I have been too busy in real life to do more than post links to my twitter feed over the last week or so, and reports from Japan about the nuclear incident following the tragic earthquake (thus far the 5th most intense in documented history) and resulting tsunami were too conflicting and sensationalist to write about. Let me however give the word to the inimitable Jerry Pournelle (on what is arguably the original weblog, now in its 666th week):
We are now down to an absolute worst case of two Tsar Bomba fallout equivalent from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Note that we are talking about fallout only: there is no danger whatever of an actual nuclear explosion. The media are breathlessly telling of a nuclear cloud approaching the United States. NPR proclaims that no nukes is good nukes. The Union of Concerned Scientists will cheerfully furnish you with as gloomy a forecast as you’d like whether you ask for their view or not.
In fact the situation is slowly coming under control. Fukushima Daiichi sits on the coast amidst a scene of almost unimaginable destruction, in freezing weather, with high winds. Every road, water pipe, and power line is gone. Debris litters the passageways to the plant. Fukushima Daiichi was protected by a 20 foot sea wall. Most of the surrounding countryside wasn’t protected by a sea wall at all.
At reactor four the fuel rods were in a spent fuel pond: the reactor was shut down in December. The pond was on the roof of the reactor building, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and could withstand an 8.0 quake, and being on the roof had a really short path from the reactor to the storage pond. All was well, until the quake cracked the pool wall. Well, that’s all right, we pump in water. Only there’s no power because the reactors scrammed at the first large tremor. That’s all right, the diesels kick in and the water pumps start up. Only now there’s a tsunami. Well, that’s all right, there’s a twenty foot sea wall. Only the tsunami is 23 feet, and maybe there has been some subsidence of the land level due to the quake. Water rushes into the complex. Back at reactor 4: the water is flowing out of the spent fuel rod pool. The rods stand on end, 14 feet tall, with about 40 feet of water in the pool. The water is flowing out. Everyone is worrying more about the three reactors which are scrammed but which still contain the fuel rods. Those rods are really hot: they are full of just created fission products, some with half lives in minutes to hours so producing a lot of heat. Over in four all the really hot stuff — fission products — has decayed out. But the water is leaking. Temperatures are going up.
At some point the water in the four tank boils furiously near the zirconium rod containers. Superhot steam plus zirconium metal produces very fast rusting. This is also known as oxidation. Rapid oxidation is often called burning. The oxygen in the water is stripped off to become zirconium oxide. That leaves hydrogen (contaminated with some tritium since we still have neutrons and beta products coming from the radioactive decay of the fission byproducts). Hydrogen gets out into the room enclosing the spent fuel pool. It mixes with oxygen from the outside. It ignites. There is an explosion that blows off the roof of the rooftop spent fuel enclosure building. Water continues to leak from the pool.
The remedy is to get water into that pool, but we still don’t have much power for pumps, nor water supply, because we are still surrounded by devastation, and we still have the problem of the reactors that have just been scrammed and are really really hot because they have recently created fission products in them.
But we can call in helicopters to drop water into the now-exposed pool. That ought to work only there is a 20 knot wind, so not all the water dropped can get into the pool, and much goes downwind in a televisible display plume.
And there we are. The good news is that the wind is blowing the results out to sea. The bad news is that a plume hundreds of miles long develops and in that plume are detectable — not dangerous but detectable — levels of radiation, and out there away from the destruction, not hampered by the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, are a lot of news people desperate for a story, and — I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader. Detectible soon becomes potentially dangerous levels, and it’s hundreds and hundreds of miles, and a Union of Concerned Scientists expert will now tell you about it all.
I can’t say that this won’t be worse than Chernobyl, but so far we have no stories whatever of anyone off the plant site injured, which makes this a TMI story, not a Chernobyl story. And that’s the way things are at Noon on Thursday as best I can tell. Here’s the headline:
Japan nuclear crisis deepens as radiation keeps crews at bay
Race is on to restart cooling systems with emergency power after dropping water on damaged reactors has little effect
To the best of my knowledge the Japanese crews are winning the race. This will end up worse than TMI because many of those in the plant will be injured, and some may be killed: I understand that some workers have voluntarily exceeded their annual badge limits and by a lot because they thought their work was critical. At TMI there were no off site injuries, and the worst to the workers was that they exceeded their badge limits and were sent away. At Daiichi there have so far been no off site injuries, but some to many of the plant workers have exceeded their badge limits. In addition six or more have mechanical injuries, some from the hydrogen explosions, one from a heart attack. Pray for them.
Indeed. Jerry puts in a well-deserved plug to the MIT Nuclear Information Hub. weblog, which is now frequently updated with lots of relevant info. Get thee over there.
And just to give some perspective on the scale of the disaster caused by the tsunami, have a look at this video sent to me by Mrs. F2. At first the combination of new agey background music and what deceptively seems like shots of a peaceful tide rolling will throw you off, but as the images zoom in the devastation is revealed for what it is, and the continuing background music creates a chilling, Lalo Shifrin-esque emotional counterpoint.