years that we haven't decided how to protect, and don't know how to protect at that time distance. We have dead zones and sick places. And right now several nuclear reactors are not fully under the control of their engineers, in a volatile situation where other resources are diverted to other pressing emergencies, and upwind of the place where many mefites live.

The patient technical explanations of how things work and why certain concerns are improbable is helpful. But there's no percentage in being dismissive of the anxieties being stoked right now, only ensuring that in some of our minds, the "don't worry, nuclear power is safe" line sounds awfully familiar. We're messing around at the very limits of human ability to control the consequences of a mistake. I wouldn't bet on there being no mistakes.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:58 AM on March 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


There is zero chance of a nuclear explosion.

But you could have a hydrogen explosion.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:04 AM on March 13, 2011


fourcheesemac, I won't speak for anyone else but this is an enormously frustrating conversation to observe. Firstly, these are 40-year old reactors that were due for decommissioning shortly, they're not representative of modern designs in any way. Secondly they were subjected to a literally epochal event, one that's already killed thousands of people without causing any gnashing of teeth over the failures of the homebuilding industry. Thirdly, and finally, there are enormously complicated engineering concerns at play here and many of the questions in this thread are essentially (if unintentionally) "but what if unicorns?!"

We don't know what's going on, we're guessing based on incomplete information (and the Japanese nuclear industry has communication problems, no doubt about that) but so far things seem to be under control. As I understand it, as long as the rods are kept under cover (water) and the control rods remain in it's just a waiting game of letting them cool which could take days to weeks. If the cooling fails bad things will happen but, again, so far the pumping of seawater seems to be working.

Another piece I haven't seen referenced yet.
posted by Skorgu at 8:11 AM on March 13, 2011 [25 favorites]


I think the most interesting reactor on the horizon has got to be the traveling-wave reactor Bill Gates has been trumpeting as a solution to man's ills.

Bill Gates has also claimed Windows was a workable solution.

No where do I see any lessening of State VS State or State VS non-state actors where fission plants are not a nice asymmetric target, even with a prize in the memory of Alfred Nobel as "leader of the free world".

I also do not see addressed how the plants will operate VS a nice old mass ejection of the Sun.

And even *IF* there were enough magical atom splitters in service - how can you effectively electrify 800 HP farm tractors or have enough resources to electrify the far flung transport systems?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:12 AM on March 13, 2011


many Japanese don't trust authorities are telling them everything they know.

Given how trustworthy "authorities" are* - why should they (or frankly anyone else) trust 'em?


* Three Mile Island where the actual issues were not told to the public.
Federal Crop Ins. Corp v. Merrill, 332 U.S. 380 (1947)
Fox news can lie in news reports decision.

And the whole logical fallacy - appeal to authority. If authority wasn't often times wrong - the appeal the authority wouldn't be a logical fallacy.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:19 AM on March 13, 2011






The reason is no insurance company will take on the risk given the potential liability of a nuclear meltdown.

Its because reactors have been shown, by operational example, to be unsafe.

When Price-Anderson/the whole Eisenhower Peaceful Atom program was introduced the Government claimed they would be in the Insurance market until civilian power was shown to be safe. And every time Price-Anderson comes back up for renewal the various talking heads of the fission industry don't say "We are safe, we don't need you" instead the Congressional record show the industry as a whole asking for Price-Anderson to be extended.

Under the peaceful atom program (and other make power not bombs laws) parties have certain obligations - and just look at the rhetoric over Iran/Pakistan/India/North Korea/Israel/South Africa/Libya. Remember in the 1970's Iran was taking out advertisements about how they were ordering fission plants from Westinghouse. What happens when a State goes "rogue" and starts attacking other States - what does the world do if that "rogue" State has fission plants? How many of pro-nukes-for-power change their tune or even turn down their volume if the State that has 'em changes leadership?

Remember that Tunisia was "on track" to get a couple of fission power reactors - how many of you would be "comfortable" with those proposed 2009 plants being working plants in 2010? How about proposed plants in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia being on line and operational if the 'days of rage' become 'flights out the the nation by the King and his family' - are the pro fission people as gung ho for that?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:37 AM on March 13, 2011


Radiation risk from nuclear plant seen as worrisome, not critical -- "Experts say leak from Fukushima reactor unlikely to pose serious threat to public health."
posted by ericb at 8:39 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


GE-designed reactors in Fukushima have 23 sisters in U.S.

...and now we know that all it takes to set them off is an earthquake that destroys the entire country that contains them.
posted by Artw at 8:41 AM on March 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


... and a 'capital T' Tsunami.
posted by mazola at 8:45 AM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


One of many things that can set them off. Sadly, there are other things as well.
posted by Windopaene at 8:46 AM on March 13, 2011


. The problem is the irridation of people, homes, and communities... some of them a way far away from the plant itself.

Germany is "upwind" from Chernobyl and separated by another whole Country and yet:
Radioactive Boars Part of Chernobyl's Legacy

Imagine the economic impact of taking 10-20-50 miles round a coastline and saying "nope, that land and the buildings are now a no-go" And if you are in the US of A, now imagine the paperwork and process to have the US Government back that with the "insurance" of Price-Anderson.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:47 AM on March 13, 2011


Another good summary of the situation from FireDogLake: Japanese Nuclear Watch Update – One Meltdown, Another Probable, Large Evacuations Ordered.
posted by scalefree at 8:57 AM on March 13, 2011


In scalefree's link (either in the article or the comments, I forget which) it is stated that it is likely that some of the workers fighting to keep things under control have already most likely absorbed a fatal amount of radiation...could this be true?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:04 AM on March 13, 2011


I wash my hands of this thread. It's going in a circle of half-truths, speculation, disaster porn, and People Who Must Make A Political Point. There's a lot of Not Helpful on all sides.

This event doesn't vindicate anyone's thesis. This was an unplanned for corner case that most nuke plants will never face -- a subduction zone earthquake 60-70 miles away followed by a 20 foot tsunami. It was a 40 year old reactor design. All things considered, #1 and #3 are not yet in cataclysmic failure, just functioning in a very bad way.

But no, this doesn't prove nor disprove nuclear power is safe. Yes, there have only been a handful of nuclear plant disasters that have put the public at risk. At the same time, companies will always cut corners, and plants are run and built by fallible humans. The risk may be lower on nuclear power, but meltdowns, steam explosions, and releases of radioactive material far above healthy limits are always possible. And, of course, there's the question of what to do with all that waste.

And yet, when running normally nuclear plants produce a lot fewer carcinogens and particulates than coal plants do. They aren't limited by location like hydro, nor as harmful to watershed ecosystems. And they're not burning through our limited supplies of natural gas and petroleum like gas and oil turbines do (and nuclear produces electricity a lot more efficiently than either one). So there are good reasons for nuclear power; they just have tradeoffs that become emotional battle flags.

The most annoying thing about this radiation plume that may not even come is that they have done multiple studies that have shown a not-insignificant part of the air pollution in the Northwest comes from coal plants in China. And yet, while we in Seattle and Portland are every moment breathing in coal soot that's putting people's lives at risk, we freak out because we might see a slight uptick in background radiation from the little bit of radioactive cesium we may see.

Nuclear power may be the best way out of our current environmental catastrophe. It may be our only way out. It's definitely not the safest way out. But it's impossible to have that conversation, not when emotions are off the charts, not when the coal industry just has to mutter "Chernobyl" while using its political power to avoid environmental regulation and quash alternative energy research money.

So I'm done with this. Go drive your Nissan Leafs to the Gulf or whatever.
posted by dw at 9:06 AM on March 13, 2011 [55 favorites]


St. Alia: a total of 11 power plant workers have been hospitalized, according to Yomiuri Shinbun. Some of those are injuries, rather than radiation exposure, but one person has been exposed to 100 milliSieverts, which is getting close to a level that would cause immediate health effects (the sources I've found said that radiation poisoning starts at around 500 milliSieverts -- people start dying around 3000).

Yesterday on Twitter a tweet was going around, supposedly someone reporting what his friend who worked at the reactor said :"We're not going to let a meltdown happen, even if it kills us." I'm sure they had to go in with that attitude.
posted by Jeanne at 9:14 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the BBC:
1606: A pump within the cooling system of one of the reactors at the Tokai nuclear power plant has stopped working, according to the Kyodo news agency.

and

1548: Mr Goto said the reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant were suffering pressure build-ups way beyond that for which they were designed. There was a severe risk of an explosion, with radioactive material being strewn over a very wide area - beyond the 20km evacuation zone set up by the authorities

and

#
1553: He accused the government of deliberately withholding vital information that would allow outside experts help solve the problems. "For example, there has not been enough information about the hydrogen being vented. We don't know how much was vented and how radioactive it was." He also described the use of sea water to cool the cores of the reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi as highly unusual and dangerous.

and

1600: At the same time, Malcolm Crick, the secretary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, has told the Reuters news agency: "This is not a serious public health issue at the moment. It won't be anything like Chernobyl.
posted by Windopaene at 9:18 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


So who is Mr. Goto?
posted by scalefree at 9:22 AM on March 13, 2011


The BBC live updates describe Goto only as a "former nuclear plant designer." I think this is the press conference they're referencing, with pauses between questions and answers for English translation.
posted by mediareport at 9:38 AM on March 13, 2011


List of accidents at nuclear power plants

this was interesting.

"17 April 1970 — Tonga Trench
The SNAP 27 radioisotope thermoelectric generator aboard the Lunar Module Aquarius reentered the Earth's atmosphere. The LM had been used as a "lifeboat" to help the Apollo 13 crew return to Earth after the Command Module lost electrical power. The vehicle was targeted for the Pacific Ocean to reduce the risk of contamination in the event the RTG broke up, but it is believed to have survived reentry and water impact intact. Periodic radiation checks of the area have found no signs of leakage."
posted by clavdivs at 9:40 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


rough ashlar: Germany is "upwind" from Chernobyl and separated by another whole Country and yet: Radioactive Boars Part of Chernobyl's Legacy
Germany is west of the Ukraine, but at the time of the Chernobyl desaster we had a week or so of unusual wind from the east, so Germany did not receive a high dose of radioactivity despite being upwind from Chernobyl but because Germany really was downwind from Chernobyl when the accident happened.
</derail>
posted by amf at 9:47 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


>> "The plant was rated for an 8.2 earthquake, made it through an 8.9"
>
> Actually, they upped it to a 9.0.
>
> Really... can anyone point out a single object in the entire world rated to survive a 9.0 earthquake?!

That 8.9 or 9.0 is at the epicenter, some distance offshore, not at Fukushima.

This shakemap from USGS shows "instrumental intensity" (= modified Mercalli intensity, per this USGS explanatory page), not Richter scale values. A rough equivalency table is given here.

Going by the colors on the USGS shakemap, the Mercalli intensity in the Sendai region was borderline upper VII - lower VIII, which corresponds to Richer 6.1 - 6.5. So Fukushima Dai-ichi didn't "get through" a Richter 8.9 quake. (Not that what they did experience was any walk in the park.)
posted by jfuller at 9:54 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Where's eriko?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:55 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree that alternatives to nuclear are also dodgy. What puzzles me is that this is being described as a once in a million freakish combination of black swan events, when in fact all of these issues were directly/indirectly caused by the earthquake and a ~9.0 once in 70-100 years is not extraordinary in Japan, and the reactor actually only withstood a ~7.5 quake at its location.

Artw: I wouldn't describe it as "whole country destroyed" when the population of japan is roughly 127 million and the number of missing reported is in the low tens of thousands. It's a reasonable expectation to ask for nuclear plants to be safe after a very large (but not off-the-charts) natural disaster.
posted by rainy at 9:55 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I do however note the defensiveness of the pro-nuclear position right now with some concern.

Well, I would describe my own position on nukes as "regretfully accepting" rather than "pro", more or less a "worst system of producing electricity except for all the alternatives" view. I think that part of the problem is that there are a lot of people on the internet who are extremely gung-ho about nukes more because the technology is neat than anything else.
posted by atrazine at 10:03 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Radiation around the reactor exceeded the legal limit to hit 1,557 microsieverts per hour at 1:52 p.m. This rate then fell to 184 microsieverts about 50 minutes later. At this level, Edano said a hydrogen explosion is unlikely to affect human health, even one occurs.

Reference levels from earlier in the thread are here though note that most are in "mili-" not "micro-": 1, 2, 3 ("1000 microSv is what you could get from two round trip flights from Tokyo to New York").
posted by salvia at 10:05 AM on March 13, 2011


a ~9.0 once in 70-100 years is not extraordinary in Japan

There have been zero 9.0+ in Japan and only four greater than 9.0 ever. Bearing in mind that the scale is logarithmic and a 9.0 is a significantly different beast than the previous Japanese maximum of an 8.5.

Also from what I've read the plant survived the nuke but the tsunami took out the cooling system, still obviously problematic but subtly different in terms of severity and planning responses.
posted by Skorgu at 10:10 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


a ~9.0 once in 70-100 years is not extraordinary in Japan,

I don't think that's true. This is only the 5th 9.anything earthquake in 111 years, and none of the previous ones have been in Japan.
posted by KathrynT at 10:14 AM on March 13, 2011


I was kind of hoping for more eriko, but in light of the "DEFINITELY DOOM" and "DEFINITELY NOT DOOM" I guess I'll just be heading back to twitter and the much more nuanced discussion with the likes of @arclight and @touruma.

Sorry, I was asleep, and then dealing with work.

Wow, guys, WTF? We kept thing pretty nice in the thread of doom.

A few answers to a few questions.

1) Can the core undergo nuclear detonation? No. The concentration of 235U and 239Pu is far too low, there are far too many other fissionables that would prevent the full prompt-critical reaction from being sustained, and there's no inertial confinement. The hardest part about building a nuclear weapon is holding it together while it's trying to explode.

2) Can the core undergo other sorts of explosions? Very hard, but not impossible. SL-1 and Chernobyl Reactor 4 both had large steam explosions when the reaction rate jumped by a couple of orders of magnitude due to loss of control. SL-1 was an inadvertent control rod removal, Chernobyl #4 was a combination of positive void feedback, existing reactor poisons, and a bad design.

These sort of runaways are, as far as we can tell, impossible in a PWR or a BWR, which count on water as a moderator *and* coolant -- if you lose the coolant, you limit the reaction rate. As the coolant heats up, the reaction rate moderates.

BWRs and PWRs also depend on pressure to work (more pressure in a PWR, of course) -- thus, the pressure vessels are much stronger than the basic reactor vessels of graphite moderated reactors like Windscale #1 & #2, or the RBMKs at Chernobyl. You can exchange a moderate radioactive release to completly prevent this possibility -- vent steam, add water, keep the pressure low. This is basically what Fukushima #1 is doing.

3) Can we get a criticality accident? Harder, but not impossible, and actually more likely than an explosion, but you need severe core damage for it to happen. With the control rods in and coolant limited, you have a bunch of neutron absorbers in place, and with the coolant very hot, fewer prompt neutrons are being moderated into thermal neutrons, which are the ones more likely to cause a further fissioning.

But if the heat becomes extremely high, the core can melt. Liquids flow, and they'll flow down into the bottom. Intermixed with that will be bits of control rod, but it'll basically be random. Get enough fuel material together, and not enough control material, and you can reach criticality. This is often hard on people nearby. It's not an automatic thing, though -- Chernobyl #4 melted down after the explosion, but the "corium" that flowed out of the reactor and into the basement didn't go critical. This release of core material was very limited, easily contained, and while it made that building suck, it didn't do the massive damage.

The core material blown out of the top of the reactor by the steam explosion, followed by the core material carried up in the ashes of the burning graphite moderator, that's what caused the massive release of radioactive materials. If Chernobyl had just melted down and flowed into the basement, we'd have been a lot better off.

Note that the graphite fire that put this stuff up into a fly ash plume that could carry for miles won't happen here, because there's no graphite to burn.

4) Will any of these reactors run again? Depends. Fukushima 1 reactor #1, no -- even if it turns out there is very little core damage, they were going to decommission this reactor anyway. If F1#3 has a similar issue, they'll probably decommission that one as well. 4-6 are newer, and were shut down completely before the quake for maintenance, and should be fine - #6 is a new reactor, a BWR-5 rather than a BWR-4 of 2-5, or the BWR-3 that #1 is.

Shutting down #1 and #3 will cost Japan 1.24GW of power. Shutting them all down will cost them 4.69GW of power, which is a big chunk. Shutting down the four BWR-5s at Fukushima 2 would cost them another 4.4GW of power.

The big problem isn't the boric acid -- though it is an acid, and it can increase corrosion. The big problem is the chlorides in seawater. They'll need to be cleaned out before the reactor is safe to use again, and given the age of the Fukushima #1 reactors, it probably won't be worth doing so -- indeed, F1#1 is at end-of-life, anyway, and one report I saw said it was slated to be shut down permanently for decommissioning at the end of the month. There's no way they'll bother to repair it -- or even, if for some miracle, there is no core damage at all, bother to restart it.

Fun fact: The other three reactors at Chernobyl were kept running after the accident on #4. Why? They couldn't afford to lose the 3GW of power that shutting them down would have done. #2 ran until a turbine fire damaged it's power plant, and the other two were shut down at the end of the 1990s.

5) Why evacuations? Part of it, to be honest, is fear. A government think "Hmm, if I don't evacuate, and somebody gets contaminated, it will be all over the news forever." Governments also like doing something, and they can't do much at the plant proper, so an evacuation, which they can do, fits. The anti nuclear lobby has wedged it into any mind that any radiation is deadly (if so, we're all dead multiple ways after the various nuclear tests) and a government that does nothing when something bad happens is one that loses elections. See why the TSA is still around.

But there are failure modes that could result in at least short term severe releases, the biggest being a steam explosion compromising the core, and getting people away from a reactor that you don't think you have complete control over is not a bad idea. As I said before, I think the biggest problem in F1#1 is loss of sensors -- they're really not sure of the state of the reactor. If you don't know, assuming worst handleable case is a good idea.

6) Why am I not panicking? I don't automatically trust the news. It's been repeatedly filters, and when I have a Japanese Government Official Who Is Not A Nuclear Engineer talking to a Japanese report, WINANE, being translated by someone who either doesn't speak English or Japanese natively, and WINANE, then being reported by some US or UK news site by someone WINANE, then being liveblogged or tweeted by someone WINANE, and all of them get paid or renown for putting the most dramatic headlines possible on this, you should realize that all is not as it seems.

And, really, people. Worst case is a triple core compromise. Kindly go look up "atmospheric nuclear testing" for just how much radioactive material was pumped into the air. If everything goes wrong, all three reactors meltdown and escape containment it will be a mess -- but it won't even be a Chernobyl like mess, because you won't get the combination of steam explosion and graphite fire that you had there, and you have vastly better physical containment.

Double really, people. We *nuked* Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We deliberately constructed devices so that they would undergo an extended prompt critical reaction, and we dropped them on cities.

Are those cities empty wastelands, bereft of life, with nobody allowed to enter them?

And those were small weapons. Look at some of the beasts we cranked off in the Pacific, in the USSR, in Australia, in Africa, hell, in Nevada. Repeatedly.

This is a bad situation. This is not that. And not only is this not that, as we get more and more information, I can tell you this for certain.

In the end, you will be hard put to find the people who died from these reactors amongst the thousands, and now starting to look like tens-of-thousands, who died from the quake and the tsunami.

If you think the reactors are the worst thing that has happened here, you are failing badly at understanding risks.

If you want to know what scares me about Japan right now? It's the broken transport, which means more will die because they can't get supplies, and it's the statement from the JMA stating that there's a 70% of a Magnitude 7 aftershock in the next three days.
posted by eriko at 10:16 AM on March 13, 2011 [160 favorites]


once in 70-100 years is not extraordinary in Japan

Lets say every 100 years 'a black swan' happens - what's the 99 year plan to no longer be using said 100 year 'whoops, there's the black swan now you are hosed' tool?

The plant most damaged was supposed to be shut down within a couple of months - or so I've read.

And my memory on the plant model - 25 year original design life. Time will tell if some of the damage is because of the old plant beyond what it was designed for.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:17 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


There have been zero 9.0+ in Japan and only four greater than 9.0 ever. Bearing in mind that the scale is logarithmic and a 9.0 is a significantly different beast than the previous Japanese maximum of an 8.5.

My mistake, I mis-remembered that there was a 9.0 in 19th century.

However, there was an 8.3 in 2006 and this design of plants is not designed to be near epicenter of such magnitude.

The tsunami is caused by the quake so a safe design has to last when both hit in quick succession - that's just common sense.
posted by rainy at 10:29 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really appreciate the info eriko--thanks.
posted by Go Banana at 10:31 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


> In the end, you will be hard put to find the people who died from these reactors amongst the thousands, and now starting
> to look like tens-of-thousands, who died from the quake and the tsunami.

It's just a matter of time, though (and IMHO probably not much time) before "Fukushima disaster: 10,000 people died" becomes an unkillable meme, just like "1 in 6 are hungry in the U.S."
posted by jfuller at 10:31 AM on March 13, 2011


Note that the graphite fire that put this stuff up into a fly ash plume that could carry for miles won't happen here, because there's no graphite to burn.

Are you sure about that? Quoting from Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors:
The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor – the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. For that purpose, a large and thick concrete basin is cast under the pressure vessel (the second containment), which is filled with graphite, all inside the third containment. This is the so-called “core catcher”. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down.
posted by scalefree at 10:33 AM on March 13, 2011


Rough aslar the whole point of a black swan is that is can't be planned for because it is an emegent property of te complexity and chaos of the real world. A 1:100 year event isn't a black swan it is just unlikely and in fact appears to have been accounted for. This might be considered a black swan event because while they had planned for a major earthquake, tsunami, power disruption, various failure conditions and safe shutdown operations. Only after a full incident review will we know the root cause and be able to determine if this was truly a black swan scenario merely a more common catastrophe.
posted by humanfont at 10:36 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The tsunami is caused by the quake so a safe design has to last when both hit in quick succession - that's just common sense.

Agreed, it seems obvious in retrospect but two things.

1) The newer generations of reactors don't seem to have suffered the same fate so again, a 40-year lag in lessons learned isn't something to be ignored. I could be wrong, as others have said getting solid information is difficult but it seems like a design flaw that has been long since corrected. Obviously anyone who knows more specifically and corrects or corroborates me would be appreciated.

2) I honestly have no idea what requirements or guidelines there are for protecting against tsunamis. I mean really before the Banda Aceh wave all the previous events in wikipedia are before 1908. It doesn't seem like something that had really been planned for in any industry. Obviously nuclear plants are and should be held to a higher standard but this is an event that erased entire towns, it's not something that was foreseen by anyone, even the otherwise extremely well prepared Japanese.

eriko, beers are on me if you're in NYC ever.
posted by Skorgu at 10:39 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Scroll down for a roll-over before/after of the plant. It's about half way down.
posted by warbaby at 10:40 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


scalefree - "If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down."
posted by warbaby at 10:48 AM on March 13, 2011


eriko: If you want to know what scares me about Japan right now? It's the broken transport, which means more will die because they can't get supplies, and it's the statement from the JMA stating that there's a 70% of a Magnitude 7 aftershock in the next three days.

I think I missed this, do you have a source? (I don't doubt it validity, I'm just afraid to go up thread.)

scalefree: Are you sure about that?

From my understanding (someone more knowledgable than me please correct me if I'm wrong), by the time energy from the reactor core would have reached the graphite of the second containment, it won't be enough to burn graphite. The one time I can think of a graphite fire from a nuclear incident is the Windscale Fire, where the core itself was entirely made of graphite.
posted by thebestsophist at 10:54 AM on March 13, 2011


scody writes "Uh, plenty of people in Southern California where our public transportation is for shit? I can name any number of colleagues and family members who put in 100-200 miles a day on a regular basis. "

I know of a few people like that here too in extenuating circumstances but they are way at the end of the long tail of averages. 200 miles is around 4 hours a day driving. On a eight hour work day you are spending half again as much time travelling back and forth. I hated the 25 minute commute I used to have. 2 hours is just crazy. It would be like working a part time job on top of your regular job.

rough ashlar writes "And even *IF* there were enough magical atom splitters in service - how can you effectively electrify 800 HP farm tractors or have enough resources to electrify the far flung transport systems?"

Horsepower requirements for electrical motors are much lower than for IC motors to do the same job. And the tech already exists, many mining operations use mobile, electric powered, heavy equipment.
posted by Mitheral at 10:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Skorgu: From what I heard, though, the new designs are safe if there's a loss of control but not sure if that's still true in case they're structurally compromised by a quake or by a terrorist attack or something like that.

For Tsunamis, I think you want this link: 200s tsunamis
posted by rainy at 10:56 AM on March 13, 2011


My mistake, I mis-remembered that there was a 9.0 in 19th century.

However, there was an 8.3 in 2006 and this design of plants is not designed to be near epicenter of such magnitude.


You know those numbers aren't even CLOSE, right?

I mean, an 8.3 is about 2.3 metric gigatons of TNT. a 9.0 is 32 metric gigatons. That's about 14 times more powerful. That's like me pointing out that my car can't get from North Jersey to San Antonio on one tank of gas, and you counter, "are you sure? Cause I've seen it get to Atlantic City once, and that seems pretty much the same thing."
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 10:56 AM on March 13, 2011


John Kenneth: Yes, I understand that, but the Fukushima plant did not experience even an 8.3M. So your car analogy is about as relevant as a statistically average internet thread car analogy. My point wasn't that an 8.3 is close to 9.0, but that these plants aren't designed to withstand either of those, and we know that either of those are possible.
posted by rainy at 11:01 AM on March 13, 2011


Fair enough, misread your point.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:08 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


thebestsophist, I've also heard that NHK has been reporting that there's a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 quake in the next 3 days.

Reuters link.
posted by Jeanne at 11:09 AM on March 13, 2011


Lets say every 100 years 'a black swan' happens - what's the 99 year plan to no longer be using said 100 year 'whoops, there's the black swan now you are hosed' tool?

Let's say popular books posed as serious tomes or serious books most people only know by summary don't foster constructive discussions. If you're planning for a black swan, you're doing it wrong.
posted by yerfatma at 11:14 AM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The tsunami is caused by the quake so a safe design has to last when both hit in quick succession - that's just common sense.

Not all quakes cause tsunamis. Not all tsunamis are caused by quakes (but most are.)

Now, all 9+ megathrust earthquakes do seem to cause tsunamis, but they are very rare -- so rare that it might be coincidence! An Mw 8.5 earthquake near Sumatra in the Indian ocean produced no tsunami. A 9.1 near the same spot killed or injured over a quarter million by tsunami.

To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. For that purpose, a large and thick concrete basin is cast under the pressure vessel (the second containment), which is filled with graphite, all inside the third containment. This is the so-called “core catcher”. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down.

That would be news to me -- and this graphite wouldn't be exposed to air, like the moderator in Chernobyl #4 was. The Fuel Pool (which is the core catcher on these BWR) is stated to be reinforced concrete with a cooling system, not graphite. I'm looking for the full design documents on a GE BWR-3 with a Mark I containment.

This is a good drawing (with a couple of annotations) on the basic layout. Note the torus below. This is where vented steam goes to condense, and if there was a full core meltdown, this is where it would flow.

Remember -- there are a lot of reactor designs out there. The most common BWRs are GE BWR 1 through 6, and the ABWR. In design is the ESBWR. This is a BWR-3 with a Mark 1 containment, if it's not talking about an BWR-3 with an Mark 1 containment, it's not actually telling you anything about Fukushima 1 Reactor 1.
posted by eriko at 11:14 AM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]






Obviously nuclear plants are and should be held to a higher standard but this is an event that erased entire towns, it's not something that was foreseen by anyone, even the otherwise extremely well prepared Japanese.

Fine Arts nuclear expert weighing in.

Sorry, but this does feel apologist. I have no conception of what a 9.0 earthquake is like. But history does. Japan, specifically, knows that it's sitting in possibly the single most volatile seismic zone on the planet, so if you were betting man, betting on a 9.0 earthquake happening anywhere, you'd have to consider Japan. So, no, I don't buy the argument that this situation is inconceivable.

As for the tsunami threat, well, as has been much discussed, they tend to come with big deal earthquakes. Which gets us to how to ensure that our potentially apocalyptic "projects" survive them. One thought that comes instantly to mind is don't build them very close to the ocean. But what if that's the only way to do it? How about ensuring that the "project" is not just secure from collapse during (yes) a 9.0 earthquake, but also that it has on site all the resources it requires to continue to function (at least in a "harm reduction" mode) in a completely self-contained way for say, a period of weeks.

Because bad as the tsunami is (and looks), it's not unprecedented. I suspect there's a study on a table somewhere that depicts a scenario exactly like what we've seen. Major earthquake! Tsunami wave rises and wipes clean all "low lying" land along a more or less predictable flood plain.

If the response to this line of reasoning is that such precautions are not economically feasible, then my response is that nuclear power plants in known severe earthquake/tsunami zones are not feasible.

Hind sight's always 20-20, I agree, but I'm calling bullshit that no one saw something like this coming. I've been seeing it my nightmares since I was a kid.
posted by philip-random at 12:53 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Meta
posted by adamvasco at 12:57 PM on March 13, 2011


Sorry, but this does feel apologist. I have no conception of what a 9.0 earthquake is like. But history does. Japan, specifically, knows that it's sitting in possibly the single most volatile seismic zone on the planet, so if you were betting man, betting on a 9.0 earthquake happening anywhere, you'd have to consider Japan. So, no, I don't buy the argument that this situation is inconceivable.

Japanese nuclear power plants were first planned and built starting around 50 years ago, before there was good understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:06 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


...then my response is that nuclear power plants in known severe earthquake/tsunami zones are not feasible.

Indeed they may well not be. Chances are that the extremely safety conscious Japanese would not build nuclear power plants at all if they had other energy resources.
posted by atrazine at 1:06 PM on March 13, 2011


Where does all the seawater go that is being pump into the reactor? Does it stay in the secondary containment shell or is it a pass through circuit back to the sea?
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 1:06 PM on March 13, 2011


Jumpin Jack Flash, I think the seawater is flashing to steam in the reactor and being vented. They're pumping it in as fast as possible to keep the fuel covered with liquid water. This steam is mildly radioactive but apparently only contains short lived radio-isotopes.
posted by atrazine at 1:19 PM on March 13, 2011


It's just a matter of time, though (and IMHO probably not much time) before "Fukushima disaster: 10,000 people died" becomes an unkillable meme, just like "1 in 6 are hungry in the U.S."

Yes. I was having exactly the same thought.

Nuclear power? No, thanks. Do you want our cities to look like that wasteland in Sendai? (cue picture of Sendai devastated by tsunami)
posted by sour cream at 1:44 PM on March 13, 2011


Couple interesting things in this nytimes article:
A day after an explosion at one reactor [at Fukishima Daiichi], Japanese nuclear officials said Sunday that operators at the plant had suffered a setback trying to bring the second reactor thought to be in partial meltdown there under control. The operators need to inject water to help cool the reactor and keep it from proceeding to a full meltdown, but a valve malfunctioned on Sunday, hampering their efforts for much of the day...

At a late-night press conference, officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, said the valve had been fixed, but said water levels had not yet begun rising...

For some time, the plant was able to operate in a battery-controlled cooling mode. Tokyo Electric Power said that by Saturday morning it had also installed a mobile generator to ensure that the cooling system would continue operating even after reserve battery power was depleted. Even so, the company said it needed to conduct “controlled containment venting” in order to avoid an “uncontrolled rupture and damage” to the containment unit.

Why the controlled release of pressure did not succeed in addressing the problem was not immediately explained. Tokyo Electric Power and government nuclear safety officials also did not explain the precise sequence of failures at the plant." (emphasis mine)
posted by BungaDunga at 2:11 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cliff Mass updated potential release trajectories.
posted by mwhybark at 2:15 PM on March 13, 2011


argh, hit 'post' instead of 'link.' trying again:

Cliff Mass updated potential release trajectories.
posted by mwhybark at 2:16 PM on March 13, 2011


Latest PDF on radiation measurement at Daiichi (Japanese)

Levels over 1000 microSieverts per hour were measured yesterday; since 2 p.m. yesterday (Japan time) all measurements have been under the legal limit of 500 microSieverts/hour, and the radiation at the main gate has gone down from about 10 microSv/hour to 4.
posted by Jeanne at 2:19 PM on March 13, 2011


Wow, a valve malfunctioning? I wonder if it's more maintenance-related than earthquake/tsunami related.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:20 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I found detailed information on the containment structure of Fukushima-1 Unit-1, a GE Mark-I design, in Assessment and management of ageing of major nuclear power plant components important to safety: metal components of BWR containment systems, IAEA-TECDOC-1181, International Atomic Energy Agency, October 2000.

Section 2.2.1, "General Electric (GE) Mark I, II, and III designs" has a detailed cutaway diagram, Figure 2.1 "GE-BWR Mark I design" that shows the reactor vessel surrounded by a steel drywell in turn surrounded by reinforced concrete (secondary concrete shield wall)
Also shown are the location of the fuel storage pool and pressure suppression chamber (the torus around the base of the reactor).

Table 2.2 gives key design parameters for the containment system. The drywall for example has a design temperature of 139 - 171C and a design overpressure of 3.94 - 4.36 bar. The suppression chamber has the same overpressure range and the same lower end for the design temperature, but a high end of only 155C.

The secondary concrete shield wall is 123- 185cm thick. There are further details on the number and size of various access hatches and holes for instrumentation and piping.

Sections 3.2 and 4.1 describe mechanisms and effects of corrosion that can cause thinning of the steel used in the reactor. "Historical data for corrosion of carbon steel exposed to an industrial environment indicate general corrosion rates in the range of 0.003 to 0.03 mm/yr." (Section 4.1.1). Localized corrosion (Section 4.1.2) potentially introduces problems via pitting, and "crevice corrosion" that are faster to attack and harder to detect. Intense heat fluctuations and mechanical vibration introduce further forms of potential weakness in the steel.

Table 4.2, "Summary of selected GE BWR Mark series containment components and potential ageing mechanisms" shows particular areas for each form of ageing on the Mark-I design used by the Fukushima-1 Unit-1 reactor.

Given the extended operational life of this reactor, plus the intense stresses placed on this reactor in the past few days, I think the post-event analysis of this reactor will look closely at just how fatigued and close to rupture various parts of the containment vessel were during cooldown.
posted by zippy at 2:21 PM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


This steam is mildly radioactive but apparently only contains short lived radio-isotopes.

It's also being condensed and filtered. The primary isotope in the coolant is 16N, which is a fairly nasty gamma emitter (3.7MeV -- bad) but has a half life of 7.1 seconds (good) and decays to 16O, which is awesome, as far as products released from reactors go -- stable, common oxygen. If it takes 5 minutes to reach you, you're probably not even going to sense it. You'd have halved the number of atoms 42 times, so if release 242 atoms of 16N -- which is 4,398,046,511,104 of them -- then, on average, there would be one left.

The most worrisome isotope likely to come out of F1#1 is 131I, commonly known as radio-iodine. This is a milder gamma and strong beta emitter, which gives the beta particles decent penetration into tissue. Worse, your thyroid *likes* iodine, so it wants to concentrate it there -- so it stacks up there and causes long term problems. This is why various forms of normal iodine are handed out -- the idea is to saturate the thyroid, so that any radio-iodine that gets into you will just be excreted, rather than stored. The main reason it's worrisome is that it's a common byproduct of this reaction. Half life is short -- 8 days -- so in a month, for every 13 atoms released, one will be left, after two months, one of every 181 will be gone, after a year, well, that's 245 halvings, multiply that rather big number up there by 8, and of all of those atoms, one will be left.

In general -- half lives under 10 seconds stop being an issue after 10 minutes. Half lives under 10 days stop being a problem in a year. It's the medium and long term ones that are more bothersome -- the biggest three being 134Cs,137Cs and 90Sr. These will be contained in the fuel rods, unless they're damaged -- which is why the detection of them implies fuel rod damage.

Also, in general -- larger atoms will be easier to trap than smaller ones. Shorter half-lives will have more energetic releases, but don't last as long. Barring other issues, you can hold alpha emitters in your hand and receive no dose, you can hold a beta emitter in your gloved hand and receive little to no dose. You don't want to hold onto gamma emitters or neutron sources at all.

This is just radioactivity mind you. I'd have no problem holding a kilogram of 238U in my hand -- it's an alpha emitter. I'd have no problem holding a kilogram of 235U -- though the spontaneous emission of 206Pb, 207Pb and 208Pb from the guards is a bit worrisome. I would have a huge problem holding a kilogram of 238Pu in my hand. It's a slightly more powerful alpha emitter, so it also wouldn't penetrate the skin, but it is so active that it would be glowing red hot and burn the hell out of my hand. This property -- .5W emitted heat per gram, and only alpha radiation, makes it the ideal fuel for RTGs used to power spacecraft.

So -- there's more than just the emissions from a radioactive substance when you are looking at possible harm. Radioactive noble gases have a hard time interacting, so they don't accumulate unless you build them a place to do so (see basements, Radon.) I would worry about radioactive fluorine, but fuck, it's fluorine, if your dealing with elemental F, you've already lost, and if it's already combined with something, it's not going anywhere, walk away from it.
posted by eriko at 2:44 PM on March 13, 2011 [31 favorites]




Because bad as the tsunami is (and looks), it's not unprecedented. I suspect there's a study on a table somewhere that depicts a scenario exactly like what we've seen. Major earthquake! Tsunami wave rises and wipes clean all "low lying" land along a more or less predictable flood plain.

Previously it was noted that the plant in question was built at 2x the height of the estimated worst case tsunami scenario based on studies. Japan has had lots of earth quakes and lots of tsunamis but this kind of quake is really unprecedented in modern recorded history.
posted by humanfont at 4:48 PM on March 13, 2011


but this kind of quake is really unprecedented in modern recorded history.

Sure, if by "modern recorded history" you mean "the last 6 years". Since there was a 9.1 in 2005. And several 8.8s or higher since 1977.
posted by Justinian at 4:56 PM on March 13, 2011


Does anyone have a resource that lists the total amount of radiation released by these disasters? Even an estimate?
posted by KathrynT at 5:01 PM on March 13, 2011


Just a note on the idea of "black swans" and "strongest quake ever" -- keep in mind the "strongest ever" is just since we've had seismographs, which is only around 100 years. (Media will be inclined to say "biggest ever" because it sounds more impressive, but it's inaccurate.)

So in 100 years we've had several quakes of this size worldwide, and we have (post plate tectonics) a reasonable understanding of the mechanism of quakes so we have a sense of which areas are likely to have monster quakes. A really big earthquake in Japan or off the coast (and a really big ensuing tsunami) is absolutely inevitable - even if it's a one/100 years, or two/100 years, it's still highly foreseeable. So in that sense, not a black swan (if black swan means unforeseeable).

These are exactly the things we should be designing critical infrastructure for. Mostly Japan does a great job at this with strong building codes, much better than the US does. I agree that it's strange that, in designing nuclear plants in an earthquake/tsunami vulnerable area, you're allowed (or, were at one time allowed) to assume that an event which knocks AC power offline will leave your diesel generators untouched.

Thanks for everyone who's bringing good info to the thread, this has been very informative.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:13 PM on March 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Does anyone have a resource that lists the total amount of radiation released by these disasters? Even an estimate?

The only one that matters on this scale is Chernobyl. It release so much more radiation than everything else combined that they don't even rate as margin of error stuff. We're talking like 100,000x as much radiation as the rest combined.
posted by Justinian at 5:13 PM on March 13, 2011


Sure, if by "modern recorded history" you mean "the last 6 years". Since there was a 9.1 in 2005. And several 8.8s or higher since 1977.

Were those in Japan where they have tsunami warning systems, advanced civil defense and emergency preparedness drills a modern and highly industrialized infrastructure built to earthquake codes as well as computer models. This was a unique event in modern Japan.
posted by humanfont at 5:18 PM on March 13, 2011


That's a less than useful definition of unique. You're essentially saying that the earthquake was unique because it happened near Japan. Sure, and if it had happened near San Francisco you could say the same thing. Or Iran. Or India. Or anywhere.
posted by Justinian at 5:22 PM on March 13, 2011




This just in from NHK: at nuclear plant #2, the cooling system has been brought back online at reactor 1 and reactor 2. (They're still worried about reactor 4, but working on it). Radiation levels at plant #2 continue to be pretty low -- less than 1 microSievert per hour.

Around 2 a.m, the radiation levels at plant #1 spiked up over the legal limit again, but have gone back under it.
posted by Jeanne at 5:25 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


LobsterMitten: Valid points, however the thing is that the designers didn't "assume that an event which knocks AC power offline will leave your diesel generators untouched". They assumed that they would be able to get power back, in one form or another, before their onsite batteries (which I might add were unaffected by the wave, at least as far as their usage shows) went dead. You could say this assumption is unreasonalbe of course, and you might be 100% right depends on your inclinations, but I just want to get it straight that this system has a deeply layered structure of defenses, some of which ARE still working exactly as designed.

Honestly, if the designers assumed anything it was that things would fail and they needed redundancy. That's evident in the fact that the core is holding firm. Not easily, not prettily but I feel like few things should be expected to be either after a 9.0 earthquake and a devastating tsunami smacking the country.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:38 PM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


That's a less than useful definition of unique. You're essentially saying that the earthquake was unique because it happened near Japan. Sure, and if it had happened near San Francisco you could say the same thing. Or Iran. Or India. Or anywhere

No it's unique because we've thrown engineering resources at this problem to a much greater degree than in those locations. The West Coast of the United States is no where close to this level of engineering, planning and preparedness. This isn't Chile or Indonesia, Pakistan, Haiti or somewhere expected to be flattened. This is the most advanced, prepared place in the world and they just got smashed to peices. Every building code in earthquake zones will be updated because of this in a way that no other event has.

Add into this the as yet undetermined impact to the global economy. Consider that 20% of the electrical capacity of the 3rd or 4th largest economy in the world has been stopped. Some
Of this capacity will take a decade to come back online if ever. That is not something we've ever experienced before
posted by humanfont at 5:48 PM on March 13, 2011


Ryugo Hayano, a physicist at Tokyo University, has tweeted that the seawater injection in plant 1, reactor 3 is not succeeding in cooling, and they are going to have to vent the hydrogen that is building up. Workers are being temporarily evacuated.
posted by Jeanne at 5:58 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm posting this link to the NEI page on this incident again. It provides a concise and accurate accounting of the situation with the available data. Not up-to-the-minute but it is updated reasonably frequently. Yes, the NEI is an industry organization.
posted by polyhedron at 6:01 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


One more datapoint here. From what i have gathered quickly global electricity production is 20k Terawatt hours/year. Japan produces 1000twH/year and 20% of that is offline. Thus the net drop in global electricity output is 2%. Electricity production in the short run ties directly to economic output and in the long run is a multiplier of 2x-5x based on various studies iirc. Thus this drop in production could cause a 4-10% decline in Japanese GDP. Because of the long time scales required to build a nuclear plant vs. other electricity plants there will perhaps be some greater demand in the short run for natural gas or oil to meet short term production needs.
posted by humanfont at 6:20 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Following on Humanfront's observation, with a huge chunk of power generation either knocked out or certain to be shut down for inspection, vast numvers of dead and wounded, destroyed roads, destroyed ports, destroyed ships, damaged refineries, displaced families, and destroyed water treatment systems, it is going to take a lot of time and money for Japan to return to pre-quake life.
posted by zippy at 6:24 PM on March 13, 2011


What is the best up-to-the-minute source of information in English? It seems like that was here on metafilter but people posting every little bit has slowed. Is there just less information now?
posted by floam at 6:27 PM on March 13, 2011


I've been watching NHK World, they repeat segments a lot but it's about a billion times better than CNN.
posted by dialetheia at 6:34 PM on March 13, 2011


There is less reporting going on of the nuclear stuff. I was watching NHK Japan this morning and it was all whether the trains were running and when the planned outages were going to be. There's just not much news coming out right now.
posted by Jeanne at 6:38 PM on March 13, 2011


I haven't been awake-- DST fucks with me large-- and my coworker's been offline (we don't get a lot of free weekends lately). It seems that the amount of new info from TEPCO has slowed, looking at my Twitter feed.

My nuke geek would ping me if he felt anything was notable enough to be alarmed about, so I'm taking the relative quiet as a good sign.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2011


Roland of Eld: Totally fair. I was saying that about the diesel generators based on something said in - I think - the Scientific American roundup (could have been one of the other scientist roundups posted above) about how the design made an assumption about keeping the generators running which was - the author thought - not a safe assumption to make in the event of "common cause" failures (where a single event causes both the power grid to go down and the generators to go down). Should have been more clear that I was repeating what I took it someone else was saying.

But in response to one or two comments (very much a minority) that have said "it's amazing it's kept going under these conditions", that's true but also they absolutely should be designing these systems to survive big quake + tsunami if they're going to build them in Japan in the first place. IT's misleading if news outlets are saying "biggest quake ever" as if it means "designers of the reactor could not have foreseen such an event" - they should absolutely have foreseen such an event and the failsafe systems and protocols should be designed around events of this size.

(I have a great deal of respect for civil engineers and the other people who work hard and ingeniously to make these and other critical systems withstand unbelievable physical forces, it's amazing what they're able to accomplish and I'm not at all slagging them. I'm saying that the media coverage of it, and thus the lay opinion on it, NEEDS to emphasize that these very large events are INEVITABLE in certain places and systems should be designed and built with them in mind, and we should be willing to put money into designing for 100 or 200 year events.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:52 PM on March 13, 2011




The only one that matters on this scale is Chernobyl.

No, I mean by these particular reactors in Japan, in damage taken from the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Not all nuke disasters ever.
posted by KathrynT at 7:03 PM on March 13, 2011


The NEI "UPDATE AS OF 7:00 P.M. EDT, SUNDAY, MARCH 13:" says that "Control rods have been successfully inserted at all of the reactors, thereby ending the chain reaction."

Is that right? Is the reaction actually ended? Or is there a technical distinction I'm missing?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:06 PM on March 13, 2011


Scalefree: Thanks for that article. That's the most comprehensive writeup of the situation I've seen from any sort of mainstream media so far.
posted by jferg at 7:06 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The part I shoud've highlighted is this:
Japanese reactor operators now have little choice but to periodically release radioactive steam until the radioactive elements in the fuel of the stricken reactors stop generating intense heat, a process that can continue for a year or more even after the fission process has stopped. To control that heat, the plant’s operator must constantly try to flood the reactors with seawater, then release the resulting radioactive steam into the atmosphere, several experts familiar with the design of the Daiichi facility said. That suggests that the 200,000 people who have been evacuated may not be able to return to their homes for a considerable period and that shifts in the wind could blow radioactive materials toward Japanese cities rather than out to sea.
posted by scalefree at 7:10 PM on March 13, 2011


lobstermitten: these very large events are INEVITABLE in certain places and systems should be designed and built with them in mind, and we should be willing to put money into designing for 100 or 200 year events.

I haven't seen the safety case for these reactors, so I don't know whether the diesel generators were supposed to be available after an event like this. If so, clearly the design / procedures need revising.

Even if they missed this particular scenario, the reactor design includes several layers of "defense in depth" - ie, planning for the unforeseen. These designs have been (so far) working to prevent massive releases of radiation, despite the damage inflicted to the reactor. Every procedure you've heard TEPCO use this weekend have been carefully planned and studied in advance. Trust me, this kind of planning (often requiring full scale testing) is VERY expensive.

In short, the reactor designers have planned for the worst case. Thank god.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:14 PM on March 13, 2011


(as I mentioned in another thread, I'm completely willing to eat my words if things get substantially worse)
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:17 PM on March 13, 2011


ChurchHatesTrucker, that happened immediately after the earthquake struck. The nuclear chain reaction stopped immediately — we're dealing with heat from remaining byproducts decaying into stable isotopes. It's only about six percent as much heat as there was when it was running, but that's six percent of a whole lot.
posted by floam at 7:18 PM on March 13, 2011


floam, OK, gotcha. It's not a "chain" reaction.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:22 PM on March 13, 2011


There has been a sound of an explosion at reactor 3 of Daiichi. This may be the same type of hydrogen explosion as at reactor 1, since they've been experiencing a buildup in pressure related to the pumped-in seawater vaporizing to steam.
posted by Jeanne at 7:23 PM on March 13, 2011


explosion at reactor #3 being shown on the NHK live feed. white steam-like smoke coming out the top.
posted by Mach5 at 7:23 PM on March 13, 2011


ChurchHatesTucker: The NEI "UPDATE AS OF 7:00 P.M. EDT, SUNDAY, MARCH 13:" says that "Control rods have been successfully inserted at all of the reactors, thereby ending the chain reaction."
Is that right? Is the reaction actually ended? Or is there a technical distinction I'm missing?


That NEI update is misleading, because it contains old news. The control rods were inserted immediately after (during?) the earthquake, and all reactors have been "shut down" since then. The problem is that, like dousing a really big fire, the coals remain hot for days. Without the mechanisms for keeping the "coals" cool, the operators have been struggling to keep them from melting the reactor. According to that same update, their current approach (sea water flooding) appears to be working.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:23 PM on March 13, 2011


(This is according to Ryugo Hayano's twitter feed.)
posted by Jeanne at 7:24 PM on March 13, 2011


BBC World News reporting another 3m tidal wave about to make landfall. Also another explosion at one of the NP plants. Just. Awful.
posted by wowbobwow at 7:26 PM on March 13, 2011


Lots of reports on Twitter now reporting another explosion at unit 3, likely another hydrogen explosion as at unit 1 yesterday. xenijardin is retweeting a lot of them: "explosion at unit 3 of Fukushima No. 1 confirmed on NHK TV right now, possibility of hydrogen explosion, if so would not be reactor #jpquake"; "Explosion at Fukushima Reactor 3. The walls and ceiling are gone."
posted by gerryblog at 7:30 PM on March 13, 2011


I nkow that this is thread is all about nukes and grar grar and whatnot, but has anybody noticed that there seems to be an uptick in huge earthquakes lately?

Wikipedia says that the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 13th and 16th largest earthquakes ever have taken place within the last five or six years, with the 3rd and 6th largest ever taking place within a year of each other (and on the opposite sides of the same plate, if I'm not mistaken).

It makes me wonder if earthquakes are like sunspots, with flurries of activity followed by long periods of inactivity.
posted by Avenger at 7:31 PM on March 13, 2011


New York Times: U.S. Detects Radiation 60 Miles From Stricken Plant. via.

Live feed of info re new tsunami and nuclear situation, in Japanese.
posted by nickyskye at 7:31 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


NHK reporting that containment has not been compromised at the reactor where the explosion happened.
posted by Jeanne at 7:31 PM on March 13, 2011


People are saying the tsunami reports were a false alarm, too.
posted by gerryblog at 7:33 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tepco had been predicting a hydrogen explosion at unit 3 since early this morning (eastern). I had hoped they would avoid it.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:36 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am curious, is there any information on how close crews have been getting to things? Is this all being controlled 1km away? At the front door? Runs inside?
posted by floam at 7:41 PM on March 13, 2011


Al Jazeera is still reporting that they're informed by the military that the tsunami warning is real. They've pulled their reporters back.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:43 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


From nickyskye's NYT article:
Instead the operators are dumping seawater into the vessel, and letting it cool the fuel by boiling. But as it boils, pressure rises too high to pump in more water, so they have to vent the vessel to the atmosphere, and feed in more water, a procedure known as “feed and bleed.”
so this is the explanation I've been waiting for. Maybe the answer is upthread, but I've been in and out all day....

They aren't circulating seawater, they're injecting it at intervals and the only way the heat is leaving is as steam. This is what is keeping the water level low enough to expose some of the core: you can't get hot enough to form hydrogen, distort metal, melt shit, etc., if it's under water.

The problem is the pumps may not be able to push enough pressure so they have to vent until they can pump, but pumping raises the water level, so the pressure rises until the pumps can't push against it, so they have to wait for enough to boil off and vent so the pressure drops, which exposes the top of the core, which gets too hot again, rinse, lather, repeat.

This is going to be a long time cooling down.

To look on the bright side, with no walls or roof, the hydrogen can't explode in loading bay anymore. /sarcasm
posted by warbaby at 7:49 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's what I was referring to about planning for both AC power to be off and the diesel generators to be offline as well. I totally endorse what Roland of Eld and Popular Ethics said above about how it's good that they have layers of redundant safeguards and drills and the professionalism of the people working on this problem.

Scientific American quotes Ken Bergeron explaining the situation at the reactors:
"Reactor analysts like to categorize potential reactor accidents into groups," said Bergeron, who did research on nuclear reactor accident simulation at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. "And the type of accident that is occurring in Japan is known as a station blackout. It means loss of offsite AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of emergency power on site—the diesel generators. It is considered to be extremely unlikely, but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades.

"The probability of this occurring is hard to calculate primarily because of the possibility of what are called common-cause accidents, where the loss of offsite power and of onsite power are caused by the same thing. In this case, it was the earthquake and tsunami. So we're in uncharted territory, we're in a land where probability says we shouldn't be. And we're hoping that all of the barriers to release of radioactivity will not fail."
The rest of that article, which is fairly short and accessible, does a nice job of explaining what's going on in general terms.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tsunami alert has been cancelled
posted by wowbobwow at 7:57 PM on March 13, 2011


warbaby: They said earlier they were doing things to try to control the hydrogen concentration to avoid an explosion. I wonder what exactly? If they were having to be more careful about letting off steam, perhaps the missing building could be helpful going forward, assuming there was no kind of set backs from the blowout?
posted by floam at 7:58 PM on March 13, 2011


warbaby Instead the operators are dumping seawater into the vessel, and letting it cool the fuel by boiling. But as it boils, pressure rises too high to pump in more water, so they have to vent the vessel to the atmosphere, and feed in more water, a procedure known as “feed and bleed.”

I would not have described what they're doing that way. (I'm also not sure "Feed and Bleed", as it's commonly understood, is a good moniker). Think of it this way: If you put a closed jar of water in a microwave and get the water boiling, the water level will drop and the pressure in the jar will increase because steam occupies many times more space than water. You could try to inject more water in there to increase the water level, but doing so only increases the pressure further as you try to stuff more water in. The only* way to keep a steady pressure and temperature while the microwave is still on is to get the steam out at the same rate it's being created (and simultaneously put the same amount of water in).

Of course you have to put that steam somewhere. Originally they were putting it in the building (and out through the filtered stack, presumably), but that made hydrogen levels inside rise. Now that they've had a hydrogen explosion, I'm not sure if the filtered ventilation system is still working. In any event, the steam ends up in the atmosphere carrying whatever radionuclides it picked up from the reactor. This will continue as long as the reactor remains hot enough to boil water, which will be days. We have to see how much radioactivity this process will release.

* the only way they have left that is. The reactor normally has heat exchangers for this kind of thing, but they were knocked out with the diesels. Newer BWRs (and other reactors) have additional "passive" heat sinks (rooms full of water) for just such an occasion.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:09 PM on March 13, 2011


Did anybody catch the TEPCO news conference they just showed on NHK World? I couldn't tell if he was saying that the water level is 1800 mm above or below the height of the fuel rods. I think the translator said "negative 1800 mm" but I didn't quite catch it.
posted by dialetheia at 8:16 PM on March 13, 2011


Japanese reactor operators now have little choice but to periodically release radioactive steam until the radioactive elements in the fuel of the stricken reactors stop generating intense heat, a process that can continue for a year or more even after the fission process has stopped. To control that heat, the plant’s operator must constantly try to flood the reactors with seawater, then release the resulting radioactive steam into the atmosphere

There's something simple and basic that I don't understand. When the reactors are operating, they generate a heck of a lot more heat than they are generating now, yet there is no flooding and steam/radiation release.

What do they do with an operating reactor to keep it overheating that they can't do now with a much cooler non-operating reactor?
posted by eye of newt at 8:17 PM on March 13, 2011


...keep it from overheating
posted by eye of newt at 8:18 PM on March 13, 2011


The water level is 1800 mm below the height of the fuel rods.

7 people are missing and 3 people injured in the hydrogen explosion.
posted by Jeanne at 8:18 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


What do they do with an operating reactor to keep it overheating that they can't do now with a much cooler non-operating reactor?

In this particular design, have pumps running water through cooling systems. The pumps are no longer working, hence the problem.
posted by jlkr at 8:23 PM on March 13, 2011


What do they do with an operating reactor to keep it overheating that they can't do now with a much cooler non-operating reactor?

Run the steam through turbines which remove a great deal of the energy, and then through additional cooling systems. The turbines are blocked off to during the shutdown process, and the additional cooling systems require power that is out.
posted by nomisxid at 8:25 PM on March 13, 2011


The missing have been found. 6 people injured in all.
posted by Jeanne at 8:27 PM on March 13, 2011


From what I've read in the last bit form arclight and others it seems that we are now at the point in the cool down where the odds of total long term impact radiation nightmare are now much much lower. We arn't out of the woods, but each hour that goes by the odds drop dramatically and they are now fairly low. This will be recorded as a whistling past the graveyard moment vs. something akin to Deep Water Horizon that just goes on for month without an end in sight. There will be a continued evacuation zone, and perhaps some further steam releases but we're talking days to conclusion at this point, with a limited number of potential events and growing confidence in resolution.

We can probably now return to the FUCK the whole north east coast of Japan is in ruins, ten thousand or more are dead/missing and a mass of people are homeless. I think congress should enact legislation to immediately allow Japanese refugees to enter the US on an expedited refugee visa.
posted by humanfont at 8:28 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


So they are periodically cycling new seawater in as the water within the reactor keeps on boiling off/gets broken down into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Forgive my ignorance but what would be the impact of continously cycling seawater through the reactor vessel? Cold water in hot water out. I understand that some particles would be flushed but it seems like you either have the choice of venting steam or flushing into the ocean.
posted by vuron at 8:30 PM on March 13, 2011


More heat is removed by turning the water to steam.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:32 PM on March 13, 2011


There's something simple and basic that I don't understand. When the reactors are operating, they generate a heck of a lot more heat than they are generating now, yet there is no flooding and steam/radiation release.

What do they do with an operating reactor to keep it overheating that they can't do now with a much cooler non-operating reactor?


A normal power generator is a closed cycle -- water comes in, it generates steam, the steam turns a turbine, then the steam is condensed back to water again and the cycle starts over again. The whole point of a nuclear power generator (or any power generator) is to heat water and cool it again.

That cycle is what was stopped and why they need an alternative method to cycle water and heat through.
posted by empath at 8:33 PM on March 13, 2011


eye of newt: What do they do with an operating reactor to keep it overheating that they can't do now with a much cooler non-operating reactor?

Good question! The steam generated by the reactor normally runs through turbines to reduce it's pressure (that's how we get power), then condensors (big heat exchangers) to cool it back to a liquid state. Unfortunately you need electric power to pump cooling water, so the condensors are not available. They've used up the volume of water stored in the building for emergencies (the pressure suppression chamber), so the only "heat sink" they have left is the atmosphere.

Here's an exhaustive overview of the various BWR systems, if you're ambitious. I'll try to dig up something simpler.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:33 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Instead the operators are dumping seawater into the vessel, and letting it cool the fuel by boiling. But as it boils, pressure rises too high to pump in more water, so they have to vent the vessel to the atmosphere, and feed in more water, a procedure known as “feed and bleed.”

To complicate the situation somewhat, remember that the boiling point of a material is a function of both temperature & pressure. When you lower the pressure, you lower the boiling point. So if they bleed off too much steam too quickly, they create a situation where the boiling point of the water drops & a big chunk of water suddenly flash vaporizes, increasing the pressure & exposing more of the core. Apparently it's a tricky process.
posted by scalefree at 8:34 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cold water in hot water out. I understand that some particles would be flushed but it seems like you either have the choice of venting steam or flushing into the ocean.

From what I understand, they're just venting the steam straight up into the atmosphere at this point.
posted by empath at 8:34 PM on March 13, 2011


video of Unit #3 exploding.
posted by Mach5 at 8:36 PM on March 13, 2011


From what I understand, they're just venting the steam straight up into the atmosphere at this point.

I'm not sure, but I think his question was basically, "why can't you never stop pumping water in, and let water or steam out at a constant rate?" Sorry if I got it wrong.
posted by floam at 8:39 PM on March 13, 2011


I'm not sure, but I think his question was basically, "why can't you never stop pumping water in, and let water or steam out at a constant rate?"

I think I gave the answer to that. You'll drop the boiling point too low, the water will flash vaporize & expose more of the core.
posted by scalefree at 8:43 PM on March 13, 2011


It's not as easy as it sounds. I'm sure that someone at the site has a handheld with this programmed in it.
http://www.engineersedge.com/thermodynamics/steam_tables.htm
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:54 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure, but I think his question was basically, "why can't you never stop pumping water in, and let water or steam out at a constant rate?"

BWRs are kept at very close to atmospheric pressure. I would be surprised to hear that there's a risk of "flashing" if the pressure changes slightly. Scalefree, can you cite that?

A better answer would be - if you stop adding water, the still-hot reactor will keep turning the water you've left to steam. That will lower the water level in the reactor until it eventually uncovers the fuel, which would then melt (more) and cause all kinds of grief. If you don't vent (or condense) that steam, the pressure inside the reactor will rise to the point where the vessel will rupture which will also cause all kinds of grief.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:55 PM on March 13, 2011


From what I understand, this seawater kill is very bad. Seawater at temperatures that might exist in the pipes and as well (and especially) in the containment is a bad thing. Seawater is corrosive at best. When you have to use it as a coolant you are looking at long term destruction of high pressure pipes. In the short term, it's a new way to create hydrogen and oxygen because the water is very reactive. Core temps are usually in the thousands of degrees.

You will get hydrogen and oxygen there. They will combine in an explosion.

I would expect more explosions if the core temp is not kept below 1000 F.

Otherwise, this may be a classic meltdown. We don't want to see that. Although theorists might want to see it. Just to find out what really goes on.

At this point Japan wants to get in touch with the people who are still spelunking in the Chernobyl site. The more you know and all that.
posted by Splunge at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2011


I guess that makes sense. I was just curious as to the reasoning behind the current saltwater influx then boil off period that seems to be generating a lot of flammable hydrogen. The various hydrogen explosions seem like they've got potential to damage the reactor vessel or at least any way of controlling or monitoring what's going on in the vessel.
posted by vuron at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2011


Last I heard the core was 20 percent uncovered and the rods were burning. That would mean Cesium isotope gas in the air.
posted by Splunge at 9:01 PM on March 13, 2011


dialetheia: Did anybody catch the TEPCO news conference they just showed on NHK World? I couldn't tell if he was saying that the water level is 1800 mm above or below the height of the fuel rods. I think the translator said "negative 1800 mm" but I didn't quite catch it.

I didn't catch that either, but the latest update from World Nuclear News has this fwiw:
"Seawater was being injected into the reactor vessel and levels had initially risen as expected. However, a gauge indicated that the rise had tailed off, despite ongoing seawater injection.

The gauge in question indicated that water levels are around two metres below the top of the nuclear fuel assemblies, which would represent a very serious situation with the risk of fuel damage. However, the Nuclear and Indsutrial Safety Agency was satisfied that pressure within containment was at comfortable levels, while radiation had been decreasing."
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:01 PM on March 13, 2011


if you stop adding water, the still-hot reactor will keep turning the water you've left to steam. That will lower the water level in the reactor until it eventually uncovers the fuel, which would then melt (more) and cause all kinds of grief. If you don't vent (or condense) that steam, the pressure inside the reactor will rise to the point where the vessel will rupture which will also cause all kinds of grief.

Right, but now you've got me confused. Right now they have to stop when they're unable to pump more water in due to the pressure being too high, and then they wait for the steam pressure to rise, and vent it, at least according to the NYC article. His question was why can't you not stop pumping water in, and constantly let some steam bleed out to keep it in some kind of equilibrium. I imagine if there was a more optimal way to do things they'd be doing it, just rephrasing his question.

I hope I'm not parsing something wrong and just confusing myself.
posted by floam at 9:02 PM on March 13, 2011


I wouldn't expect any more hydrogen explosions after the roof has been blown off. It's very light and escapes straight upwards. I imagine they could have regular flare ups as it escapes, but I don't think they would do that much damage.
posted by empath at 9:03 PM on March 13, 2011


Were those explosions from the core containment? I hadn't heard that.
posted by Splunge at 9:04 PM on March 13, 2011


No. They're from the secondary containment.
posted by empath at 9:06 PM on March 13, 2011


I thought the explosions were from the secondary cooling area. I'd hate to think that the core blew up.
posted by Splunge at 9:07 PM on March 13, 2011


How would they totally kill the core? Depending upon the temp I don't think boron is the way to go anymore.
posted by Splunge at 9:10 PM on March 13, 2011


Splunge: Core temps are usually in the thousands of degrees.

I should hope not! That's well above the temperature where cladding melting should start. If the water level is steady, the core temperature should be no more than a few hundred degrees. If the water level is (still) too low to cover the fuel, then yes the temperature will rise to a point (> 1000 deg C) where the zirc-steam reaction will take place and generate hydrogen, but that's true whether it's seawater or any other kind of water.

Seawater injection will however corrode the crap out of the reactor, and it will probably not be used again.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:11 PM on March 13, 2011


I'm no engineer, nor scientist, so this is probably a stupid question, but:

Why don't they design these things such that, in normal operating conditions, two separate sub-critical masses are constantly being pushed together into a critical mass, by a force which only is present when electricity is flowing, and which overcomes another force that is constantly trying to pull them apart, but which is doing it regardless of whether electricity is flowing or not?

For example, force from an electrical engine that's powering an arm that's pushing the two together, overcoming force from springs that are pulling the two apart.

Cut the power and the engine stops, at which point the springs quickly pull the subcritical masses apart.

Plus have it so that if they melt, they melt into separate areas.

I mean, I'm certainly not saying that exactly that would work, but surely there's got to be some way to make criticality dependent upon uninterrupted electrical flow? In particular, upon the functioning of the coolant pumps?

Or do they already do something like this, and the problem is not that they're unable to cool the critical mass, but that the subcritical masses remain hot enough long enough that they're a problem even though they're subcritical?
posted by Flunkie at 9:15 PM on March 13, 2011


How would they totally kill the core? Depending upon the temp I don't think boron is the way to go anymore.

Splunge what are you on about? As far as anyone knows, the reactor is shut down. I have not heard of any problem with Boron injection in the seawater, nor the need for any further measures to maintain the reactor in its shut-down state.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:15 PM on March 13, 2011


Sorry. Still thinking in Fahrenheit. But still bad. And yeah, seawater has to be the worst thing. OTOh what else do you do?
posted by Splunge at 9:15 PM on March 13, 2011


Popular Ethics: The problems is still there. They are worried about the fact that the core is still live. What is your problem?
posted by Splunge at 9:18 PM on March 13, 2011


Flunkie: Or do they already do something like this, andthe problem is not that they're unable to cool the critical mass, but that the subcritical masses remain hot enough long enough that they're a problem even though they're subcritical?

Yes, that. Nothing to do with criticality (presently).
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:18 PM on March 13, 2011


OK, thanks Popular Ethics.
posted by Flunkie at 9:19 PM on March 13, 2011


Core temps are probably close to 1000F in order to generate steam at 1000PSI and 550F.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 9:19 PM on March 13, 2011


Splunge: That's troubling news that I haven't heard anywhere else. Where did you hear it?
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:19 PM on March 13, 2011


Why don't they design these things such that, in normal operating conditions, two separate sub-critical masses are constantly being pushed together into a critical mass...?

In the current circumstance, the reactors are subcritical -- they've been shut down. The problem is that they're still very hot and it will take a lot of effort to cool them down enough.

Also, newer designs for reactors are considerably better, in that they would be able to passively cool themselves down after shutdown. Fukushima I's reactor 1 is an older design that needs active cooling (which has mostly failed, hence their use of seawater).
posted by chimaera at 9:21 PM on March 13, 2011


Core temps are probably close to 1000F in order to generate steam at 1000PSI and 550F.

Ah, I was thinking in C. Still, I assume they are keeping the reactor at a much lower pressure than 10000 psi right now, so the core temperature should be even lower (unless it's still uncovered).
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:21 PM on March 13, 2011


Or do they already do something like this, and the problem is not that they're unable to cool the critical mass, but that the subcritical masses remain hot enough long enough that they're a problem even though they're subcritical?

As I understand it, this is what the control rods are for. Something goes wrong, and you insert them all, "shutting down" the reactor. The problem is that the fuel is still warmish (some small percentage of the original heat) which would be fine, if they could keep water flowing and cooling it down. But they can't, so water begins to boil away, and exposing the fuel, at which point the fuel begins to get hot and melt itself, boiling more water, raising the pressure, making it harder to inject water in. So they vent, inject, vent, and hope that in the process they'll keep the fuel covered in water and cooling.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2011


Popular Ethics- Where do you think the fuel rods are? They are still there and they have to still be cooled. Even after the reactor is shut down, the core produces heat. The last I heard it was still producing the heat that it was supposed to for power. What are you asking me?
posted by Splunge at 9:24 PM on March 13, 2011


Flunkie there are many reactor designs. The concept you are talking about is passive safety, which is a feature of newer reactor designs. 50 years ago when they were designing this model that wasn't in the specs. In hindsight this was a pretty bad design flaw, but so far not as bad as the Chernobyl design flaw. Fortunately for us there are many safety systems still intact which should preven this from being a Chernobyl scale catastrophe. In fact if one were to compare the lasting health affects of this nuclear incident with the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe last year this is pretty minor and short lived.
posted by humanfont at 9:27 PM on March 13, 2011




Even after the reactor is shut down, the core produces heat. The last I heard it was still producing the heat that it was supposed to for power

My understanding is that that is not the case.

It's no longer producing heat -- but it does have a tremendous amount of residual heat in the system after the shutdown which needs to be taken away somehow.
posted by chimaera at 9:28 PM on March 13, 2011


Basic thermodynamics... they have to remove the heat(energy) before they can reduce the pressure to a lower temperature level.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 9:28 PM on March 13, 2011


Splunge - here's the explanation from physicist Ken Bergeron in the Scientific American article linked above:
"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."
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:29 PM on March 13, 2011


My understanding is that a scrammed (control rods inserted) reactor produces about 3% decay heat compared to an operating temp of around 250 degrees C-- am I correct on that as far as a GE BWR-3 goes?

(I read the MIT guy's letter over dinner.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:30 PM on March 13, 2011


On a completely different note, I'm hoping that someone reports the status of the spent fuel pools which were under the now-exploded roofs. The fuel in this pool has to be kept cool too, although their heat output is much lower - it would take many days to warm up and boil off. A more pressing concern is whether debris from the explosion might damage the pool and cause the water level to drop, or relocate the fuel inside and cause a criticality incident. Here is a study of the risk.

/not fearmongering, just wondering.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:31 PM on March 13, 2011


Splunge, I've been following this thread closely and, from what I've seen, unless you have information outside of what's been mentioned here you are mistaken on several points.

The fuel rods are where they've been since moments after the ground started shaking. The control rods have all inserted properly across the board (correct me if I'm wrong anyone, but this is what I've heard/seen).

The fuel rods are still producing some heat according to a decay profile but not anywhere near the what you mention when you say "The last I heard it was still producing the heat that it was supposed to for power". That kind of heat would have long ago melted things into a puddle in the bottom of the containment pool.

I say again, the reactor is shut down, but it's NOT like a car with an ignition key and hot engine block that slowly cools off. It's more like a plane where you kill the engine and begin a slow glide pattern to the ground/runway, hoping you don't hit a downdraft you haven't anticipated and slam into the deck.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:32 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


And to keep that decay heat of the uranium from melting the core, you have to keep water on it.
Why do they care about whether the core melts or not?

I mean, I (think I) understand that if it's allowed to pool together, in a place or manner such that the control rods aren't helping, then it could achieve critical mass. But surely even merely a well-designed floor could prevent a critical-sized pool - some melts over here, some melts over there, into separate subcritical pools.

Is there some other reason why it's important that the uranium be kept from melting? Other than to prevent criticality?
posted by Flunkie at 9:34 PM on March 13, 2011


Splunge: I'm not trying to be antagonistic. I am making a distinction between "being live", as you said, and giving off residual decay heat. The reactor is not critical. It is not "live" in that sense. The control rods are doing their job, and no one is worried about a runaway reaction (presently). The core is still hot however (and will be for days), and thus requires water injection to keep the fuel covered in (boiling) water. These are two very different accident scenarios.

On preview - Lobster Mitten has it.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:36 PM on March 13, 2011


RolandOfElf: Please don't be so patronizing. I understand what you're saying and the car thing is a load of bullshit. The last report that I heard/saw was that the fuel rods were out of the coolant. The rest of your reply is garbage.
posted by Splunge at 9:36 PM on March 13, 2011


fairytaile, I think you're right. The things I've heard on NHK refer to 'hot' as being 100°C when they would like it to be 30°C (normal temp). Lowish pressure, boiling in contained space and venting steam. It's still boiling, there's a bit of off and on as to how high they can keep the water level vs pressure vs releasing steam vs rod damage. It's carryover and secondary product decay heat, active fission stopped when the reactor was scrammed.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:37 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there some other reason why it's important that the uranium be kept from melting? Other than to prevent criticality?

cleanup and breach of containment as I understand it.
posted by nomisxid at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2011


I assume that a melted mass becomes much harder to effectively dispose off Flunkie. Not impossible, they seem to have been able to dispose the partially melted core at TMI, but still it seems like the more intact the fuel rods are the better.
posted by vuron at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2011


Flunkie - my (limited - gathered from reading the various comments to date) understanding is that the more damage to the fuel rods, the greater the risk of heavier radio-isotopes that are more dangerous if/when released.
posted by birdsquared at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2011


So how long WILL it take for it to cool enough for us to say the crisis is over?
posted by empath at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2011


Is there some other reason why it's important that the uranium be kept from melting? Other than to prevent criticality?

Well that, and a bunch of other reasons. The melting fuel will release hydrogen, potentially causing more explosions, maybe even inside containment. Melted fuel could melt through containment. And a melted configuration is much harder to cool (less surface area), so it would be harder to stop once started.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:40 PM on March 13, 2011


BWRs are kept at very close to atmospheric pressure. I would be surprised to hear that there's a risk of "flashing" if the pressure changes slightly. Scalefree, can you cite that?

I have no idea where I picked up that tidbit, it was sometime today. It was part of an explanation from a source that seemed credible at the time, I filed it away in my head but didn't note where it came from. Chalk it up to information overload.
posted by scalefree at 9:42 PM on March 13, 2011


So how long WILL it take for it to cool enough for us to say the crisis is over?
The NYT article linked above suggests potentially weeks or months.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:44 PM on March 13, 2011


You wan't to keep the uranium from melting because it's like dog doo in a plastic bag. Walk your dog, pick up the poo. It's nasty when it's in the bag, but at least when you put it down you don't end up with dog poo all over your hands. Same thing. Uranium is nasty stuff, but as long as it's in it's container shell (some sort of ceramic I think), you can move it around and be exposed and all that, but when you put it down and walk away you don't have Uranium all over you. If it melts, it won't blow up, but you'll have a big pile of poo that's hard to clean up.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:47 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


If one of the key problems is having enough AC/DC power to power the cooling units, couldn't a large enough ship anchored offshore be tasked to provide that power? I mean presumably the US has one or more Aircraft carriers en route and couldn't you in theory use the ship's reactor as a portable generator?
posted by vuron at 9:48 PM on March 13, 2011


Sorry if I came across as patronizing, I'm just trying to explain something that's obviously not sinking in with you.

Let me rephrase, regarding the fuel rods, yes at times they've had varying portions of their length exposed but that's pretty far down the list on things that affect heat production in the core. Don't get me wrong, the coolant is VITAL to heat transfer in the reactor but the control rods are what's important when we talk about new heat being produced (as you were stating was happening).

Heat is being produced but when you say "[Japan authorities] are worried about the fact that the core is still live" and "The last I heard it was still producing the heat that it was supposed to for power" it gives us the impression that you know what you're saying and that you perhaps have some information we don't, because we haven't heard that the reactors in question were producing anywhere near production levels of heat. Quite the opposite actually, we heard they were successfully scrammed but having problems with cooling them post-shutdown.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:49 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


zengargoyle: did you make up that analogy by yourself, because I think it's awesome and really pretty accurate... especially since this whole situation stinks.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:50 PM on March 13, 2011


scalefree I have no idea where I picked up that tidbit, it was sometime today. It was part of an explanation from a source that seemed credible at the time, I filed it away in my head but didn't note where it came from. Chalk it up to information overload.

No I'm wrong. Crap, I should know better (again, BWRs aren't my specialty). The normal operating pressure is 1000 psi. But I would be surprised if they were keeping the vessel at that high a pressure right now.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:50 PM on March 13, 2011


We should therefore get rid of all dogs.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:52 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's no longer producing heat -- but it does have a tremendous amount of residual heat in the system after the shutdown which needs to be taken away somehow.

It's more than just residual heat, the normal fission reactions in the core result in some radioactive byproducts with half lives in hours and days, these products are now decaying which releases heat.
posted by atrazine at 9:52 PM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the clarification atrazine.
posted by chimaera at 9:53 PM on March 13, 2011


The NYT article linked above suggests potentially weeks or months.

The hope is that as time goes by, they will be able to bring more and better equipment to the site to deal with the continuing issues. With more potential for quakes and tsunami, I don't think parking a floating reactor near to shore would be ideal. We can airlift in diesel generators and fuel; I believe this process is already under way.
posted by nomisxid at 9:54 PM on March 13, 2011


Recap of several useful explanatory links that were posted above:

Why I am not worried about Japan's nuclear reactors by Josef Oehmen, an MIT scientist (though not specifically a nuclear physicist). Caveat: he mentions a "core catcher" as part of the anatomy of a nuclear plant, but arclight (linked above) said something about core catchers being absent in designs of the age that these plants are.

Ken Bergeron quoted at Scientific American

Explanations from arclight, collected above as a comment in this thread

Automatic Earth on "was this a black swan?" ie was it unpredictable

Washington Post on the timeline of the reactor problems

New York Times interactive thing on the reactor
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:00 PM on March 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


Might be helpful:
Reuters: Timeline of Japan's unfolding nuclear crisis

@somewhere in the mess up above: Only 3 meltdowns historically? There are more in the generally known history.
posted by Twang at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pressure: 360 kilo pascals = 3.55 atmospheres = 52.2 psi, didn't catch which reactor.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:05 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the collected comment from arclight (above in this thread, also I just linked it) he says that the nuclear fuel was exposed to air, out of water, for some length of time (before they started pumping in seawater) and thus was damaged to some degree - and that we can tell that from the cesium they've detected in the released materials. Maybe that's what Splunge was thinking of above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:08 PM on March 13, 2011


So, I don't understand the technical details very well, but I read that the most recent explosion caused a huge plume of smoke to shoot up in the sky. Is that something people on the West coast of the U.S. should be worried about? Or would it be the type of noble gas radioactive material someone upthread said only is dangerous for ten minutes or so?
posted by overglow at 10:11 PM on March 13, 2011


Why weren't replacement batteries and generators flown in right away to avoid losing power?

Wouldn't the U.S. or any of a dozen other nations been willing and able to do this?

As soon as the generators were lost due to flooding and they had to switch to batteries, couldn't they have sent out a call to the world, like "Hey guys, these batteries will only last us x hours and then we're going to need some working generators and some backup batteries? Somebody help us out please?"
posted by marsha56 at 10:12 PM on March 13, 2011


he says that the nuclear fuel was exposed to air, out of water, for some length of time (before they started pumping in seawater) and thus was damaged to some degree

As I understand it, the fuel still is exposed to the air despite their efforts with the seawater - I thought NHK World was just reporting that the water level is 1.8 meters below the top of the fuel rods in reactor 3.
posted by dialetheia at 10:15 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


West Coast USA shouldn't be worried about anything yet, nor should the aforementioned friend of a friend in Colorado buying Geiger counters *facepalm*. I say this because we have heard over and over that containment is still intact. If this changes and then we get some sort of continuous conflagration/explosion then you might have reason to be worried, but a meteorologist could tell you more accurately than a physicist what to expect regarding air currents, etc.

I say this based upon information that's been released by the authorities/reliable sources. If you have an inherent doubt/mistrust of that information then I guess all bets are off when it comes to discussing things, but that's neither here nor there.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:16 PM on March 13, 2011


Twang: @somewhere in the mess up above: Only 3 meltdowns historically? There are more in the generally known history.

That was me. And I said only the third meltdown in history at an *electricity producing* reactor. There have been other meltdowns sure (surprisingly few, considering the energies involved), but accidents at power reactors have the potential for far more serious consequences because they're big.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:18 PM on March 13, 2011


Is that something people on the West coast of the U.S. should be worried about? Or would it be the type of noble gas radioactive material someone upthread said only is dangerous for ten minutes or so?

I get the general idea that what comes out of any given H2 explosion at the plant needs to be analyzed by detectors before we know what, exactly, is in it. If there's radioactive iodine and cesium in it, it's indicative of fuel rod damage. There are detectors at the plants and in other locations-- including Hawaii.

The Pacific Fleet does a lot of reactor work; the Navy is monitoring the situation extensively (the NYT had an article about that earlier today). Anything that's heading for the West Coast will trip detectors in Hawaii first, and take about two days to get from Japan to the West Coast anyhow, depending on conditions.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:18 PM on March 13, 2011


As I understand it for right now, overglow, there is virtually zero risk to the US west coast from the reactor problems.

For one thing, the stuff going into the atmosphere so far is not "that bad" (someone else will be better at quantifying that than I am). And, even if something went into the atmosphere there, simulations posted by Cliff Mass, a University of Washington meteorologist above show it would take 9 days to cross the Pacific, and it would be diluted to virtually nothing by the time it came.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:19 PM on March 13, 2011


yup, cesium shows up when the zirconium cladding gives way. So if you detect cesium, the fuel assembly has been physically damaged.

The overpressure they were worried about was on the order of 120 - 150 psi. That's too much for most water pumps to overcome.

I had thought previously that it was possible to circulate water in the pressure vessel, but based on the NYT article I quoted way upthread, it appears that water can be injected, but the only exhaust is via steam.

As long as the pressure vessel is intact, the stuff stays inside. The explosion was in the fuel loading bay, which has thin walls designed to blow off in case of an explosion. The most recent reports I've seen say the pressure containment is still intact.

One thing to remember, there is a huge difference between detectable and and dangerous levels of radiation. The sensitivity of some types of detectors (scintillation counters, for instance) is mind blowing.
posted by warbaby at 10:20 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why weren't replacement batteries and generators flown in right away to avoid losing power?

This is something I am curious about as well. It could be that the facility was too damaged to approach, bu I suspect a lack of intact infrastructure between nearest heavy cargo ready airfield and the site (I suspect the kind of power they need can't be flown in on your average helicopter).
posted by nomisxid at 10:24 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


From what I understand nobody who doesn't live in the immediately area needs to worry about anything unless you hear that the containment was breached.
posted by empath at 10:25 PM on March 13, 2011


overglow: Also, one of the articles, can't remember which, said that a reason the Chernobyl situation was so bad was that the reactor included graphite which caught fire, and that fire released fly ash which flew very high in the atmosphere, and the radioactive material hitched a ride on the fly ash and thus was transported long distances. But that these reactors don't have the graphite which was the basis for that fire and that method of transporting the radioactive stuff at Chernobyl. So don't think of Chernobyl (wide spread of materials) as a model for how this event will unfold, was the upshot.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:27 PM on March 13, 2011


Overglow, this NY Times article describes the Pentagon's contingency plans for monitoring radiation danger to the Western US. They are keeping an eye on the situation, but it doesn't sound like there's any reason whatsoever for concern.

Although the article does note that US helicopters flying 60 miles north of the reactors were found to be "coated in particulate radiation," which seems a touch worrying.
posted by dialetheia at 10:28 PM on March 13, 2011


I'm watching the local Fox nightly news on the other tuner, usually they are the most hyperbolic of our newsteams, and even they are going with the U.W. guy who first showed the pollution from China was coming over to the U.S. in the jetstream, saying minimal risk.
posted by nomisxid at 10:28 PM on March 13, 2011


Anyone happen to have data on the battery backups they used at this site? I've seen/worked with the tractor-trailer size generator trucks before but can't begin to imagine what sort of battery bank this place must have had to power their cooling systems for 8 hours before running down. That sounds like a massive amount of storage capacity.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:31 PM on March 13, 2011


Dr. Mass, by the way, is seriously brilliant. My brother worked for him for years.
posted by KathrynT at 10:32 PM on March 13, 2011


Thanks for all the answers! I feel less scared now, although still concerned of course. I really hope that things cool down quickly, so everyone, especially the people nearby in Japan, can rest easy.
posted by overglow at 10:33 PM on March 13, 2011


I can't cite a source for this, but I've read that the battery backups were not used to power the cooling systems, but were intended just to keep control systems and measurement equipment going. As far as I know, the generators were the backup system for the primary active cooling systems and there was never any thought that the batteries could replace them.
posted by zachlipton at 10:36 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why weren't replacement batteries and generators flown in right away to avoid losing power?

Because locating large, complex pieces of industrial-scale equipment that are ready for immediate use isn't quick or easy, because transporting large, complex pieces of industrial equipment several thousand kilometers isn't quick or easy, and because transporting large, complex pieces of industrial equipment the last relative few kilometers through or over a complete disaster area to a devastated site isn't quick or easy?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:38 PM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]




@Popular Ethics:

This is only the third time in history that a power producing reactor has suffered a (partial) meltdown.

I guess you're counting TMI and Fermi, and not counting SL-1 (3MW). In the United States alone.
posted by Twang at 10:53 PM on March 13, 2011


Perhaps he means commercial/civilian power producing, not 'net positive energy producing experimental or otherwise'.
posted by nomisxid at 11:04 PM on March 13, 2011


Perhaps he means commercial/civilian power producing, not 'net positive energy producing experimental or otherwise'.

Yep. I'm counting TMI, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. Big, electricity producing reactors. This is somewhat arbitrary, but prototypes, research and military reactors are (were) not held to the same safety standards as commercial plants. Mostly I wanted to say that this is a rare occurance, so I'm paying close attention.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:22 PM on March 13, 2011


From the automatic earth blog linked above, this is interesting to me:
Company documents show that Tokyo Electric tested the Fukushima plant to withstand a maximum seismic jolt lower than Friday's 8.9 earthquake. Tepco's last safety test of nuclear power plant Number 1—one that is currently in danger of meltdown—was done at a seismic magnitude the company considered the highest possible, but in fact turned out to be lower than Friday's quake. The information comes from the company's "Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 Updated Safety Measures" documents written in Japanese in 2010 and 2009.

The documents were reviewed by Dow Jones. The company said in the documents that 7.9 was the highest magnitude for which they tested the safety for their No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Simultaneous seismic activity along the three tectonic plates in the sea east of the plants—the epicenter of Friday's quake—wouldn't surpass 7.9, according to the company's presentation. The company based its models partly on previous seismic activity in the area, including a 7.0 earthquake in May 1938 and two simultaneous earthquakes of 7.3 and 7.5 on November 5 of the same year.
If this is correct, then it is very surprising. First, megathrust earthquakes on a section of fault can occur with a rough periodicity, but may be separated by centuries. Going back to the 1930s is not enough of a temporal unit of analysis to determine what constitutes a maximum size earthquake. And, if they were working on some kind of seismic model that suggested that there was a maximum size earthquake, well, they were wrong in both principle and in retrospect. It is fair to say that geologists are better at describing seismicity than predicting it.

For example, megathrust earthquakes in the Cascadia zone off British Columbia and Washington may happen about once every 500 years, with the most recent being in January 1700. If a nuclear power plant has a lifespan of 50 years then there is a 10% chance of such a quake in the life of that reactor, and it would be reasonable to anticipate that quake, not the quakes known from a lesser time interval, or the maximum quake predicted by a (necessarily untested) seismic model.
posted by Rumple at 11:23 PM on March 13, 2011


Sorry, automatic earth blog.
posted by Rumple at 11:24 PM on March 13, 2011




Fukushima Daiichi plant No.2 reactor cooling functions have stopped, the Jiji news agency is reporting.
posted by floam at 11:34 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


well then!
posted by mwhybark at 11:37 PM on March 13, 2011


Yuck.
posted by polyhedron at 11:39 PM on March 13, 2011


That automatic earth link has some very interesting stuff. Thanks for the link, Rumple. One interesting note: "Above 1500 K, the power from oxidation exceeds that from decay heat (4,5) unless the oxidation rate is limited by the supply of either zircaloy or steam."
posted by chemoboy at 11:40 PM on March 13, 2011


About "why didn't they get new generators or batteries?" - a question I have also been wondering about - the letter from the MIT guy says:
"When the diesel generators were gone, the reactor operators switched to emergency battery power. The batteries were designed as one of the backups to the backups, to provide power for cooling the core for 8 hours. And they did.

Within the 8 hours, another power source had to be found and connected to the power plant. The power grid was down due to the earthquake. The diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami. So mobile diesel generators were trucked in.

This is where things started to go seriously wrong. The external power generators could not be connected to the power plant (the plugs did not fit). So after the batteries ran out, the residual heat could not be carried away any more."
He doesn't say where he got that info about the plugs not fitting, but that's a hell of a thing if true.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, not like you can just hop down to Radio Shack for an adapter in that case.

I need a refresher. The #2 reactor is the last one which was running at the time of the quake/tsunami, yes? I'm just wondering how many times we might expect this process. How long to the cooling systems need to be maintained before we can put this dog down?
posted by calamari kid at 11:50 PM on March 13, 2011


All I can see for that Jiji report on #2 are RTs of what appears to be a Reuters relay, anybody got a direct source?
posted by mwhybark at 11:50 PM on March 13, 2011


Here's the Reuters sourcing.
posted by mwhybark at 11:51 PM on March 13, 2011


Working on sourcing it now; Jiji claims a report from TEPCO, and TEPCO's site gets slammed whenever this happens.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:55 PM on March 13, 2011


I really thought tonight may be the night I go to bed early and stop waiting for reactor news, but I guess not. You win again ... do we have a name for this cataclysm yet?
posted by floam at 11:57 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Best source of good solid scientific analysis written about this MESS in terms easily understood by legitimate experts:
http://allthingsnuclear.org/
posted by dougiedd at 11:57 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


NKK version (Japanese). #2 at 1:25, cooling going wonky, pressure up, considering venting for safety.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:59 PM on March 13, 2011


I think its being called the [something] quake, where [something] is the geographic region or plate, but honestly, I have not yet made detailed note.
posted by mwhybark at 11:59 PM on March 13, 2011


NHK report citing NISA report. I don't see anything on the English NISA site, or the Japanese or English TEPCO sites, yet.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:01 AM on March 14, 2011


floam: that's exactly what I've been going through. I was doing the information overload thing on Libya for a while, then Wisconsin, and now this. Apparently there was a time when I wasn't staring at liveblogs and following twitter feeds.

NHK World reporting on Daiichi No. 2 reactor now. They just said that the reactor has "lost all its coolant." That seems rather extreme, but I don't know.
posted by zachlipton at 12:02 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just on NHK World TV propper. #2 lost all coolant, considering venting as pressure is up. I think this one was still mostly cooling by the regular backup means. Sounds like it was being cooled by the circulating water backup system (which has now lost coolant). Not sure, haven't been paying attention to state of #2.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:04 AM on March 14, 2011


right, well, I'm off to bed anyway. thanks all and especially thanks for being civil in here this evening. See you tomorrow.
posted by mwhybark at 12:08 AM on March 14, 2011


I know zachlipton. There's some sort of defect in my news junkie brain that must get some sort of dopamine squirt from terrible incoming news. I think I'm running out.
posted by floam at 12:12 AM on March 14, 2011


Plugs not fitting sounds a little bogus, doesn't it? I mean, I recognize this is not normal household current, but at the end of the day plugs are just a convenient way to connect two bundles of wire to each other. Surely there would have been an electrician on-hand to rewire the generator to work. Better than a meltdown, surely?

It would be less surprising and more of a "yeah I guess they're screwed" if the new generators weren't equipped to put out the right kind of power (ie, phase, hertz, whatever). That's not something you can easily work around, I don't think.

Then again, I'm a bit shocked that the plant's "please plug in emergency power here" panel or whatever it is doesn't contain one of every likely plug and various transformers to handle/convert the incoming juice. Compared to losing a plant that's a hugely minor detail, isn't it?

I think nuclear power is safe and people panic about it like children panic about the bogeymonster. But this is the kind of oversight, if true, that needs addressing.
posted by maxwelton at 12:16 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Well engineered nuclear power, not garbage designs like Chernobyl, obviously.)
posted by maxwelton at 12:18 AM on March 14, 2011


floam: Certainly, part of it is the disaster porn aspect, but I think part of the reason is the absolutely pathetic way most US media organizations have been covering these stories lately. Reading Al Jazeera English and the Guardian's liveblogs from Libya is such a completely different experience from even reading the New York Times stories. In Wisconsin, later reports that focused on the political situation don't come close to capturing the sense of frustration and passion when thousands crashed the capitol doors Wednesday night that you got from watching the ustream footage and following the tweets. Here, every western media organization has consistently been 8-12 hours behind this thread and many have been putting on their meteorologist to explain the workings of a nuclear reactor. I don't need to know all this stuff up to the minute, but I do want to know, and obsessively following threads like this one seems to be the way to do it besides waiting for the book to come out.

As for the plugs not fitting issue, my guess is that is some sort of convenient way to say "electrically incompatible." If it was just an issue of shorting some wires together, I'm sure they could have found someone to wire up a new plug.
posted by zachlipton at 12:24 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, @arclight is speculating that the NHK report on Daiichi #2 meant to say that they lost all power to coolant pumps, not that they lost all coolant. A translation mistake perhaps? Anyone have a Tepco or NISA update that clarifies this?
posted by zachlipton at 12:27 AM on March 14, 2011


That does sound plausible. Japan has both 50hz and 60hz power.
posted by polyhedron at 12:28 AM on March 14, 2011


zachlipton, I was just going to say the same. Some loss of translation going on. "loss of coolant" is more like "loss of cooling equipment functionality due to power". That was confusing me in my amateurish translation of the Japanese source.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:30 AM on March 14, 2011


fact is, none of the reports are likely to be any-wears close to the truth of the matter given the history of the Japanese nuclear power industries penchant for dishonesty: plugs? who even knows if the real problem is missing power: perhaps the coolant systems are too badly damaged to be operable even with power. one can speculate about all of this, based on the think information that is getting released by those with a record of terrible deception
posted by dougiedd at 12:31 AM on March 14, 2011


"I think nuclear power is safe and people panic about it like children panic about the bogeymonster."

I think nuclear power can be made safe. But I also believe greedy corporations and human error can screw up just about anything.

Said another way, no matter how safe nuclear power plants are, someone in the chain will find a way to not head off catastrophe. And much like the gulf oil spill and the bank collapse, it's the ability to avoid due diligence to an amazing degree that causes these disasters.

Looking at the before and after pictures of the front of the plant, it's a little shocking to see so many pipes, tanks, and I assume pumps out in front on the tsunami side. It was all washed away. I have no idea what that stuff was, or whether it was related to the cooling failure, but...... well it's frikin washed away. Someone had to make some seriously bad decisions that led to that. The whole coast is lined with automated tsunami warning systems. They knew it was coming.

My point is, you need to put an asterisk next to "safe" for these things.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:38 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


According to this AP story, they're getting ready to inject seawater into Unit 2 now. Sounds like they lost "cooling capacity," not the coolant itself (just like arclight said).
posted by dialetheia at 12:44 AM on March 14, 2011


maxwelton writes "Plugs not fitting sounds a little bogus, doesn't it? I mean, I recognize this is not normal household current, but at the end of the day plugs are just a convenient way to connect two bundles of wire to each other. Surely there would have been an electrician on-hand to rewire the generator to work. Better than a meltdown, surely?"

I sure sure would like to see numbers on the power requirements of the emergancy system. Much more than a couple hundred amps at a few hundred volts and you really can't jury rig things. Proper procedures need to be followed to prevent things like inductive heating.

I'd think they would have all this stuff on hand but it would be pretty easy to be missing one critical component.
posted by Mitheral at 12:46 AM on March 14, 2011


I remember hearing last night via NHK that Eastern Japan would suffer rolling blackouts (as soon as TEPCO regroups its poop, it seems) because of the 50/60Hz discrepancy-- Western Japan's power systems just can't be put to use to help out.

How did that happen? It seems like a strange decision, like equipping half your soldiers with flintlocks and half with AK-47s.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:08 AM on March 14, 2011


Since I hadn't checked on allthingsnuclear.org since Friday or Saturday morning maybe, when dougiedd suggested it I went to take a look. I'm tired and more than a little punchy, having been sole operator of World Watch One here at Fortress Obi-Wan since early Thursday morning, so I'm hoping for some fresher minds to help me sort through this UCS FUD.

Their article Sunday Update on Fukushima Reactors contains the alarming statement that The Mark I is unusually vulnerable to containment failure in the event of a core-melt accident. A recent study by Sandia National Laboratories shows that the likelihood of containment failure in this case is nearly 42% (see Table 4-7 on page 97).

I'm looking at the referenced Sandia National Laboratory study Risk-Informed Assessment of Degraded Containment Vessels [PDF]. There on p. 96 I read, A very important feature of these results is that there is a very high probability of a melt-through failure. The probability of an early melt-through failure given core damage is roughly 36% for all cases.

My questions are 1) can anyone provide a specific, technical definition of "early melt-through" as opposed to melt-through in general and 2) in the context of discussing probability, what would the meaning of the following table be, most importantly the headings?
Case                       |  Mean  |    5%     |  50%   |  95%   |
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Un-damaged (Reference)     | 0.4169 | 2.393E-06 | 0.3861 | 0.8851 |
Un-damaged (Current Study) | 0.4177 | 2.393E-06 | 0.3861 | 0.9754 |
The top two lines of Table 4.7: Probability of Large Early Containment Failure Conditional on Core Damage from p. 97 of the referenced study.

N.B. These page numbers are the PDF pages. The numbers printed on the bottom of the pages are different.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:13 AM on March 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


fairytale of los angeles, Here, Bugbread tells us: "It comes from the fact that when Japan was first modernizing, Osaka bought their generators from America (60Hz), and Tokyo bought theirs from Germany (50Hz)."
posted by zengargoyle at 1:14 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


zengargoyle, it's 60 in Tokyo, 50 in Osaka.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:16 AM on March 14, 2011


According to Wikipedia (here):
In Japan, the western part of the country (Kyoto and west) uses 60 Hz and the eastern part (Tokyo and east) uses 50 Hz. This originates in the first purchases of generators from AEG in 1895, installed for Tokyo, and General Electric in 1896, installed in Osaka. The boundary between the two regions contains four back-to-back HVDC substations which convert the frequency; these are Shin Shinano, Sakuma Dam, Minami-Fukumitsu, and the Higashi-Shimizu Frequency Converter.
Presumably, those substations have limited capacity to share power between the two halves of the grid, but IANAEE.
posted by zachlipton at 1:16 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Good to know, I'm just cut-n-pasting. :)
posted by zengargoyle at 1:17 AM on March 14, 2011


Huh, weird. I've been under the impression all these years it was Tokyo at 60. Wikipedia says differently, mayhap I'm wrong.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:19 AM on March 14, 2011


I read in the mega thread that the Fukushima plant was due for retirement -- this month, if I'm not mistaken. Has anyone heard anything more about this, specifically what its replacement was supposed to be?
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:19 AM on March 14, 2011


Celsius1414: Has anyone heard anything more about this, specifically what its replacement was supposed to be?

According to this Wikipedia article, Reactors 7 and 8 were being planned for October 2017 and 2018, respectively. I don't think Reactor 1 needed to be replaced immediately, since Reactors 3-6 were already off (for normal maintenance). Furthermore, Fukushima 2 also had 2 reactors turned off at the time. Each of them with power generating capacities more than double of F1#1.
posted by thebestsophist at 1:37 AM on March 14, 2011


calamari kid:

The #2 reactor is the last one which was running at the time of the quake/tsunami, yes?

The #2 reactor was the last one running at this plant. There were problems with #1 first, then with #3, and now with #2. Units 4 through 6 were offline due to maintenance at the time of the quake.

I've read that 11 reactors in Japan shut down when the earthquake hit. I don't know how many of these are having cooling problems after shutdown. Almost all the news has been about the Fukushima Daiichi plant, so I assume the other plants are in a better situation.

I found this Canadian Press article which says that two other plants (Fukushima Daini and Onagawa) are also in states of emergency. But their info about Onagawa seems to be out of date. The IAEA says "radioactivity levels at the site boundary of the Onagawa nuclear power plant have returned down to normal background levels. ... Investigations at the site indicate that no emissions of radioactivity have occurred from any of the three units at Onagawa. ... the increased level may have been due to a release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant."

TEPCO's press release about Daini says all reactors at this plant have AC power, and adequate water levels covering the core. "Reactor pressure suppression function was lost" on March 12th for two reactors - this sounds bad to me, but I'm not an expert. They haven't had to vent any steam, so maybe they have a backup system. "Restoration work in reactor cooling function is in progress" on three of the Daini reactors. Radiation levels are normal.

So it sounds like the three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are the only ones with serious problems now. Daini has some problems too, and I don't know if they could become serious in the future. But the Daini reactors are in much better shape than the problem ones at Daiichi - no core damage, adequate water levels, and no detectable radiation leakage.
posted by problemspace at 1:39 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


none of the reports are likely to be any-wears close to the truth of the matter given the history of the Japanese nuclear power industries penchant for dishonesty

After disasters occur and the aftermath clears, a lot of what nuclear power operators say about the safety of their technology and their recovery procedures is found out to be lies. This will no doubt be much different, as the official statements from the Japanese PM leading up to the first explosions suggested. I hope the US government has plans to help out the west coast if things get much worse.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:42 AM on March 14, 2011


New York Times article: A Look at the Mechanics of a Partial Meltdown
posted by nickyskye at 1:43 AM on March 14, 2011


BP, I'm fairly certain that the Feds are already on it. Hawaii is much closer than the West Coast, and the Pacific Fleet is already out there.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:25 AM on March 14, 2011


The Tokyo and Hong Kong markets closed down rather sharply, down 6 percent and more, yet the STOXX 50 is up slightly from Friday. American index futures are down, but not by much. Oil has dropped below $100. Apparently, the ex-Pac-Rim markets don't like headline disasters, but are happy to ignore what's roiling beneath them.
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:53 AM on March 14, 2011


Dear mefites who are scared of the (however limited, distant, and manageable) threat of being irradiated from events attending the greater incident:

Please find and remove all smoke detectors from your place of residence immediately because no shit those motherfuckers are radioactive as all fuck.

As we all know, it's better to die in a fire than under the threat of something you don't understand and find scary for both that reason and that of its unintentionally powerful choice of brand identity.
posted by 7segment at 3:16 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


What's the correct number of nuclear meltdowns before we should worry? Earlier I said three, but I admit I pulled that number out of my ass. Never expected it to actually happen.
posted by ryanrs at 3:24 AM on March 14, 2011


BP, I'm fairly certain that the Feds are already on it. Hawaii is much closer than the West Coast, and the Pacific Fleet is already out there.

Apparently, one US military craft and several helicopters have already been irradiated from the fallout, as well as their crew.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:33 AM on March 14, 2011


Pretty close by, though (60 miles).
posted by ryanrs at 3:41 AM on March 14, 2011


Anyone downwind will get some non-zero dosage above background, especially if the containment vessels fail from further explosions, or as ongoing venting releases additional radionucleotides. Beyond exposure to south Japan, the wording from the NRC seems vague: "Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity." What the NRC defines as "harmful" seems usefully non-committal and plastic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:52 AM on March 14, 2011


Why weren't replacement batteries and generators flown in right away to avoid losing power?

I'd heard that they were, but the connection to the plant electrical grid was in a basement which flooded with mud during the tsunami.
posted by atrazine at 4:06 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just tuned into NHK world English...

I believe they said a second explosion at the #1 reactor building, and they definitely keep repeating that TEPCO "cannot deny" that fuel rods in reactor #2 may be exposed and melting. They said the pump that was providing seawater to reactor #2 has failed.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 4:16 AM on March 14, 2011


Also, we basically have no idea what low levels of radiation do to populations. Our best model for radiation exposure is called the linear no-threshold model in which danger from radiation scales linearly with exposure and there is no safe minimum. We know that neither of these things is quite correct, but it is the best model we have. So what the NRC defines as harmful is bound to be fairly vague even if they are trying their best to tell the truth.

What's the correct number of nuclear meltdowns before we should worry? Earlier I said three, but I admit I pulled that number out of my ass. Never expected it to actually happen.

Well, one breach of containment is worse than any number of non-breaching meltdowns, but really it will depend on the after accident analysis. If later analysis shows that there was never any danger of a breach then that will be good, if it shows that there was (even if no breach actually happened) then we're in a different situation.
Another question is whether newer designs with passive cooling would have performed better in an identical earthquake + tsunami scenario.
posted by atrazine at 4:19 AM on March 14, 2011


On the other hand, if I leave early, I can beat the traffic.

A bit premature, of course, but ever since the earthquake, the worst case has been the rule, rather than the exception. (Also, I promised myself a po' boy in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.)
posted by ryanrs at 4:36 AM on March 14, 2011




A bit premature, of course, but ever since the earthquake, the worst case has been the rule, rather than the exception. (Also, I promised myself a po' boy in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.)

I suggest avoiding the shrimp. Also, crawfish. Clams. Well, fish in general. Dolphin meat, too. Spirulina (algae) wouldn't be a good idea, either, but you probably wouldn't ever eat that.
posted by loquacious at 5:37 AM on March 14, 2011


I believe they said a second explosion at the #1 reactor building

This is something I've been waiting for news on. When #3 blew, all the reports said there was also a cloud of smoke coming from #1. But that's the last I've heard of it, no explanation for what caused the cloud & no further mention of it.
posted by scalefree at 5:41 AM on March 14, 2011


loquacious, among other things, the area around Sendai (the natural bay there) was renowned for oysters and scallops. There's another chunk of the area's economy that will take years, if not longer, to recover.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:47 AM on March 14, 2011


I'm watching the local Fox nightly news on the other tuner, usually they are the most hyperbolic of our newsteams, and even they are going with the U.W. guy who first showed the pollution from China was coming over to the U.S. in the jetstream, saying minimal risk.

Hey, that's reassuring. Fox News always tells the truth.

Considering the history of Fox News and history in general, I would take that as a warning sign. Fox news being unalarmist and - at first glance - calm and rational means I'm checking out the ski reports for hell.
posted by loquacious at 5:48 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


loquacious, among other things, the area around Sendai (the natural bay there) was renowned for oysters and scallops. There's another chunk of the area's economy that will take years, if not longer, to recover.

Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier. How much Japan relies on fish for protein and food, and what the reactors and possibly irradiated seawater discharge would do to that.

However my comment was an aside to ryanrs, who is talking about driving to New Orleans for a po' boy since there's now three reactors involved.

Seriously, don't eat the shrimp. Corexit. Mmmm, tasty.
posted by loquacious at 5:52 AM on March 14, 2011


More, as mentioned above...

Radiation alert: U.S. ship contaminated 100 miles offshore -- U.S. shifts deployment due to alert; meantime, rods reportedly exposed at damaged reactor."
posted by ericb at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2011


Upthread, there is an explanation for why they want to prevent meltdowns, and as I have understood it, the reason is ultimately difficultly of cleanup (dog poo analogy). The third containment should still hold in the event of a meltdown, right? But if there were a complete meltdown, what about the steam being released into the air? How much more radioactive would it become? Or would they stop releasing the steam?

My apologies if my understanding is utterly wrong and/or this has been answered upthread.
posted by kitcat at 6:00 AM on March 14, 2011


BP, I'm fairly certain that the Feds are already on it.

It might be worth noting that the Feds were asleep at the switch for a good chunk of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster, when most of the long-term damage was done. Let's hope the NRC isn't lying, or, if it is, that some other agency in the government is capable of mobilizing prophylactic and cleanup efforts before the western states get too hot.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:13 AM on March 14, 2011


Here's a 12pm GMT article from WNN, "Explosion rocks third Fukushima reactor"

it says the normal pressure range is around 250 - 350 KPa (approx 50 psig) and the high was 840 KPa (116 psig.) This converts to normal temperature range around 135C (275F) and peak at 170C (338F.)

The discussion of pressures upthread was not correct claiming much higher temps and pressures.
posted by warbaby at 6:14 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I believe they said a second explosion at the #1 reactor building

What could that be? Shouldn't any hydrogen be venting directly to the atmosphere?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:17 AM on March 14, 2011


BBC News: Fresh explosion at Fukushima nuclear plant

A huge column of smoke billowed from Fukushima Daiichi's reactor 3, two days after a blast hit reactor 1.

The latest explosion, said to have been caused by a hydrogen build-up, injured 11 people, one of them seriously.

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:17 AM on March 14, 2011


This is such a weird thread for metafilter. The tone is, we're not supposed to express concern unless we have reams of research on nuclear power to back up our feelings?

I'm not going to pretend to be a nuclear scientist, and I'm scared as fuck! This is not to take some silly pride in ignorance, this is simply to acknowledge that the public has a right to have opinions and feelings!

And I think the whole, "nothing bad could possibly happen!" and "the news would tell us if something bad was happening" contingents are kind of bizarre and counters historical example. Clearly, "bad" things are already happening. Even if this can't go wrong on the scale of Chernoblyl (which I'm not really clear is correct), that doesn't mean this is OK. Jesus.
posted by serazin at 6:45 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thank you to everyone contributing constructively to this thread. I've been reading MetaFilter all weekend instead of watching CNN and the like, and I've learned a lot (never really knew how a nuclear reactor worked and now I do!). However, living in the New Madrid Fault area the whole earthquake thing is freaking me out. I'm hoping all of this mess doesn't trigger some massive Earth moving stuff and set off one around the New Madrid Fault (the quakes in AR aren't helping either). Both of the MeFi quake threads have been most helpful and educational to me, so thanks!!

I'm sending the people of Japan all of the positive energy and good thoughts/prayers I can muster.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:55 AM on March 14, 2011


Not to go all Zen here ... but this is - what it is. And frankly this thread (and the other one) have been enormously appreciated sources of reason and factual information amidst what I personally consider the complete circus of stupidity that I believe to be our American media. Seriously can't listen to any of it. You combine the ulterior motives of profit & fear-mongering and you get news for the sheeple. No thank you.

What's going on in relation to the nuclear power plants is undoubtedly NOT being completely revealed by "the authorities" - I'm not naive and I'm not unaware there is reason to be very, very concerned.

But I also still very much value a reasonable debate and airing of what facts are known ... combined with a sensible calm until solid, believable reason is given to consider a freak out. Especially - over here!

I personally refuse to go all chicken little and believe the sky is falling. My local paper here in NorCal has an article this a.m. about locals buying iodine tablets. REALLY????? Sigh.

I don't think anyone thinks this is "OK" on any level. I do think there are different levels however, of handling what's going on - ranging from reasoned to over-react.

Everyone - is entitled to their way of dealing with it. I do think though, there's more than enough nervous energy in the world right now and every bit of calm reason that can be mustered up by anyone certainly couldn't hurt......
posted by cdalight at 7:01 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


BBC News: Fresh explosion at Fukushima nuclear plant

A huge column of smoke billowed from Fukushima Daiichi's reactor 3, two days after a blast hit reactor 1.


the caption under the picture of the huge explosion:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the core container at the reactor was still intact

i.e. after the explosion, radiation hasn't melted any of the emergency workers at the plant.... yet. I have no idea what an explosion like that does to cooling pumps/systems. I have no idea how you do an inspection of the reactor after that explosion. And I have no idea how you really engineer a "safe" nuclear plant when there are so many catastrophic edges cases like decaying rod casing produces hydrogen gas ---> BOOM!

If edge cases on an engineering project lead to the evacuation of everyone with 20km, you have to ask yourself what the total liability over the life the project is. It's a reasonable question to ask whether the liability is greater than the benefit even if you aren't particularly scared about radiation.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:03 AM on March 14, 2011


It's bad, but more on the TMI scale of bad rather than the Chernobyl level of bad.

The failure at Chernobyl was related to a horrible design and a significant degree of operator error. While this design apparently has significant issues (no passive cooling, some degree of risk that a meltdown could breach containment), the differences in design between these reactors and Soviet era RBMKs (such as the Chernobyl) reactor is massive.

Without graphite control rods to burn off the release of radioactive particles on the scale of Chernobyl doesn't seem possible even if the core should melt through containment. That isn't to say that this isn't an extremely significant event and perhaps these old designs should be phased out sooner rather than latter but the risk of a truly dangerous loss of containment seems to be small at this point in time.

I think what is really concerning is that it's quite likely that none of the damaged reactor units will see a return to production status. The loss of power generation related to them being permanently offline will be significant . One of the links posted upstream indicated that the long term reduction in power generation will have a negative impact on GDP. That's a very big problem given the amount of rebuilding necessary to get the country anywhere near it's pre-disaster condition.

Not only does Japan need to replace these damaged reactors but it seems like it would make sense to replace any reactors of a similar design.
posted by vuron at 7:09 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Things are bad, but, it's not the end of the world, folks.
There's no reason to over-react right now, unless you're in the immediate area, in which case, feel free to panic to your heart's content, if that makes you feel any better.
As the crisis develops (and eventually passes, hopefully), we'll get more information (even if some/lots/all of it are lies damned lies) and hopefully we'll get a better picture of what really happened here.
posted by yeoz at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2011


ryanrs writes "A bit premature, of course, but ever since the earthquake, the worst case has been the rule, rather than the exception."

That's not the case at all. Several worst cases did not not happen. For example they could have lost containment during the M9 or during the tsunami.

ennui.bz writes "If edge cases on an engineering project lead to the evacuation of everyone with 20km, you have to ask yourself what the total liability over the life the project is. It's a reasonable question to ask whether the liability is greater than the benefit even if you aren't particularly scared about radiation."

Many dams have evacuation zones covering hundreds of square miles and extending way farther than 20km.
posted by Mitheral at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


... seconding the fact that concern is fine but unless you have experience/comprehension of the tech basics to back up any claims you make then maybe you would benefit from listening to some of the absolutes* that the more-knowledge (which I don't count myself among) are offering. Some common themes I've been noticing people re-hashing over and over due to misunderstanding the facts:

1) These reactors use a different technology than Chernobyl. Not more advanced (though it is), different. Inherently it is safer and virtually impossible to mimic the type of fires seen at Chernobyl.
2) As long as containment is maintained, things will be 1000x times better than if containment is breached.
3) Radioactivity, like it or not, is all around you as we speak. It is also not dangerous at low levels or else, as mentioned above, smoke detectors would not be the norm. That's not to say that the radioactivity being released is of a good type/level but it's nothing new for some situations. Leave the Geiger counters at the store.

I'm a huge fan of don't necessarily trust the politicians, but consider trusting your local physicists when they post informative, factual articles about things. And for what it's worth, covering up things at this point, with this kind of thing (radiation, nuclear reactors, etc) is not exactly easy/feasible due to the dissemination of knowledge in the worldwide community.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:12 AM on March 14, 2011


serazin, I've been following this thread, and the previous one, and I really don't see the same contingents here you seem to describe. Nobody here's saying nothing bad can happen. Bad things have happened. But there are people trying to explain good reasons why people in California don't need to be "scared as fuck" yet. I'm not a nuclear engineer either, and amount of information being shared and scrutinized here has been absolutely very informative and enlightening, from people who really know what they're talking about. Certainly this is a lot more constructive than us all collectively wetting our beds, like we're seeing all over social media in the US? This whole thing is, to me, the best of Metafilter. Lots of people are feeling just the way you are, and the only prescription is quality information and analysis so people can make the most informed decisions possible.
posted by floam at 7:13 AM on March 14, 2011


I sure sure would like to see numbers on the power requirements of the emergancy system. Much more than a couple hundred amps at a few hundred volts and you really can't jury rig things. Proper procedures need to be followed to prevent things like inductive heating.

I used to work in the touring industry. This statement is bullshit. I wouldn't leave an untrained person to do the job, but wiring up several kilowatts of electric power is laughably easy as long as you follow a few rather simply safety precautions.

Similarly, there are generators that are specifically designed to be dropped out of the back of a plane. I would hope that the Japanese self-defense force would have many of these on hand, and the logistics to deliver them at a moment's notice, if necessary. A sufficiently large helicopter could easily carry in a 30kW plant. (And of course, several helicopters could carry in several 30kW units)

There was a mention upthread of the plant's electrical distribution room being flooded/destroyed. This sounds like a much more plausible explanation than "The plugs don't fit," which almost immediately sounds like a mistranslation. From what I'm reading, it sounds like the tsunami did a lot more damage to the plant than the quake did, so I'm not sure if the "Only certified for a 7.9 quake" argument is a terribly valid one to make here.

Obviously, we're going to begin seeing Nuclear plants around the world being reevaluated for their safety (especially for obvious flaws such as a below-sea-level power room). I wouldn't be at all surprised if we began an accelerated retirement of all Mark I reactors still operating (or at the very least, required significant safety upgrades to their design to prevent the hydrogen explosion scenario, which we've now seen is pretty much 100% certain once the reactor is vented into the secondary containment). I would hope that we stop re-certifying older (and less safe) reactor designs, and start constructing new, safer alternatives.

From my understanding, the ABWR is a much, much better design, and would have survived this catastrophe without melting down.

(Also worth noting that reactors using the same design as Chernobyl are still in use today. There's even a new one being built for some reason.)
posted by schmod at 7:26 AM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not only does Japan need to replace these damaged reactors but it seems like it would make sense to replace any reactors of a similar design.

Start with bigger walls to deflect incoming tsunami.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:51 AM on March 14, 2011


Arclight's employers told him to cease and desist pending meetings with chain of corporate command.

I guess everyone who thinks the physics nerds are furiously masturbating over the potential for disaster will be glad of one less filthy public display now. I know I'm sure not, though.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:01 AM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Fuel rods in Reactor #2 were apparently "Fully exposed" for 2.5 hours. No idea what that actually means...
posted by schmod at 8:06 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn, I hope archlight doesn't take needless flak for publicizing his thoughts for the public benefit.

I wonder if doubters of his veracity will take this as vindication or if it will improve his former comments in their minds.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:08 AM on March 14, 2011


You pretty much never want BWR fuel rods fully exposed without coolant, if my understanding is correct (and if it's not, Roland, PE, and others will correct me). Even in a decay-heat situation, that will degrade the ZrO coating, produce hydrogen gas, increase pressure, and increase heat leading to melting of the rods themselves.

Best case, containment is maintained but there's some degree of fuel rod damage.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:10 AM on March 14, 2011


NHK is saying that they closed the steam vent in reactor 2, pressure built up and they were unable to inject more water, the water evaporated, and the fuel rods were fully exposed *again* at 11 p.m.
posted by Jeanne at 8:15 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, the bickering of the pro and anti nuclear camps has extinguished the conversation about the 3 potential meltdowns underway. The other thread is best left to the human element. Can we get back on track with a conversation/analysis of the events, and leave the bickering for metatalk?

I hope we can all agree that a thermo nuclear, Chernobyl, or otherwise doomsday event won't happen.

On that note, i wonder what the effects of boiling off sea water will be. Presumably the cooling water will become super salty, and will leave a lot of the heavier elements in the coolant.

To pump water into the containment vessel, the pressures need to be low, thereby lowering the boiling point of the water. Sea water boils at a lower temp than de ionized water. So boiling off a lot of sea water seems plausible.

Normal sea water is 3%-5% salt. If they boil off 20x the volume of the vessel, they will have salt (sodium chloride) filling the vessel.

What would a nuclear reactor packed in salt mean? Obviously a long term clean up and corrosion problem, but what about radioactive byproducts, heat transfer, conductivity, etc?
posted by karst at 8:15 AM on March 14, 2011


This just in from the BBC site:

1431: More from Japanese nuclear engineer Masashi Goto: He say that as the reactor uses mox (mixed oxide) fuel, the melting point is lower than that of conventional fuel. Should a meltdown and an explosion occur, he says, plutonium could be spread over an area up to twice as far as estimated for a conventional nuclear fuel explosion. The next 24 hours are critical, he says.
posted by Duug at 8:16 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Arclight came back briefly to say that his job is safe but he has been instructed to leave communication to, basically, PR flacks.

As someone who was once in school to be a crisis PR flack or similar ("communications research" major), I cannot express how angry that makes me.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:17 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Plus -

1422: Japanese engineer Masashi Goto, who helped design the containment vessel for Fukushima's reactor core, says the design was not enough to withstand earthquakes or tsunamis and the plant's builders, Toshiba, knew this. More on Mr Goto's remarks to follow.
posted by Duug at 8:17 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


fairtytale: I'm not deeply educated about the metallurgical changes that may occur due to their exposure but you're spot on when you say "you never want them exposed without coolant". Not in situations like this anyway.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:18 AM on March 14, 2011


I hope we can all agree that a thermo nuclear, Chernobyl, or otherwise doomsday event won't happen.

I agree. Fukushima seems to be coming into its own now as a synonym for something. What that will eventually be remains to be seen.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:20 AM on March 14, 2011


BBC again:
1521: Fears of a partial meltdown at the Fukushima plant would appear to be growing, as Kyodo news agency reports that fuel rods in number 2 reactor are again "fully exposed".
posted by Duug at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Salt melts at 1500 F, or 800 C. Imagine the mess at the floor of the containment vessel.

Chlorides (sea water byproducts) are a volatile byproduct. Oxides (fresh water byproducts) not so much. Hydrogen will be present in both cases.

My dad was a nuclear chemist. Worked with Oppenheimer once, way back when. I asked him what the effects of sea water in the reactor core would be, and he just shook his head. He said this is just a huge mess on so many levels.
posted by karst at 8:30 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's safe to say that TMI has been eclipsed. We are still shy of a Chernobyl scale event, but this story is still unfolding. Obviously the nature of the 3 events is different, and a Chernobyl style event is impossible. But that doesn't mean that this couldn't be worse in scale.
posted by karst at 8:33 AM on March 14, 2011


So now the steam vent is closed shut and they can't vent steam on the reactor? Even if the temperatures are below the levels required to melt the fuel rods, presumably the pressures being built up in the containment vessel will force ruptures in the cooling system sooner or later.
posted by vuron at 8:34 AM on March 14, 2011


I think it's safe to say that TMI has been eclipsed. We are still shy of a Chernobyl scale event, but this story is still unfolding. Obviously the nature of the 3 events is different, and a Chernobyl style event is impossible. But that doesn't mean that this couldn't be worse in scale.,

This is not going to be worse than Chernobyl, no matter what happens. It's a physical impossibility.
posted by empath at 8:34 AM on March 14, 2011


The Guardian:

"Japanese officials say the nuclear fuel rods appear to be melting inside all three of the most troubled nuclear reactors, according to Associated Press."
posted by abx1-se at 8:35 AM on March 14, 2011


I disagree somewhat. Should the MOX fueled reactor lose containment, that's going to be really, really bad. Maybe not Chernobyl, in terms of spread to the rest of the world, (especially since this isn't being covered up as Chernobyl was), but plutonium is really bad stuff. For the surrounding areas, uninhabitable is uninhabitable, regardless...
posted by Windopaene at 8:37 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


vuron wrote: So now the steam vent is closed shut and they can't vent steam on the reactor?

I have the same question. What is keeping them from venting the steam buildup like they would usually do? (I admit I am still learning here). Is there just not a physical vent in the containment vessel or is it because they can't open it because of radiation, etc?
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:38 AM on March 14, 2011


There appears to be a problem with one of the valves in reactor 2 -- it's not clear whether it's a valve on the containment vessel or the pressure vessel -- that's preventing them from venting the steam buildup.
posted by Jeanne at 8:39 AM on March 14, 2011


Given the updates I've woken up to, I'm becoming increasingly desperate for that explanation of Table 4.7 I was asking about earlier.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:39 AM on March 14, 2011


The fuel rods in reactor 2 were completely exposed at 11:20 p.m. and are still exposed now (12:40 p.m. now in Japan).
posted by Jeanne at 8:44 AM on March 14, 2011


Quick thought, did the 2nd explosion coincide with the aftershock?
posted by karst at 8:45 AM on March 14, 2011


I will miss @arclight's insightful commentary.

Recent TEPCO announcements (Mar 14, 2011)

Occurrence of a Specific Incident (Failure of reactor cooling function) Stipulated in Article 15, Clause 1 of the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness

water injection into Unit 2's reactor were being carried out
by the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System. However, as the Reactor Core
Isolation Cooling System failed ... at 1:25 pm today.

White smoke around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Unit 3 (3rd release)


At approximately 11:01am, an explosion ... at the reactor building of Unit 3 ... believed to be a hydrogen explosion.

... it is believed that the reactor containment
vessel remains intact. However, the status [is] under
investigation.

As of 1:30 pm, 4 TEPCO employees and 3 workers from other companies have
sustained injuries ...

As of 0:30 pm, the measured value of radiation dose near MP6 was 4μSv/h.

As of 0:30 pm, the measured value of radiation dose at the monitoring
post in Fukushima Daini Power Station located approximately 10 km south
of Fukushima Daiichi Power Station remains at the same level.

In light of the incidents that have occurred at Units 1 and 3, we are
considering applying prevention measures to the wall of the reactor
building to ventilate the hydrogen gas contained in Unit 2.
posted by zippy at 8:49 AM on March 14, 2011


"3rd release" in the link above means third updated press release.
posted by zippy at 8:50 AM on March 14, 2011


Hello in there? Please give me something to counter a d-in-law in the Bay Area looking at $100 Radiation Protection Emergency kits? It's gotten too quiet around here all of a sudden ... where's my does of reasoned reality?
posted by cdalight at 9:07 AM on March 14, 2011


-possibility of al- queda exploding dirty bomb in us city feasible.

-possibility of damaged nuclear reactor spreading radiation unfeasible.


*recalibrates media info absorber*
posted by sgt.serenity at 9:11 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


How do you apply prevention measures to the wall of reactor #2? Draw straws for who goes up there with a Sawzall? I wouldn't want to be the one that is tasked with doing that.
posted by karst at 9:11 AM on March 14, 2011


They have measured a radiation level of 3000 microSieverts/hr at Daiichi. This is still not a level that's going to cause radiation poisoning in a short period of time, but it's six times the legal limit, and three times anything they've measured so far there.

They have recorded 113 microSieverts/hr at Daini, 10 km south of Daiichi. I think the worry is that this may be radiation spreading from Daiichi, since Daini mostly has cooling systems back and is hardly producing any more radiation than normal.

There are over 200 civilians still in the exclusion zone, mostly hospital patients. The Self-Defense Forces are working on evacuating them.

People on Twitter are writing senryu (humorous poems that follow the 5-7-5 syllable haiku format) about exposed rods.
posted by Jeanne at 9:12 AM on March 14, 2011


cdalight, point her at University of Washington Meteorologist Cliff Mass's web page. As I mentioned. . . here? in the other thread? my brother worked for Dr. Mass for many years, and the man is flat brilliant. The changes he's made to the field of meteorology in terms of probabilistic prediction are incredible.

I mean, he's a coot, too. But a very smart coot.
posted by KathrynT at 9:12 AM on March 14, 2011


Sorry -- the radiation level they recorded at Daini is actually 9.4 microSievert/hr.
posted by Jeanne at 9:14 AM on March 14, 2011


You could explain to your in-laws that the Pacific ocean is extremely big and even if their was a catastrophic failure of containment that somehow spewed massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere the chances that enough of those particles would some how make it to the bay area and concentrate into a deadly dose is simply impossible.

Even Chernobyl with it's massive discharge of radioactive particles didn't generate a fallout zone anywhere near the distances that would be required.

Hell even Castle Bravo on the Bikini atoll didn't produce the level of fallout necessary to pose a significant health risk to the western US. I can't imagine a scenario that would ever lead to the western US being at any sort of significant risk.
posted by vuron at 9:15 AM on March 14, 2011


Vuron - KathyrinT .... thank you!!
posted by cdalight at 9:19 AM on March 14, 2011


Please give me something to counter a d-in-law in the Bay Area looking at $100 Radiation Protection Emergency kits?

I'll sell them one for half that. It'll work like a charm.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:19 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


New TepCo radiation measurement chart. The radiation level at the main gate has been pretty consistently around 4-6 microSv/hr, then started rising suddenly at 9:30 p.m. last night, went as high as 3130, and by the last time recorded (10:35) was down to 326.
posted by Jeanne at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]



"I'll sell them one for half that. It'll work like a charm."

LOL ~ I tactfully implied to my son that the only people that would benefit from what's in those kits ... are the people who pocket the bucks spent on them. Sad how much money for such wrong reasons - IS inevitably going to be made off the fear that's going to result from these latest developments.

Don't get me wrong - I am deeply concerned for and empathetic towards what the people of Japan are dealing with right now. I just think to be freaking out here on the West Coast of the U.S. is completely inappropriate.
posted by cdalight at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2011


In an effort to answer my own question I'm currently going over confidence intervals at Wolfram MathWorld, but it's proving impenetrable given the current levels of blood in my caffeine system.

Also, I just wanted to add that both very disappointed and unsurprised in CNN for the way they're handling news on the reactor problems at Fukushima.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2011


Just catching up again.

Personal notes. Kyodo news services seems to be nothing but DOOOOOOMMMMM, thus, I've discounted them greatly in reports.

There are clearly two flaws in the safety design of these early BWRs in Mark I containments

1) The assumption that offsite or generator power could be restored within 8 hours was flawed. They had a plan for LOOP (Generators) and for loss of generators (batteries) and for loss of batteries (more batteries or portable generators being brought to the site.) All failed in the face of the combined quake and tsunami, and while they clearly thought that the could lose offsite power and the generators, they never thought that they couldn't then get to the plant and get generators or batteries online in 8 hours.

2) The Mark I containment is *very very* bad at hydrogen extraction. If they're going to continue to run these, they'll need to come up with a better way than they have, which is apparently "blow it up over the reactor."

3) I believe them when they say that the blasts haven't damaged containment -- the part of the building blown away is basically the crane lift bay, and if they had damaged containment, we'd be seeing a great deal more than 9.4&muSv/hr

4) There's been more evidence that sensors are down -- we keep seeing things that don't add up. If the fuel rods were indeed completely uncovered for more than a couple of hours, they'd probably have melted completely, and we're not seeing any evidence of that (we'd see much more CS and I than we are.

5) Time is starting to help. Every hour, the decay reactions lessen and the heat generated by the core drops. As long as they can keep the cores in a non-critical configuration, the job of cooling them will continue to get easier.

6) I do think there has been moderate to severe damage to the cores in F1#1 through #3. I don't think we've seen a slump to the bottom meltdown.

7) Containment has held. Pray that aftershock prediction doesn't come true, they don't need any more curveballs.

8) Aren't numbered lists fun?
posted by eriko at 9:25 AM on March 14, 2011 [17 favorites]


Eriko - yes they are (not to mention reassuring ....)
posted by cdalight at 9:27 AM on March 14, 2011


Another silly question: Once everything is cooled off safely, how would they know that the cores have melted? Are there windows or something so they could see in there? Especially if there is sensor damage or damage to the controls, etc how would they be able to tell what actually happened?
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:27 AM on March 14, 2011


9) ???

10) Profit!

No, really, that was a good post - thank you for it
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:27 AM on March 14, 2011


Another silly question: Once everything is cooled off safely, how would they know that the cores have melted?

Imagine you left a tea kettle on for a few hours -- do you have to look inside to know what happened to the water?
posted by empath at 9:31 AM on March 14, 2011


Ultimately, they will have to dismantle the reactor and remove the remains of the core assy. That's not going to happen anytime soon.
posted by warbaby at 9:33 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


@cdalight: Its about 5133 miles from Japan to San Francisco (calculated from Tokyo, but its a good enough number for our purposes). Here is a map of the Chernobyl plume. Note that the plume peters out around the 900 mile mark.

Even given the jet stream, there would have to be a much, much, MUCH bigger event than is currently possible (even given three reactors in full meltdown mode) for us to see any issues on the west coast.
posted by anastasiav at 9:34 AM on March 14, 2011


7) Containment has held.

eriko, what do you make of the claim that the Mark I containment is also unusually vulnerable, made in the Union of Concerned Scientists' Sunday Update on Fukushima Reactors that ob1quixote linked above? It references a study at the NRC site that notes, "A very important feature of these results is that there is a very high probability of a melt-through failure. The probability of an early melt-through failure given core damage is roughly 36% for all cases":

The Mark I is unusually vulnerable to containment failure in the event of a core-melt accident. A recent study [pdf] by Sandia National Laboratories shows that the likelihood of containment failure in this case is nearly 42% (see Table 4-7 on page 97). The most likely failure scenario involves the molten fuel burning through the reactor vessel, spilling onto the containment floor, and spreading until it contacts and breeches the steel containment-vessel wall.

The Sandia report characterizes these probabilities as “quite high.” It’s not straightforward to interpret these results in the context of the very complicated and uncertain situation at Fukushima. But they are a clear indication of a worrisome vulnerability of the Mark I containment should the core completely melt and escape the reactor vessel.

posted by mediareport at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I assume that once the cores are in a more safe configuration even if they are partially or totally melted that remote cameras and sensors can be inserted into the containment vessel to ascertain the damage level to the fuel rods.

At a certain point in time they'll probably want to actually dismantle and remove the reactor and fuel. I believe that's what they did with TMI. As long as the containment unit remains whole and the fuel doesn't melt through it they should be able to clean up the facility to a degree.

I doubt that any of the 3 reactors damaged will be used again and it seem unlikely that their building will see new reactors.
posted by vuron at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2011


Imagine you left a tea kettle on for a few hours -- do you have to look inside to know what happened to the water?

Well no...but I could pick up a teakettle and wave it around to listen for sloshing instead of looking inside.
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:36 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Won't be no sloshing after a few hours.
posted by rainy at 9:40 AM on March 14, 2011


cdalight: The sorts of things one already has in one's quake kit are sufficient for lots of emergencies. Anything your DIL might maybe possibly outside-chance need for a radiological hazard-- potassium iodide, for instance-- would be provided by local authorities.

Long pants, long-sleeved shirts, work gloves, good shoes, clean food and water, that stuff works for every emergency, and can be had much cheaper.

(You can debate how timely that provision would be all you want, I suppose, if you're that kind of person-- I know I am at times, thanks to my OCD-like brain misfire-- but picking up a bottle of KI pills would be way cheaper than any sort of "protection package," if you felt that way, and they last something like five years. Consider it a long-term investment for the disaster kit. Taking them would be premature and inadvisable if you're out here, though.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:41 AM on March 14, 2011




1422: Japanese engineer Masashi Goto, who helped design the containment vessel for Fukushima's reactor core, says the design was not enough to withstand earthquakes or tsunamis and the plant's builders, Toshiba, knew this. More on Mr Goto's remarks to follow.

What I read here.

"I designed this, it failed, and I better throw someone else under the bus before they came for me."

The exact specs that this building was designed to handle are known -- IIRC, .18G ground movement over a couple of meters for 30 seconds. That's a very severe earthquake.

If the containment couldn't have handled the quake and tsunami, you figure one of the six plants at the station would have had a complete core breech by now. The fact that they were able to keep primary cooling going until the tsunami hit shows that the reactor handled the quake quite well. The fact that they were able to keep the RCICs going until the batteries died shows that the emergency systems handled the quake and tsunami quite well.

The fact that they assumed they'd have power back in 8 hours after a complete loss of power, that was a mistake, but that -- not the quake, not the tsunami -- is what killed this reactors.

The problem wasn't the buildings -- they performed to the spec they were built to. The problem was the specs weren't good enough in the face of a huge area disaster.

Oh, yeah
He say that as the reactor uses mox (mixed oxide) fuel, the melting point is lower than that of conventional fuel.

Yes, but both are far above the melting point of the fuel rod cladding, PuO2 melts at 2400C, UO2 at 2865C. Almost all metals melt below 1500C. In fact, because the Pu fraction is so low and there are other things involved in fuel rods, you can treat MOX fuel the same as UO2 fuel -- at a very large molar fraction of .15, MOX will fully melt at 2787C, compare to the 2865C of pure uranium fuel, and at a more likely .05 fraction, that melt rises to 2818C. At these temps, ~50C is simply not a useful difference.
posted by eriko at 9:46 AM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


bummer about @arclight.
posted by mwhybark at 9:46 AM on March 14, 2011


Translator coworker just provided this Yomiuri report (auto-translated version), and then said "serious trouble." It gives a little more data about how much fuel rod exposure has gone down at Unit 2.

(3.7m out sounds... quite dire.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:48 AM on March 14, 2011


Considering that Japan is not really in a position to abandon Nuclear reactors I think it will be interesting to see if this speeds up adoption of some of the more cutting edge designs being developed.

Something like the pebble bed reactor design seems like it's much more accident resistant because the design is inherently developed to run at extremely high temperatures.
posted by vuron at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2011


I'm still waiting for corroboration about the water levels at Unit II. I've heard allegations ranging from a completely uncovered core, to a stuck pressure relief valve and rising pressures. I've heard nothing nothing from the official sources (TEPCO, IAEA) and I share eriko's suspicion of the instrumentation, but in the meantime I'm biting my nails. It's going to be a tense few days.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:58 AM on March 14, 2011


I used to work in the touring industry. This statement is bullshit. I wouldn't leave an untrained person to do the job, but wiring up several kilowatts of electric power is laughably easy as long as you follow a few rather simply safety precautions.

Several kilowatts (say 5000) is only ~20A at 240 Volts. Yep any monkey could handle that as it is a trivial amount of power. 200A at 600V is 120 kilowatts or about a tenth of a megawatt. That is some serious power no matter how you want to slice it.
posted by Mitheral at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2011


"I designed this, it failed, and I better throw someone else under the bus before they came for me."

Well, that seems a bit unfair and actually a bit beneath you, eriko. It's unlikely Goto was the sole designer, and according to the comment just above yours, he quit over concerns they weren't being designed properly.
posted by mediareport at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


blow-by-blow timeline presentation on NHK world right now (nope, now finished, I'd expect it to rerun):

http://jibtv.com/program/?page=0

I aslo think I just heard the newscaster say that TEPCO says #2's fuel rods are presumed to be fully exposed and that they 'cannot inject further coolant.' Apologies if that aspect has been covered upthread, returning to my readthrough.
posted by mwhybark at 10:06 AM on March 14, 2011


Reuters reporting that Japan has formally asked the US to come help out at Fukushima. That means the Pacific Fleet, since USN has all the reactor wonks.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:08 AM on March 14, 2011


The fact that they assumed they'd have power back in 8 hours after a complete loss of power, that was a mistake, but that -- not the quake, not the tsunami -- is what killed this reactors.

From what I'm understanding, the tsunami damage is what prevented them from restoring the power. If it actually was a matter of basement wiring in a seaside plant, that seems like a design flaw to this layman.

Something like the pebble bed reactor design seems like it's much more accident resistant because the design is inherently developed to run at extremely high temperatures.

There was some noise made about this several years back when the Chinese were looking to revive the idea. I haven't heard much about it since. Anything happening on that front?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:09 AM on March 14, 2011


"I designed this, it failed, and I better throw someone else under the bus before they came for me."

I don't think so.. even if he was saying that in bad faith, which is not likely, he wouldn't do it so crudely, I would think. He quit designing reactors and became a professor, sounds like it'd be a large cut and salary and in light of that his story of disagreements with the company about safety make sense.

Anyway, I think he might be talking about containment's integrity in case of full meltdown?
posted by rainy at 10:14 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why has arclight been silenced? Could it be that Fauske associates are being pressured by the Industry?
posted by adamvasco at 10:14 AM on March 14, 2011


The fact that they assumed they'd have power back in 8 hours after a complete loss of power, that was a mistake, but that -- not the quake, not the tsunami -- is what killed this reactors.

The problem wasn't the buildings -- they performed to the spec they were built to. The problem was the specs weren't good enough in the face of a huge area disaster.


To imply that the main failure here was that they only had 8 hours of battery backup instead of 80 is pretty remarkable. Designing a reactor that requires uninterrupted power to prevent it from melting down is a terrible idea. Period. No series of backup generators or layers of redundancy will fix that.
posted by euphorb at 10:19 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Something like the pebble bed reactor design seems like it's much more accident resistant because the design is inherently developed to run at extremely high temperatures.There was some noise made about this several years back when the Chinese were looking to revive the idea. I haven't heard much about it since. Anything happening on that front?

Not really. The Chinese are still operating a prototype and designing another [pdf]. The South African company that drummed up all the media attention has gone under. There are lots of safety risks that are specific to the pebble bed design, including lack of containment, the presence of graphite, and the highly enriched fuel required.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:20 AM on March 14, 2011


mediareport, I'm continuing my crash course in Probabilistic Risk Assessment (q.v. Probabilistic Risk Assessment: What Is It And Why Is It Worth Performing It?), but my initial impression is that the statement the likelihood of containment failure in this case is nearly 42% implies a naive interpretation of the numbers in Table 4-7.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:21 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


no pressure release, no coolant injection, yes, that is what they are saying. Great.
posted by mwhybark at 10:22 AM on March 14, 2011


Why has arclight been silenced?

The only things I can derive from Arclight's tweets are:

1) It's not his boss telling him this; it's people further up the line from the local office. That's standard in lots of places-- for instance, my manager in VFX never tells us not to talk to vendors or the media, it's always the publicity head or the studio director or the CEO.

2) Those people would prefer-- in fact, they insist-- that he leave the exposition to the media professionals, as there is "a lot at risk" for them. Obviously they are worried about harm to the bottom line; it is a corporation we're talking about here, not Arclight himself.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:23 AM on March 14, 2011


no pressure release, no coolant injection, yes, that is what they are saying. Great.

So, the containment is just going to explode eventually? That hardly sounds like a plan.
posted by anastasiav at 10:24 AM on March 14, 2011


Designing a reactor that requires uninterrupted power to prevent it from melting down is a terrible idea. Period. No series of backup generators or layers of redundancy will fix that.

That's a bit hasty. For every backup system, the risk of failure goes down. You can analyse the "Probabalistic Risk Assessment" and decide how much backup you need to prevent consequences under increasingly severe events. I have no idea whether the safety assessment for this system was realistic or accurate, but given the size of the earthquake and the death toll in the area, the fact that the reactors have been damaged, but have not caused major releases or injuries is a testament to good planning and design. Newer BWRs designs include more robust "station-blackout" capable (passive) shutdown cooling systems.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:28 AM on March 14, 2011


Well you can have steam leaks develop without necessarily having a catastrophic explosion in the main containment vessel. There must be tons of high pressure pipes leading in and out of the reactor, presumably any one of the welds could start venting steam prior to the central reactor casing having a massive steam explosion. Not that they are wanting to have uncontrolled venting of any sort.
posted by vuron at 10:30 AM on March 14, 2011


In hindsight, would it have been better if they'd kept one reactor operating to power the cooling pumps for the other two reactors? Would it have been possible to keep the steam turbines spinning during an earthquake / tsunami?
posted by anthill at 10:30 AM on March 14, 2011


"I designed this [containment vessel], it failed, and I better throw someone else under the bus before they came for me."

I thought that the Fukushima-1 Unit-1 Mark I containment vessel was designed by General Electric.
posted by zippy at 10:32 AM on March 14, 2011


anthill, maybe. I doubt the turbines would have survived the tsunami though.
posted by atrazine at 10:32 AM on March 14, 2011


anthill: no, because if it's structurally damaged, it might lead to runaway criticality. That's even much worse. If control rods are damaged you can't insert them and stop the reaction. Earthquake == best to shut everything down and deal with lesser problems afterwards.
posted by rainy at 10:33 AM on March 14, 2011


In hindsight, would it have been better if they'd kept one reactor operating to power the cooling pumps for the other two reactors? Would it have been possible to keep the steam turbines spinning during an earthquake / tsunami?

I don't think it works that way.. The generation capacity of that reactor is huge, and the generated energy has to go somewhere. Power distribution lines are down though. So, you'd have to have an on site system for dissipating that energy. And then there are a thousand other considerations. So, I just don't think it works that way.
posted by Chuckles at 10:34 AM on March 14, 2011


Also, part of what make probabilistic risk assessment difficult are so called "common cause" accidents. When the same incident disables multiple "independent" backups.
posted by atrazine at 10:34 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think all the reactors get automatically scrammed anthill, while I guess in theory one of the 3 offline reactors could be started to provide local power to the disabled 3 that seems like it has the risk of adding to the problem as it's not certain that they weren't damaged as well. It's also quite likely that the electrical distribution network within the entire complex is severely compromised to the point where power wouldn't be able to be routed to the damaged cooling systems anyway.
posted by vuron at 10:35 AM on March 14, 2011


zippy: I don't know for certain but it sounds like there'd be a general design and then every installation would have some degree of customization. For example, a lot of the installations are rated at different power outputs. I'm sure there are many other customizations. He must be the designer who customized the overall design.
posted by rainy at 10:37 AM on March 14, 2011


Here's a little rundown on who did what at Fukushima Daiichi. Toshiba was the supplier and architect for Unit 3, in particular.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


In fact, there surely must be some modifications to the design to place it in an active seismic zone.
posted by rainy at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2011


Offered FWIW to whomever so interested from Greg Palast (and haven't even read it all myself yet - thought it might be pertinent to the discussion. If not - sorry):

Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants
The no-BS info on Japan's disastrous nuclear operators

posted by cdalight at 10:40 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bugbread commented over on the main earthquake thread:

On the nuke front, they're saying that the valve won't open, so they're going to use another venting approach, which releases a lot more radiation (apparently they normally vent through water, which absorbs some radiation, but this time there isn't enough water, so they're going to vent directly from the inner chamber to the outer chamber.)

I don't know his source, presumably local media in Tokyo.
posted by nangar at 10:43 AM on March 14, 2011


@euphorb: I hear you when you say you would be much more comfortable with systems that do not require safety systems. I would too. But just like you accept a certain amount of risk every time you step into your car, the regulator accepts a certain amount of risk to provide a stable baseload power. They set that risk to be as small as possible. The alternative is deaths due to air pollution, day after day.

@atrazine: This certainly smells like a case of an unanticipated "common cause" accident, but we'll have to wait until the final analysis to know if the safety case was too optimistic. Thankfully the design requires features for post-accident mitigation (containment mostly) regardless of the failure mode.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:43 AM on March 14, 2011


In hindsight, would it have been better if they'd kept one reactor operating to power the cooling pumps for the other two reactors? Would it have been possible to keep the steam turbines spinning during an earthquake / tsunami?

Only if you can correctly pick which of the 3 is the one that won't break during the quake & wave.
posted by scalefree at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2011


Some more info on who built/designed what at Fukushima-1 (Daiichi)

Units 1 and 2. Reactor supplied by General Electric. Architecture (the concrete containment?) by Ebasco, Construction by Kajima.

Unit 3. Reactor supplied by Toshiba. Architecture also done by Toshiba. Construction by Kajima.
posted by zippy at 10:48 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, that Greg Palast article was full of all sorts of fearmongering and borderline racism.

"Beware Westinghouse is actually Toshiba!"

It seems only logical that US nuke industry types would seek to discourage outside plant operators from getting into the US market. More competition means lower profits. I'm not saying that future plants shouldn't receive significant scrutiny during the design, implementation and production phases but it really seems like the article linked is pushing more than a slight bit of agenda.
posted by vuron at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2011


Furthermore euphorb, I think it's probably a little unreasonable to expect the reactor to be completely unscathed after a natural disaster that has killed thousands and wiped out whole cities. I do expect the containment systems to work in this scenario mind you, and if they fail I will lead the charge for tighter regulation.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2011


should have previewed - fairytale of los angeles got it.
posted by zippy at 10:50 AM on March 14, 2011


Latest BBC Live note:

#1747: UK energy consultant Prof Ian Fells tells the BBC that widespread power blackouts across Japan pose a bigger problem for the population than radioactive leaks from broken nuclear reactors.

Prof. Ian Fells - Greg Palast - pick a perspective ... it's all out there to find.
posted by cdalight at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2011


So if the fuel rods are completely exposed and there is no way to add seawater coolant, we are just waiting for the core to meltdown completely and pool at the bottom of containment? Then we see if the containment can withstand both a pressure problem and molten Uranium sloshing around in the bottom?

I have a good idea of the actual melting point of these fuel rods, but how hot can they actually get? Eventually they are just going to melt through whatever containment they have, right?
posted by chemoboy at 10:54 AM on March 14, 2011


I have a good idea of the actual melting point of these fuel rods, but how hot can they actually get? Eventually they are just going to melt through whatever containment they have, right?

The worst case scenario tracks that path yes, but its likelihood isn't as certain as your post suggests. I'm still waiting to see reliable confirmation that they've lost the capacity to cool the core at unit 2.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:57 AM on March 14, 2011


The alternative is deaths due to air pollution, day after day.

I don't want to start a pointless derail but this is untrue. The alternative to nuclear power is not burning coal. That's a strawman. The alternative is a mix of natural gas, wind and solar. Incidentally none of those technologies have a failure mode that involves making cities uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The reason new nuclear plants probably won't ever be built in the United States is because they are too expensive. That's partly because all of the redundant engineering that needs to go into them just to make them safe and partly because of the enormous up front fixed costs.

posted by euphorb at 10:59 AM on March 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


I have been looking for written information reflecting the statements from the press conference that NHK was basing their report on. However, I have had no luck. I haven't even been able to find a cited time for the press conference.

The most recent written official-source summary information is from 8:30 last night, if I recall correctly, and the most recent TEPCO updates are prior to the changes in the status of #2.

Katz at Yokosonews.com guy just described the news conference as 'kind of disorganized' and said he was waiting for better presentation of the data to discuss. It's 3am in Japan now, so presumably the next substantive updates will be in a couple-few hours barring some new surprise, like another hydrogen explosion.
posted by mwhybark at 11:01 AM on March 14, 2011


Will General Electric be liable for any of this? It seems like building something with a 40+ year lifespan, there's the potential for long-term liability of the sort that asbestos-linked industries face, vs whatever immediate profit is made from the sale/license of the design.

I do not mean to say General Electric is responsible. I am not qualified to do that, and this is clearly an 'act of god' event if ever there was one, but that does make me wonder what their liability is, and also whether their insurance for this (which I presume they would have in the vent of liability) would be bound to cover it.
posted by zippy at 11:02 AM on March 14, 2011


High-resolution satellite image of the Fukushima Dai Ichi Power Plant, after the second explosion.
posted by ltl at 11:04 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The alternative to nuclear power is not burning coal. That's a strawman. The alternative is a mix of natural gas, wind and solar. Incidentally none of those technologies have a failure mode that involves making cities uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Rather than call it a strawman, can I call coal the only technology and infrastructure we presently have capable of supplying enough energy to keep all of our homes and industry, at present levels of consumption, lit up?

I hate coal, really. It is nasty. But is there really sufficient power capacity from natural gas, wind, and solar forecast in the next decade to cover our needs? Even forecast in the sense of 'Moon landing effort' budgets?

posted by zippy at 11:08 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


NYT report reflecting the new situation at #2.

I have been dissatisfied with the way the NYT has been using the world 'meltdown,' because it is not clear that it is being used to describe a specific set of conditions in the reactors. The article does not say the fuel rods are 'presumed to be fully exposed,' which is the phrase the NHKWorld news was using.
posted by mwhybark at 11:08 AM on March 14, 2011


For those of you debunking things for concerned relatives, here's your Snopes link for that bullshit "measured in rads" Australian map that went around two days ago.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:09 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure there is enough natural gas, wind, hydro and solar to satisfy the current level of demand in the world much less the anticipated demand as third world countries modernize. Conservation is going to help but I think it merely reduces the demand for newer plants, not completely replaces them.

I think for better or worse a mix of nuclear and coal is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, at least until the engineering issues surrounding positive energy production in a fusion reactor are solved.

That means we have to decide as a society which poison is better to swallow, the constant one from coal which could have very serious environmental consequences or the nuclear solution which is generally very safe but has had some very spectacular and scary accidents associated with it.

Neither one is particularly appealing but nuclear does seem to be the most realistic solution during the upcoming transition period from fossil fuel economy to a fusion based economy.
posted by vuron at 11:15 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


"In reactor No. 2, which is now the most damaged of the three at the Daiichi plant, at least parts of the fuel roads have been exposed for several hours, which also suggests that some of the fuel has begun to melt. If more of the fuel melts before water can be injected in the vessel, the fuel pellets could burn through the bottom of the containment vessel and radioactive material could pour out that way — often referred to as a full meltdown."
They're calling the "melt through"/"China Syndrome" scenario a "full meltdown". I thought it could fully melt into a puddle, still be contained, and be a "meltdown"? As I understand it, the hope right now is that it will be contained, even if it melts entirely. NYT seems to not mention that it's quite possible that containment won't fail.

Yay for scary anonymous sources:
“They’re basically in a full-scale panic” among Japanese power industry managers, said a senior nuclear industry executive late Monday night. The executive is not involved in managing the response to the reactors’ difficulties but has many contacts in Japan. “They’re in total disarray, they don’t know what to do.”
posted by BungaDunga at 11:18 AM on March 14, 2011


There are lots of safety risks that are specific to the pebble bed design, including lack of containment, the presence of graphite, and the highly enriched fuel required.

Exactly. Plus, Chernobyl -- just as TMI made reactors unpalatable in the US, Chernobyl made graphite moderated reactors unpalatable everywhere else.

It's unlikely Goto was the sole designer, and according to the comment just above yours, he quit over concerns they weren't being designed properly.

The difference between a whistleblower and someone covering their ass is the whistleblower starts yelling *well before* it happens, not after.

I'll admit that, with all the translations in place, that may in fact be the case, in which case, I will publically apologize to Mr. Goto. There has been more than once where translations have messed up tenses.

However, my experience with the people who come out after a disaster claiming that they knew it was a flawed design is that they fall into one of two classes -- publicity seekers and those trying to dodge the blame.

And it's very clear that this station was designed with the threat of severe earthquakes and tsunamis in mind. We even know what those specs were -- .18g, response spectrum similar to a 1952 California quake noted for long period shaking You can argue that they didn't design for a severe enough earthquake or a large enough tsunami, but they clearly were designed for severe earthquakes and tsunamis. One source I saw, but I'm not very confident in, said they had a 3m floodwall in place -- which, if true, is a solid tsunami protection system -- questions, of course, is that height the actual height of the wall (in which case, how high is the base over mean high tide?) or was that height over mean high tide? I suspect the former, because people in general don't consider water levels when they cite the height of a wall -- if it's a 10' wall, it's a 10' wall, which might protect against a 20 foot flood, since the base happened to be 10' over datum. Anybody walked the coast there?

Tsunamis of three meters above mean high tide are very rare on pretty much *every* section of coast in the world.

Would you have built for a 10m tsunami? Really? How many of those occur on any given point of the coast. Yes, 2004 Indian ocean -- but what tiny fraction of the world's coasts saw 10m? How often does it happen? The 1978 quake did send a tsunami of 60cm -- or .6m. Even if you demanded a factor of ten, you'd build a 6m high wall -- and you would have lost.

See the 7.2 Mw foreshock that hit two days before, or the 7.7 Mw Miyagi Earthquake that happened in practically the same place as the 2011 Sendai quake. Neither of those -- and while a 7.7 isn't a 9.0, it *is* a major earthquake. The reactors were thoroughly inspect after the 1978 Miyagi quake, where they'd sustained a .125g movement for 30 seconds, with no damage to anything important.

Looking over various lists of Japanese Earthquakes, you see most of the historical big ones in the 6.8 - 8.3, with the bigger ones to the north -- a quick sampling shows the further north, the worse they are, but that's *very quick*

How many buildings in the world can handle that? There were a fuckload in Kobe and San Francisco -- both known earthquake zones -- that failed dramatically under far less quakes.

The statement that they were not designed to handle severe earthquakes, and in particular, that the containment buildings were not designed to that spec, is quite simply incorrect. They were. They generally survived the damage.

The power systems did fail, and that's what's lead to the problems. But the containment structure *did not fail*, and if it does, it will because the lack of power caused cooling failures, not because the containment structure was damaged in the earthquake.

This is important, because if you go to retrofit, or design new reactors, making the containment structures stronger without looking at the power issues is a great way to make sure the next reactor fails during a large area disaster. Adding stuff that isn't needed raises the cost, but not the safety -- indeed, it can reduce the safety if it makes other systems problematic, or they're reduced because of cost.

Designing a reactor that requires uninterrupted power to prevent it from melting down is a terrible idea.

Doing so was very hard -- and to be honest, many people didn't (and don't!) trust passive safety systems. The US Navy is believed to be the first to truly crack passive cooling (but with PWRs) in the 720 submarines. It's only very recently that truly passive cooling designs have been possible -- the ABWR and APWR don't have them (though they do have dramatically reduced pumping requirements) and I think the ESBWR is the only design to offer true passive cooling using light water as a moderator. I think that maybe the Advanced CANDU is either fully passive or requires very little circulation in a shutdown state, but I'd need to go read up on them before I asserted that.

Most of the current designs limit the need for active pumping and then build multiply redundant pump and power systems. Later designs, with multiple active pumping circuits, also have multiple power systems to raise the redundancy.

It's not an easy thing to do. It's been a goal of reactor designers for a long time, but they're only just starting to crack it.
posted by eriko at 11:19 AM on March 14, 2011 [15 favorites]


my initial impression is that the statement "the likelihood of containment failure in this case is nearly 42%" implies a naive interpretation of the numbers in Table 4-7.

Mine too. Damn, I can't keep up with this thread while reading stuff like that. But it looks like they are saying that the probability of "large early" release is ~42% given that you increase pressure to the point where containment fails. Which is not happening so long as they can vent the pressure, and maybe not even if they couldn't. The rest of the time, when it does fail in their model of too much pressure, it fails some other way such as a smaller and slower leak.
posted by sfenders at 11:22 AM on March 14, 2011


I must say that while I'm horrified to have to be learning so much about nuclear plants right now, I thoroughly appreciate eriko and the others for being so informative. Politics aside (far, far aside), this kind of information exchange is powerful stuff.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:24 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


UK NewsNow: Japan Earthquake - Nuclear Crisis

Another info resource.....
posted by cdalight at 11:24 AM on March 14, 2011


I don't want to start a pointless derail but this is untrue. The alternative to nuclear power is not burning coal. That's a strawman. The alternative is a mix of natural gas, wind and solar. Incidentally none of those technologies have a failure mode that involves making cities uninhabitable for thousands of years.

You might be right that nuclear power is too expensive to build in the US, with all it's engineered safety systems. All of the estimates and budgets I've read suggest that, while expensive, Nuclear is currently much cheaper than wind or solar, especially when you consider the price of the gas-fired backups (or stored energy facilities) required. Keep in mind that nuclear power produces a huge amount of energy, which can be used to offset the costs. We can get into whether we should force electricity costs to increase drastically by banning anything but renewables, but that's an argument for another time.

In the meanwhile, it's a bit dishonest to talk about accidents which could render a city uninhabitable for thousands of years. That's unlikely to happen, and to suggest it at this time is just fear-mongering.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:25 AM on March 14, 2011


eriko: Why can't diesel generators alone be protected from a tsunami? I don't think you need a 12 meter wall, just a very thick enclosure for the generators. If the primary containment unit can survive the tsunami, why can't it be done for diesel generators?

For perspective, there was a 20m tsunami in Japan in 19th century. I would think if japanese people were told that yeah, a big tsunami is very likely to lead to a meltdown with currently used designs, they'd call for a change to new designs. But were they ever told that?
posted by rainy at 11:28 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The reason new nuclear plants probably won't ever be built in the United States is because they are too expensive. That's partly because all of the redundant engineering that needs to go into them just to make them safe and partly because of the enormous up front fixed costs.
When President Palin takes office, safety measures won't add any overhead anymore.
posted by Flunkie at 11:28 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The alternative is a mix of natural gas, wind and solar. Incidentally none of those technologies have a failure mode that involves making cities uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Well, in the case of natural gas, making (coastal) cities uninhabitable for thousands of years doesn't even involve a failure mode; it's simply a consequence of normal, intended operation.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


We can get into whether we should force electricity costs to increase drastically by banning anything but renewables, but that's an argument for another time.

We don't even need to do that. We could start by eliminating the billions of dollars in subsidies to fossil fuel technologies so we could at least compare them at something slightly closer to true cost.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:31 AM on March 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


The alternative is a mix of natural gas, wind and solar. Incidentally none of those technologies have a failure mode that involves making cities uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Funny, there are sure a shitload of dead people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki then -- and they're all walking around, talking, and are probably worried about relatives in the north of Japan.

Yes, Chernobyl was a fuck up -- but stating that nuclear power isn't safe because of Chernobyl is like saying cars aren't safe because of the Pinto.

Of the three, only solar has a chance in hell of matching nuclear's output abilities, but it's a horrible base load plant, because the *sun sets every day*

There is the idea of a solar plant in orbit beaming power down to the ground, but if I have a 1GW energy beam, while it won't make a city uninhabitable, you can bet I can kill a city with it.

We'll have to have active systems to automatically shut down the beam if it moves. BUT WHAT IF THEY FAIL?

What you are really saying is "If we can cut the energy consumption of human civilization dramatically, then we can get by with wind, solar, and natural gas (until it runs out too....)"

Crack that nut and your statement is only implausible.
posted by eriko at 11:34 AM on March 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


Well, in the case of natural gas, making (coastal) cities uninhabitable for thousands of years doesn't even involve a failure mode; it's simply a consequence of normal, intended operation.

Hrm? As far as I can tell, the worry is that it could potentially make them uninhabitable pretty much momentarily.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:35 AM on March 14, 2011




Yes, Chernobyl was a fuck up -- but stating that nuclear power isn't safe because of Chernobyl is like saying cars aren't safe because of the Pinto.

+1

Sadly, you're going to get so many people who rail on because "nuclear plants are not cars, nuclear plants are dangerous!"....
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:40 AM on March 14, 2011


For instance, Bloomberg has reported that we actively subsidize fossil fuel energy sources (which you'd think would be mature enough we wouldn't still be having to subsidize them) to the tune of twelve times as much as we do the renewables (which, being relatively new, you'd think would need more subsidization). And that's not even taking into account military adventures in Nigeria, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world that are at least partly a cost of fossil fuels.

What you are really saying is "If we can cut the energy consumption of human civilization dramatically, then we can get by with wind, solar, and natural gas (until it runs out too....)"

Simple. Forget short-term economic harm, and focus on surviving. Ban non mass-transit vehicles except for limited official uses. Ha! Yeah right.

Sadly, you're going to get so many people who rail on because "nuclear plants are not cars, nuclear plants are dangerous!"....

Isn't the honest answer that both are dangerous but we may or may not have or accept various justifications for accepting the dangers? Nuclear power is definitely dangerous. Cars are definitely dangerous. Oil is definitely dangerous. Fire is definitely dangerous. No need to lie and say any of these things will ever actually be safe.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:44 AM on March 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


According to the US Department of Energy, 900 out of the next 1000 power plants built in the United States will be natural gas powered. It's basically just not possible to build a coal or nuclear plant in the US any more. If you look at the projected energy use in the US in 2035, nuclear and coal combined will be 60% of the energy mix compared with 65% now.
posted by euphorb at 11:44 AM on March 14, 2011


We have the remote, theoretical potential for steam or hydrogen to be trapped and explode under the plenum or potential corium in the Fukushima reactors, yes?

I wonder if anyone has analyzed what it would mean were a pressure vessel breach and upward ejection of the contents to occur at one of the Fukushima reactors (plume, local exposure) given a state where the cores have been shut down and cooled down for some time.
posted by zippy at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2011


Grimly amusing highlight of the other day: the anthropomorphized Fukushima Daiichi plant, on Twitter, calling Michio Kaku a "jerk" and an "alarmist" for a previous tweet all "Another Chernobyl?"

I know Kaku's a popular media figure-- I love me some Science Grandpa as much as anyone else when I need something to watch-- but, really, does he have any standing to be commenting extensively to the media here? He's a smart guy, yes, but I was under the impression that his distinction lay largely in the field of theoretical physics.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:49 AM on March 14, 2011


Does anyone know the volume of steam/hydrogen/whatever that's vented from these reactors? Is it feasible to have a tank on site to contain this stuff, at least temporarily?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:51 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously, screw Michio Kaku. He keeps showing up places saying "Yo, time travel is totally possible. So is ESP, etc." or at least that's the impression I have of him. Like him going to be showing up on the rerun of Firefly explaining the "science" behind the show. I mean, really? Really. Science. I don't really trust him in the realm of popular theoretical physics, let alone nuclear power.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2011


Like him going to be showing up on the rerun of Firefly explaining the "science" behind the show.

Firefly was actually pretty good on the science, with the exception of the extent of terraforming. /derail

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:56 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


zippy: "We have the remote, theoretical potential for steam or hydrogen to be trapped and explode under the plenum or potential corium in the Fukushima reactors, yes?"

That's my general impression given what appears to be the state of affairs at #2. I suppose it's not surprising that there's been no clearer written reporting, given the timeframe.
posted by mwhybark at 11:58 AM on March 14, 2011


Wow, that Greg Palast article was full of all sorts of fearmongering

I dunno, the bit about catching the New York nuke plant owners lying about seismic tests was interesting:

The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ ["Seismic Qualification"] is to lie. The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York. Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from 'failed' to 'passed.'

The company that put in the false safety report? Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction which will work with Tokyo Electric to build the Texas plant, Lord help us...

In our racketeering case in New York, the government only found out about the seismic test fraud because two courageous engineers, Gordon Dick and John Daly, gave our team the documentary evidence. In Japan, it's simply not done. The culture does not allow the salary-men, who work all their their lives for one company, to drop the dime.

Not that US law is a wondrous shield: both engineers in the New York case were fired and blacklisted by the industry. Nevertheless, the government (local, state, federal) brought civil racketeering charges against the builders. The jury didn't buy the corporation's excuses and, in the end, the plant was, thankfully, dismantled.

posted by mediareport at 12:00 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Does anyone know the volume of steam/hydrogen/whatever that's vented from these reactors? Is it feasible to have a tank on site to contain this stuff, at least temporarily?

If you had a tank, you'd need something to compress the gases. Like an electric pump. Of course, the only reason we're in this situation is because backup power to the electric pumps failed. In other words, you wouldn't be able to use the tank in the only situation where it'd ever be useful. You could also have a passive tank simply attached by some plumbing, although it'd need to be huge in order to store any meaningful amount of hydrogen. (And then you'd have to figure out what to do with that hydrogen once it was stored, as you've now effectively created an enormous bomb)

The problem seems to be that the Mark I design called for excess hydrogen to be vented into the secondary containment building in the event of an over-pressure event inside the reactor. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have paid any attention to what would happen after you did that, and the building clearly was not designed to be a hydrogen storage vessel.

Browsing through Wikipedia shows that this was a known fault with the Mark I design, and that several reactors had been modified to prevent this very scenario from occurring.
posted by schmod at 12:01 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not that US law is a wondrous shield: both engineers in the New York case were fired and blacklisted by the industry. Nevertheless, the government (local, state, federal) brought civil racketeering charges against the builders. The jury didn't buy the corporation's excuses and, in the end, the plant was, thankfully, dismantled.

Am I missing something? It sounds like the law worked exactly as intended. The corporation massively fucked up, and had to pay a massive penalty for it.
posted by schmod at 12:02 PM on March 14, 2011


Is it feasible to have a tank on site to contain this stuff, at least

I think not, given that a specially designed high vessel, the reactor pressure vessel, is already on site and is not strong enough to contain the pressures and volumes they are seeing.

Getting a large enough vessel (or enough vessels) on site such that the V in PV=nRT is large and the P is small would, I think, be an impossibly large undertaking and would also only serve as a place to accumulate gradually released and dispersed radioactive material in one place that could catastrophically fail, releasing it all at once, possibly in the wrong direction.

Given that they're feeding in sea water at I presume a high rate, that also means a lot of steam being made. Perhaps they could create a giant condensor?
posted by zippy at 12:02 PM on March 14, 2011


Hrm? As far as I can tell, the worry is that it could potentially make them uninhabitable pretty much momentarily.

Burning natural gas increases global warming.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:03 PM on March 14, 2011


schmod: he is saying the law failed to protect whistleblowers.
posted by rainy at 12:03 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I want to say thank you to everybody here who keeps posting, all the recent media links are over my head and seem to be repeating themselves on here its a lot easier to understand.

How close are the people trying to control the rods working in relation to the reactors? Looking at the over head shot its amazing that they can get anything accomplished with the devastation around them. I assume they must be working close by if some were injured in the second explosion.
posted by lilkeith07 at 12:05 PM on March 14, 2011


eriko, I appreciate all you've done in these threads. If you get the chance to respond to that Sandia study about the possible vulnerability of Mark 1 containment, I'm sure folks would value it quite a bit, since that seems to be the next major area of concern.
posted by mediareport at 12:06 PM on March 14, 2011


Here's the relevant section from pg 76-77 of the study, published in 2006 and hosted at the NRC site. It's from the chapter about risk analysis of Mark 1 containment:

A very important feature of these results is that there is a very high probability of a melt-through failure. The probability of an early melt-through failure given core damage is roughly 36% for all cases. The probability of a failure in this mode is significantly higher than any of the other types of failure. The next most significant mode is early rupture, with a probability of about 6-7%, depending on the case, followed by wetwell venting, with a probability of about 2%. All of the other failure modes are relatively insignificant. The summation of all of the mean conditional probabilities for all of the modes listed in Table 4.5 is about 43.8% and changes very little as the various types of degradation are introduced. This dominance of the melt-through mode of containment failure....stems from the fact that the Mark I containment is relatively small, so that if the core were to melt, it would spread out over a relatively confined area, making it much less likely to cool off before penetrating the containment than it would be in a larger containment.

I don't hold this out as anything other than information I'd like to learn more about. But learning of this study a couple of days ago has been one of the main things keeping me from believing most of the "Nothing serious can possibly happen here" stuff, and if anyone has any thoughts to help counter that, I'd love to hear them.
posted by mediareport at 12:18 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Would you have built for a 10m tsunami? Really? How many of those occur on any given point of the coast.

The San Onofre nuclear plant which is located in Southern California has a wall 9 meters above sea level and California doesn't have the same history of large tsunamis that Japan has.
posted by euphorb at 12:19 PM on March 14, 2011


The San Onofre nuclear plant which is located in Southern California has a wall 9 meters above sea level and California doesn't have the same history of large tsunamis that Japan has.

How are those rated? I'm thinking of Katrina here.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:25 PM on March 14, 2011


lilkeith07, the plant control will be happening from a centralized control room, but there will also be the occasional need to have people walking around the plant operating equipment manually or reading manual gauges. The control rods were inserted automatically before the earthquake tremors even reached the plant, and nobody is ever going to take them out now.

Fukushima's reactors were built in the pre-digital instrumentation 1970s, which means that are a shit-ton of analog wires running from every pressure gauge and motor starting cabinet to a central control room with a lot of chunky dials and gauges. The wiring requirements mean that the control room was probably built close to both the turbine hall (long narrow building) and reactor containment (tall square building with roof blown off).

My guess is that the control room for reactors #1 and 2 is in the small nub sticking off the top-left of the middle turbine hall, next to the white, cylindrical water tank. Or possibly between the steam turbine hall and the reactors.
posted by anthill at 12:27 PM on March 14, 2011


I think there is some potential for geothermal energy to replace much of the world's current energy needs but the cost per megawatt is largely uncompetitive outside of some isolated locations (Iceland, parts of the US, etc). The Japanese islands with their close proximity to a ton of geothermal activity seems like it would be an ideal place to invest in geothermal plants but I guess there have been compelling reasons why they haven't.
posted by vuron at 12:29 PM on March 14, 2011


eriko, I appreciate all you've done in these threads. If you get the chance to respond to that Sandia study about the possible vulnerability of Mark 1 containment, I'm sure folks would value it quite a bit, since that seems to be the next major area of concern.

Yeah, I am not sure if it rates as vital area of concern or not, but I am having a hard time understanding it. Apparently skimming through the document with no actual knowledge of nuclear reactors made me confused, and I apologize for my previous comment.

Now I think it's saying that if the core does melt, that's bad. But it probably depends on stuff outside the scope of that study. What fraction of "core damage" events look anything like the present damage? Without that I don't think it's telling us much.
posted by sfenders at 12:33 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm not sure if this has been pointed out already, but TEPCO's latest site radiation measurements show the first positive levels of neutrons (中性子線) beginning yesterday. They are at very low levels - in the .001 to .002 µSv/hr range. All previous measurements were reported as undetectable/under .001 µSv/hr

The first local times showing a measurable level was 13 Mar 11: 5:30am. Subsequent measurements that day at 5:40am, 5:50am, 6:30am, 6:40am, 7:10am, 7:40am, 8:00am. 9:30am, 10:50am also showed measurable levels of neutrons.

On the 14 Mar 11: there was another positive measurement at 9:00pm. No measurements for neutrons were taken (or at least reported) from 14 Mar 11 10:40pm through the last report time of 15 Mar 11 1:05am. Gamma measurements continued, though.

(at 8:50am on the 14th they appear to have started a new kind of measurement, they are now sometimes reporting '0 µSv/h rather than '< .001 µSv/h')
posted by zippy at 12:42 PM on March 14, 2011


I've got some catching up to do on the thread, but I wanted to quickly point out the the way to solve the problem of the power beam from an orbital solar power plant wandering and potentially doing damage is to power the main beam with a return beam from the Earth station.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:43 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]




But are we anywhere close to being able to deploy commercial scale solar arrays in space that can beam energy back to distribution centers on the ground via micromave bursts ob1quixote?

I mean I'm in favor of sci-fi solutions to the world's power problems as well but it seems unlikely that the materials technology necessary to generate those sorts of power requirements in orbit are currently beyond our capabilities. Not to mention the immense expense of lifting said stations into space. I have read some research that talks about folding vast thing sheets of photovoltaic cells but I thought we were still talking the infancy of that sort of technology.
posted by vuron at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2011


Can someone comment on this bit about the spent fuel pools rom the Washington Post's article on the situation? I haven't seen this reported anywhere else. Really missing arclight this morning.
At the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, where the explosion Saturday destroyed a building housing the reactor, the spent fuel pool, in accordance with General Electric’s design, is placed above the reactor. Tokyo Electric said it was trying to figure out how to maintain water levels in the pools, indicating that the normal safety systems there had failed, too. Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that Unit 1’s pool might now be outside.

“That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1.

People familiar with the plant said there are seven spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi, many of them densely packed.

Gundersen said the Unit 1 pool could have as much as 20 years of spent fuel rods, which are still radioactive.
posted by dialetheia at 12:49 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a question about the control rods - does gravity hold them in place, or are they locked in? Would high pressure under the core, or the core being flipped, cause them to retract?
posted by zippy at 12:51 PM on March 14, 2011


Mark I containment is relatively small, so that if the core were to melt, it would spread out over a relatively confined area, making it much less likely to cool off before penetrating the containment than it would be in a larger containment.

Ah... so if there were a total meltdown, and it if melted through or otherwise destroyed the reactor vessel, then there's a good chance it would penetrate the part of the steel containment they model, but that does not include the outer containment building.
posted by sfenders at 12:51 PM on March 14, 2011


you're going to get so many people who rail on because "nuclear plants are not cars, nuclear plants are dangerous!"....

"Recalling" nuclear power plants, unlike recalling cars (re: the Pinto) is not really an option. Bot the nuclear power industry and the auto industry are regulated for safety, but it seems obvious that the safety regulations of nuclear are far more complex. After all, the consequences of a Pinto failing are likely to be a few unnecessary deaths, while the consequences of a reactor failing could be tens of thousands of deaths and a large swath of landmass made dangerous and/or uninhabitable due to radiation. So, yeah, the stakes in terms of potential failure are actually much higher with nuclear power than with automobiles.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 12:52 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


zippy: somewhere up the thread there was a quote from a good source that control rods do latch in.
posted by rainy at 12:53 PM on March 14, 2011


Can someone comment on this bit about the spent fuel pools

1) Japan reprocesses its fuel. I don't know for sure, but it seems unlikely they'd have 20 years worth on site.

2) I think arclight said that the pool above the reactor was only used while loading and unloading fuel, rather than for long-term storage of spent fuel.

(small world disclaimer, I thinkArnie Gundersen was my uncle's neighbor, and decades ago gave me a tour of a the nuclear energy company where he worked. I should get in touch with him)
posted by zippy at 12:54 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kyodo News, reporting on the 'fully exposed' information:

http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/03/77943.html

"The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said a steam vent of the pressure container of the reactor that houses the rods was closed for some reason, raising fears that its core will melt at a faster pace. It said it will try to open the vent to resume the operation to inject seawater to cool down the reactor.

Despite its earlier attempt to do so, however, water levels sharply fell and the fuel rods were fully exposed for about 140 minutes in the evening as a fire pump to pour cooling seawater into the reactor ran out of fuel and it took time for workers to release steam from the reactor to lower its pressure, the government's nuclear safety agency said.

Water levels in the No. 2 reactor later went up to cover more than half of the rods that measure about 4 meters at one point. TEPCO began pouring coolant water into the reactor after the cooling functions failed earlier in the day.

Prior to the second full exposure of the rods around 11 p.m., radiation was detected at 9:37 p.m. at a level twice the maximum seen so far -- 3,130 micro sievert per hour, according to TEPCO."

So all of this took place after the most-recent official English-language update at the TEPCO site, which was posted at 8p yesterday. The Kyodo report implies the press conference took place after 11pm.
posted by mwhybark at 12:54 PM on March 14, 2011


I think there is some potential for geothermal energy to replace much of the world's current energy needs but the cost per megawatt is largely uncompetitive outside of some isolated locations (Iceland, parts of the US, etc). The Japanese islands with their close proximity to a ton of geothermal activity seems like it would be an ideal place to invest in geothermal plants but I guess there have been compelling reasons why they haven't.

After the 7.2 Mexicali earthquake last year some people were concerned that geothermal power stations may cause (or exacerbate) earthquakes. Granted, radiation won't leak from a geothermal plant that causes an earthquake, but there's plenty-o-damage that could result.
posted by birdherder at 12:54 PM on March 14, 2011


“That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1.

I'm getting kind of confused. Initially, a whole bunch of people who seemed to know what they were talking about were saying emphatically there was no way this could possibly result in a problem on the scale of Chernobyl, but more recently, I've been seeing several reports and articles from other experts (at least, judging from their reported qualifications) saying that, in fact, we might be looking at a situation far worse than Chernobyl.

WTF?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:56 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I have a question about the control rods - does gravity hold them in place, or are they locked in? Would high pressure under the core, or the core being flipped, cause them to retract?

IIRC, @arclight said that the rods in these reactors are inserted from the bottom. The idea is that a meltdown would seal the (designed for just such an emergency) insertion points (and it frees up the top for steam/power collection.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:57 PM on March 14, 2011


But are we anywhere close to being able to deploy commercial scale solar arrays in space that can beam energy back to distribution centers on the ground via micromave bursts ob1quixote?

It's 1970's technology. All we're missing is a fleet of Saturn V's with the uprated engines to lift all the hardware and construction crews...

Notice that I said Construction Crews. We do not lift the satellites already built, but assemble them in-situ...
posted by mikelieman at 12:59 PM on March 14, 2011


I think even if the control rods completely failed the boron would prevent a critical reaction. Not quite clear on that, but that's what I seemed to get from arclight.
posted by polyhedron at 1:00 PM on March 14, 2011


Thanks for the info on the control rods. Yes, @arclight said (and was quoted above) that the control rods are inserted from underneath and lock in place.
posted by zippy at 1:00 PM on March 14, 2011


Jesus Christ, CBC Radio One announcer lady, do not use "the fallout from the Japanese incident" is spreading as a cute analogy for the policy impact across the world. I am trying to get some work done today and dislike having my attention caught by cutesy phrasing that implies actual scientific concern.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:02 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


So what does happen if the rods melt into a nice radioactive puddle of slag and eat through the containment vessel? I assume it'll catch fire if hot enough, which would presumably put some toxic and radioactive metal oxides up into the air. But how much? How exactly do we get from nasty superheated radioactive puddle under the reactor to high levels of radioactivity everywhere?
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:05 PM on March 14, 2011


Groundwater contamination.
posted by Windopaene at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2011


@fairytale -- yeah, that's about as bad as the anchor announcing gleefully that "Tweets are flooding in" to the CNN newsroom on Saturday. /facepalm
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2011


And groundwater contaminants will move horizontally along whatever rock layer lies above the lower non-porus layers.
posted by Windopaene at 1:07 PM on March 14, 2011


Sorry. The CBC has more and more completely clueless people working for it. I flick the radio on and off throughout the work day just to avoid leaving a permanent imprint of my face in my keyboard.
posted by maudlin at 1:07 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


a whole bunch of people who seemed to know what they were talking about were saying emphatically there was no way this could possibly result in a problem on the scale of Chernobyl

Agreed, and it's very similar in that way to Katrina and the BP Gulf oil spill: the narrative begins by experts calmly assuring the public that the situation is under control, and then begins to turn as it becomes obvious how grave the situation really is.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 1:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not even so much groundwater contamination as an explosion if molten core comes in contact with significant amount of water under ground. That's what they were afraid of at Chernobyl, and were able to prevent by using mining equipment to cool the ground under the reactor using, iirc, liquid nitrogen.
posted by rainy at 1:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The factually informative parts of this discussion are great, but the rhetorical policing is not. Yeah, people have said some scientifically illiterate stuff here, but non-nuclear-engineers still have completely legitimate concerns about some of the possible outcomes of these plant disasters, and it strikes me as a very thoughtless form of defensiveness for even the most ardent nuclear power advocate to take TEPCO's side in minimizing the long list of failures in disaster planning and response, or the potential risks, here.

it's a bit dishonest to talk about accidents which could render a city uninhabitable for thousands of years. That's unlikely to happen, and to suggest it at this time is just fear-mongering.

Talking about seemingly unlikely but possible bad outcomes is not dishonest, nor is it necessarily fear-mongering. Supposing that one or more of these reactors lost containment, is it not then possible that the surrounding area would be rendered uninhabitable for a long time? If so, since every available source seems to suggest that a loss of containment is possible, this is far from an illegitimate concern.

You can argue that they didn't design for a severe enough earthquake or a large enough tsunami, but they clearly were designed for severe earthquakes and tsunamis.

I'm not clear why this sentence begins "You can argue..." rather than "Obviously."

On preview:

it's very similar in that way to Katrina and the BP Gulf oil spill

Exactly. The post-hoc "no one could have known"/"engineers did their best" justification is already in full spin, here as elsewhere in the media. It baffles me that engineers aren't the first in line to condemn this line of thinking.
posted by RogerB at 1:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


I noticed an anomaly in TEPCO's radiation measurements.

There's a trend where the readings spike higher and higher:
午後9時25分 正門 6.8μSv/h 
午後9時30分 正門 29.7μSv/h
午後9時35分 正門 760.0μSv/h
午後9時37分 正門 3130.0μSv/h

and then they stop measuring until 10:15
午前10時15分 正門 431.7μSv/h
The unusual 9:37 timestamp on the high mark suggest that they are reporting the peak from a continuous recording, rather than the normal 10 minute interval, but the lack of measurements after suggests that we may not see a potential later peak of this event.
posted by zippy at 1:11 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ah yes, that too. I was thinking more long-term and relatively localized, not into the atmosphere.
posted by Windopaene at 1:11 PM on March 14, 2011


I really don't want to start a derail about space-based solar power, but the short answer is that like most things involving technology, yes, we really can do this, all it would take is time and money. And by yes, I mean yes, as in PG&E signed a deal in 2009 to purchase 200 megawatts of electricity from a startup company that plans to beam the power down to Earth from outer space, beginning in 2016.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:15 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think everyone acknowledges that the situation at hand is extremely serious but I have yet to see anything remotely credible that suggests that a Chernobyl style event is even possible.

The differences in design between these BWR reactors and the Soviet era RBMKs is massive. There is no graphite moderator to burn, there is a complete containment housing for the reactor.

Even in the case of complete meltdown of the reactor core that penetrates containment I don't think there is any possibility of widespread dispersal of radioactive particles in lethal dosages. Especially not to a level that would impact the Western United States.

Is this event significant? Of course, but there is no indications that the surrounding area has received the type of exposure to radioactive materials anywhere close to what was seen in Chernobyl. Maybe the plant operators are lying to us but I don't think we are seeing anything resembling a level 7 incident currently.
posted by vuron at 1:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


non-nuclear-engineers still have completely legitimate concerns about some of the possible outcomes of these plant disasters

I agree, and I chalk this up to a tendency among mefites to sometimes be too in awe of technical jargon and expertise; as a longtime lurker I saw this same tendency in threads dealing with the global financial collapse.

On the one hand I am glad that we are able to have some technical expertise injected into the discussion, but on the other hand even a cursory glance at the breaking headlines about this story suggest a situation that is not nearly as in control as we have been led over the past 24 hours to believe.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 1:17 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


zippy: "午後9時37分 正門 3130.0μSv/h"
... The unusual 9:37 timestamp on the high mark suggest that they are reporting the peak from a continuous recording, rather than the normal 10 minute interval, but the lack of measurements after suggests that we may not see a potential later peak of this event.
"

That looks like the first full exposure event, trying to correlate with my Kyodo citation above.

Does that PDF include readings after 11p?
posted by mwhybark at 1:19 PM on March 14, 2011


It kind of bugs me there are some here cheering on the potential disaster to reinforce their prejudices. No one benefits from FUD.
posted by maxwelton at 1:20 PM on March 14, 2011


Using "A cursory glance at the breaking headlines" to base your reaction upon is one of the major failings I see in today's society.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:20 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


maudlin, what's the context for your comment re: the CBC? Is it inaccurate scientifically? Overly simplistic? Something else?


posted by rmm at 1:21 PM on March 14, 2011


The most recent PDF ends at 10:35. First measurement column is gamma, second is neutrons.
午前10時35分 正門 326.2μSv/h 0.001μSv/h未満

posted by zippy at 1:21 PM on March 14, 2011


total sidebar, but I am starting to be able to read around sidebars and derails in this thread, like, I hardly see 'em any more. I think I've grown a new internet skill.
posted by mwhybark at 1:22 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


but I have yet to see anything remotely credible that suggests that a Chernobyl style event is even possible

Okay, now check out this quote from earlier in the thread:
Tokyo Electric said it was trying to figure out how to maintain water levels in the pools, indicating that the normal safety systems there had failed, too. Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that Unit 1’s pool might now be outside.

“That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1.
Why is this nuclear engineer not remotely credible? Or what am I missing here that makes what you are saying true.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:23 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Shoot, so we're still waiting for good primary source data. To be expected, I suppose.
posted by mwhybark at 1:23 PM on March 14, 2011


even a cursory glance at the breaking headlines about this story suggest a situation that is not nearly as in control as we have been led over the past 24 hours to believe.

Things are clearly not "in control", and I don't think anyone has suggested they are. I'll be biting my nails all week until the decay heat drops low enough that they won't have to pump water in anymore.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:25 PM on March 14, 2011


cheering on the potential disaster to reinforce their prejudices.

Do you have some specific comments in mind?

Fwiw, I'm certainly not cheering on disaster, and I have yet to make a single comment anywhere on metafilter about my views on nuclear power (I don't really have a strong position either way, and I'm not sure using this tragic story as a springboard for that discussion is such a good idea anyway).
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 1:26 PM on March 14, 2011


It looks like the Arnie Gundersen referenced above may not be that reliable a source:

http://atomicinsights.blogspot.com/2011/02/arnie-gundersen-has-inflated-his-resume.html

http://atomicinsights.blogspot.com/2010/02/is-arnie-gundersen-devious-or-dumb-or.html

Although presumably atomicinsights.blogspot has their own bias.
posted by titus-g at 1:29 PM on March 14, 2011


saulgoodman: that quote implies that TEPCO is storing lots of spent fuel rods in these pools for long periods, zippy pointed out that Japan reprocesses its fuel, and that @arclight stated those pools are only used for temporary loading and unloading of fuel.
posted by Mach5 at 1:29 PM on March 14, 2011


Using "A cursory glance at the breaking headlines" to base your reaction upon is one of the major failings I see in today's society.

As a sociological insight I happen to agree with you, but to be clear I was referring to the general reactive and otiose defensiveness against perceived fear-mongering: i.e. the tendency to diminish anything other than reassuring commentary.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 1:32 PM on March 14, 2011


So what does happen if the rods melt into a nice radioactive puddle of slag and eat through the containment vessel?

If it somehow manages to go through the two layers of thick steel even after cooling as much as it will have by now, which it won't, it'll be stopped by the concrete beneath. If that doesn't stop it, then it will probably go on to destroy the whole world I guess.

The spent fuel pool thing sounds considerably more alarming. Someone probably ought to try and get the real story on that... "Over some time, if the spent fuel, if the water is drained, especially in a way where the fuel is exposed to open air, this still take a considerable amount of time, but the risk of a Zirconium fire arises and then you have a very large release particularly of Cesium 137."

Considerable time? Like, days? hours? months? Give us a clue, reporters.

Why is this nuclear engineer not remotely credible?

Because he said "Chernobyl on steroids" instead of something sensible.
posted by sfenders at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't know. Clearly it would have benefited us all as well as the engineers, owners and managers of the Fukushima plant to have been more fearful, uncertain and doubtful of their design's ability to withstand a natural disaster like this.

How much more, exactly?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:35 PM on March 14, 2011


If that doesn't stop it, then it will probably go on to destroy the whole world I guess.

Black humor aside, I think the previous thread had some commentary to the effect of "if it hit the Earth's mantle, it would be rendered harmless," which the Wikipedia article on the China Syndrome appears to support.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2011


See now, personal attacks on this level kind of make the guy seem more not less credible ... Especially when presented by an anonymous atomic energy advocacy blog.

Thank you Mach5: That's a bit more along the lines of the kind of response I was looking for and also reassuring.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2011


Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that Unit 1’s pool might now be outside.

I'm worried about that too, but the operators should have much longer to worry about it than they do with the reactor unless the pool leaks. I'm assuming that no news is good news.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm wondering why it's only just now that Japan is asking for supplies from the US to help in dealing with the situation. This should have happened much sooner. Whether it was pride or over-confidence, I hope we see some international rules set in place at the UN or elsewhere that mandate cooperation in future nuclear incidents. We've got experts, supplies and resources throughout the world, it only makes sense to use them. Coordination and organization of the situation is complicated, but the human and physical resources are just sitting there, and I'd rather see more eyes on the situation. Especially if those eyes don't have a PR stake.
posted by formless at 1:37 PM on March 14, 2011


"Why is this nuclear engineer not remotely credible?"

He is. And so are other engineers disagreeing with him.

No one knows. Even experts. There is plenty of room for people on both sides to be both right and wrong. We're talking about a lot of things here. And the context of the discussion is all over the map at this point.

And what does "Chernobyl on steroids" even mean? If the discussion is a pragmatic and intelligent appraisal of the danger here, that statement seems more likely to get one's name in print rather provide anything useful at all.

I just love it when people expect every single "credible expert" to agree 100% on the theoretical outcome of things no one has seen before.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:37 PM on March 14, 2011


then it will probably go on to destroy the whole world I guess.

Ha. Anyway, isn't a bigger fear from a melting core breaking containment the possibility that it might hit water and cause a steam explosion that sends radioactive material into the environment?
posted by mediareport at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm wondering why it's only just now that Japan is asking for supplies from the US to help in dealing with the situation.

It was my understanding that Sec. of State Clinton mentioned the US sending some assistance to the Nuclear site just a few hours after the Tsunami.
posted by anastasiav at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm wondering why it's only just now that Japan is asking for supplies from the US to help in dealing with the situation. This should have happened much sooner.

That went out yesterday, IIRC. (Possibly earlier?)

For perspective, the US refused all offered aid for Katrina. Because we clearly had the situation under control.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:43 PM on March 14, 2011


And what does "Chernobyl on steroids" even mean?

If I remember Rocky IV correctly, Chernobyl probably was already on steroids.
posted by formless at 1:43 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


See now, personal attacks on this level kind of make the guy seem more not less credible ... Especially when presented by an anonymous atomic energy advocacy blog.

That blog is clearly not anonymous, the name of the writer is easily found at first glance. And if pointing out that someone who claims to be an expert has padded his resume increases that supposed expert's credibility I don't know how you are supposed to weed out the experts from the pretenders.
posted by Authorized User at 1:46 PM on March 14, 2011


sfenders: if the spent fuel, if the water is drained, especially in a way where the fuel is exposed to open air, this still take a considerable amount of time, but the risk of a Zirconium fire arises and then you have a very large release particularly of Cesium 137."
Considerable time? Like, days? hours? months? Give us a clue, reporters.


This analysis suggest a minimum of 6 days to boil off the spent fuel pool at a BWR, longer if the pool has a lower inventory or the fuel inside is older. They are careful to point out how sensitive the number is to plant-specific configurations.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:48 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's a top-down photo of the Fukushima plant, taken after the explosion at reactor #3. It looks like it suffered considerably more damage that reactor #1, which is on the left in the photo. And given the recent news about its cooling system failure, subsequent seawater flooding, and stuck-vent issues, how long until reactor #2 has its own hydrogen explosion?
posted by Asparagirl at 1:48 PM on March 14, 2011


Ahh, I see that the call for additional equipment was sent out yesterday (Sunday), my bad.

For perspective, the US refused all offered aid for Katrina. Because we clearly had the situation under control.

I know, it's shameful, and as others have pointed out, probably coloring skepticism of the reports about this incident. It looks like help was offered and accepted much sooner in this case.
posted by formless at 1:50 PM on March 14, 2011


maudlin, what's the context for your comment re: the CBC? Is it inaccurate scientifically? Overly simplistic? Something else?

Dedicated science, nature and current affairs shows are still often very good sources of information. But a lot of the let's fill-in-the-gap content from professional announcers with no expertise -- noon and drive time radio shows, the repeated news bits on CBC News Network -- are often shallow, offensive and aggravating as they strive to stay current and avoid dead air even when they haven't had time to evaluate the information flowing in.

Case in point: earlier this hour, the new drive time host on CBC Radio 1 in Toronto was interviewing a Canadian with some Japanese connections about the people he had worked with over there who had lost homes. But she then broke in to ask "But aren't you really worried about a potential meltdown?" and tried to get this nice man, with no particular expertise in this area, to talk about that. I've seen and heard some compelling human interest stories over the past couple of days from people with real experiences to recount. I remember seeing one man who worked at one of the plants describe how they had left just before the tsunami, and that he was heartbroken to see that his neighbourhood -- the noodle house he'd gone to for lunch every day for months -- had been wiped off the earth. I can see asking people to share their experiences. But poking people into sharing their fears, when they may have very little useful knowledge to assess the situation, is pointless.
posted by maudlin at 1:53 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Agreed, and it's very similar in that way to Katrina and the BP Gulf oil spill: the narrative begins by experts calmly assuring the public that the situation is under control, and then begins to turn as it becomes obvious how grave the situation really is.

And just like in both Katrina and Deepwater there were thousands of commentators (and major media news agencies) announcing as fact things like dead bodies in piles on street corners, rapes by the hundreds and cracks in the seabed with millions of gallons of oil leaking. They were just as wrong.
posted by Skorgu at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2011


Because he said "Chernobyl on steroids" instead of something sensible.

Engineers who say this is nothing at all like Chernobyl and never could be, because their heads are full of all the specific technical differences between those circumstances and this one don't exactly come across as sensible to many in the general public either (no matter how much they might technically be right), since to most of us it seems pretty obvious that even if there are big differences in the specific types of failures and the degree of failure, these events are definitely related to a major problem with public health and environmental implications at a major nuclear power plant (which is really only about as far as the kinds of analogies non-technical folk mean to make with such comparisons really go).

"What do you mean it's nothing like Chernobyl? That was an accident at a nuclear power plant, this is an accident at a nuclear power plant."

The over-eager categorical dismissal of the analogy makes people suspicious (tending to give rise to thoughts like "Why are all these PR flaks and industry people trying so hard to keep me from associating this incident with Chernobyl? OMG! Cover-up!", because in all the ways that are relevant to non-technical people, the analogy seems basically valid in kind if not degree.

Either way, I don't mean to endorse the professional opinion that this could be 'Chernobyl on steroids' at all; I'm just curious about what's changed, and what it might mean, because it does seem I've come across a few of these articles more recently suggesting there are credible experts acknowledging the situation might be worse than initially thought possible. If it's possible to do that without a reactionary bias as well as without a fear-mongering bias that would be awesome.

That blog is clearly not anonymous,

Oops--sorry about that. 100% correct. Not anonymous, just shady looking.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:55 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Do we even have confirmation that there is a problem with the spent fuel cooling pools? Or how much spent fuel is contained therein? Furthermore exactly what scenario is he talking about, that the spent fuel pool might empty, that the exposed fuel rods might catch fire, and thereby release a huge amount of radioactive waste directly into the atmosphere? Or is he talking the spent fuel rods melting and somehow forming a critical mass in the bottom of the empty pool?

He could be completely credible as a resource but be talking about a scenario that isn't currently possible given the variables present at the plant. I'm just not certain we have enough context or direct first hand data to support the doomsday scenarios that seem to be shooting around the internet. Unless the spent fuel cooling pools are in critical conditions currently (which there seems to be no evidence of) it seems like the plant operators should focus on the current emergency rather than hypothetical emergencies.
posted by vuron at 1:56 PM on March 14, 2011


Nuclear engineers probably get touchy about Chernobyl because Chernobyl was a really dumb situation and they like to believe they've planned a bit better than that. Just speculation (something there's a little too much of, though I would like to better understand exactly what the realistic progression is).
posted by polyhedron at 1:58 PM on March 14, 2011


saulgoodman: In particular it seems a bit off when people say that a chernobyl-style scenario is impossible. We're not talking about shoe fashions. I would feel much better if they would quantify that somehow, e.g. released radioactivity will not be more than 5% of what was released at Chernobyl, or slap some figure on it. Talk of "style" doesn't give us much.
posted by rainy at 1:59 PM on March 14, 2011


For what it's worth I have heard ZERO from Japanese news sources about spent fuel rods at the Fukushima plant. (And I have been searching all around for any confirmation that this is a concern).

There is a different plant that had some overflow of irradiated water from a spent fuel pool, but they said it wasn't enough to cause environmental effects.
posted by Jeanne at 2:01 PM on March 14, 2011


I remember reading in the past 24 hours or so (but I do not have a cite at the moment, sorry) that reactor #3 only loaded its fuel in September 2010, and therefore it probably does not have anything in its spent fuel pool yet because it was so recent. The reason it was loaded so late is that reactor #3 uses MOX (i.e. plutonium), unlike the fuel used in reactors #1 and #2, and civilian protests had held up the loading. Confirmation help on this issue would be appreciated.

So that's reactor #3, but this still leaves the issue of what, if anything, was in the cooling pools / spent fuel pools for reactors #1 and #2.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:02 PM on March 14, 2011


SaulG: I did point out that the blog in question was biased, but it does contain verifiable information that does provide evidence that the guy has a definite axe to grind against the nuclear industry and, in fact, appears to make his living grinding said axe as part of the husband and wife team Fairwinds associates.

This isn't to dispute his credentials as a nuclear engineer, but merely to point out that hyperbolic phrases such as 'Chernobyl on steroids' might come more from his role as an anti-nuke advocate, rather than his past relation with the neutrons in question.

For what it's worth I am somewhere between anti-nuclear and nuclear-accepting (because while I would prefer alternative tech with its massive added advantage that a lot of it is devolutionary and allows individuals and communities to provide for their own energy requirement rather than sucking on the bloated and pustulent teat of the power corporatocracy... while all of that, at least nuclear is far less likely to destroy the global ecosystem than fossil fuels, and it more ready now to fulfil the role).

But, I do care more about the facts than my own prejudices, and unless I've really misunderstood something that Chernobyl line is major league FUD, which helps no one.

This also reminds my why I don't post comments on the internets any more, people keep basing their responses on what I write, not what I meant: in my head; like.
posted by titus-g at 2:04 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


And just like in both Katrina and Deepwater there were thousands of commentators (and major media news agencies) announcing as fact things like dead bodies in piles on street corners, rapes by the hundreds and cracks in the seabed with millions of gallons of oil leaking. They were just as wrong.

I'm not even going to touch this one. We were all here. These blatantly counterfactual claims do not lend your comments much credibility.

saulgoodman: In particular it seems a bit off when people say that a chernobyl-style scenario is impossible. We're not talking about shoe fashions. I would feel much better if they would quantify that somehow, e.g. released radioactivity will not be more than 5% of what was released at Chernobyl, or slap some figure on it. Talk of "style" doesn't give us much.


Rainy: I can understand, but you're thinking like an engineer. Non-techies, I think, just mean "A great big messy disaster that kills people and does lots of long-term environmental harm."
posted by saulgoodman at 2:04 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Were I a Japanese nuke engineer, I'd be incredibly offended at any implication that my reactor sucked as badly as an RBMK and that the culture of safety at my office was as cavalier and unthinking as the Chernobyl-era Soviet one was. You can grab and read INSAG-7, the 1993 report from IAEA on Chernobyl, to grasp the differences, if you're a wonk.

(The money shot in INSAG-7 is on page 22 section 5.8: "In reviewing information made available since the Post-Accident Review Meeting, INSAG judges that factors leading to the accident are to be found in the safety features of the design, the actions of the operators, and the general safety and
regulatory framework." That pretty much reads to me as "Yeah, you know, everything here was for fuck.")

Most reporters are not wonks on that level, though, and when people think "nuke accident" in the West, they think "Chernobyl" first, "Three Mile Island" second, and atomic weaponry third.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:05 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


NHK World is doing a nice documentary style overview of the nuclear situation, complete with animations of the reactor. It's on now and presumably will replay around 2:30 as they usually do. Very useful if you're looking to catch up a bit.
posted by zachlipton at 2:07 PM on March 14, 2011


The Chernobyl-comparisons are a bit of a red herring, and also irrelevant. Indeed, Chernobyl was relatively isolated geographically, but Japan is of course among the most densely populated countries in the world. But Japan also survived two nuclear bombs, among other things, as has been noted.

IAEA said over the weekend that Japan had "distributed 230,000 units of stable iodine to evacuation centres" near the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 2:08 PM on March 14, 2011


Why Daini, too, - just because they detected a bit of radiation that drifted from Daiichi or they have something to worry about at Daini?
posted by rainy at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2011




Fukushima Daini status as of 8am Japanese time March 14th.

Answer: Problems at Daini were less severe overall that we know of, but still worrisome enough to require 10km evacuation radius and distribution of iodine just in case.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:13 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm just curious about what's changed, and what it might mean

Here's my layperson's summary1

Imagine if you wanted to build a reactor and, looking for a container, you used your backyard swimming pool. You put the nuclear material in, some other material burns if exposed, and cover the pool patio bricks and then a steel lid, bolted down.

Finally, you create the system with a flaw2 that makes plant operators so nervous, that they start to experiment with the reactor to see if they can work around the flaw. On the night of the (disastrous) experiment, you then ad-lib by removing all the control rods out in order to generate enough power for your experiment.

Your back-yard swimming pool then explodes from steam and possibly hydrogen, violently ejecting the flammable and radioactive contents3 and causing a fire that spreads radioactive debris to neighboring countries.

[1] Written by a lay-person, me.

[2] Chernobyl depended on generators to keep water moving during reactor shut down, however, the generators took a long time (around a minute) to come on line in tests. This was too long for safe operation of the reactor, so operators decided to run controlled experiments to see if they could power the pumps from the reactor as it shut down while the generators were spinning up.

[3] IIRC several percent of the reactor fuel was ejected from Chernobyl, some of it aerosolized.

posted by zippy at 2:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Plus -- pretty much everything within 10 km of Daini is also within 20 km of Daiichi (map), so anyone close to Daini is close enough to Daiichi to be concerned.
posted by Jeanne at 2:17 PM on March 14, 2011


i hope the US/et al nuclear engineers get there ASAP to help out, if only to give these guys a break. i cant imagine the plant operators there have gotten any sleep since the disaster. they've been making extremely technical decisions trying to get a hold of this, while under constant worry of/for: a meltdown of three separate reactors, contamination of possibly their hometown or at least where their family lives, their potential relatives in the north, even another larger aftershock with another potential tsunami. this all while possibly being exposed to radiation, and getting bandied about by aftershocks every 30ish minutes that would make me pee myself, and all THIS under the weight of the watching world, who is judging every single piece of information they release. i cannot begin to imagine that stress added on to lack of sleep. i feel for them, and in my imaginary world i will buy a beer for them, while dressed in my best lead suit.
posted by Mach5 at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not even going to touch this one. We were all here. These blatantly counterfactual claims do not lend your comments much credibility.

What? There were plenty of sources about the alleged sea floor cracks: one, two, an ask mefi for 3, and a cited comment in a mefi thread for four.

There were plenty of people making doomsday claims at the time, just like there are in every disaster. I wouldn't have thought this was a particularly controversial point and I'm pretty surprised at your reply.
posted by Skorgu at 2:22 PM on March 14, 2011


if it's not clear in my previous comment, I'm describing Chernobyl's reactor design.
posted by zippy at 2:22 PM on March 14, 2011


And just like in both Katrina and Deepwater there were thousands of commentators (and major media news agencies) announcing as fact things like dead bodies in piles on street corners, rapes by the hundreds and cracks in the seabed with millions of gallons of oil leaking. They were just as wrong.

Really? Certainly there have been folks spreading fear and doom when the facts didn't back that up, but there were dead bodies in the streets after Katrina and rescuers were marking houses with the number of bodies found inside. Anderson Cooper saw a body in the street being eaten by rats. Many of the rape and murder rumors were exaggerations (helped by the fact that they were repeated by government officials), but numerous women have reported being raped after the storm With Deepwater, the leak estimates are around 206 million gallons of oil (per Wikipedia). That is, literally, millions of gallons of oil. There were credible fears that the seabed could have been cracked or that this was imminent. These were the reports of experts in deepwater drilling as repeated efforts to seal the well failed. Fortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case, but I don't see where anyone has discredited that reasonable fear.

Sometimes disasters are simply disastrous. We're not hoping for the worst, but that doesn't mean you have to assume everything is just peachy for some reason.
posted by zachlipton at 2:29 PM on March 14, 2011


My personal adverse reaction to "Chernobyl on steroids" has nothing to do with Chernobyl. I'd react in the same way if he said "hurricane Katrina times a million!"

Do we even have confirmation that there is a problem with the spent fuel cooling pools?

Not that I've heard, but probably the water circulation to them is out. Sounds like all they need to do is find a way to top up the pool with water once every couple of days or so, which shouldn't be all that much of a challenge compared to the other things they're doing, if sea water is good enough. It's certainly good enough to stop it catching on fire, at least. So the chance of that particular "great big messy disaster that kills people and does lots of long-term environmental harm" does seem fairly remote. It does add to the risk.
posted by sfenders at 2:29 PM on March 14, 2011


Zippy: you forgot to mention: Before running the 'maybe-this-isn't-a-good-idea' test, you take part of the steel roof off the building for maintenance. Yep.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:30 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


zachlipton, that's exactly my point! Of course there were rapes and dead bodies and oil leaking but many of the worst claims being made at the time ended up being factually not true. Even though they were reported by reasonably respectable sources at the time.

I don't think anyone in the world is claiming things are peachy in these reactors right now, certainly the Japanese government isn't (multiple declared emergencies and tens of kilometers of mandatory evacuations for example), nobody here has said that this is definitely a done deal that I'm aware of and I'm certainly not.
posted by Skorgu at 2:32 PM on March 14, 2011


Good news, everyone!* Cold shutdowns at Fukushima Daini

*/Futurama
posted by warbaby at 2:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]




Skorgu: so what is your point then exactly? My point is that people mostly got it right. Every story is going to have some people screaming panic and some insisting that everything is fine, but if you take a reasonable middle path, you pretty much get a good picture of what's going on. I think that's exactly what we've been doing in this thread: going beyond "OMG Chernobyl on steroids" and the American Nuclear Society's overly reassuring backgrounder to do our best from limited information, much of it in a foreign language, to tease out what's really happening.
posted by zachlipton at 2:43 PM on March 14, 2011


To my layman’s eye this looks like a pretty good analysis of the spent fuel pool situation. (PDF file from Institute For Energy And Environmental Research)
posted by Huplescat at 2:44 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


yay!
posted by angrycat at 2:44 PM on March 14, 2011


Good news indeed.
posted by zippy at 2:46 PM on March 14, 2011


I may regret this, but I've scraped the Fukushima main gate radiation data from TEPCO and thrown it into an Excel file. Have a look (for a few days).

The graph shows four spikes - anyone want to identify them?
posted by anthill at 2:47 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


That last is a big spike.
posted by Windopaene at 2:49 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has anyone listened to the entire IAEA Press Conference from earlier today yet? I'm 20 minutes in and wondering if I'm wasting my time listening to another half-hour of world-class bureaucratic prevarication.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:49 PM on March 14, 2011


Edano has reported on NHK that there is something wrong with the suppression pool in reactor 2.
posted by Jeanne at 2:52 PM on March 14, 2011


2 down 1 to go at Daini.

But hasn't that pretty much been the case all along? Only one was having issues at Daini? Is that one still having problems? We haven't heard much about what's going on there, if anything.
posted by Windopaene at 2:53 PM on March 14, 2011


Although, having just posted that, the Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, answered a direct question about Could this be another Chernobyl with a direct answer (paraphrasing) Not in my judgement.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:54 PM on March 14, 2011


Suppression pool is part of the primary containment system, from what I found.
posted by Windopaene at 2:55 PM on March 14, 2011


Every story is going to have some people screaming panic and some insisting that everything is fine, but if you take a reasonable middle path, you pretty much get a good picture of what's going on.

I agree. I mean again I don't think anyone anywhere is saying anything that could even roughly be paraphrased as 'everything is fine' but in general yes, there's the best case and the worst case and the best guess is somewhere between them, always remembering that it's still a guess.
posted by Skorgu at 2:56 PM on March 14, 2011


From Le Monde's liveblog, 20 minutes ago, in rough translation:

22:35 CET: According to the press agency Kyodo, the cooling process of Dai-Ichi reactor no. 2 at Fukushima, which resumed Tuesday morning (Japan time), doesn't seem to work. TEPCO hasn't succeeded in maintaining a water level sufficient for cooling the fuel rods which are again in open air. The situation is very unstable.
posted by neal at 2:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


keep in mind that spike in the radiation graph (~3 mSv) is a little more than what any human on earth gets in a year just with cosmic rays and the like (2.4 mSv). one chest CT scan is a 5 mSv dose.
posted by Mach5 at 3:02 PM on March 14, 2011


The change in magnitude is what is disturbing.
posted by Windopaene at 3:05 PM on March 14, 2011


ob1quixote: "Although, having just posted that, the Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano"

My father-in-law's best friend works for the IAEA as an inspector. I've been trying to get ahold of him for the past few days, but the f-i-l says he was "flown out of (Europe) on short notice Friday evening". Mysterious!
posted by boo_radley at 3:05 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mach5 - sorry, I should have noted that better - the graph is of radiation rate, in µSv / hour (micro- not milli-). You would have to integrate under the graph to get the cumulative dose. My rough estimate of the total dose since the 12th March at the front gate is 2880 µSv = 2.9 mSv = about a year's worth.

However, there's a lot of missing data around that 3rd spike!!!
posted by anthill at 3:06 PM on March 14, 2011


From NHK World just now: Daiichi #2 reactor - water injection resumed at 1am but water level still hasn't risen. PM Kan looks absolutely terrible, setting up "joint task force."
posted by zachlipton at 3:06 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


wait I thought everything was calming down. things are still FUBAR?
posted by angrycat at 3:08 PM on March 14, 2011


I don't think this has been seen before: Integrity Inspection of Dry Storage Casks and Spent Fuels at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station by Yumiko Kumano, Tokyo Electric Power Company, 16 November 2010. If it has, my apologies.
posted by scalefree at 3:09 PM on March 14, 2011


Angrycat, I'm not sure where you got that — are you confusing Daiichi and Daini?
posted by floam at 3:10 PM on March 14, 2011


I am probably confused.
posted by angrycat at 3:10 PM on March 14, 2011


angrycat, I think you are confusing Daiichi and Daini
posted by polyhedron at 3:11 PM on March 14, 2011


From this report, Post-Tsunami Situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
in Japan: Facts, Analysis, and Some Potential Outcomes
, IEER, it sounds like a lack of water to the spent fuel pools was a major problem.

"The spent fuel pools at the Daiichi reactors contain approximately these amounts: Unit 1, 50 metric tons; Unit 2, 81 metric tons; and Unit 3, 88 metric tons."

According to the linked report, without cooling, these pools are all able to burn and produce hydrogen. There is the possibility that when Fukushima-1 Unit 1's containment building blew its top, that the pool on top took damage and that cooling was impaired. There is much guesswork in the report that the fuel cooling pools were a large problem and were one reason, if not the primary one, for pumping emergency seawater and boron in.
posted by zippy at 3:11 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Rough summary of what I'm hearing on NHK:

The suppression pool is what's at the bottom of the reactor that holds several tons of water to cool the steam and turn it back into water. They're worried that there might be a hole or a crack in the suppression pool, and water may have leaked out. They're not worried about groundwater contamination at this stage -- I guess that the water is no more radioactive than the steam they've already been venting? They're worried about the impact on the ability to cool down the reactor.

I wonder if this may be related to the sudden drop in the water level at reactor 2.
posted by Jeanne at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2011


angrycat: What we've got is a really suboptimal situation at Fukushima Daiichi (Fukushima-1), a 4.7MW power plant with six units, three of which are compromised (Units 1-3) and three of which are down for maintenance anyhow and escaped in decent shape (Units 4-6).

Fukushima Daini is a 4.4MW power plant 10km south of Fukushima Daini. Reactors there sustained a pretty bad jolt and some damage, but they are all either in or working towards "cold shutdown," a state where the reaction has stopped and the decay heat has dissipated to safe levels. There is one more reactor to go at Fukushima Daini before it's not really noteworthy, assuming nothing goes wrong.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:14 PM on March 14, 2011


Beh! Second Fukushima Daini in second paragraph is, of course, "Fukushima Daiichi."
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:14 PM on March 14, 2011


I think you meant GW fairytale.
posted by polyhedron at 3:15 PM on March 14, 2011


Yeah, don't mind me, one of my coworkers is all "WHO THE HELL ASKED YOU WHERE THEY GET HYDROGEN AT A *NUKE PLANT* DOES NO ONE KNOW *ANYTHING*" in my ear (answer: "another coworker").

Good thing I don't work in this field!
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:17 PM on March 14, 2011


zipply: From this report, ..., IEER, it sounds like a lack of water to the spent fuel pools was a major problem.

Hold up. That's a report written today in Maryland, without access to any inside information, by a group that opposes nuclear power. The author is only speculating about the risk. At one point suggests that the fuel pool might need "venting", which doesn't make sense since it's open to atmosphere. Do NOT treat this report as a first-hand account.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:17 PM on March 14, 2011


Also from NHK world: Maximum of 5.7 µSv at the other plant in Onagawa. They are saying some there was some kind of failure in the suppression pool at Daiichi #2. Radiation level not rising but this means that it is more likely to rise in the future. Questions about what this means about the integrity of the containment vessel. Edano apparently gave 2 press conferences in the past hour, a sign of seriousness in and of itself. At the #2 reaction, hydrogen being generated. They are opening a hole in the building to release hydrogen to try to avoid another explosion. NHK now saying that Tepco hasn't been efficiently communicating information to the government: hence the joint task force.

Also, The Guardian has two stories about the accuracy of official information in this situation. The first story mostly quotes anti-nuclear folks about questions about the government response. The second is a new WikiLeaks cable from 2008 which quotes a Japanese politician telling US diplomats that the Japanese nuclear regulators have been "covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry".
posted by zachlipton at 3:18 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's a picture showing where the pool is. Right up top in the refueling bay.

via
posted by warbaby at 3:19 PM on March 14, 2011


In taking a second look at that report on spent fuel amounts, I have not found the sources for those figures in the relevant footnote.
posted by zippy at 3:20 PM on March 14, 2011


Are there any good twitter feeds on this, now that arclight is down?
posted by Flunkie at 3:22 PM on March 14, 2011


Hold up. That's a report written today in Maryland, without access to any inside information, by a group that opposes nuclear power.

Yes, I just noticed. I am not sure of their analysis or even their stated facts, and would love to find another source.
posted by zippy at 3:22 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm listening to that presser and keeping an eye and half an ear on the evening news programs and if I see one more Could It Happen Here?!? headline with the Reactor 3 explosion footage behind it I'm going to pop a blood vessel.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:23 PM on March 14, 2011


In taking a second look at that report on spent fuel amounts, I have not found the sources for those figures in the relevant footnote.

If you want hard numbers on spent fuel look at the report I just posted. Written by Tokyo Power, hard to get more authoritative than that.
posted by scalefree at 3:25 PM on March 14, 2011


Hold up. That's a report written today in Maryland, without access to any inside information, by a group that opposes nuclear power.

Interestingly, that criticism isn't often leveled at the Oehmen-style pro-nuclear pieces linked to in this thread as expert, first-hand knowledge.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fun facts you can learn in a nuclear emergency: did you know there is such a thing as a Banana equivalent dose? "Bananas are radioactive enough to regularly cause false alarms on radiation sensors used to detect possible illegal smuggling of nuclear material at US ports"

Living with a picky eater three-year-old, we eat at least one banana a day at my house. So what if that's 36 μSv per year; they're so yummy!
posted by Asparagirl at 3:27 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]




Le Monde again:

23:14 CET: The press agency Kyodo is quoting the government spokesman Yukio Edano: The containment vessel at Fukushima Daiichi reactor no. 2 is experiencing a "partial failure."

23:15 CET: No more details on this "failure," but Mr. Edano assures that no increase in radioactivity has been detected near the reactor.
posted by neal at 3:30 PM on March 14, 2011


On the LA Times site:

Japan-style earthquake and tsunami unlikely to hit Southern California, experts say - includes discussion of risk at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:30 PM on March 14, 2011


Oh crap not again...
posted by zachlipton at 3:31 PM on March 14, 2011


Interestingly, that criticism isn't often leveled at the Oehmen-style pro-nuclear pieces linked to in this thread as expert, first-hand knowledge.

Guy, lay off it. I'm choosing my words carefully. Consider the report for what it's worth (I share the author's concerns), but don't say the report presents any credible news. "a lack of water to the spent fuel pools was a major problem" is untrue as far as anyone knows.
posted by Popular Ethics at 3:33 PM on March 14, 2011


If you want hard numbers on spent fuel look at the report I just posted. Written by Tokyo Power ...

OK, page 4 of that PPT, Fukushima-1's six units have a total storage capacity of 2,100 tons (metric, I presume) of uranium. On Mar 2010, one year ago, they were at 84% capacity with 1760 tons.

That gives an average amount of 293 tons per unit, much higher than the per-unit numbers of the IEER report, but not necessarily in conflict.
posted by zippy at 3:36 PM on March 14, 2011


Uh, is this #2, or #3, or both? Two events or discrepancy between BBC's report and Le Monde?
posted by floam at 3:36 PM on March 14, 2011


According to @hayano's twitter (He's the Japanese @arclight!), elevated levels of radiation are being detected in cities ~80 miles from the Fukushima reactors. Radiation is in the range of 3-5 microSieverts/hour, which means that an hour of exposure is about equivalent to eating a banana a day for a month... 50 times normal, but basically no health risk.
posted by Jeanne at 3:40 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


BBC's liveblog says no. 3 at 22:07 GMT then no. 2 at 22:36 GMT. Not clear whether it's a mistake by the BBC or if it's both reactors.
posted by neal at 3:40 PM on March 14, 2011


Stand by for a rush transcription of the very last question of that hour long press conference which addressed the spent fuel pools.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:40 PM on March 14, 2011


Fukushima-1's six units have a total storage capacity of 2,100 tons

If you read further down in that report, that is probably for the common storage pool, built in 1997. The storage pools in roughs of the individual reactor buildings would be different.
posted by Chuckles at 3:41 PM on March 14, 2011


roughs?!??! I mean roofs of the reactor buildings.
posted by Chuckles at 3:42 PM on March 14, 2011


WRT previous speculation about Kyodo being a little alarmist: translator coworker, when asked, says they're a bit like Reuters. NHK gets some of their news from Kyodo. He says people trust them about eighty percent of the time; the other 20% is a bit dramatic.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:43 PM on March 14, 2011


AFP is confirming Kyodo's account.

Le Monde at 23:46 CET: Agence France-Presse is quoting the Japanese government and confirming that part of Fukushima-1 reactor 2's containment vessel seems to have been damaged.
posted by neal at 3:49 PM on March 14, 2011


If you read further down in that report, that is probably for the common storage pool, built in 1997. The storage pools in roughs of the individual reactor buildings would be different.

They don't break it down by mass, but later, they do break down the number of spent assemblies: 3450 assemblies in storage per reactor (per reactor capacity 8310), 6291 assemblies in the common pool (cap 6840), 408 in dry casks (408 cap).

There are 52 assemblies in a large dry cask, and that cask, filled, weighs 115t, so each fuel assembly is < .2t, but I don't have better numbers.
posted by zippy at 3:50 PM on March 14, 2011


Banana equivalent dose

"Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring
banana nuclear incident alert"

really doesn't scan well.

posted by zippy at 3:53 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I could have a banana-contaminated milkshake right about now.
posted by rainy at 3:57 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems unsettling that the chatter here has dropped after the announcement of the containment failure.

Any word on whether it was the reactor core or the concrete walls?
posted by hwyengr at 3:57 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the IAEA Press Conference posted 14-Mar-2011 2030 CET:

Q1: Yes. Thank you. Ralph [inaudible], die tageszeitung , Berlin. Where does Japan dispose of the nuclear waste and are there any informations about damage done to storage facilities.

A1: We do not have any information about damage to storage facilities.

Q2: Or spent fuel pools?

Q1: This means there is no information or there has no damage been caused?

A2: What we can say is, and you may have seen models of the reactor, pictures. In the building, over the reactor, you have the spent fuel pool, including in Fukushima One and Fukushima Three—Fukushima Daiichi One and Fukushima Daiichi Three, those where, there were explosions which uncovered the top of the building in which you have the reactor. So the spent fuel pool is in this building. If it had been damaged, significant release of radioactive—of radioactivity would have been seen. This is not what has been reported by the Japanese authorities. So from that we can infer that there has been no significant damage to these spent fuel pools.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


hwyengr: I think must be primary containment because secondary containment is the building that blew its roof off a while ago.
posted by rainy at 3:58 PM on March 14, 2011


Sorry it took so long. I don't have foot pedals, just alt-tab and the pause button.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:59 PM on March 14, 2011


I think they are not calling it secondary containment because "secondary containment blew up" sounds too alarmist.
posted by rainy at 3:59 PM on March 14, 2011


they do break down the number of spent assemblies: 3450

Ya, I didn't catch that line on first look. I think that is 3450 assemblies total for all six, and 3450 assemblies is about a third of the 1760 Ton-U in storage at the facility as a whole. That suggests which suggests about 600 Ton-U in the pools in the roofs. In the neighbourhood of the IEER numbers...
posted by Chuckles at 4:00 PM on March 14, 2011


Wasn't the roof-blowing segment the tertiary contaiment-that-wasn't-really-containment?
posted by hwyengr at 4:00 PM on March 14, 2011


hwyengr: no, I never heard or saw anyone speak of tertiary containment. The outer building is labelled 'secondary containment' in diagrams of this design.
posted by rainy at 4:01 PM on March 14, 2011


Let's look at the diagram, which has handy mouseovers. That suggests to me that the roof-blowing-off bit is, in fact, not the secondary bell-shaped containment, nor the reactor vessel itself.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:02 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it's not as bad as it sounds because primary containment is much stronger than secondary. However if it is indeed compromised now that's not good news at all. Because that's all the containments we had left.
posted by rainy at 4:02 PM on March 14, 2011


Yeah, my understanding was that the reactor core is the primary, the inverted light-bulb of concrete is secondary, and the top section just kept the rain out.
posted by hwyengr at 4:03 PM on March 14, 2011


fairytale: I saw a different diagram, I'll try to find it. I hope I'm wrong.
posted by rainy at 4:04 PM on March 14, 2011


NHK World is reporting a blast heard at the #2 Reactor. Nuclear official speaking now...
posted by dialetheia at 4:05 PM on March 14, 2011


According to nucleartourist.com 1 a BWR fuel assembly contains 208.0kg of uranium and weighs 319.9 kg total (your mileage, mass may vary).

1 Citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Management and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, High-Level and Transuranic Radioactive Wastes," Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR Part 191 (July 1, 1996).
posted by zippy at 4:05 PM on March 14, 2011


Press conference now from NISA (live on NHK World): Blast heard at #2 reactor. At #2 reactor, water level was recovering, but then the level started falling. The valve (venting valve?) was partially shut down, but at midnight, they tried to open the valve again. They believe that water is being injected, but top 2700mm of the fuel rods were exposed last night.
posted by zachlipton at 4:06 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the confusion is that they don't usually call the reactor vessel part of the "containment" system. By definition, the containment is a backup to the vessel. So the drywell walls are "primary" and the building is "secondary". (The vessel is "zero-dary")
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:06 PM on March 14, 2011


Going by Arclight's description, the containment is as follows:

Primary containment is a group of three containment mechanisms: first, the rods containing the pellets (these are what are partially melted); second, the pressure vessel; third, a concrete containment vessel expected to hold a pool of molten fuel, in the worst case.

Secondary containment, as referred to above, is the cubic structure surrounding primary containment. This is what was blown off by hydrogen explosion vented from primary containment. It's not expected to significantly contain anything beyond vented gases. It had one virtue, which it carried out: When the hydrogen exploded, it directed the explosive force upwards, away from the other reactors
posted by fatbird at 4:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


"zero-dary" - vegan?
posted by zippy at 4:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks, Popular Ethics; that's exactly the clarification I was hoping for.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:09 PM on March 14, 2011


Here: generic-bwr , the outer building is labelled as 'secondary containment'. The lightbulb containment is primary.
posted by rainy at 4:11 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


NISA spokesman says impact on human health "very low" for now. Tepco now holding news conference: this morning from 6-6:15, there was a big explosive impact around 6:14 and they heard a strange sound around the suppression pool and the pressure control area may have experienced some kind of problem. Will continue efforts to inject water into pressure vessel. Staff has temporarily evacuated outside of the 1F for their safety, remaining staff are working to secure safety.
posted by zachlipton at 4:11 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey, I'm just diving into this thread after sporadic reading/skimming over the last few days. Can anyone give a succinct summary of the real risk to central Tokyo from what's going on? Earlier, people in here seemed to be agreeing that the worst-case scenario was only going to have any real affect on the immediate vicinity of the plants, is that still a consensus? My sister is in Tokyo and some people seem to be panicking, I'm wondering if she should head down to Osaka as one of her friends did or if being worried about fallout from this 200 miles away is unreasonable. Some reassurance would be greatly appreciated.
posted by brightghost at 4:12 PM on March 14, 2011


Half of the rods exposed now after the explosion says the spokesperson.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2011


the drywell walls are "primary"

Just nitpicking here, but my reading of the various drawings is that the drywell is the thin and open concrete tube (plus hemispherical base) that the reactor vessel sits in. That couldn't be counted as containment in any sense. I take that as a completely distinct element from the inverted lightbulb structure. My reading is that the inverted lightbulb is a containment structure, but the drywell is just structural support for the reactor vessel.
posted by Chuckles at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2011


Boy, this NHK World interpreter sounds rattled. :/
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:14 PM on March 14, 2011


chuckles: not according to the diagram I linked to a few comments up.
posted by rainy at 4:15 PM on March 14, 2011


Company documents show that Tokyo Electric tested the Fukushima plant to withstand a maximum seismic jolt lower than Friday's 8.9 earthquake.

I've seen this claim "Fukushima was designed to withstand an 8.2 (or whatever) earthquake bandied about a couple of times now.

Here's the part I don't understand: The earthquake was penned at 9.0, which is a figure indicating the total energy released by the quake, right? This means that the waves or tremors at the epicenter will have a certain amplitude. At a certain distance, say 100 or 200 miles away, the tremors will be attenuated somewhat and thus correspond to a quake rated 9.0 - x happening right there, right?

So what does "designed to withstand an 8.2 quake" mean? Does it mean "designed to withstand an 8.2 quake happening directly beneath it"? Or what? And if so, what was the "equivalent" quake strength at Fukushima?
posted by sour cream at 4:15 PM on March 14, 2011


chucles: I mean, it looks like drywell is "counted" as part of containment, at least.
posted by rainy at 4:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Chuckles: fair enough.

On NHK world now, a spokesperson has suggested that the pressure in the vapor suppression vessel (the torus) has dropped, indicating a leak. This may have coincided with an explosion sound.

F.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:16 PM on March 14, 2011


NHK's expert is saying that water containing radiation could have leaked out of the pool and that the pressure in the container vessel went from 3 atm to 1 atm during the explosion. Container vessel is the "last line of defense" to prevent release of radioactive material. That's why staff was evacuated.

Crap. He just said "this could be the worst case scenario for the nuclear accident in Japan."
posted by zachlipton at 4:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The suppression pool is separate from the containment, right? Theoretically the concrete should be intact unless it was damaged in the earthquake? Is there an active cooling system for fuel that melts into it, or is it just a time thing?

I mean, the containment system is there for a reason, right? How thick is the concrete base? Can molten fuel stay there indefinitely?
posted by hwyengr at 4:16 PM on March 14, 2011


sour cream: it appears they were looking at sesmic maps and they estimated there's a max magnitude quake that may happen in a particular area away from the station.

Anyway, it doesn't matter much since it was the tsunami that disabled backup generators. We haven't heard of any damage caused directly by quake yet. Presumably, if there was just the tsunami and no quake, things would be just as bad as they are now.
posted by rainy at 4:19 PM on March 14, 2011




As I understand it, the Mark I containment has previously been considered a rather suspect design. We're not completely sure how to interpret the Sandia report on this (mentioned above), but it doesn't provide much confidence in the primary containment if the pressure vessel is leaking, which might be happening now. There's also question as to whether the secondary containment was weakened in the earthquake or in the explosions.
posted by zachlipton at 4:22 PM on March 14, 2011


what is the worst case scenario, at this point? does anybody really know?
posted by angrycat at 4:28 PM on March 14, 2011


Ya, I'm less sure of my reading than I was.. That one drawing says "Inerted Drywell", which is a bit suspect too. I think we all have the right idea, even if the language is messed up a little, so I think I'll just wait for a more authoritative version :P
posted by Chuckles at 4:29 PM on March 14, 2011


NHK reporting that everyone not involved directly in the injection of water at Unit 2 is being evacuated from the site just in case.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:30 PM on March 14, 2011


does anybody really know?

There are lots of people who have studied the effects of meltdowns at BWRs. I'm not one of them unfortunately. I'm furiously googling for reports.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:30 PM on March 14, 2011


I believe the worst cases would be "radioactive sludge on ground, stay clear until we cap it / clean it up" and "violent expansion of gasses happens underneath or within something, and let's hope it doesn't happen in such a way that radioactive stuff gets sprayed into the air"
posted by zippy at 4:33 PM on March 14, 2011


There are lots of people who have studied the effects of meltdowns at BWRs.

Wait - has there actually been a meltdown to study? Or do you mean who have modelled or predicted or risk-analysed such an event? Pretty different things - one of the biggest errors in science is mistaking your model for reality.
posted by Rumple at 4:33 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Le Monde:

00:24 CET:

We already knew, before learning that an explosion had occurred at reactor no. 2, that this reactor's containment vessel had been damaged. But what we didn't know is that the explosion had in fact already occurred at that time.

So for the moment, we still don't know if the damage was or wasn't caused by the explosion.

00:25 CET:

According to information from NHK, the radioactivity levels aren't alarming around reactor 1. Reactor 2, where an explosion was heard early this morning, is exposed to risks of radioactive leaks, but this isn't the case for the moment, said the Japanese government spokesman, who admits he doesn't know what part of the reactor was damaged and in what form, liquid or gas, leaks could occur.
posted by neal at 4:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tepco conference starting now: "We regret that we are causing concern to many residents of Japan." At #2 reactor at 6:14 AM, there was a blast near the suppression pool and the pressure began to fall. Water injection continuing, but operators not directly involved are being ordered to evacuate. Operators are "doing their best" to contain the problem. No significant change in the parameters with regard to the container vessel (?) and we apologize for causing concern to the public.

Now, let's talk about Fukushima-2 plant [ed: let's find something less screwed up to talk about?]. Inspection on March 15 at 12:35am, complied with Article 10 obligations.
posted by zachlipton at 4:37 PM on March 14, 2011


There hasn't been a meltdown (partial or otherwise) at a BWR to study. I'm talking about models and analysis. There have been partial and full meltdowns and explosions at other reactors, but it would be a mistake to extrapolate without considering the differences in design.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:37 PM on March 14, 2011


...press conference just had a question that was basically "Wait, you're apologizing now, but there wasn't any official statement of apology before-- are you guys holding out on us?" to the TEPCO guys.

They apologized again and the reporter cut them off all "You're not answering the question. How serious is this?"

(NHK World, still.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:38 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Water injection continuing, but operators not directly involved are being ordered to evacuate. Operators are "doing their best" to contain the problem.

Tape this to the wall of your cubicle for when you have a 'my job sucks' moment.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:38 PM on March 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


I am seriously crossing my fingers that the 1960's era engineers from GE were as awesome as I always imagined they were.
posted by hwyengr at 4:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Tepco press conference continued: This does not mean that this is a very serious situation, we just want to apologize to the public.

Reporter: you're not answering our question. Is it very serious? We are not asking your opinion but we want to listen to the facts. [ed: this is going great...]

Tepco: The blast was heard near the pressure vessel. We checked the parameters and found damage to the suppression pool. Right after the explosion sound, we see that the "other parameters have no changed greatly" and also that the water level was at -2700mm before and after the explosion. Those are the facts. What does this mean? We still are trying to grasp that.
posted by zachlipton at 4:40 PM on March 14, 2011


They apologized again and the reporter cut them off all "You're not answering the question. How serious is this?"

Is this, culturally speaking, extreme behavior for a reporter at a news conference in Japan?
posted by zippy at 4:41 PM on March 14, 2011


Zippy: Zach's watching it from a better perspective to comment than I am? But I found that... odd. I'm asking my translator.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:42 PM on March 14, 2011


@hayano reports on information from the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency: They are unable to use the leak sensor because it doesn't have the power to run. The radiation level is too high to get in and directly examine what's going on with the leak. If they keep pouring seawater on it they think they can safely bring it to a cold stop.

They think they have confirmed that the pressure vessel is still intact, and that there's very little chance of it going critical because the control rods are in.
posted by Jeanne at 4:42 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Translator coworker: "Don't count those reporters. Reporters are pretty bad."

So, perhaps not unheard-of. Certainly understandable in the situation, too.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:43 PM on March 14, 2011


Tepco press conference continued: No answer right now to when evacuations started and how many staff evacuated. Will find out later.

Now much arguing back and forth because the government was reporting damage to the suppression pool but Tepco is not. Tepco finally admits that damage is a possibility, but maybe there is a problem with the pressure gauge.

[Wow. This adversarial tone seems extreme to my very minimal knowledge of Japanese journalism]

50 staff members remain on site, but others have evacuated.
posted by zachlipton at 4:44 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tepco press conference continued: Steam is transferred to the suppression pool, so the radioactive substances are released through the valve, so there is no significant way the air is released to the outside. They keep saying that the pressure in the pressure vessel has been maintained.

There are 2 chambers [ed: pressure vessel and containment?]. We observe that there is a possibility that damage was done to the suppression pool. [ed: didn't really answer the question as to what chambers were damaged] Water injection is being continued. Water level was very low but it is beginning to rise. Latest data is that 2.7m of the fuel rods are exposed.
posted by zachlipton at 4:47 PM on March 14, 2011


Translator coworker notes, not for the first time in the last three days, that he feels that the TEPCO guys have been told not to reveal everything they know about the situation.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:48 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a bit confused. The TEPCO guys are saying the pressure and level are steady in the reactor vessel, while the pressure has dropped in the suppression pool. I was under the impression that the two vessels were open to each other now, so I don't know how that's possible.

The question of whether damage to the suppression pool would prevent operators from increasing the water level in the reactor was asked, but it was not answered.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:49 PM on March 14, 2011


Seesh. @norishikata, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations just tweeted: "If you are in Fukushima, please do not try to physically approach Unit 2 of Fukushima Daiichi for media coverage or other purposes."
posted by zachlipton at 4:49 PM on March 14, 2011


If I was there, I would be a stand-up citizen and not approach units 1 and 3 just as well.
posted by rainy at 4:51 PM on March 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


neal, is that liveblog in English or in French, and where can it be found?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:52 PM on March 14, 2011


Popular Ethics: NHK's expert is saying now the pressure in the top part of the pressure vessel, the "dry well," has not gone down, but that the pressure did drop from 3atm to 1atm in the suppression chamber. Apparently, this top part is where more of the radioactive material is kept. Does anyone know what this means exactly?
posted by zachlipton at 4:53 PM on March 14, 2011


Ah crap. I just reviewed the diagram. The drywell and the torus are connected. The reactor is isolated (except for the steam venting). It's not like damage to the torus (suppression chamber) will cause water to leak out of the reactor vessel. I need to stop typing before I think.
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:53 PM on March 14, 2011


There are 2 chambers [ed: pressure vessel and containment?]

I believe the suppression pool is the torus (nuclear tourists BWR entry).
posted by Chuckles at 4:54 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd like to know, too- what is the "suppression pool" as the Guardian liveblog calls it? How important is it?
There is a "possibility" that damage was done to the suppression pool at the bottom of the containment vessel inside Fukushima's number two reactor
posted by BungaDunga at 4:54 PM on March 14, 2011


We're not completely sure how to interpret the Sandia report on this (mentioned above), but it doesn't provide much confidence in the primary containment if the pressure vessel is leaking, which might be happening now. There's also question as to whether the secondary containment was weakened in the earthquake or in the explosions.

The containment considered in that Sandia report does not include the concrete. It considers the steel that is in between that and the reactor pressure vessel. Maybe the concrete surrounding the steel is considered part of the reactor building and secondary; there's a gap between the steel and it in places, at the top and bottom I believe.

The report also lists the various failure modes if pressure isn't controlled. If I'm reading this right, blowing a head gasket is the most likely failure, at about triple the design pressure, 150psig, as seen in figure 4.17. That's if there isn't any significant corrosion from years of service. If there's wetwell corrosion it can become the weak spot according to 4.18.
posted by sfenders at 4:55 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


50 staff members remain on site, but others have evacuated.

I can't even imagine what it is like for those men and women who are risking everything in order to try and contain the situation and reduce the potential damage that could be caused. There's been an earthquake and a tsunami, some of them probably don't even know if their loved ones are safe, there's explosions in their workplace... Fuck...
posted by Elmore at 4:55 PM on March 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


goodnewsfortheinsane — It's in French, but even if you don't speak the language, you can get surprisingly good French-to-English translations from Google Translate. Here's the link.
posted by neal at 4:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, Tepco has confirmed that a "steam like substance" is accumulating in the top of the #3 reactor, but they don't know what it is or what it means. This is increasingly pathetic...
posted by zachlipton at 4:59 PM on March 14, 2011


Thanks neal.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:59 PM on March 14, 2011


Aha, thanks Chuckles:
The torus or suppression pool is used to remove heat released if an event occurs in which large quantities of steam are released from the reactor or the Reactor Recirculation System, used to circulate water through the reactor.
So are they using the torus right now for cooling? Or, I guess were they.

I had the same thought, Elmore. Worst. Possible. Workday. Ever. Okay, with the possible exception of a mining cave-in. But talk about heroism.

Thanks for the link neal, I know a bit of French (and yeah, Google Translate is almost obnoxiously good at translating French, makes my language skills, such as they are, seem somewhat superfluous).
posted by BungaDunga at 5:00 PM on March 14, 2011


It has been almost 8 hours since TEPCO has put out a press release about radiation levels at Daiichi.

...And I just heard that they have measured 8000 microSieverts/hr at Daiichi. So one hour of exposure is equivalent to three years of exposure to normal background radiation. 10-12 hours of exposure would be enough to raise your risk of cancer.
posted by Jeanne at 5:00 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Woah. 8217 microsiverts/hour measured at the main gate of the plant at 8:31am. That's huge.
posted by zachlipton at 5:00 PM on March 14, 2011


"I'd like to know, too- what is the "suppression pool"

Chuckles has it. The ring shaped tank around the base is called either the "torus" or the "pressure / vapor suppression pool". It's part of primary containment, the envelope around the reactor vessel designed to contain any emission from the reactor vessel. Since they have been venting steam from this envelope since yesterday, it's already somewhat compromised. Watch the radiation measurements to see if this envelope is damaged enough to increase emissions from the plant.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:02 PM on March 14, 2011


Is that the same as a microcurie? I'm ignorant here.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:03 PM on March 14, 2011


BWR containment failure analysis during degraded core incidents (pdf). D. D. Yue. Oak Ridge National Lab. 1982. (research sponsored by the US NRC, ONR).

Excerpts:

This paper presents a containment failure mode analysis during a spectrum of postulated core accident sequences in a typical 1000-MW(e) boiling water reactor (BWR) with a Mark-I wetwell containment. Overtemperature failure of containment electric penetration assemblies has been found to be the major failure mode during such accidents

In a previous paper on containment responses following an extended loss of all offsite and onsite AC power, CEPA overtemperature during the postulated core meltdown was identified as the dominant failure mode. This paper extends the analysis to eight severe accident sequences ....

As the containment temperature increases ... the dielectric material would totally lose its electrical insulation properties and sealing integrity until ... containment failure.


Experimental investigations of BWR Suppression Pool Behaviour Under Loss of Coolant Accident Conditions (abstract), Gupta et al, Becker Technologies GmbH, presented at ICAPP 2011.

Simulation of small break LOCA effects on BWR-pressure suppression systems (paywall), Aust et al, Nuclear Engineering and Design. 2003
posted by zippy at 5:05 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


rainy: "hwyengr: no, I never heard or saw anyone speak of tertiary containment. The outer building is labelled 'secondary containment' in diagrams of this design"

Apologies if someone has stepped in on this already.

hwyengr is correct, somewhere in one of these two threads the interior space of the buildings with the blown roofs, that is to say the formerly interior space of those buildings, was described explicitly as not 'containment.'

I believe the discussion then began to consider that space as, effectively, tertiary containment although I do not recall that term being used. In particular, the discussion concerned hydrogen buildup in the interior space.
posted by mwhybark at 5:06 PM on March 14, 2011


I can't tell the FUD from the truth anymore. Did the containment vessel at number 2 just go up? Is it time for me to break out the Nuka Cola and iodine pills?
posted by Justinian at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is that the same as a microcurie? I'm ignorant here.

No, a microSievert is a measure of dose. A microCurie is a measure of activity. It works like this: A radioactive object of activity X microcuries emits a "field strength" of Y microsieverts/hour (at a certain distance). Anyone standing at that point will absorb Z microsieverts if he stands there for a while. Radiation sickness occurs after a certain dose, so when the fields are high, you have less time to hang around before reaching a dangerous dose.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think Sieverts and Curies are measuring quite the same thing?

The figures that I've been reading are:

A chest Xray is about 6000 microSieverts
100 milliSieverts (100,000 microSieverts) increases your risk of cancer
500 milliSieverts (500,000 microSieverts) causes the first symptoms of radiation poisoning (lethargy, anemia)
2000 milliSieverts (2 million microSieverts) starts to cause death in a smallish percentage of people
6000 milliSieverts kills everybody.
posted by Jeanne at 5:09 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


mwhybark: see this diagram.
posted by rainy at 5:10 PM on March 14, 2011




To clarify my earlier exclamation, 8217μSv/h is 0.827 rem. Americans tend to receive around 360 mrem/year from natural sources (see here). In other words, the amount of radiation coming out in one hour is around 3 times "normal" for a year. As I understand it, this isn't enough to immediately make you sick, but it's certainly high and is the highest we've seen yet in this incident. For perspective, this is still many many times lower than we saw at Chernobyl.
posted by zachlipton at 5:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are Wikipedia pages for this stuff: Sieverts, Curies. They measure different things.
posted by floam at 5:11 PM on March 14, 2011


zachlipton: however I assume all the workers are wearing / can quickly don rad suits?
posted by rainy at 5:12 PM on March 14, 2011


Well, then, is there any info re microcuries? My husband is asking. All of this is frankly greek to me but he wants to know.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:12 PM on March 14, 2011


The blast appears to be the most serious yet, with Kyodo news agency reporting possible damage to the suppression pool of the containment vessel – increasing the risk of a significant release of radioactive material. The news agency said the safety agency feared radiation was leaking. cite
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 5:13 PM on March 14, 2011


Not really, and it's not so meaningful, Alia. A unit he may be comfortable with are rems, and 1 Sv = 100 rem.
posted by floam at 5:14 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


zachlipton: "Press conference now from NISA (live on NHK World): Blast heard at #2 reactor. At #2 reactor, water level was recovering, but then the level started falling. The valve (venting valve?) was partially shut down, but at midnight, they tried to open the valve again. They believe that water is being injected, but top 2700mm of the fuel rods were exposed last night"

So is this four total or three total now? There was an overnight report of a third explosion but I was never clear which plant it was associated with. Son of a bitch, I am seriously having trouble keeping track of this now.

WNN has not updated since 8p Japan time last night. Anything from TEPCO yet? These seem to me to be uncharacteristcally long delays, but it's only 9a still in Japan and I can imagine there's a hill of data to parse and then to translate.
posted by mwhybark at 5:15 PM on March 14, 2011


mwhybark: see this diagram.

Although look also at page 2 -- the secondary containment is the concrete portion of the reactor building, not the steel-and-cladding shed on top.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:15 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't tell the FUD from the truth anymore. Did the containment vessel at number 2 just go up?

I don't think even TEPCO knows that right now for sure, which is why there's confusion. They saw some pressure readings that suggested that primary containment (the suppression chamber / torus specifically) might be damaged. This isn't "worst case" yet - they're saying they can still maintain a water level in the reactor vessel. Keep your eye on the radiation measurements.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:16 PM on March 14, 2011


My impression on reading about Sieverts, Curies, and Banana Equivalent Doses is that Curies are a measure of the actual physical radioactive decay of something, but that sieverts and the like are meant to measure the amount of radiation it takes to cause biological changes.
posted by ZeusHumms at 5:17 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Someone just said TEPCO's response has been... "not-so-appropriate so far," said the interpreter.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:18 PM on March 14, 2011


We had a deal: good point.. it seems like, from sat photos, it's not clear if the concrete shell is damaged in unit 1, but is damaged in unit 3? No idea about unit 2.
posted by rainy at 5:19 PM on March 14, 2011


The Guardian liveblog is reporting that the latest explosion was caused by hydrogen.
posted by zachlipton at 5:19 PM on March 14, 2011


There's nothing since 1:05 a.m. from TEPCO on reactor 1. (At this point I do start to get worried about them deliberately hiding something, because it has been a long time). At 6:00 they released a new radiation chart for reactor 2. Since apparently reactor 2 is not having any serious problems, I think that the increase in radiation this morning is most likely radiation from reactor 1. At 3 a.m. the radiation went up to 912 microSieverts/hr, close to twice the legal limit, but was back to 40 microSieverts/hr by 6:00 a.m.
posted by Jeanne at 5:20 PM on March 14, 2011


Someone just said TEPCO's response has been... "not-so-appropriate so far," said the interpreter.

This is my surprised face.

Those bastards.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:21 PM on March 14, 2011


Here's a description of containment loss that I think matches the symptoms of the suppression chamber losing water and there being an explosion and increased radiation.

I would like to think that this is not what's happened.

Impact of core-concrete interactions in the Mark I containment drywell on containment integrity and failure of the drywell liner (pdf), D. D. Yue, IAEA, 1982

tl;dr - venting hot stuff outside the reactor vessel can cause the metal of the vessel to interact unfavorably with the surrounding concrete and standby gas treatment system (I think this means the suppression chamber causing failure before vessel overpressure is reached.

"local ablation of the steel drywell liner due to contact with the moltgen corium ... a flow path to the reactor building and standby gas treatment system, bypassing the wetwell, will be available ..."
posted by zippy at 5:23 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think they are saying that there is a crack in the torus, which is officially part of the primary containment system. However, it isn't part of the inverted lightbulb that actually contains the reactor.

Or for a bigger picture (I feel uncomfortable going here, cause I don't know much about it, and I haven't even been following the technical details from eriko et al that closely, but anyway)..
I think the situation is like this. The water inside the primary containment (including inverted lightbulb and torus) is isolated from the outside world (that's what they mean by containment). This is because the water would be made radioactive by close proximity to the core. When they decided to vent steam, I think they were venting water vapour from that system, but it was filtered to limit the radioactive material releaseed into the environment. It now seems that the torus is cracked, and radioactive water is leaking directly into the environment. Well, at this point I guess I'll call it "water" because I don't think it is pure H2O. To understand the impact of all this, you need info about nuclear chemistry, and I don't know anything about that at all.
posted by Chuckles at 5:24 PM on March 14, 2011


small typo

... gas treatment system (I think this means the suppression chamber ) causing failure ...
posted by zippy at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2011


(Thank you for the terminology help, everyone.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2011


also, shoot, wrong author. That was Greene et al, not Yue.
posted by zippy at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2011


rainy: "mwhybark: see this diagram"

Ah, yes, I have seen that diagram.

I think there may be a terminology difference - I recall hearing the reactor vessel, shown in that diagram in blue, as primary, the drywell shown in that diagram as secondary, and the building as non-containment. But in looking through all the visual references I can find, the terminology is consistent as you describe.
posted by mwhybark at 5:26 PM on March 14, 2011


Frankly I have little faith that either Japanese government officials or TEPCO officials are being honest about the situation at this point. I suppose that makes me a FUD-ite "fear mongerer" to some here; so be it. Btw, I really, really hope I'm proven wrong about this.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 5:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Frankly I have little faith that either Japanese government officials or TEPCO officials are being honest about the situation at this point.

I'm a pro-nuke cheerleader, and I'm fairly certain that there's information being omitted at the very least. How much and how critical? I'm not well enough informed to say.
posted by KathrynT at 5:27 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


St. Alia of the Bunnies, if my units program isn't nutty,
You have: curie * m^2 / s
You want: sievert
	* 3.7e+10
	/ 2.7027027e-11
So one curie over 1 square meter of area per second exposure = 3.7 * 10^10 sieverts.
YMMV.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:28 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


My nuke geek is only answering my mention of 8217 microSv/h with lines of dots, and a request for me to confirm that figure.

And, certainly, I don't think anyone is stunned that TEPCO isn't saying everything they know. Presumably part of that is "not causing a panic;" how much of the rest of it is "TEPCO are bastards," I will leave to the actual Japanese residents of the thread.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:31 PM on March 14, 2011


The Emperor: I don't think it's shocking if they may be holding some information back, if only to make sure it's not misinterpreted and/or causes more of a panic than it deserves. I think they're looking at a number of possibilities / theories / interpretations and they won't disclose all of them for the reasons I mentioned as well as not to make themselves look bad.

A large part of the problem with TMI was also inability to gauge the state of reactor / coolant system accurately. In an intense and unstable environment, there is a question of how much you can trust sensors and what assumptions you make if sensors don't agree with each other or with other observations.

There's of course the possibility they know something really bad with certainty and are holding it back.
posted by rainy at 5:32 PM on March 14, 2011


In regard to hydrogen explosion / cladding blown off: what's disconcerting is that they haven't come out with the "it's only cladding, it doesn't do anything, both containment systems are perfectly intact". They keep saying primary containment is intact, or just "containment is intact". The whole coverage strikes me as them not wanting to emphasize that the building is the secondary containment and part of it blew up, with the implication that only one containment is left. It's both a building and containment and it sounds better when they call it "building".
posted by rainy at 5:38 PM on March 14, 2011


Live cut-in on NHK World again.
posted by mwhybark at 5:39 PM on March 14, 2011


Based on the Yue study I linked to above, it seems that failure of measuring systems (as well as any hole in the containment vessel for running wires and measurements) is more likely the greater the excess pressure or temperature of the reactor vessel.

We're seeing steel that has been repeatedly heated and quenched, subject to earthquake and subsequent mechanical shock (hydrogen explosion, debris falling on the vessel).

I guess I shoudn't be surprised that the operators may have to operate somewhat blind, but I also think we're in an area of this reactor design that hasn't been well studied outside of theory - what does happen when you perform this kind of stress on the vessel over days or weeks?

I think studies and designs of this vessel may have assumed that the reactor would be brought to a steady state (whether good or bad) much sooner.
posted by zippy at 5:40 PM on March 14, 2011


euphorb writes "The reason new nuclear plants probably won't ever be built in the United States is because they are too expensive. That's partly because all of the redundant engineering that needs to go into them just to make them safe and partly because of the enormous up front fixed costs.
"
"


Good news for Canada. We'll be putting up new reactors plenty close enough to send nuclear energy to the USA.
posted by Mitheral at 5:41 PM on March 14, 2011


"My nuke geek is only answering my mention of 8217 microSv/h with lines of dots, and a request for me to confirm that figure."

I would be interested to hear what nuke geek says once figure is confirmed. Is that "golly, that's a higher dose than we're like to see" or is it "flee if you are within 200 miles"?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:45 PM on March 14, 2011


There was a "...methinks TEPCO will be purged." (He's American; take with cultural grain of salt.) I am asking for further clarification.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:46 PM on March 14, 2011


Robert Alvarez, a senior policy expert at the institute of Policy Studies, said satellite pictures of the Fukushima plant showed evidence of damage to the spent fuel pool. "There is clear evidence that the fuel cask cranes that haul spent fuels to and from the reactor to the pool both fell. They are gone," he said. "There appears to be copious amounts of steam pouring of the area where the pools is located."
posted by Huplescat at 5:46 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


@zippy: I appreciate the research, but that paper is talking about what happens when the core completely melts and interacts with the concrete inside containment. If the operators can still read a water level in the reactor, it's safe to say that the core hasn't completely melted yet. (we hope!)
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:47 PM on March 14, 2011


I would be interested to hear what nuke geek says once figure is confirmed

Me too. I didn't even know what a microsievert was until about an hour ago, but now I want to know what 8217 microsieverts an hour means.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:49 PM on March 14, 2011


"the institute of Policy Studies"

Most generic thinktank name ever?
posted by Asparagirl at 5:50 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


fairytale of los angeles: that's the figure they gave in the press conference. I don't know whether it's still holding at that level or whether that was just the peak, but I'm curious what your guy has to say.
posted by zachlipton at 5:50 PM on March 14, 2011


now I want to know what 8217 microsieverts an hour means
A chest X-ray every 45 minutes.
posted by Flunkie at 5:51 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


For refereance :
I don't think Sieverts and Curies are measuring quite the same thing?

The figures that I've been reading are:

A chest Xray is about 6000 microSieverts
100 milliSieverts (100,000 microSieverts) increases your risk of cancer
500 milliSieverts (500,000 microSieverts) causes the first symptoms of radiation poisoning (lethargy, anemia)
2000 milliSieverts (2 million microSieverts) starts to cause death in a smallish percentage of people
6000 milliSieverts kills everybody.
Posted earlier upthread by Jeanne
posted by PROD_TPSL at 5:53 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Most generic thinktank name ever?

When I lived in DC, I would walk by these little unassuming doors in expensive-looking brownstones with small nameplates that said things like Institute for Policy Studies and always thought: "KGB."
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:54 PM on March 14, 2011


8217 microsieverts an hour is something like 3 years' worth of background radiation exposure in one hour, NHK World is saying.

Zach, I think it dropped after that. They made mention of 2040 microSv/h and 3130 microSv/h as well. I don't know if it's the translation or TEPCO's deliberately throwing numbers around out of reference to timeline.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:54 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


How many microsieverts become dangerous even if you're in radiation suit?
posted by rainy at 5:55 PM on March 14, 2011


zippy: I appreciate the research, but that paper is talking about what happens when the core completely melts and interacts with the concrete inside containment

You're right, and I also misinterpreted the abstract to describe a failure caused by the steel on concrete interaction, rather, I think it's "if stuff comes out the bottom, here's what happens when it hits the concrete."
posted by zippy at 5:55 PM on March 14, 2011


If you google "chest x-ray and microSieverts" you get a crazy range.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:56 PM on March 14, 2011


"Scattered around some known reasonably lively spots, are these accursed Soviet RBMK reactors, wherein there will be nowhere near the level of containment one may reasonably expect from the Japanese incident?" A question raised in a steam tech forum. How many are there left after the closing Chernoblyl's four units?
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 5:56 PM on March 14, 2011


It seems evacuating everyone within 20km was a prudent measure.

I will agree with the assumption that it's more likely TEPCO is holding back information because they are unsure, rather than trying to hide anything. You can bet this will all be investigated to the moon and back, so information is about to come out. And if they withhold information that could have been used to save the lives of people nearby it is going to futher shatter the credibility that nuclear power companies have.
posted by chemoboy at 5:57 PM on March 14, 2011


How many are there left after the closing Chernoblyl's four units?

Wikipedia: RBMK status
posted by zippy at 5:59 PM on March 14, 2011


I take that ("chest X-ray every 45 minutes") back. I got that from a claim, in this thread, of a chest X-ray being about 6000 microSv. I don't know if that's accurate, and I don't know where the original poster got it from.

Meanwhile, this page (which I also don't know is accurate) claims a chest X-ray is about 0.1 milliSv.

Which would mean 8217 microSv per hour would be about a chest X-ray every 45 seconds.

So, the real answer is, I don't know what I'm talking about and I'm not sure who does, so don't listen to me.
posted by Flunkie at 5:59 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is it just me, or is the detailed discussion of the current wind patterns around the plant more than a little disconcerting?
posted by ob1quixote at 6:00 PM on March 14, 2011


A chest X-ray every 45 minutes

So, like, a really bad case of hypochondria?
posted by staggernation at 6:02 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


A plastic 'radiation suit' is only going to provide protection from particulate contamination. They don't have enough mass to provide shielding. There are new kinds of lead radiation suits that claim to provide actual protection.

"The suit is an excellent shield of high-energy beta particles, such as those emitted from Strontium-90, and provides at least 50% shielding of gamma rays up to 130 Kev."
posted by nomisxid at 6:05 PM on March 14, 2011


live video stream of geiger counter in Koto-ku, Tokyo

Wow, uh, I'm totally not going to sit here and watch that, even from Los Angeles. My OCD finds its mixture of data and fear weirdly compelling. I am glad the rest of you have that resource, though.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:06 PM on March 14, 2011


Thank you so much for the geiger counter links, flapjax at midnite.
posted by birdsquared at 6:06 PM on March 14, 2011


nomisxid: thanks
posted by rainy at 6:07 PM on March 14, 2011


Zippy: Thanks.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 6:08 PM on March 14, 2011


Looking more at that page, I note that these suits are only rated for an evacuation scenario, which I suspect means they don't hold to that level of radiation blocking for a significant period of time. They would have to be cycling into fresh suits on a regular basis to maintain protection. At a company with a prior record of cutting corners, how large a stockpile of $1600+ suits they have, if any....
posted by nomisxid at 6:11 PM on March 14, 2011


I've lost faith in the engineers at this point. I'm going with Xanax and Advil every 6 hours until the headache and overwhelming sense of panic fades or the crisis ends.
posted by humanfont at 6:19 PM on March 14, 2011


Really guys, don't watch the Geiger counters, don't load the graphs. Leave them for the Japanese, they need access more than you do.
posted by polyhedron at 6:21 PM on March 14, 2011 [13 favorites]


How many bananas in a chest X-ray?
posted by scalefree at 6:21 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 6:25 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm all for nukes, but this is turning out to be a real white-knuckler. I can't imagine what it's like being at the plant trying to get the damn pumps to work. God help those people.
posted by Camofrog at 6:25 PM on March 14, 2011


live video stream of geiger counter in Koto-ku, Tokyo

Wow, uh, I'm totally not going to sit here and watch that, even from Los Angeles.


Wow, uh, good. As noted above, it'll be much better that you don't, and leave these sites as unburdened as possible for those of us in Tokyo who really need this.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Just turned on CNN in hopes of getting up to date cable news coverage of what's going on. Next up: Yoko Ono. ARE YOU SHITTING ME CNN?
posted by Dr. Zira at 6:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh man, she ruined the Plastic Ono Band.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:28 PM on March 14, 2011


Dr. Zira: to be fair, they got the country right.
posted by rainy at 6:28 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, uh, good. As noted above, it'll be much better that you don't, and leave these sites as unburdened as possible for those of us in Tokyo who really need this.

Indeed. I've offered my apologies in MeMail and I'll offer them here as well.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:31 PM on March 14, 2011


Wow, uh, good. As noted above, it'll be much better that you don't, and leave these sites as unburdened as possible for those of us in Tokyo who really need this.
Well, I doubt MeFites will be able to down ustream.tv, aren't they the kind of site that expects to have lots of viewers at once? But the graph page, yeah, could be more fragile.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:31 PM on March 14, 2011


Oh, and I was driving in Central Texas around sunset. It sure looked like a large amount of planes were headed to Fort Hood. Quite possibly related to this event.
posted by polyhedron at 6:32 PM on March 14, 2011


BungaDunga, please do the responsible thing.
posted by polyhedron at 6:32 PM on March 14, 2011


Must say, loving Rachel Maddow at the moment, remaining calm, composed, and delivering the news as it should be delivered. Thanks Rachel!
posted by JoeXIII007 at 6:34 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'll ask again since it was ignored the first time: can anyone give an idea of whether there is risk of dangerous radiation in central Tokyo in a worst-case scenario? Is it possible/probable for it to travel that far if the wind was pointing the right direction? Surely at least something is known about this?
posted by brightghost at 6:35 PM on March 14, 2011


So, having checked out that geiger counter, can anyone tell me what it means? Can anyone translate geiger-speak into sievert-speak?

Or, here in Chiba, do I need to be worried right now?
posted by Ghidorah at 6:35 PM on March 14, 2011


brightghost, I think it is entirely possible in a very worst case scenario, but possible does not mean probable or even at all likely.
posted by Camofrog at 6:37 PM on March 14, 2011


Ghidorah--I've been checking it too. Apparently 20-30 is safe, but when it gets into the thousands we've got a problem.
posted by zardoz at 6:39 PM on March 14, 2011


I- wait, what? No, I'm not going to be watching the geiger stream, but the way these sites work is that the streamer only uploads once, to a central server. Then the server forwards it along to everyone who wants to watch. Just for comparison, it's streaming that geiger stream to 261 people, and NHK TV to 2500 people. I don't think ustream.tv is likely to run out of bandwidth.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:39 PM on March 14, 2011


Ghidorah, according to this site (linked in the geiger graph link above), and assuming it is a similar geiger counter, approximately 100 CPM is 1 microsievert per hour. Baseline (i.e. natural background), also from the geiger graph site readings from December are about 10-30 CPM.
posted by birdsquared at 6:40 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll ask again since it was ignored the first time: can anyone give an idea of whether there is risk of dangerous radiation in central Tokyo in a worst-case scenario? Is it possible/probable for it to travel that far if the wind was pointing the right direction? Surely at least something is known about this?

In a worst-case scenario? It's assumed.

See here.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:41 PM on March 14, 2011


Question:

I think I was reading somewhere that the "torus" portion of the reactor(s) - which is the I believe the overflow/cooling basin surrounding the reactor at the bottom - contains a large quantity of graphite.

Can anyone confirm or deny this?

If it does contain a large quantity of graphite and there's actually a melt-through of the containment vessel - that may be something of a game changer and potentially very bad news if there's a flow of molten corium and a severe breach.
posted by loquacious at 6:43 PM on March 14, 2011


I am genuinely curious if the US media, especially TV, is aware just how demolished they appear after Al Jazeera's coverage of Egypt last month and the literally incredibly terrible coverage of this issue.

The flipside of this is clearly the surreality of how we're consuming this non-local media. I mean, I saw two tweets (from Neil Gaiman, for chrissake) about the earthquake that were not quite an hour old and really before I realized what I was doing I was watching that NHK helicopter footage, live, of the tsunami running in over the fields - on my freaking phone, in bed. It took a few moments of gaping before I grasped what I was looking at and I decided I did not want to watch that live.

Since then, literally every time I have looked to English language media for coverage of the reactor situation, I'm stunned by either inaccuracies or time-based offset issues (and it can be difficult to identify which is which). I mean, about the time we forked threads, my interpretation was that the MetaFilter threads were running about two hours ahead of Western news, largely as a result of thread contributors promptly locating and interpreting both NGO and press sources in the Japanese media.

In this specific thread, it seems like we've gotten about as direct as possible without actually acting as direct-source reporters ourselves. I'm kinda exhausted from the work involved and I'm not even doing the heavy lifting like zippy is. But this thread is now running more than 12 hours ahead of professional English-language Western media reporting. It's not what I would call convenient, but damn.
posted by mwhybark at 6:44 PM on March 14, 2011 [26 favorites]


Just turned on CNN in hopes of getting up to date cable news coverage of what's going on. Next up: Yoko Ono. ARE YOU SHITTING ME CNN?

CNN lost me when they asked a Geophysicist they were interviewing "how long will it take to rebuild?". Awkward.
posted by littlesq at 6:45 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


sorry, literally every time I have looked for timely coverage. I am still relying on English-language sources for interpretation, confirmation and such, but it seems like it's taking an awfully long time.
posted by mwhybark at 6:47 PM on March 14, 2011


In a worst-case scenario? It's assumed.

See here.


Yeah, I'm interested in the opinions of people who have some knowledge of this sort of thing, not how the scared people in Tokyo are responding to it — I already know that, thanks.
posted by brightghost at 6:49 PM on March 14, 2011


Also, worker evacuations and ongoing smoke from reactor three isn't good news at all. That second explosion appeared to be much dirtier looking than the first one, and has some very large pieces of debris thrown a few hundred, maybe a thousand feet up and fell out rapidly in a way the first one didn't.

I don't really have any further armchair analysis except for "Oh, fuck." This is actually going a lot worse than I expected.

May we all live in less interesting times.
posted by loquacious at 6:51 PM on March 14, 2011


Prime Minister is about to address the nation.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:51 PM on March 14, 2011


Where what when? I flipped NHK World on again but I'm seeing a weather report.
posted by mwhybark at 6:55 PM on March 14, 2011


11:00, they said.
posted by Jeanne at 6:56 PM on March 14, 2011


I have found a paper that gives some productive insight into the scenario of a melt-through into the torus room: The role of BWR secondary containments in severe accident mitigation: Issues and insights from recent analyses

There is also a paragraph in it that finally explained for me how the hydrogen ended up in the reactor building rather than getting vented up the stack as one might think it should have done:
Existing BWRs employ primary containuent venting systems to provide the venting capability necessary for containment inerting prior to reactor startup and de-inerting prior to personnel entry into the primary containment. Most existing plant emergency operating procedures call for containment venning when containment pressure reaches or exceeds ths design value (48 to 60 psig or 331 to 414 kPa gauge) . 35-37 Failure of the vent system ducting is likely under these circumstances, since the systems were not designed for such pressure differentials. Such ducting failures would allow the vented material to discharge directly into the reactor building, flooding the building with steam and combustible gases, and effectively eliminating further access to the secondary containment. Backfitting of dedicated "hard" vent systems (which employ high-pressure ducting throughout the entire system but no filters) has been suggested as one mechanism for improving vent reliability. It should also be noted that, existing containment venting systems would not be functional during station blackout sequences. Power (d.c. or a.c. or direct human manipulation) is required for vent valve operation.
posted by Morbuto at 6:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


May we all live in less interesting times.

Make that heavy on the "live", eh.
posted by bobloblaw at 6:59 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Prime Minister is about to address the nation.

I'm 9000 miles away and I'm nervous for you.
posted by anastasiav at 7:00 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here it is, man. Thanks.
posted by mwhybark at 7:01 PM on March 14, 2011


It can't be good when he starts out asking us to remain calm, right?
posted by Jeanne at 7:02 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm finding MSNBC is doing decent news coverage, for what its worth.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:02 PM on March 14, 2011


Katz is doing live direct translation on Yokosonews, fwiw.
posted by mwhybark at 7:03 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


20km-30km he's saying remain indoors.
posted by cashman at 7:04 PM on March 14, 2011


This has been noted already, but the Time Out Tokyo twitter feed is surprisingly good for this.
posted by Adventurer at 7:05 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


PM Kan: There is still a very high risk of further radioactive material coming out. Requesting everyone move out of 20k radius from #1 plant. For those who live 20-30k w/in #1, remain indoors and avoid going outside. Requesting everyone move out of 10k radius from #2 plant. Asking nation to remain calm.
posted by Dr. Zira at 7:06 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's done talking, took one question, and left.
posted by cashman at 7:07 PM on March 14, 2011


Edano is speaking now. Mayhap we'll get some real info.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:08 PM on March 14, 2011


Number 4?!!?
posted by mwhybark at 7:08 PM on March 14, 2011


And there's a fire, evidently, at the 4th reactor.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:09 PM on March 14, 2011


Urgh... spent fuel rod fire at reactor 4, apparently.
posted by Morbuto at 7:09 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I'd like to talk about reactor number 4. It is now on fire. At the time of the quake, reactor 4 was out of operation. There are no fuel rods in the reactor, but spent fuels are."
posted by Flunkie at 7:09 PM on March 14, 2011


There is a fire at reactor 4.
posted by Jeanne at 7:09 PM on March 14, 2011


Spent fuels, oh geez.
posted by mwhybark at 7:09 PM on March 14, 2011


I wondered about that . . . the fact that some reactors were shut down for maintenance doesn't automatically take them out of the equation for damage and badness.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:10 PM on March 14, 2011


@timeouttokyo "'This morning, new developments have been observed. TEPCO is going to announce specific and accurate figures.'"

This implies, of course, that prior announcements have not been specific or accurate.
posted by anastasiav at 7:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fuck.
posted by mwhybark at 7:10 PM on March 14, 2011


Spent fuel rods...what does that mean?
posted by zardoz at 7:11 PM on March 14, 2011


.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:11 PM on March 14, 2011


Edano emphasized that the spent fuel rods themselves were not on fire.
posted by Jeanne at 7:12 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


They are still radioactive enough to generate heat, but not enough for proper power generation. They are usually stored under water to manage that heat, until such time as (in Japan at least) they are reprocessed.
posted by nomisxid at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2011


anastasiav, he said they will provide accurate numbers so he isn't going to try and provide them off the top of his head while speaking. Nothing more than please check the publication for exact numbers.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


From earlier in this thread: Spent fuel rods are stored in pools at the top of the building around the reactor. If they're not cooled/submerged in water, they can catch fire.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2011


@zardoz: It means release of radioactive material into the atmosphere, of a more nasty kind than before as the fuel rods degrade into a variety of radioactive isotopes of varying nastiness (this is assuming that the cladding has broken down but that's likely when you're talking about an actual fire).
posted by Morbuto at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Spent fuel is the really dirty stuff. Is it in the pool or the reactor? I'd guess pool, but I'm guessing.

This is bad because it's going to make it more dangerous to keep working there. Remember, they've already evacuated all but the people working on the pumps.

Damn.
posted by warbaby at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hundreds of mSv?!
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:14 PM on March 14, 2011


Where is all the water going??? What happened to the water at reactor 4 to get a fire going?? And did they not realize it was going somewhere?

Urgh....I hate feeling helpless! I'm so sorry Japan. I wish there was something I could do.
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:14 PM on March 14, 2011


Jeanne, what is burning then?
posted by Camofrog at 7:14 PM on March 14, 2011


@warbaby: in the pool, he did state there were none in the reactor. Though really it'd be better if they were in the shut down reactor...
posted by Morbuto at 7:14 PM on March 14, 2011


@Jeanne: if the fuel rods are not burning, they are creating hydrogen by reaction with the atmosphere which is burning.
posted by Morbuto at 7:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Jeanne, what is burning then?

Could be the building or something, but he seemed to clearly imply the heat source was the fule itself, implying that the cooling pool leaked.

I believe we may now be hoping that the building breaks apart in such a way that the fuel disperses itself. I would very much appreciate correction from more knowledgeable persons.
posted by mwhybark at 7:17 PM on March 14, 2011


@MultiFaceted: He said that debris from the No 3 reactor appears to have hit the storage pool at No 4, presumably causing the cooling water to get displaced.
posted by Morbuto at 7:17 PM on March 14, 2011


They have measured 400 milliSieverts/hr at the reactor. This is really bad.
posted by Jeanne at 7:17 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


@mwhybark: for now we are hoping that some heroic person fills up the water tank and that it is not damaged too much to hold the necessary water...
posted by Morbuto at 7:18 PM on March 14, 2011


Hundreds of mSv?!
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:14 PM on March 14 [+] [!]

Eponysterical?

Because I think an OHHHHH SHIIIIT is appropriate right about now.

posted by Asparagirl at 7:20 PM on March 14, 2011


Some giant robots would be very useful right now.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:21 PM on March 14, 2011


Did he also just say there's a strong chance that the #2 reactor containment was damaged?
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:21 PM on March 14, 2011


The stuff is hot from internal decay, not neutron chain reaction. Though spreading it out might cool it some (more surface area), but we don't want this stuff spread around.

I think this is partly due to the previous evacuation of all but pumping staff and partly due to a lot of the instrumentation no longer working. That is an area nobody was going into.

FWIW, nobody knows whats going on. So don't jump to the conclusion there is information being withheld or people are lying. It's probable that there are a lot of conflicting opinions about how to interpret the tiny amount of available information. We're flying blind here.
posted by warbaby at 7:23 PM on March 14, 2011


Some regular sized robots with cameras would help, if only there was power to use them.
posted by nomisxid at 7:23 PM on March 14, 2011


For those looking for visual aids, check out this previously posted pdf. Sepcifically figure 2.1 which clearly shows the pools in question.

Going for the understatement of the decade award: This sucks.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:23 PM on March 14, 2011


@Jeanne: if the fuel rods are not burning, they are creating hydrogen by reaction with the atmosphere which is burning.
The hydrogen is created by reacting with water once the rods reach a certain temperature.
posted by delmoi at 7:23 PM on March 14, 2011


#4 fire, is building, not fuel related.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:24 PM on March 14, 2011


"the concrete itself is on fire, not the fuel rod...it is not the ideal environment for the fuel rod".
posted by nomisxid at 7:24 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


speaking of robots, why aren't they being used?
posted by angrycat at 7:24 PM on March 14, 2011


I concede the understatement of the year award to "it is not the ideal environment for the fuel rod"
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:25 PM on March 14, 2011 [21 favorites]


FelliniBlank, here's what TimeOutTokyo said he said about reactor #2:

"Regarding reactor 2. A blast was heard this morning. A hole was seen in the reactor."

Next tweet, which I assume but do not know to be a continuation of that:

"This happened to the suppression pools, and we assume that radiation has escaped."
posted by Flunkie at 7:25 PM on March 14, 2011


No angsty teenagers around to pilot the robots.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


ah. power, of course. I wish I could do more than ask dumb questions.
posted by angrycat at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2011


...how does concrete catch on fire? Wouldn't there need to be something producing a lot of heat for that to happen?
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2011


There's a lot of stuff producing a lot of heat.
posted by Flunkie at 7:27 PM on March 14, 2011


angrycat: speaking of robots, why aren't they being used?

They are being used in the rescue operations, at least. link
posted by schnee at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2011


absolutely serious (if naive) questions: Other than nuclear workers and the people at the hospital (and likely rescue workers) is there actually anyone left within 10K of the plant? The original evacuation order was almost 48 hours ago, wasn't it? Also, wasn't a large area around the plant was wiped out by the Tsunami?

Within 20K-30K what is the housing situation? I understand the Tsunami did not affect those areas, but how much infrastructure was damaged by the quake? Are the roads intact if people wanted to leave the area? Are there people who have, until now, been living outside in this area due to lack of safe shelter? If there is no power in this area are people going to be able to get this information in a timely manner?
posted by anastasiav at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2011


^ loquacious, you might have read that about the graphite in the Oehmen post (quoted by scalefree here).

Interestingly that post has since been moved to the MIT Nuclear Info Hub, and it's been modified. It no longer mentions the graphite.

The NYT also reported this morning that there is no graphite in the Fukushima containments (can't find the link, though).
posted by torticat at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't there need to be something producing a lot of heat for that to happen?

Decay heat is still a hell of a lot of heat, as I understand it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2011


Is there a graph or image of the 20km-30km area?
posted by cashman at 7:30 PM on March 14, 2011


So the decay heat from the spent fuel is hot enough to set concrete on fire right now--but that is certainly not an everyday occurrence or they wouldn't make the buildings out of concrete. That means that something is very wrong, whether or not the spent fuel is on fire.

Not trying to argue, just trying to puzzle it out.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:31 PM on March 14, 2011


Does anyone know of a Google Maps tool, or query, that shows the locations of American nuclear plants?

I'm specifically interested in the information superimposed onto (something like) Google Maps, rather than in a just plain map.
posted by Flunkie at 7:31 PM on March 14, 2011


Decay heat is still a hell of a lot of heat, as I understand it.

But no. 4 was out of service at the time of the earthquake. Could it be decay heat from before that? As in, it had been taken out of service, but not long before the quake?
posted by neal at 7:31 PM on March 14, 2011


So then the inference would be that the spent fuel rod pool in #4 has been compromised enough for the fuel's heat to set fire to the concrete building but not enough to catch fire itself . . . ?
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:32 PM on March 14, 2011


I don't think the fire is from the spent fuel rods, I think it was ignited by one of the explosions at the other reactors.
posted by Jeanne at 7:33 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, I get it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:34 PM on March 14, 2011


If the fire didn't involve the spent fuel rods, they wouldn't be saying it's caused the elevated radiation levels would they?
posted by polyhedron at 7:34 PM on March 14, 2011


"100 milli sieverts are enough to make a human male infertile"
posted by Flunkie at 7:34 PM on March 14, 2011


I believe the report of concrete on fire was a transcription error by the Timeout guys... I was listening live to the press conference and noticed no mention of that, though there was a slightly confused statement saying that they think there was a similar situation going on at reactor 4 as caused the explosions at reactors 3 and 1, that is the reaction of the fuel rod cladding with the water in the atmosphere (or in a worse scenario the water the fuel rods are immersed in, if the heat is raised enough at the water boundary).
posted by Morbuto at 7:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, implication is that #4 fire caused by explosion at other plant. Plenty of machinery (oils, seals, walls, furniture, etc) to burn in a building and not be OMG fuel rods melting and concrete burning.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The signal to noise here is getting kind of bad compared to how things have been going. If you're not really sure what you're saying you might want to hold back 60 seconds or so before you hit post. Just sayin'. I have no idea what is going on or what I'm saying either.
posted by floam at 7:37 PM on March 14, 2011 [21 favorites]


Increased radiation levels could come from anything that's inside of the building that may have accrued radiation over time being released by fire. Like piles of radiation suits, dust, etc that was all contained within the building before the fire.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:38 PM on March 14, 2011


Here's a slightly different analysis on 100 millisieverts.
posted by birdsquared at 7:39 PM on March 14, 2011


NHK is saying that there is a possibility that some spent fuel rods are exposed, spent fuel caused hydrogen explosion and that may be source of fire.
posted by polyhedron at 7:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


NHK has just restated that it was stated to be hydrogen from spent fuel cells in reactor 4 spent fuel storage causing the fire. They are speculating that this may imply that the water level may have been reduced to below the stored spent fuel cells.
posted by Morbuto at 7:40 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What floam said. I appreciate live news threads and often spend a lot of time in them, but I have been reluctant to post here or in the other thread because natural disasters and nuclear energy are both subjects I don't know very much about.

There are people posting here who are obviously better informed than me in this regard; I prefer to let them speak, and I suggest you do likewise.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:42 PM on March 14, 2011




TimeOutTokyo 'Reactor 1 & 3 had their walls and ceilings blown off, but things seem to have fallen into reactor 4.'
33 minutes ago

That can't be good.
posted by karst at 7:44 PM on March 14, 2011


Morbuto: "NHK has just restated that it was stated to be hydrogen from spent fuel cells in reactor 4 spent fuel storage causing the fire. They are speculating that this may imply that the water level may have been reduced to below the stored spent fuel cells"

Thank you Morbuto, that's what I heard too.
posted by mwhybark at 7:45 PM on March 14, 2011


I believe I also heard that there are active firecrews on #4, it was implied and then there was a question about protective gear for those guys.
posted by mwhybark at 7:47 PM on March 14, 2011




Japan Faces Prospect of Nuclear Catastrophe as Workers Leave Plant NYTimes

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/asia/15nuclear.html?hp
posted by dripped at 7:53 PM on March 14, 2011


Regarding robots, when they used them in Chernobyl they were of extremely limited use due to the debris and terrain involved.

They also stopped working after only a short amount of time due to the incredible amount of radiation. It actually fried the electronics and ability to control them remotely.

While robots have improved a lot since then, and we're not dealing with the same amounts of radiation as Chernobyl, but robots are actually really hard to use effectively in chaotic debris-strewn environments. The kinds of legged and tracked robots we have today that handle unstable terrain are mainly experimental or research devices.

What would be awesome is some kind of powered exoskelelton that could be piloted by a human. It could be armored and hardened against radiation in a way a human in a suit couldn't be, with air filtration or air/oxygen package. It might be possible to make the control system purely out of hydraulics or pneumatic controls that aren't electronic, and have it be self-powered with a gas engine or turbine. Then a human could be right there with their own eyes and a better sense of feedback than a robot controlled remotely by a camera and joystick.
posted by loquacious at 7:54 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


KML for US nuclear facilities
posted by ofthestrait at 7:54 PM on March 14, 2011


Someone upthread asked so I made up this map of the various exclusion zones on the first Google hit that came up for "draw circles in google maps."

Red's the evacuation zone, yellow is where you just have to stay inside. Sorry it's a static image file, I couldn't remember my Maps API key and they won't let you direct link to a map if you have more than one shape drawn. It'll give a general idea until someone makes/links to a better one.
posted by jackflaps at 7:55 PM on March 14, 2011


Off topic, but the incongruity of furiosxgeiorge's "Don't panic" at the top of this page, with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" at the bottom, strikes me every time I return to this thread.
posted by karst at 7:56 PM on March 14, 2011


Off topic, but the incongruity of furiosxgeiorge's "Don't panic" at the top of this page, with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" at the bottom, strikes me every time I return to this thread.
posted by karst at 7:56 PM on March 14 [+] [!]


THIS. Reposted for truthiness.
posted by wowbobwow at 7:58 PM on March 14, 2011


I'll ask again since it was ignored the first time: can anyone give an idea of whether there is risk of dangerous radiation in central Tokyo in a worst-case scenario? Is it possible/probable for it to travel that far if the wind was pointing the right direction? Surely at least something is known about this?
posted by brightghost


Just a note to brightghost - don't feel ignored. I think the reason nobody answered before is that we don't know. Very few of us have any reliable knowledge in this area (I don't) and a lot of the people here are general purpose engineers or science people who are trying to puzzle out what information they can find, eg looking at old articles from science journals to try to get up to speed. And even if we did have general knowledge, there's so much uncertainty about what's actually going on, that I think people don't want to give you wrong information about your very important and very practical question. I wish someone did know enough to answer in a well-grounded way, but if nobody does, it's better that they not answer in a half-guess way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


off topic: "Bill Gates Invests in Small Reactor Technology"
posted by clavdivs at 8:00 PM on March 14, 2011


Regarding robots, when they used them in Chernobyl they were of extremely limited use due to the debris and terrain involved.
Yeah our robots are a lot better at this point. The problem, though is that there aren't a lot of ready to go high-tech robots designed for situations like this. Robots are typically designed specifically for various tasks or for research labs. The problem is the research bots are probably not radiation hardened.

It's really frustrating. It sounds like, if it wasn't for the fact that the radiation is dangerous and you can't operate in it very easily. If you could just grab a hose and some water trucks, you could probably just pump pure water into the core, but the fact that you can't really approach it probably makes it really difficult.
posted by delmoi at 8:00 PM on March 14, 2011


I would love-love-love-love an answer to brightghost's question, but it makes me very happy that nobody has answered it because nobody knows, instead of various people taking a stab based on their general science knowledge.
posted by Bugbread at 8:00 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Obviously don't panic is the right thing to do but being so dismissive of potentialities was a mistake. Let's leave that in MetaTalk.
posted by polyhedron at 8:00 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Brightspot, good question.

TimeOutTokyo NHK: The wind at Fukushima is currently blowing from east to west.
5 minutes ago

If I was Anderson Cooper, I'd be out of Sendai.
posted by karst at 8:01 PM on March 14, 2011


The problem is the research bots are probably not radiation hardened.

Indeed unlikely given that a current generation RAD750 costs ~$200,000 per board.
posted by nomisxid at 8:03 PM on March 14, 2011


What would be awesome is some kind of powered exoskelelton that could be piloted by a human BILLIONAIRE PLAYBOY TONY STARK
posted by staggernation at 8:03 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Off topic, but the incongruity of furiosxgeiorge's "Don't panic" at the top of this page, with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" at the bottom, strikes me every time I return to this thread.

I'm barely holding my fudge.

*dons brown trousers, relaxes noticeably*
posted by loquacious at 8:04 PM on March 14, 2011


I just want to say how much I appreciate all of the analysis, reporting, and translating going on here. This is big and scary and hard to wrap my head around, and these threads here help.
posted by Forktine at 8:06 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Most overused American media phrase of 2011: "If that's true, that's bad news."
posted by Dr. Zira at 8:07 PM on March 14, 2011


Off topic, but the incongruity of furiosxgeiorge's "Don't panic" at the top of this page, with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" at the bottom, strikes me every time I return to this thread.
I feel that way watching a realtime twitter reader, which intersperses every twitter account I'm following:

"Reactor #4 is on fire."

"High levels of radiation have been detected."

"Battle: Los Angeles is a crappy movie!"

"Get inside a concrete building immediately. Do not use air conditioning. Do not open windows."
posted by Flunkie at 8:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is surely naive of me, but given that the local diesel generators at the plant are knocked out, how hard could it be to fly-in (eg. by US military chopper) a couple replacements?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:09 PM on March 14, 2011


Zenmaster, what I can't figure out is why they used seawater when fresh water could be flown in.
posted by karst at 8:11 PM on March 14, 2011


I don't know if anyone would know this about Japanese first responders, but what's the American/European policy for letting people know if a situation is likely to kill them? When do you decide to very probably risk your crew's life?
posted by codacorolla at 8:11 PM on March 14, 2011


The Australian anti-nuclear lobby (read: almost all Aussie politicians and most people i know) are using this as yet more evidence for their smug, anti-nuclear, anti-tech stance
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2011


There are conflicting reports as to why they weren't able to plug in additional generators, with the most believable scenario being that the equipment rooms that would be the site for such a hook up were too badly damaged.

You couldn't possibly fly in enough fresh water to cool a reactor.
posted by nomisxid at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2011


The problem is that once the power failed things started breaking and melting down, probably within hours. Even if they had power they couldn't use it because the pumps are broken now.
posted by psyche7 at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2011


That question was asked above and the only answer we've found has been "they brought in replacement generators but they couldn't get them connected" either because the plugs didn't fit or they use the wrong type of electricity or the power-connection room was in the basement and flooded with mud. But we don't have what I would consider to be a good confirmed answer to that question yet.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Australian anti-nuclear lobby (read: almost all Aussie politicians and most people i know) are using this as yet more evidence for their smug, anti-nuclear, anti-tech stance

Please, let's not do this right now.
posted by dialetheia at 8:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [24 favorites]


ZenMasterThis: in my extremely naive mind I was wondering why they couldn't carefully dump a bambi bucket of water on #4. I know that can't be possible because I thought of it and this situation is way more complicated than I can even begin to think about, but it did pop into my head.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's likely that it'll take months and/or years to really sort out what exactly happened, in what sequence and for what reasons.
posted by rainy at 8:15 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure you could just plug any generator set into the plant infrastructure, even if the latter was undamaged (which is unlikely). It's probable that you'd need a highly specific customized set, with specific output. There aren't domestic/industrial appliances.
posted by carter at 8:15 PM on March 14, 2011


Yes, from my limited reading of the accident mitigation literature it appears that the recommended procedure is to get the reactor back into acceptable temperature/pressure scenarios then restart the pump systems if possible. There are multiple pump systems suitable for different pressures.
A piece of good news, at Fukushima Daini they have now reported success in restoring the cooling pumps to all the reactors there after they replaced some of the pump motors.
posted by Morbuto at 8:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Please, let's not do this right now.

Yes, really. Please.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


carter: I'm sure there was a plan for generators failing. Maybe not a 100% solid plan but some kind of plan.
posted by rainy at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2011


I mean a backup plan of course.
posted by rainy at 8:18 PM on March 14, 2011


Oh crud, I looked at the geiger counter graph link flapjax posted, and since 10 o'clock on the graph it's gone from under 20 to around 70 cpm.
posted by zippy at 8:18 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm not sure you could just plug any generator set into the plant infrastructure
Looking for link just now, apparently they had exactly that problem a few days ago -- generators with the wrong connections.
posted by bonaldi at 8:18 PM on March 14, 2011


Kyodo news reporting fire is out at reactor 4
posted by karst at 8:20 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Kanagawa showed radiation 9x normal a half hour ago.
posted by karst at 8:23 PM on March 14, 2011


Oh crud, I looked at the geiger counter graph link flapjax posted, and since 10 o'clock on the graph it's gone from under 20 to around 70 cpm.
It looks like 12.01 to me.
posted by delmoi at 8:23 PM on March 14, 2011


Kyodo news reporting fire is out at reactor 4

Great news!
posted by cashman at 8:23 PM on March 14, 2011


You can help reduce load on the graph website by linking directly to the graph itself, which is updating with the same .jpg name.
posted by woodblock100 at 8:24 PM on March 14, 2011


ZenMasterThis: in my extremely naive mind I was wondering why they couldn't carefully dump a bambi bucket of water on #4. I know that can't be possible because I thought of it and this situation is way more complicated than I can even begin to think about, but it did pop into my head.

Like a helicopter or plane drop?
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:24 PM on March 14, 2011


@rainy: unfortunately the plans were a little optimistic: http://www.ansn-jp.org/jneslibrary/AccidentManagement.pdf, for example there was an assumption that with multiple reactors in close proximity not all of them would fail at the same time and therefore they would be able to draw power from the other reactors, and of course the assumption that the flood wall would hold and that 4 generators would provide sufficient redundancy.

With my very limited understanding and hindsight it does appear that there was a little too much reliance on (bad) statistics of the sort "this and this and this all happening simultaneously could only happen once in a trillion years", not taking into account that in the case of an earth quake followed by a tsunami they were not independent variables.

I am sure questions will also be asked as to why sensible suggestions for improving the safety of these reactors in unexpected scenarios were not implemented, such as a filter bypass system that might have prevented the leakage of hydrogen into the reactor building leading to the explosions.

Of course, that's easy to say in hindsight.
posted by Morbuto at 8:25 PM on March 14, 2011


Like a helicopter or plane drop?

Yes, that's what I was thinking. I may have used the wrong terminology though.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:27 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm no expert, but I would NOT fly a freaking helicopter with a huge bucket of water slung under it right above a nuclear reactor, even in the best of conditions.

It's just not a good idea. I'd be surprised if there weren't rules against it. Good rules, with good reasoning that despite the current situation I can't see a reason to breach. Besides, one of those buckets of water drenching the reactor is not the type of cooling they desperately need. I'll stop here and please forgive me if my tone is a bit curt, I'm not trying to be rude, just concise.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:28 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a basic rule, a nuclear plant has triple redundancy, like NASA. I have been in one completed plant and one under construction, some of the most complex engineering humans have done.
posted by clavdivs at 8:29 PM on March 14, 2011


Ok, so I have a question that may be very stupid, and this may not be the time to ask it, and if so, fair enough. But theoretically what would have happened if the reactors had stayed active when the tsunami hit? Is there any way that if they had stayed "on" through the earthquake and tsunami they could have continued to provide power to the pumps needed to keep the reactor cool?

I'm sure there's a good reason why that would be impossible, but I'm curious.
posted by threeturtles at 8:31 PM on March 14, 2011


did not a U.S helecopter and crew get low dose?-yes, it's in the news...they have moved the carrier group down-wind. This is serious.
posted by clavdivs at 8:32 PM on March 14, 2011


RolandOfEld: I fully embrace the fact that my idea was probably too stupid to consider, but it did make me wonder if there was anything similar that could be done. Hell, I was even imagining a ginormous fire truck or something. No apologies needed.

I do apologize for injecting my unfiltered thoughts into the thread though. My brain sometimes goes before I can stop it.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:32 PM on March 14, 2011


threeturtles, not an expert but if the reactor is live and the turbines are damaged you now have a critical reactor to cool, as opposed to the current situation.
posted by polyhedron at 8:33 PM on March 14, 2011


threeturtles: I asked the same question upthread, search for my name and ye shall find.
posted by anthill at 8:33 PM on March 14, 2011


I'm sure there's a good reason why that would be impossible, but I'm curious.
posted by threeturtles

try pouring molten aluminum on a see-saw.
posted by clavdivs at 8:34 PM on March 14, 2011


@threeturtles: the trouble is that with the reactor active you have to manage 10 times the energy output, and if anything got damaged during the earthquake you would have a much more difficult situation to control. So it is assumed to be safer to shut down the uranium reaction as quickly as possible.
posted by Morbuto at 8:34 PM on March 14, 2011




To be fair, they did use helicopters to drop material on Chernobyl, the question wasn't that naive.
posted by nomisxid at 8:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Is there any way that if they had stayed "on" through the earthquake and tsunami they could have continued to provide power to the pumps needed to keep the reactor cool?

Perhaps, but then they would have been in a dangerous situation (no external AC, no generator power) had the reactors then needed to be shut down, because they would be at their normal operating temperature at failure, rather than having been cooling for an hour, and with no backup systems in place for keeping the water flowing. Never mind that the operators may have had to evacuate during the tsunami, and they couldn't have known in advance whether or not this would be necessary.

posted by zippy at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2011


MultiFaceted, right now the reactor vessels are still holding. I don't think water from the sky is what they need, they need to get water circulating past the rods deep inside. Now, I'll leave it to those that know what they're talking about to address wether we might see things dropped from above if we end up with things leaving the reactors.
posted by floam at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2011


Is there any way that if they had stayed "on" through the earthquake and tsunami they could have continued to provide power to the pumps needed to keep the reactor cool?

anthill asked this basic question upthread. I don't think it is possible. I think once the power grid is taken down by the Tsunami, they have to go into emergency shutdown right away regardless. There is just too much power available at that point, and no where to put it.
posted by Chuckles at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2011


threeturtles: as I understand it, it's possible that they could have stayed "on" through the earthquake (e.g. the reactor wasn't scram'd) and everything might have worked fine. The reason they don't do that is that if the reactor is damaged enough by the earthquake, it could lead to a criticality accident, which would be a major disaster that could be very difficult to stop, especially if the plant was damaged in the earthquake/tsunami. Turning the plant "off" right away is the standard practice as it at least stops the chain reaction.
posted by zachlipton at 8:37 PM on March 14, 2011


Thanks anthill and others. For what are probably self-evident reasons, I didn't read the whole of this thread, so I missed that.
posted by threeturtles at 8:40 PM on March 14, 2011


In Chernobyl they dropped bismuth? on the core in an attempt to shut down the core. That being said, this is a completely different reactor which actually has an intact? containment unit. Even if a helicopter was to fly over the reactor it seems unlikely that it could actually drop anything in a location that wouldn't do more damage than good.
posted by vuron at 8:41 PM on March 14, 2011


I would think a flyover water drop would be a last ditch attempt to keep the temporary storage from catching light, and not so much for the reactor core.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:43 PM on March 14, 2011


Nomisxid: To be fair pretty much everything they did regarding Chernobyl was on the far end of the 'not intelligent, do not duplicate, it causes problems for everyone' scale. Including, apparently, having to hover helicopters over nuclear reactors.

And for the umpteenth time, the situation is still not Chernobyl levels and I can't think of a faster way to get there than crashing a helicopter into the plant.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:44 PM on March 14, 2011


I was thinking the helicopter could drop water on Reactor 4 to put out that fire. Like a wildfire or something.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:44 PM on March 14, 2011


Any update on the status of #2? Do they know what the status of the containment vessel is?
posted by schmod at 8:45 PM on March 14, 2011


*like they do for a wildfire..

I'll go to bed now.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:45 PM on March 14, 2011


Digging around a little, I found this site for the readings at Onagawa, and this for readings near Niigata. I don't know how frequently Niigata updates, (it's not rendering in proper Japanese for Camino), but Onagawa looks to update every 6 hours.

Both found at this site.
posted by birdsquared at 8:48 PM on March 14, 2011


Thanks for the response, LobsterMitten (and others). I understand people wouldn't want to answer my question without being properly informed, and I thank them for that. It seems that earlier this thread had a number of people who were well-informed on the science in question (eriko, etc.) but they seem to have all cleared out. I'm just very frustrated and frazzled here trying to figure out what is best for my sister, and it is especially frustrating that I can't seem to find any news that addresses the potential risk in Tokyo (other than the official line, which doesn't seem to extend beyond "Tokyo is safe for now").
posted by brightghost at 8:53 PM on March 14, 2011


Harmful levels of radiation leaking from Japanese nuclear plant

Time Out tweet within the last hour:

"Detectors showed 11,900 microsieverts of radiation three hours after the blast, up from just 73 microsieverts beforehand, Kinjo said."

"NHK: The problem with the fire is that the smoke will carry the radiation up to 30km away."

"Once again, the list of towns currently needing evacuation. Tamura-ku, Minami Souma Shi, Hirono Machi, Naraha-cho, Tomioka-cho, Ookuma-cho, Futaba-cho, Namie-cho, Katsurao-cho, Iidate Mura, Iwaki Shi (northeast area)"

"NHK: If you are in those areas, brush yourself down thoroughly - hair, clothes, skin - before going inside. Once inside, wash thoroughly."

"NHK: Do not use air conditioning or heating, and if your laundry is outside, leave it there."

"NHK: If you are at work, stay inside. If you are outside, get inside a concrete building immediately."

"New info on reactor 4: There were no active rods inside, but the spent rods were in pools at the base of the container. These pools are heating and they may have caused a hydrogen explosion and may be leaking radiation (NHK)"

"NHK: The wind at Fukushima is currently blowing from east to west."

"NHK says 50 workers are operating the plant now, obviously wearing protective clothing."
posted by nickyskye at 8:56 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Karst: "Zenmaster, what I can't figure out is why they used seawater when fresh water could be flown in."

They're right next to an ocean. On purpose, for just this reason. Flying fresh water in instead of using seawater would be like...I dunno...if you were freezing to death, deciding that instead of warming yourself by a campfire 10 feet away, you would walk 10 miles to a nice centrally heated house.
posted by Bugbread at 8:59 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I believe the TimeOutTokyo tweet about the wind direction is outdated; I think the wind was shifting south (toward Tokyo) as of a little while ago. But again, I don't know how much stuff will be carried by the wind or how far.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:01 PM on March 14, 2011


Off-topic perhaps, but the Nikkei and Topix financial indices are down 10% and still declining on the news.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:03 PM on March 14, 2011


re: Chernobyl, I don't think control efforts post-accident were ever criticized, though. After criticality and without any containment structure, there weren't any clever moves left. They did what they could and prevented molten core from reaching water table, which would be much worse than what did happen.
posted by rainy at 9:04 PM on March 14, 2011


Wrong, bugbread. Seawater inside the reactor isn't desirable. It's sorta like using pee instead of antifreeze. Seawater IS used to cool the coolant, but not as coolant itself.

Seawater in the reactor isn't in the playbook.
posted by karst at 9:04 PM on March 14, 2011


They're right next to an ocean. On purpose, for just this reason. Flying fresh water in instead of using seawater would be like...I dunno...if you were freezing to death, deciding that instead of warming yourself by a campfire 10 feet away, you would walk 10 miles to a nice centrally heated house.
Yeah, but as seawater evaporates, it will leave salt behind. If the seawater boils off the reactor core would get clogged with salt.
posted by delmoi at 9:05 PM on March 14, 2011


If only it was that simple to turn it into a Molten Salt Reactor.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:07 PM on March 14, 2011


Reuters liveblog, Factbox: Aid and rescue offers, and this Der Spiegel I-131 model and Weather risk article.

Always better to have something besides primordial dread to ruminate.
posted by Twang at 9:07 PM on March 14, 2011


anthil writes: The graph [of TEPCO radiation measurements] shows four spikes - anyone want to identify them?

I compared this against my draft timeline for Fukushima-1 Unit-1 events as announced by TEPCO (it only covers through the 12th).

The first spike occurs at the time (3/12/2011 11:40am) Touruma says rods were exposed by 90 - 170cm. The second looks like it matches TEPCO's announcement of an extraordinary increase in radiation at the site boundary, the rise occurring at at 3/13/2011 8:56am
posted by zippy at 9:08 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


brightghost: I really wish I can give you a better answer, but I just don't think we can. Right now, Tokyo appears safe. You can see that the Tokyo geiger counter reading is falling back toward normal (background) levels. NHK is reporting that there haven't been significant changes at the plant lately. As I understand it, the reading was still many times less than would be encountered in an international airline flight. In terms of the potential future risk for Tokyo, I don't think we have any information to answer that question. If we did, this would all be a lot easier. All of Tokyo seems to be wondering the same thing right now.
posted by zachlipton at 9:08 PM on March 14, 2011


IANANE, but if you can't build a reactor next to a large source of fresh water, building by the ocean has some value because as an absolute last resort, you use the seawater and give up on ever using that reactor again.

Flying or shipping water in a disaster like this is obviously not tenable, and maintaining a sufficient store of fresh water may not have been feasible. From what I've seen, I suspect putting the diesel generators on higher ground rather than trusting in the seawall would have been of more value.
posted by maudlin at 9:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Seawater in the reactor isn't in the playbook.

Judging by the reactions we heard far upthread about this play, I'm pretty sure it is. It's not a nice play. The corrosion the salts in the seawater will cause to the metals at that high temperature will ensure that this reactor will probably never see service again. And if a company is willing to destroy their power plant, they probably have a really good reason. Because if they don't use this play, things are going to be very bad.
posted by chemoboy at 9:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


They have been using seawater as coolant, in the reactor itself, haven't they? As a last-ditch measure which they know will wreck the tubing etc of the reactor, irreparably fouling it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:12 PM on March 14, 2011


"NHK: If you are at work, stay inside. If you are outside, get inside a concrete building immediately."

Why do they specify "concrete buildings"? What are the other ones made of and why wouldn't they be as good?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2011


Why do they specify "concrete buildings"? What are the other ones made of and why wouldn't they be as good?
I imagine concrete is better at blocking radiation than, say, wood. Thicker and denser. A lead-lined house would be best...
posted by BungaDunga at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2011


Concrete is dense and offers greater protection from gamma rays than wood.
posted by dw at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2011


@Joe: Possibly because the water molecules trapped in the concrete matrix stop neutron radiation better than other materials.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


If all you have access to is seawater...you use it. Ideal? No. But what are your other options? This isn't a video game. Real people in a crisis situation are trying to make life saving decisions.
posted by futz at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Easy reactor question: Best case scenario, how can this end? Do they just need to keep cooling the reactors forever, or do they cool it to a certain point, and then it all comes to a rest state, or do they cool it to a certain point and then disassemble it?
posted by Bugbread at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011


> From what I've seen, I suspect putting the diesel generators on higher ground rather than trusting in the seawall would have been of more value.

Except at this state we don't know what knocked out the generators, could have been damage to the fuel system (or containmenated fuel) or the local damage was enough to break the power control circuits. And it sounds like at this part a lot of the more delicate machines that are required to run the emergency cooling systems may have suffered damage to the point of not being able to function properly either.

It's a very big, very hot, running and spinning machine, and people are risking (and have risked) their lives to fix it or get it under control. And a lot of the tools built around to contain it are starting to fail. It's tremendously scary and chilling.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011


When in doubt, wiki. That looks like a decent article.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Concrete will shield you from fallout better than wood.

BTW, does anyone know exactly what is causing the radioactivity?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:16 PM on March 14, 2011


zachlipton in the other thread says winds are heading west not south now.

Asparagirl posts: "Opportunity to help: volunteers fluent in both English and Japanese are needed at Babelverse.com"
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:17 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Various forms of radiation would presumably be able to penetrate wood houses too easily. Concrete should be able to contain/reflect some of that radiation.
posted by vuron at 9:17 PM on March 14, 2011


That timeline is fantastic, zippy.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:17 PM on March 14, 2011


Yes, injection of water from any available water source is in the severe accident management playbook: http://www.iaea.org/inis/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/22/073/22073304.pdf (roughly page 52)... though this is for Germany where usually you're next to a river rather than the ocean, so the water is not quite as bad.
posted by Morbuto at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2011


• Make this an active thread. (done)
posted by five fresh fish at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2011


BTW, does anyone know exactly what is causing the radioactivity?

The fuel rods are made of radioisotopes. The control rods absorb radiation, and were fully inserted into the reactor. The whole thing is melting down, so it is possible that the reaction rate is increasing.

Easy reactor question: Best case scenario, how can this end? Do they just need to keep cooling the reactors forever, or do they cool it to a certain point, and then it all comes to a rest state, or do they cool it to a certain point and then disassemble it?

They cool it to the point where they can break the hot mass up into smaller chunks and entomb it into a robust material, then bury it deep in a place with very little geological activity - or at least hold on to it until such a location can be agreed upon as the storage facility.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2011


Seawater in the reactor isn't in the playbook.
posted by karst at 12:04 AM on March 15


It is now.
posted by futz at 9:21 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cliff Mass, third post on potential dispersal to the PNW.

"From virtually a point source, the radiation would mix through huge volumes of the atmosphere due to horizontal and vertical mixing. Since it would take days to reach us, there would be time for larger particles to settle out and precipitation would wash some out as well. Even for Chernobyl, where the core exploded while the reactor was powered up and where there was no containment, serious radiation only extended roughly 1000 km away.

The Northwest is more than 7000 km away!
"
posted by mwhybark at 9:21 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Bugbread: they only need to cool it until a certain point - not indefinitely. The articles linked above talk about it taking a matter of days to cool enough, if they had the normal type of cooling situation. They announced earlier today that some of the other reactors at - I think - the Daina plant had reached the state of cool shutdown (or similar term). I'm not sure what happens after that though.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:21 PM on March 14, 2011


The fuel rods are made of radioisotopes. The control rods absorb radiation, and were fully inserted into the reactor. The whole thing is melting down, so it is possible that the reaction rate is increasing.

What about the containment vessel. If there is a breach, how are radioactive particles being carried into the environment?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:22 PM on March 14, 2011


The best place to build these reactors is actually underground. That way, if they do melt down they just sit there, and don't leak out.
posted by delmoi at 9:22 PM on March 14, 2011


One question I didn't get clearly answered by arclight is whether the boron they've been putting in there will moderate the reaction in the event of control rod failure. He seemed to suggest so.
posted by polyhedron at 9:22 PM on March 14, 2011


At a certain point the reactor will cool to the normal decay temperature. At that point in time the operators would be able to assess the reactor and begin plans for cleaning out the fuel rods and dismantling the unit. Other parts of the reactor containment will likely remain in place until the entire site is decommisioned at some future date.

That's my understanding based upon how the TMI partial meltdown was handled.

If for some reason we end up with a massive meltdown that brings the core out of the reactor containment then they would probably have to pump in some sort of support matrix to prevent the molten fuel from entering the water table/ocean.
posted by vuron at 9:22 PM on March 14, 2011




winds are moving south and west at the moment but within 36 hours they will turn eastward and strengthen, and stay that way for a few days, so says the GFS Ensemble.
posted by Mach5 at 9:25 PM on March 14, 2011


ZenMasterThis, you've posted this stuff a couple times now... It probably belongs in the main thread, having little to do with Fukushima.
posted by floam at 9:26 PM on March 14, 2011


Well, the word nuclear or radiation is in all three of those. Nevermind me, it really doesn't matter in the scheme of things.
posted by floam at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2011


@Bugbear: So long as the rods are covered in water, the residual "heat" (radioactive decay from radioactive isotopes generated by uranium fission) will decay, first fairly quickly over a period of days to a safe state, then you're still talking a month or more until you'd want to go near it.

I'm no nuclear expert, but here's my understanding based on a few papers I have read, so please take with the appropriate grain of salt:

Unfortunately, with the rods exposed above the cooling water there is the very worrying possibility of the fuel rod / control rod assemblies melting, then dropping to the bottom of the reactor vessel and potentially melting through the bottom. Then they drop onto the concrete below (or worse into the suppression pool torus), where the molten mass or uranium / other isotopes / control rods / metal (corium) would react with the concrete, creating very large amounts of radioactive gases which the plant in its current state would have a difficult time to contain.

An open question is whether the plant has a fire suppression system in the secondary containment and whether this is still operational... If it is this has been shown in simulations to reduce the amount of radioactive particles escaping from the secondary considerably. (If there isn't one, the helicopter suggestion above might look appealing at this point).

So for now it's really fingers crossed that they manage to keep enough water in the vessel to stop the bottom melting.
posted by Morbuto at 9:28 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


No prob dude. I'll stop now.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:28 PM on March 14, 2011


they would probably have to pump in some sort of support matrix to prevent the molten fuel from entering the water table/ocean.

At Chernobyl they pumped in liquid nitrogen for a while, then settled for concrete:

With the bubbler pool gone, a meltdown was less likely to produce a powerful steam explosion. To do so, the molten core would now have to reach the water table below the reactor. To reduce the likelihood of this, it was decided to freeze the earth beneath the reactor, which would also stabilize the foundations. Using oil drilling equipment, injection of liquid nitrogen began on 4 May. It was estimated that 25 metric tons of liquid nitrogen per day would be required to keep the soil frozen at −100 °C.[5]:59 This idea was soon scrapped and the bottom room where the cooling system would have been installed was filled with concrete.

Again, if the melted core hits a large body of water, you get a steam explosion that sends radioactive material into the environment much more violently than what we're seeing now.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 PM on March 14, 2011


Actually, I have no idea how large the body of water has to be.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 PM on March 14, 2011


LobsterMitten: "They have been using seawater as coolant, in the reactor itself, haven't they? As a last-ditch measure which they know will wreck the tubing etc of the reactor, irreparably fouling it"

Yes. I know you were responding to another poster's assertion.

Everyone, especially newcomers: I know this is a long-ass thread, as is the parent. There is a great deal of useful real-time information available in them. Please consider reading them both all the way through.

We have known for, what, two days, that seawater is being used directly on the interiors of #1 and #3, the plants that both eventually experienced hydrogen explosions that wrecked the roof and upper structure of their buildings.

We do not know that seawater was used in #4, and I would be surprised to learn that it had been before today's fire.

I cannot recall if we had heard that seawater was in use on the interior of #2, which is the most-recently contructed of 1, 2 and 3. I haven't done any homework on 4 because there was no indication of anomaly or risk associated with it since the quake in the publicly available information presented by TEPCO or any other source that I am aware of.
posted by mwhybark at 9:29 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


And zippy, that timeline is invaluable.
posted by mwhybark at 9:34 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


NYT article
posted by delmoi at 9:36 PM on March 14, 2011


Seconding mwhybark. It's just plain confusing enough around here as it is. We've seen several people, even lil 'ole me, who have benefited from/thanked people for the insight into the tech details of the event that are unfolding.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:41 PM on March 14, 2011


Again, if the melted core hits a large body of water, you get a steam explosion that sends radioactive material into the environment much more violently than what we're seeing now.

It's my understanding that temperature & pressure of the water are the determining factor here. The higher the pressure is, the higher the boiling point will be & the harder it is to flash vaporize it. Or in the case of one of the earlier incidents some years ago (forget which one offhand), they froze the ground under the melting core to keep the water temp down below it too low to boil.
posted by scalefree at 9:42 PM on March 14, 2011


Any amount of stuff at the site could be a source of radioactive particulate matter. Old paper suits, steam from the fire dropping into the spent rods bath, concrete dust near the #2 breech.

IOW burning collateral materials probably caused the short spike in radiation measured downwind.

#4 is "turned off." The fire is out/controlled, the core is safe and cool. Spent rods in storage may be exposed and crap has fallen into them. SNAFU, but controlled.

Containment on #2 is breeched. I think, though, that this is *secondary* containment: the primary vessel is still okay. I could be wrong: maybe there's a gaping hole clear through to the rods.

In any case, it seems that they're currently able to keep water on most of the core in all of the reactors. If they work fast, they'll be able to confirm that the fail-mode systems are ready for a full failure.

By my reading of the media stream, it remains very unlikely that this nuclear disaster will become more than a "local" event.

This is a disaster, but one that is still 1000s of times less bad than Chernobyl. This is more like a really bad Three Mile Island. Or a Centralia.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:44 PM on March 14, 2011


For Fukushima-1 Unit 1, seawater was first 'injected' into the reactor at on 3/12/2011 at 20:20 local time according to this TEPCO announcement. Boric acid was added sometime soon after.
posted by zippy at 9:45 PM on March 14, 2011


Can't put my cursor on on a link to the previously cited Kyodo report that No. 4 fire is out, sling it of you got it and try to include links for newsources as they scroll by, please.

Thanks for the backup, RolandofEld.
posted by mwhybark at 9:46 PM on March 14, 2011


@codacorolla: I don't know if anyone would know this about Japanese first responders, but what's the American/European policy for letting people know if a situation is likely to kill them? When do you decide to very probably risk your crew's life?

I don't think it's a matter of policy. The command decision to expose personnel to risk is a factor in almost any emergency, and the officer's greatest responsibility is to make as sure as can be that the risk is justified. This is a dynamic thing, and the risk elements can change at any time.
posted by maniabug at 9:46 PM on March 14, 2011


A tremendous amount of resources needed for emergency response, engineering, and logistical support, not to mention actual energy, are being diverted to the attempt to contain this situation at a time when Japan can ill afford it. In this sense these reactors are catastrophe multipliers. If the quake had been less severe, these resources would be free to deal with the humanitarian crisis -- but then, of course, there would have been less of one. If on the other hand a meltdown situation had begun to develop in the absence of a natural disaster, they would have been in a much better place to deal with it -- but then it would probably have never been an issue. As things stand now they are trying to deal with two very grave problems at once: one humanitarian, and one radiological. But what really gets me is that it seems things did not have the potential to get this bad until they got very, very bad, but when they did, the nature of the infrastructure made it very likely (if not inevitable) that things would get much worse.
I am struggling to imagine what it's like for those brave people who are inside the Fukushima complex at this moment, trying to think and act and deal under those circumstances, and I'm failing. They are putting their lives on the line to confront one of the worst emergency engineering scenarios that anyone could possibly face. It's a much-abused term, but -- they are real heroes.
posted by $0up at 9:49 PM on March 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


five fresh fish: "or a Centralia."

Whut? When I read that, I think "labor battle," but then, I live in Washington state, where the Centralia, Washington labor struggle went down after the First World War. Clarify? I'm not sure how the Wobblies relate, exactly. And even if I did, it might be best discussed elsewhere. Am I obtuse? Narrow horizons? Wouldn't be the first time.
posted by mwhybark at 9:50 PM on March 14, 2011


This is a disaster, but one that is still 1000s of times less bad than Chernobyl.

Can't we just quite trying to put a neat little bow around the moment? It's not that kind of present. It doesn't do us any good to speculate either way--excessively positively or negatively. Both kinds of speculation are equally pointless and counterproductive. Let's just deal with what we know.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:51 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


There are now indications that the containment vessel around reactor 2 has been breached. If this is the case then a serious release of radioactivity seems likely. What is not yet clear is the scope of the breach, the Japanese are indicating that it's small but I wonder how accurately they know that.
posted by atrazine at 9:52 PM on March 14, 2011


Centralia, Pennsylvania, now a ghost town due to a mine fire that's been burning for several decades.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:52 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, OK, I'm with it now. Thanks.
posted by mwhybark at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2011


This is a disaster, but one that is still 1000s of times less bad than Chernobyl. This is more like a really bad Three Mile Island. Or a Centralia.


Not according to the NYT article delmoi linked to above (and the NYT has received recognition for its factual reporting of the nuclear accident).

According to the article, the danger is that radiation levels are so high that workers may have to abandon the site. Here are a couple of quotes:

“We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

and

“It’s way past Three Mile Island already,” said Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor at Princeton. “The biggest risk now is that the core really melts down and you have a steam explosion.”
posted by KokuRyu at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


@mwhybark The reactor 4 fires were out as of one hour ago, my source is Jiji via Le Monde.
posted by Tobu at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2011


five fresh fish: Containment on #2 is breeched. I think, though, that this is *secondary* containment: the primary vessel is still okay.

Thanks for the summary but could you provide a citation/link/translation for this one please? I've been picking up the vibe but must have missed the actual notification. Or are you just inferring (which is perfectly fine, I just need to get my ducks in a row).

Upon review: atrazine: Based on your latest, same question. Like I said, just wanting to push back the fog of war.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:55 PM on March 14, 2011


Can't we just quite trying to put a neat little bow around the moment? It's not that kind of present. It doesn't do us any good to speculate either way--excessively positively or negatively. Both kinds of speculation are equally pointless and counterproductive. Let's just deal with what we know.

I agree.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:56 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


NHK is still not reporting the reactor 4 fire extinguished in their latest news update... So I'm concerned that might have been a translation error somewhere, the official making the statement on that fire was speaking in a confusing manner.

As for the No 2 reactor, what has been reported is that there was a blast heard near the suppression pool and the pressure within it fell. This leads to speculation that the suppression pool could have been ruptured. This happened as the operators were attempting to open the vent valve on the inside of the reactor (which from my understanding vents into the suppression pool). A plausible explanation would be that they managed to open the vent valve but the pressure in the reactor had already exceeded the operating margin of the suppression pool, hence causing a rupture within it.

A rupture of the suppression pool is potentially bad news as the water in it could evaporate, pushing radioactive gases out of the plant and also further reducing the cooling ability.
posted by Morbuto at 10:05 PM on March 14, 2011


According to the article, the danger is that radiation levels are so high that workers may have to abandon the site.

It's worth remembering that at Chernobyl a number of workers knowingly worked through lethal radiation doses in order to try to minimize the danger. In the middle of that disaster with so much terrible design and political dissembling, heroism of the highest order.
posted by Rumple at 10:06 PM on March 14, 2011 [7 favorites]




Crosspost from the main thread, but I've put together a stream of the Hino, Tokyo geiger counter feed. The idea is not to overburden the server. This is a brute force way to do it! I'd like to write up a little script to mirror the actual image, but this is quick and easy.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


NHK is now also saying that it has been reported that the fire on reactor 4 was extinguished, which is reassuring.
posted by Morbuto at 10:10 PM on March 14, 2011


How many explosions have their been thus far? Four?
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:11 PM on March 14, 2011


Tobu: "@mwhybark The reactor 4 fires were out as of one hour ago, my source is Jiji via Le Monde"


Thanks Tobu. Jiji was early and accurate last night, so one hopes that will get corroborated soon. It's totally irritating that the wire-subscribers either don't pick up or don't get sourcing from them, though.

It was a half-hour from report to confirmation in this thread last night; how long has the 'fire's out' report been circulating?
posted by mwhybark at 10:13 PM on March 14, 2011


Three and the fire, I believe.

And msalt, they have been having trouble keeping the core submerged for quite some time because of the pressure of the steam that is boiling off.
posted by brightghost at 10:14 PM on March 14, 2011


Morbuto: "NHK is now also saying that it has been reported that the fire on reactor 4 was extinguished, which is reassuring."

Fascinating, I think we may have a news-cycle timing metric.
posted by mwhybark at 10:14 PM on March 14, 2011


@msalt: see the diagram on page 11 of this document: http://www.ansn-jp.org/jneslibrary/AccidentManagement.pdf

The suppression pool is directly connected to the reactor containment vessel, which surrounds the reactor vessel. Pressure (and radioactive gases) are vented from the interior reactor vessel into the suppression pool, by design.
posted by Morbuto at 10:15 PM on March 14, 2011


I heard "fire's out" on yokosonews more than 30 mins ago I think.
posted by nomisxid at 10:15 PM on March 14, 2011


I've been filtering twitter searches for the past five hours. I do twitter through the phone. Links aren't do-able.

The radiation levels are three orders of magnitude less severe than Chernobyl at this point. AFAIK, the releases have been worse than 3MI. Having a sense of scale is not "putting a neat little bow around it."
posted by five fresh fish at 10:16 PM on March 14, 2011


Here's an estimate for how much fresh water they need to pump in to each reactor: 50 gallons per minute. That sounds like fire-truck levels. How long can a pump designed for fresh water operate continuously with salt water running through it?
posted by zippy at 10:17 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


@zippy: they are using fire engine pumps now, from what I understand.
posted by Morbuto at 10:18 PM on March 14, 2011


I wonder if they could get enough liquid nitrogen to poor in. That would presumably solve the hydrogen explosion problem.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 PM on March 14, 2011


13:12 15 March
NEWS ADVISORY: Radiation 33 times normal level measured in Utsunomiya, Tochigi
13:14 15 March
NEWS ADVISORY: Radiation amount in Chiba Pref. twice to 4 times normal level
12:37 15 March
BREAKING NEWS: Small amounts of radioactive substances detected in Tokyo

From kyodo news
posted by karst at 10:20 PM on March 14, 2011


The suppression pool is directly connected to the reactor containment vessel, which surrounds the reactor vessel. Pressure (and radioactive gases) are vented from the interior reactor vessel into the suppression pool, by design.

Thanks! So basically, we do have a containment vessel breach then.
posted by msalt at 10:20 PM on March 14, 2011


infinitywaltz: "How many explosions have their been thus far? Four"

I'm still confused about this. I asked about it upthread, too.

Two for sure, #1 and #3 (the big one). Then there was a third one overnight, possibly associated with #2 torus but I'm still pretty unclear. Then the #4 issue was described as involving smoke and a noise, or something, (or I'm misremembering). The weird 'smoke and nose' thing was also used to describe the probable hydrogen explosions we know about most clearly and seems to be a way of describing remotely observed events accurately without asserting non-directly-observed-or-recorded explosive force.

However, TEPCO's English bulletins were not issued overnight and so I was not able to corroborate with that data source. I have not checked to see if they have updated yet this evening. Which suggests a course of action.
posted by mwhybark at 10:21 PM on March 14, 2011


TEPCO's last update on the reactors was before the very bad news conference.
posted by zippy at 10:23 PM on March 14, 2011


Current TEPCO bulletins.

The bulletins headline 3 'white smoke' events at plant 3 and one at plant 1.

I'll go with four explosions, Alex.
posted by mwhybark at 10:25 PM on March 14, 2011


From the NYT article:

The succession of problems at Daiichi was initially difficult to interpret — with confusion compounded by incomplete and inconsistent information provided by government officials and executives of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power.

Is that statement even remotely fair? Following along with the press releases here and otherwise it seems like TEPCO has done quite well at releasing data (like real hard measurement data) and updates.

Or do other people have a different impression?
posted by slickvaguely at 10:25 PM on March 14, 2011


zippy: "TEPCO's last update on the reactors was before the very bad news conference"

Of course. Poor bastards.
posted by mwhybark at 10:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mwhybark-explosions in reactors 1, 3, and 2, and a fire on 4. The smoke and noise are associated with the breach and explosion on reactor 2. We haven't heard much about reactor 4 and it's fire, other than it's now out. Hopefully.
posted by karst at 10:27 PM on March 14, 2011