Monday, March 14, 2011


Before and after photos of the earthquake and tsunami disaster area. It's like an atomic bomb went off.

They're talking about tens of thousands of dead now. Thousands of bodies have already washed ashore. At least 200,000 people are homeless, their homes too damaged to return to, or simply not existing anymore.

Meanwhile, some nuclear reactors are threatening to melt down. Indeed, probably already have partially melted, thanks to incompetence on the part of its operators, Curly-san, Larry-san, and Moe-san, who, for example, let the diesel engines on their fire suppression system (what they were using to cool the reactors down) run out of fuel because, apparently, it didn't occur to them that the engines needed fuel (doh!). Just one example of the incompetence of the plant operators (letting hydrogen build up in the containment buildings so that they could explode was another one). The good news there is that these reactors have killed no (zero) people, and are unlikely to do so -- every passing hour they're that much cooler, as the more intense radioisotopes decay leaving less intense ones behind. The reactors are scrammed -- their control rods are in place, stopping the U-235 from actively fissioning -- what you're seeing now is residual heat that will eventually all be dissipated.

Which makes me wonder why there's such a focus on these reactors -- which have killed nobody, remember. I guess it's because of that word "nuclear" scares the crap out of people, because they think of explosions, mushroom clouds, that kind of thing. But in this case there's not going to be any explosion -- the uranium inside these reactors is not capable of exploding. It's only 5% enriched at most, which won't even fizzle. What you could get out of these reactors *if* they completely melted down would be radioactive steam (with short-lived isotopes from the radiation interacting with H20) as the melted control rods fell down onto the concrete floor of the containment building... because they were light-water reactors rather than graphite-moderated reactors like Chernobyl, you won't get the plume of heavier longer-lived radioactive carbon compounds that Chernobyl generated.

Back in the real world, on the other hand, some people in the far north of Japan are still cut off and rescuers haven't gotten there yet and are in *real* danger. Let's hope for their safety. This is winter in Japan, and Japan is pretty far north, in case you haven't noticed...

-- Badtux the Disaster Penguin


  1. There has actually been one death at Fukushima Daiichi, but that was in an accident involving a crane operating worker and it had nothing to do with the nuclear facility itself.

    I suppose I should not be surprised, but I still cannot get over the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate reporting that is going on regarding the nuclear situation in Japan. The anti-nuclear groups are trying to use this to their advantage to try and point out the inherent "evils" of nuclear energy. This might shelve any hope of building any sort of new nuclear facility in the US or in Japan for the foreseeable future as people are being whipped up in a frothing panic over nothing.

  2. This is one of the best and clearest explanations of what happened, in layman's terms, and I recommend you send this link on to others who are befuddled:

    I think this will set nuclear power back at least ten years in most countries. And it takes 10-15 years to build a new plant and get the reactor going, so that's 25 years before anything new comes online. It mgiht get pretty dark and cold sometimes before then.

    (and why is the verification word "rasist"?)

  3. I'm one of the bigger Doomers around (my wife has been looking for potassium iodide since Friday, and we've been skunked, but we're on the supply list at a compounding pharmacy today). However, what you wrote about the hotter, short-lived isotopes cooking off their half-lives gave me reason for optimism. It makes scientific sense. Good to know there's an expectation for temperatures to go down.

    It's not like I'm losing sleep over this. I grieve for the horror the Japanese are going through, and I foresee a wave of follow-on economic effects from this. It is not the Black Swan; it's the Black Godzilla. However, I'm fairly well-prepared, and even if there is widespread radiological contamination, it won't kill me for 10 or 15 years, which is close to the end of my predicted lifespan anyway. Still, I like to follow all the news for curiousity's sake. Your angle on the short half-lives is one I had not seen. Cool!

  4. I think you're seriously under-reacting here. Nobody knows what the conditions are inside several reactors, and there have already been radiation leaks that have contaminated people. Why do think the internal temperatures are falling? I haven't heard that anywhere.

    To say that nobody has died is seriously missing the point. Unless it's a mega dose, you don't die of radiation in a day or two. You die in agony from some miserable cancer 20 or 30 years later.

    The disturbing thing is that the Japanese are the global A-team for nuclear standards, safety, and operation -- and they blew it big-time, as you pointed out. Now, they are baffled and hopeless.

    In at east one of these reactors, the problem appears to be caused by spent fuel rods stored within the containment dome.

    And the explosions have damaged the domes.

    I see no reason for optimism.

    Lo siento,

  5. The only real danger of heavy shit hitting the fan is if the fuel catches on fire, that would release a *lot* of heavy isotopes (think Chernobyl, which caught on fire). Every minute it doesn't catch on fire is one minute less chance that it will catch on fire, because the reactors auto-scrammed when the earthquake hit and what we're seeing now is residual heat -- i.e., the "hot" isotopes in the reactor core created via the fission process are decaying rapidly, but there's fewer of them every minute because they're decaying (doh!). But all this relies on the plant engineers being able to continue pouring water on the things to carry the residual heat away... if the fuel rods actually melt down and fall through the bottom of the reactor vessel because they have to stop pumping for some reason, all heck breaks loose.

    BTW, what originally caught on fire at Chernobyl and burned so hot that it destroyed all the water systems and kept firefighters away was the graphite moderator. There is no graphite moderator in these reactors, they are light water reactors, i.e., inherently flooded with water and thus far less likely to catch on fire. As long as you can keep water on top of the fuel rods, anyhow, which has been the problem here

    - Badtux the Nuclear Penguin


Ground rules: Comments that consist solely of insults, fact-free talking points, are off-topic, or simply spam the same argument over and over will be deleted. The penguin is the only one allowed to be an ass here. All viewpoints, however, are welcomed, even if I disagree vehemently with you.

WARNING: You are entitled to create your own arguments, but you are NOT entitled to create your own facts. If you spew scientific denialism, or insist that the sky is purple, or otherwise insist that your made-up universe of pink unicorns and cotton candy trees is "real", well -- expect the banhammer.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.