There She Blows

As a result of an earthquake NE of Japan, grid power was disrupted and a tsunami flooded the diesel backup generators at the Fukushima nuclear power facility. After several days of struggling to cool the reactors, staff have been withdrawn. Extraordinary measures could not reverse the damage:

  • automatic shutdown promptly at the time of the earthquake,
  • use of portable pumps for seawater plus boron compounds (to absorb slow neutrons),
  • withdrawing all but essential staff, and
  • finally withdrawing all staff.

Many mistakes were made as is usual in train wrecks:

  • fuel ran out for a pump allowing water levels to drop, and, of course,
  • the backup generators were not placed high enough to avoid the tsunami.

For those who do not understand the operation of a fission reactor, a few facts:

  • some atoms of uranium split into two or more smaller nuclei plus radiant energy and fast neutrons,
  • if the fast neutrons are slowed by a moderator such as water, or carbon, the speed can be slowed so that the neutrons will be captured by other atoms and trigger further splitting, a chain reaction,
  • given the right geometry and concentration, the chain reaction can grow explosively as in a bomb or at a constant rate in a reactor,
  • the radiation (alpha, beta, neutrons, fission products and gamma rays) eventually is transmitted to the surroundings as heat, normally used to produce electric power in steam turbines, and
  • the principal control of the reaction is by control rods, usually cadmium, that absorb neutrons without fission.

When the control rods were automatically inserted by the control system, the neutron-triggered chain reaction is greatly reduced but the radioactivity of the fission products is locked in the core of the reactor and produces hundreds of megawatts of heat, no matter what the operators do. In this case, the operators were not able to keep cooling water passing through the core and overheating caused melting or cracking of the fuel bundles, allowing fission products to escape into the water which escaped containment as jets of steam. Further, used fuel bundles which were in storage also ran dry and caused hydrogen and steam explosions to wreck buildings and injure staff.

The radiation levels reached are now dangerous to life within an hour or two so it is no longer feasible to keep staff on the job steadily. They might rush in briefly to monitor the situation but as much as possible must be done by remote monitoring.

The worst-case scenario is the water cooling failing completely, the water being converted to steam and the fuel bundles melting down permitting huge escapes of radioactive isotopes. The ones being monitored are likely Caesium137 and Iodine 131. Both are readily absorbed by humans and can cause cancer and or accute radiation poisoning. The radioactive iodine can be rendered ineffective by taking large doses of normal iodine as potassium iodide as the probability of absorption is greatly reduced. If not absorbed by the thyroid gland, iodine is secreted rapidly. These materials have been reported in low concentrations as far away as Tokyo. If the cores melt down, a large region of Japan may become uninhabitable just as in Chernobyl. There are several reactors in Japan all going at once, it seems.

These events are clear evidence that when things go wrong they go wrong in the worst possible way and that any system designed by humans is faulty.

We still don’t know the outcome. If staff cannot work on the system Nature will take its course and meltdown is likely. This could release dangerous amounts of radioactive material in the neighbourhood and depending on wind and rain the habitable area of Japan could suddenly be reduced. It may be necessary to sacrifice staff to save the general population but there is no guarantee such sacrifice would be rewarded with a better outcome. The monsters cannot even be buried until they cool down. The steam will still issue. The air and water and land will still be contaminated. There is just no way to turn off the production of heat for many weeks. After that it can be encased in concrete but the long-lived radioactive isotopes dispersed in Nature cannot be recovered, only diluted or bull-dozed into piles.

Pray for a west wind in the coming days.

see also BBC

see also Al Jazeera and more details

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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6 Responses to There She Blows

  1. Ray says:

    I think that using geothermal might be a good alternative, It does keep the house quite warm/cool cheaply, along with windmills. 🙂

  2. oe says:

    Batteries like the hydrogen red herring are not a primary source of energy. LI batteries and others are very good for smart stuff (especially netbooks and ARM based power sippers), and other items where energy to weight storage is worth a price premium.

    For higher power flywheel and phase change storage is looking interesting for high quality energy (electricity, very high temps.). Rockbeds and water tanks in ground or earth-cased heat pump consensors/evaporators are good storage for low quality energy (domestic hot water,

  3. Way too expensive and too small. The Ni-Fe batteries come in sizes of 250 to 1000 A-h.


  4. Ray says:

    What about using one of those Lithium batteries? These tend to last longer, and provide more power. 😀

  5. One of my goals when I retire is to be self-sufficient in energy. I see a unified system of solar heating and power generation combined with wind and heat pumps to fix me up as long as I live. Capital costs are large but the time to break even is only a few years. The easiest to do is solar water heating. Photovoltaics are a bit above $1/watt these days (Japan’s catastrophe has pumped that up.). Batteries are still pricey. The Chinese make nickel-iron cells but the price and shipping is a problem. It may be better to store wind and solar power as heat and use Stirling engines to convert it to electricity. All of these have to compete against firewood, but firewood will be increasingly difficult for me to handle as I age.

  6. oe says:

    And Big Energy has fought tooth and nail for so long against so-called alternative energies, even though solar, wind, biomass (waste-stock), tidal, etc. were the original sources to be tapped after human and animal muscle back in antiquity. Yes they are diffuse in nature and there is no silver bullet. But coupled with efficient use and carefully multi-source use they are truly endless. If you ever been to the Nevada, Great Basin, and Mojave deserts this country is the Kuwait of solar, and if been across the Great Plains, especially in winter, we’re the Saudi Arabia of wind. Some Big Corps that have the caught, Google for one, are beginning the steps to look at these technologies. Why is Big Energy hostile to them in the Way Big IT (Apple and MS) is hostile to Linux and FOSS? Since the generation of power by alternative energy in many forms (esp. solar, biomass (waste-stream not the false start of corn ethanol), and wind, hydro. and tidal to a lessor extent, OTEC and geothermal less so) is very scalable; it can be done on a individual, neighborhood cooperative level, and so forth. It is literally power to the people. And you can be like a cord cutter, your no longer a paying vassal, that’s why big and complex (and dangerous) fixes like nuclear, MS Win, and Clean coal get pushed to the pols and not alternati…ahem…classical energy production technologies.

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