This is almost like some of the disaster movies Hollywood has become so fond of the past few years and certainly akin to the “China Syndrome” as it plays out.
But this is real world stuff with real people heroically risking their lives to tame this problem. There are a lot of unknowns at the moment, and the fight couldn’t be taking place under more adverse conditions.
To give you an idea of how powerful the quake was that caused all the damage that has contributed to the problems confronted by those fighting the nuclear problems, scientists have said that it was powerful enough to shorten the day (by a blink) on which it happened and, get this, move the earth’s axis by up to 25 cm (6.5 inches).
It has already been reported that a Japanese island shifted eight feet, but the earthquake had more of a worldwide impact. The Earth’s 24-hour day was shortened by 1.8 microseconds, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reports Voice of America. The temblor shifted how Earth’s mass is distributed.
It was originally estimated to be 1.6 microseconds but NASA’s geophysicist Richard Gross revised the time to 1.8 microseconds – a microsecond is one millionth of a second.
“By changing the distribution of the Earth’s mass, the Japanese earthquake should have caused the Earth to rotate a bit faster, shortening the length of the day by about 1.8 microseconds,” said Gross in an interview with Space.com.
That’s power. As for the shift:
Last week’s natural disaster didn’t just cost us a microsecond, but it also was able to shift the planet’s axis by 6 ½ inches, or 17 centimeters – although other estimates suggest approximately 10 inches (25 centimeters), reports the Metro UK.
“This shift in the position of the figure axis will cause the Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, but will not cause a shift of the Earth’s axis in space – only external forces like the gravitational attraction of the sun, moon, and planets can do that,” said Gross.
Amazing. That gives you an idea of reason for the problems faced by those fighting a nuclear meltdown. Add to that fact that the huge number of aftershocks – up to 15 an hour – and their power – most over 5 – and you begin to understand the challenges they’re facing.
To the problems themselves, I’m sure most of you are following this closely. For background on what causes a meltdown, here’s a good graphic that explains it rather well. Scientific American has a number of articles you may find useful for background as well.
One of the better articles I’ve found is in the Wall Street Journal. It goes into some detail as to what has happened and where they are now in their fight to prevent a meltdown. Something that isn’t getting the coverage it deserves, or perhaps is just being lost in the volume of news is the fact that not all their problems are found in the reactor cores. Some of them are also cropping up in the storage area for spent nuclear fuel:
On Tuesday, a fire broke out in the same reactor’s fuel storage pond — an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool — causing radioactivity to be released into the atmosphere. Tokyo Electric Power said the new blaze erupted because the initial fire had not been fully extinguished.
The problem there, of course, is the storage areas don’t have the containment infrastructure that the reactors do.
Make no mistake, the problems are very serious. Tokyo Power and Electric is reporting that up to 70% of the fuel rods in one reactor have been damaged and up to 33% in a second one.
Radiation levels have risen and dropped all through the crisis. Winds are presently blowing to the south toward Tokyo, but forecasts have them shifting to the east, which would put any radiation release over open ocean, which means the cloud would eventually dissipate causing little damage. Right now everything I’m seeing says the 400mSv rate is the average rate for the radiation surges although there is one report saying that one spike went to the 11,000 mSv level for a very short time. Remember though, the key to radiation exposure is not only the amount of radiation but the duration of exposure. Obviously 11k doesn’t require much exposure duration at all to be damaging or even fatal. But as mentioned, the radiation has mostly been in dose rates of up to 400mSv and it surges to that level and then falls away.
Key to getting this all under control?
Ironically water–or lack of it–has been the real story at Fukushima for the past four days. The nuclear cores need water to cool them down, and the tsunami swamped Fukushima and initially cut off electricity powering the cooling systems. Then various backups failed, which forced plant operators to pump sea water into the reactors to try to cool them down. The Times initially reported that helicopters might be used to drop water on the pools of spent fuel that are too hot. (Later the idea was discounted.) In short: follow the water.
One of their problem to this point has been the ability to get enough water on the fuel rods to cool them. They’ve been exposed and so are super hot. When the water is injected it quickly boils away, faster than they’ve been able to replace it. There are most likely leaks to contend with as well. The use of sea water has always been theoretical as a “last ditch” measure if all else fails. They’re now injecting sea water for real. Also key to this is Boric acid which aids in the cooling process. Getting the right mix in such a volatile atmosphere as that found in the reactors must be a nightmare.
So? So, that’s a bit of an update on where they are in a very rapidly changing situation. Most “experts” are saying regardless of what happens this should not be another Chernobyl. That’s primarily because the Chernobyl reactor had no containment facility when it melted down. And I’ve read any number of experts saying the containment vessels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are doing their job. However, there should be concern over the storage areas for spent fuel rods since they have no containment facility.
UPDATE: A couple of interesting vids of Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute talking about the Japanese disaster (more available at the link):
I tend to agree with him given what I’ve read about 3 Mile Island. My new concern though, as stated, is the storage pools for the spent fuel rods. We’ll see what sort of coverage that gets.
Of course anyone who is a student of politics knew this was coming. The anti-nuclear crowd, mostly found on the left, couldn’t wait to politicize the earthquake disaster in Japan and call for a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction.
Not that we’ve had a single nuclear power plant constructed here in the US for decades. But this is a call to kill any nascent plans for building any new plants. Right on schedule the expected reaction attempts to build public opinion against nuclear power by invoking "scare" rhetoric. The culprit is Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA):
“I am shocked by the devastation that has already been caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It is heart-breaking to see the destruction that has already taken place, and to hear of so many people being killed or injured,” said Rep. Markey. “As a result of this disaster, the world is now facing the looming threat of a possible nuclear meltdown at one of the damaged Japanese nuclear reactors. I hope and pray that Japanese experts can successfully bring these reactors under control and avert a Chernobyl-style disaster that could release large amounts of radioactive materials into the environment.”
“I am also struck by the fact that the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States. What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here," said Rep. Markey.
No Rep. Markey, they couldn’t "very easily … happen here". And while it is obvious the 8.9 quake that hit Japan has severely damaged the Japanese nuclear power plants, it isn’t at all clear that they won’t be able to contain the damage or that a similar accident is bound to happen here.
The Heritage Foundation lays out a few of the salient facts
* The low levels of radiation currently being released will likely have no biological or environmental impact. Humans are constantly exposed to background radiation that likely exceeds that being released.
* The Chernobyl disaster was caused by an inherent design problem and communist operator error that is not present at any of the nuclear plants in Japan.
* There were no health impacts from any of the radiation exposure at Three Mile Island.
* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not need to regulate more in response to this. It already regulates enough.
* The plant in trouble in Japan is over 40 years old. Today’s designs are far more advanced. * No one has ever been injured, much less killed, as a result of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.
Obviously those represent the facts at this time when talking about the Japanese reactors and could change. However the other facts stand. Chernobyl was the nuclear industry’s Deep Horizon. A one-off occurrence that the Chicken Little’s of this world, coupled with other anti-nuclear groups, have used for years to oppose the expansion of nuclear generated power. And they plan on trying to add Japan’s troubles to the litany of opposition.
As you might expect, Markey has proposed – wait for it – a moratorium on siting “new nuclear reactors in seismically active areas”. Any guess who will get to define “seismically active area”? We have earthquakes everywhere in this country with most of them being so minor they’re not even felt. Does that qualify for a “seismically active area”?
Let’s not forget that this earthquake Japan suffered along with the resultant tsunami was massive and extremely rare. In fact, it is the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history. The largest earthquake recorded in American history occurred in 1964 off Prince William sound in Alaska coming in at 9.2. Below, on the map, are the top 15 earthquakes recorded in the US since 1872 (7.3 or above). The year they occurred is by the marker. As you can see they’re mostly centered in California with a few here and there in other areas of the US. South Carolina, for instance, hasn’t see a quake of that size since 1886 – over 100 years. Missouri not since 1812:
Let’s also not forget that Japan has suffered 275 aftershocks of 5 point or greater. In fact, since the quake, Japan is averaging 12 to 15 aftershocks per hour. That too hampers rescue and recovery efforts as well as the efforts to contain the damage at the nuclear sites.
To give you an appreciation of the magnitude of difference between the numbers on the Richter scale measurement of an earthquake, a “5” equals about 474 metric tons of TNT exploding. A “6” is 15 kilotons. A “7” is 474 kilotons. An “8” equals 15 megatons. And an 8.9 is approximately 356 megatons. The “Tsar Bomba”, the largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested, was a 50 megaton device coming in at 8.35 on the Richter scale.
That gives you an idea of the power of the Japanese quake.
Does anyone anticipate that in the vast majority of the continental US? Of course not. Is there a history of those sorts of quakes. Again, for the vast majority of the country, the answer is “no.” For Japan the answer is quite different. The islands lay on the “Pacific rim of fire”, one of the most earthquake and volcano prone areas in the world.
But that won’t stop the scare mongers from trying to gin up a movement to not just place a moratorium on “seismically active areas”, but eventually to all areas of the country.
“Seismically safe” will become the new watchword for the anti-nuke crowd. And I predict that regardless of the design, they’ll find all of them to be wanting.
“The unfolding disaster in Japan must produce a seismic shift in how we address nuclear safety here in America,” said Rep. Markey.
No, it shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t let alarmists like Markey steal a step on nuclear energy. We have the means and the technology to provide safe nuclear power generation. It should proceed with an obvious eye on the safety of such plants. But we do not need to let the scare mongers use this lifeboat incident, this outlier scenario, as a means of slowing or stopping our move to more nuclear powered energy.
We ought to be saying, “split, baby, split”. Split here and split now.
In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Japanese earthquake and the implications for US nuclear policy, and Pres Obaba’s leadership style.
The direct link to the podcast can be found here.
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