I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.
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.
I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error. ...
At some stage during this venting, [an] explosion occurred. The explosion took place outside of the third containment ([the] “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 build 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. ...
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.
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).