There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity
By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.
you will also be reasonably well informed about nuclear reactors.....and admire the Japanese for their engineering skills
What happened at Fukushima
I will try to summarize the main facts. The earthquake that hit Japan was 5 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for(the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 8.9 that happened is 5 times, not 0.7). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up.
When the earthquake hit with 8.9, the nuclear reactors all went into automatic shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the control rods had been inserted into the core and nuclear chain reaction of the uranium stopped. Now, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat. The residual heat load is about 3% of the heat load under normal operating conditions.
The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. That is one of the most serious accidents for a nuclear power plant, and accordingly, a “plant black out” receives a lot of attention when designing backup systems. The power is needed to keep the coolant pumps working. Since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself any more.
Things were going well for an hour. One set of multiple sets of emergency Diesel power generators kicked in and provided the electricity that was needed. Then the Tsunami came, much bigger than people had expected when building the power plant. The tsunami took out all multiple sets of backup Diesel generators.
When designing a nuclear power plant, engineers follow a philosophy called “Defense of Depth”. That means that you first build everything to withstand the worst catastrophe you can imagine, and then design the plant in such a way that it can still handle one system failure (that you thought could never happen) after the other. A tsunami taking out all backup power in one swift strike is such a scenario. The last line of defense is putting everything into the third containment, that will keep everything, whatever the mess, control rods in our out, core molten or not, inside the reactor.
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.
At this point the plant operators begin to follow emergency procedures that are in place for a “loss of cooling event”. It is again a step along the “Depth of Defense” lines. The power to the cooling systems should never have failed completely, but it did, so they “retreat” to the next line of defense. All of this, however shocking it seems to us, is part of the day-to-day training you go through as an operator, right through to managing a core meltdown.
It was at this stage that people started to talk about core meltdown. Because at the end of the day, if cooling cannot be restored, the core will eventually melt (after hours or days), and the last line of defense, the core catcher and third containment, would come into play.
But the goal at this stage was to manage the core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment remain intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems.
Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Which one failed when or did not fail is not clear at this point in time.
So imagine a pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker. In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has 11 pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was about 550°C.
This is when the reports about “radiation leakage” starting coming in. I believe I explained above why venting the steam is theoretically the same as releasing radiation into the environment, but why it was and is not dangerous. The radioactive nitrogen as well as the noble gases do not pose a threat to human health.
At some stage during this venting, the explosion occurred. The explosion took place outside of the third containment (our “last line of defense”), and the reactor building. Remember that the reactor building has no function in keeping the radioactivity contained. It is not entirely clear yet what has happened, but this is the likely scenario: The operators decided to vent the steam from the pressure vessel not directly into the environment, but into the space between the third containment and the reactor building (to give the radioactivity in the steam more time to subside). The problem is that at the high temperatures that the core had reached at this stage, water molecules can “disassociate” into oxygen and hydrogen – an explosive mixture. And it did explode, outside the third containment, damaging the reactor building around. It was that sort of explosion, but inside the pressure vessel (because it was badly designed and not managed properly by the operators) that lead to the explosion of Chernobyl. This was never a risk at Fukushima. The problem of hydrogen-oxygen formation is one of the biggies when you design a power plant (if you are not Soviet, that is), so the reactor is built and operated in a way it cannot happen inside the containment. It happened outside, which was not intended but a possible scenario and OK, because it did not pose a risk for the containment.
So the pressure was under control, as steam was vented. Now, if you keep boiling your pot, the problem is that the water level will keep falling and falling. The core is covered by several meters of water in order to allow for some time to pass (hours, days) before it gets exposed. Once the rods start to be exposed at the top, the exposed parts will reach the critical temperature of 2200 °C after about 45 minutes. This is when the first containment, the Zircaloy tube, would fail.
And this started to happen. The cooling could not be restored before there was some (very limited, but still) damage to the casing of some of the fuel. The nuclear material itself was still intact, but the surrounding Zircaloy shell had started melting. What happened now is that some of the byproducts of the uranium decay – radioactive Cesium and Iodine – started to mix with the steam. The big problem, uranium, was still under control, because the uranium oxide rods were good until 3000 °C. It is confirmed that a very small amount of Cesium and Iodine was measured in the steam that was released into the atmosphere.
It seems this was the “go signal” for a major plan B. The small amounts of Cesium that were measured told the operators that the first containment on one of the rods somewhere was about to give. The Plan A had been to restore one of the regular cooling systems to the core. Why that failed is unclear. One plausible explanation is that the tsunami also took away / polluted all the clean water needed for the regular cooling systems.
The water used in the cooling system is very clean, demineralized (like distilled) water. The reason to use pure water is the above mentioned activation by the neutrons from the Uranium: Pure water does not get activated much, so stays practically radioactive-free. Dirt or salt in the water will absorb the neutrons quicker, becoming more radioactive. This has no effect whatsoever on the core – it does not care what it is cooled by. But it makes life more difficult for the operators and mechanics when they have to deal with activated (i.e. slightly radioactive) water.
But Plan A had failed – cooling systems down or additional clean water unavailable – so Plan B came into effect. This is what it looks like happened:
In order to prevent a core meltdown, the operators started to use sea water to cool the core. I am not quite sure if they flooded our pressure cooker with it (the second containment), or if they flooded the third containment, immersing the pressure cooker. But that is not relevant for us.
The point is that the nuclear fuel has now been cooled down. Because the chain reaction has been stopped a long time ago, there is only very little residual heat being produced now. The large amount of cooling water that has been used is sufficient to take up that heat. Because it is a lot of water, the core does not produce sufficient heat any more to produce any significant pressure. Also, boric acid has been added to the seawater. Boric acid is “liquid control rod”. Whatever decay is still going on, the Boron will capture the neutrons and further speed up the cooling down of the core.
The plant came close to a core meltdown. Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material. After the meltdown, there would have been a waiting period for the intermediate radioactive materials to decay inside the reactor, and all radioactive particles to settle on a surface inside the containment. The cooling system would have been restored eventually, and the molten core cooled to a manageable temperature. The containment would have been cleaned up on the inside. Then a messy job of removing the molten core from the containment would have begun, packing the (now solid again) fuel bit by bit into transportation containers to be shipped to processing plants. Depending on the damage, the block of the plant would then either be repaired or dismantled.
Now, where does that leave us? My assessment:
§ The plant is safe now and will stay safe.
§ Japan is looking at an INES Level 4 Accident: Nuclear accident with local consequences. That is bad for the company that owns the plant, but not for anyone else.
§ Some radiation was released when the pressure vessel was vented. All radioactive isotopes from the activated steam have gone (decayed). A very small amount of Cesium was released, as well as Iodine. If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy. The Cesium and Iodine isotopes were carried out to the sea and will never be seen again.
§ There was some limited damage to the first containment. That means that some amounts of radioactive Cesium and Iodine will also be released into the cooling water, but no Uranium or other nasty stuff (the Uranium oxide does not “dissolve” in the water). There are facilities for treating the cooling water inside the third containment. The radioactive Cesium and Iodine will be removed there and eventually stored as radioactive waste in terminal storage.
§ The seawater used as cooling water will be activated to some degree. Because the control rods are fully inserted, the Uranium chain reaction is not happening. That means the “main” nuclear reaction is not happening, thus not contributing to the activation. The intermediate radioactive materials (Cesium and Iodine) are also almost gone at this stage, because the Uranium decay was stopped a long time ago. This further reduces the activation. The bottom line is that there will be some low level of activation of the seawater, which will also be removed by the treatment facilities.
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§ The seawater will then be replaced over time with the “normal” cooling water
§ The reactor core will then be dismantled and transported to a processing facility, just like during a regular fuel change.
§ Fuel rods and the entire plant will be checked for potential damage. This will take about 4-5 years.
§ The safety systems on all Japanese plants will be upgraded to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami (or worse)
(Updated) I believe the most significant problem will be a prolonged power shortage. 11 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors in different plants were shut down and will have to be inspected, directly reducing the nation’s nuclear power generating capacity by 20%, with nuclear power accounting for about 30% of the national total power generation capacity. I have not looked into possible consequences for other nuclear plants not directly affected. This will probably be covered by running gas power plants that are usually only used for peak loads to cover some of the base load as well. I am not familiar with Japan’s energy supply chain for oil, gas and coal, and what damage the harbors, refinery, storage and transportation networks have suffered, as well as damage to the national distribution grid. All of that will increase your electricity bill, as well as lead to power shortages during peak demand and reconstruction efforts, in Japan.
§ This all is only part of a much bigger picture. Emergency response has to deal with shelter, drinking water, food and medical care, transportation and communication infrastructure, as well as electricity supply. In a world of lean supply chains, we are looking at some major challenges in all of these areas.
If you want to stay informed, please forget the usual media outlets and consult the following websites:
Someone else pointed out, the press is lapping up this nuclear stuff. Sells lots of papers or generates plenty of clicks.
I worked all my life with radioactive isotopes. The general population hasn't a clue about different forms of radiation and it's place in the natural environment. They see the word "radioactive" and freak. It's nice to read a calm explanation of what is happening in Japan. You won't hear it on CNN though.
...the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, which is sailing in the Pacific, passed through a radioactive cloud from stricken nuclear reactors in Japan, causing crew members on deck to receive a month’s worth of radiation in about an hour, government officials said Sunday.
The officials added that American helicopters flying missions about 60 miles north of the damaged reactors became coated with particulate radiation that had to be washed off.
...the episodes showed that the prevailing winds were picking up radioactive material from crippled reactors in northeastern Japan. Ever since an earthquake struck Japan on Friday, the authorities worldwide have been laying plans to map where radioactive plumes might blow and determine what, if any, danger they could pose to people.
No, because when you read the details (I don't know if the NYTimes reported the details), you read that the quantity that was detected on the crewmembers was less than what we get exposed to NATURALLY within a month of just living our normal lives with normal radiation fro m the Earth/cosmos hitting us from all sides.
In other words, they were withdrawn as a precaution, and once again the word "radioactivity" is used to get hits/sell papers.
It's good to know, it's not good to panic.
Still rocking in Tokyo.
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Only partially related from a recent news article:
...Plant operator TEPCO has had a rocky past in an industry plagued by scandal. In 2002, the president of the country's largest power utility was forced to resign along with four other senior executives, taking responsibility for suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records.
Many Japanese flooded social networking sites with worries about the plant.
"I can't trust TEPCO," said a person with the handlename Tanuki Atsushi on mixi, the Japanese social networking site. ...
I include it with the thought that everything we read on this incident neg or pos should probably be taken as at least slightly stretching the truth in whatever direction the author wishes to stretch.
I do hope that the assessment that they are past the point of a possible meltdown is accurate. The one thing that is very obvious is that the Japanese were much better prepared to handle this type of incident than their Russian counterparts.
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Another hydrogen explosion has rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, this time at the third reactor unit. Initial analysis is that the containment structure remains intact.
The blast that occurred at 11.01am today was much larger than the one seen at unit 1 two days ago. An orange flash came before a large column of brown and grey smoke. A large section of the relatively lightweight roof was seen to fly upwards before landing back on other power plant buildings.
Chief cabinet secretary Yukiyo Edamo appeared on television shortly afterwards to identify the blast was a hydrogen explosion. He said contact had been made with the plant manager whose belief is that the containment structure, important to nuclear safety, remains intact. The rationale for that statement, Edamo said, was that water injection operations have continued and pressure readings from the reactor system remained within a comfortable range.
Pressure and radiation readings
Pressure readouts from the period after the explosion were within a relatively normal range: 380 kPa at 11.13 and 360 kPa at 11.55am. These compare with comfortable levels yesterday of 250 kPa, reference levels of 400 kPa, and a high of 840 kPa recorded at unit 1 on 12 March.
Radiation readings on site remained low after the blast, albeit elevated from normal operation. In the service hall the reading was 50 microSieverts per hour. At the entrance to the plant the figure was 20 microSieverts per hour.
At 12:30pm, the radiation dose measured at a monitoring point on the Fukushima Daiichi site indicated a level of 4 microSieverts per hour. However, a subsequent reading at 1:55pm showed a reading of 15 microSieverts per hour but an increase of radioactive material was not confirmed. A monitoring post at the Fukushima Daini plant – some 10 kilometres south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant – indicated no change in the radiation dose there.
Cooling and pressure control
Fukushima Daiichi 3 was yesterday the subject of sustained efforts by engineers working to ensure that adequate cooling water was available for decay heat removal. Seawater was being injected into the reactor vessel and pressure had been relieved to comfortable levels.
A statement from Tepco shortly after the blast said that pressure had risen again to 530 kPa by 6.50am. The company determined this was ‘abnormal’ at 7.44am and declared the matter officially to government. It began to gradually relieve the pressure, and carried out a “tentative evacuation” of the site, until it reached a level of 490 kPa at 9.05am.
From Kyodo News:
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. confirmed that the 11:01 a.m. blast did not damage the container of the No. 3 reactor, allaying concerns that the explosion may have caused a massive release of radioactive substance. TEPCO said three workers, including its employees, were injured by the blast. All of them suffered bruises. ”According to the plant chief’s assessment, the container’s health has been maintained,” Edano told a press conference.
Here are some of the best updates available on the Japanese nuclear power plant situation (14 March 2011), following the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. In short, the nuclear reactor situation at Fukushima units #1 and #3 has stabilised with full containment intact (see below), and all other plants in the affected area are in cold shutdown.
World Nuclear News provides a regularly updated commentary: Efforts to manage Fukushima Daiichi 3. The bottom line:
Unit 1: Seawater injection continues and it is thought the reactor core is now sufficiently cool. Safety regulators consider reactor pressure of 353 kPa an indication of a stable condition.
Unit 2: The normal reactor core isolation cooling system is in use. Fuel rods are covered by about 3.8 metres of water.
Unit 3: Operations to relieve pressure in the containment of Fukushima Daiichi 3 have taken place after the failure of a core coolant system. Seawater is being injected to make certain of core cooling. Malfunctions have hampered efforts but there are strong indications of stability.
Reactors 1, 2 and 3 were in operation at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco’s) east coast Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck. Three other reactors were already shut for inspection but all three operating units underwent automatic shutdown as expected. Because plant power and grid power were unavailable during the earthquake, diesel generators started automatically to supply power for decay heat removal.
This situation continued for one hour until the plant was hit by the tsunami wave, which stopped the generators and left the plant in black-out conditions. The tsunami wave that hit the plant measured at least 7 metres in height, compared to the maximum 6.5 metre case the plant was designed to cope with.
The loss of power meant inevitable rises in temperature within the reactor system as well increases in pressure. Engineers fought for many hours to install mobile power units to replace the diesels and managed to stabilise conditions at units 2 and 3.
However, there was not enough power to provide sufficient coolant to unit 1, which came under greater and greater strain from falling water levels and steady pressure rises. Tepco found it necessary yesterday to vent steam from the reactor containment. Next, the world saw a sharp hydrogen explosion destroy a portion of the reactor building roof. The government ordered the situation brought under control by the injection of seawater to the reactor vessel.
Professor Barry Brook, an environmental scientist at the University of Adelaide, said the effect on the Australian debate depended on whether it would be ”argued on a rational basis or an irrational basis”.
A rational debate would acknowledge that Japan’s largest recorded earthquake produced an incident at a 40-year-old reactor that was ranked at a level less than the Three Mile Island emergency, he said. ”I think the nuclear reactors have come through remarkably well.”
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We should be commending Japanese engineers of all kinds for their diligent work in many fields.
This quake is now classified as a 9.0. This level of quake and type of quake would have levelled many cities if it occurred in their vicinity, including BC and US west coast cities.
The tsunami can't be engineered for, outside of moving your town to higher ground. When the big one happens just west of Vancouver Island, probably a subduction quake and a 9 as well, we will see several towns vanish off the map because of the tsunami, but our level of earthquake engineering and lower building standards will ensure many will die in buildings.
The final death toll in Japan is going to be huge, mainly due to the tsunami, but areas not affected by the tsunami did remarkably well because of Japanese foresight and preparation.
The question of nuclear power in earthquake zones is that it is less risky in a country like Japan where they understand the need to prepare. In our countries or other countries with less attention to earthquake and preparation, we could be looking at Chernobyls.