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.