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  • Understanding Japan’s Response to Its Nuclear Reactor Emergency

    The impact of the Japanese earthquake on its nuclear reactors continues to capture the world’s attention. Reports of radioactive releases, elevated radiation levels, and malfunctioning power systems all strike fear into the public as memories of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl quickly enter the national and global conscious. It is important, however, to understand what these terms mean and how different actions taken by Japanese nuclear officials actually impact human health and safety.

    One area where this is particularly important is regarding the potential release of radioactive steam. According to the most recent news, Japanese officials are planning a managed release of radioactive steam from reactor number one at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The purpose of this action is to release rising pressure from the reactor’s core. Though such releases are not unusual, under these circumstances, one can assume that it is the result of inadequate coolant delivery to the core. Even though the nuclear reaction in the reactor has stopped, it will continue to generate heat for some time. Therefore it is essential to remove that heat from the reactor, which is normally done with water. If that becomes either inefficient or impossible, the heat can cause a buildup of steam and pressure that must be released to protect the integrity of the core. Such a managed steam release is an important tool in managing abnormal situations at nuclear power plants.

    While allowing radioactive material into the environment is never a good talking point, the reality is that it is done safely and in small doses on a regular basis. For example, small amounts of radioactive steam are often released during normal plant maintenance. This is all done within the strict guidelines provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specifically to protect public health and safety. The environment surrounding nuclear power plants is constantly monitored, and no problem has ever arisen as a result of radiation exposure. But we need not rely only on the experience of scheduled releases to understand the impact of emergency radioactive steam releases. We had just such an experience with Three Mile Island. A managed steam release was an important part of resolving that situation, and the U.S. government has determined that no humans were impacted as a result. While nothing indicates that Fukushima Daiichi is another TMI and past is not prologue, that experience does add important context to the actions being taken by Japanese authorities.

    Another area where misunderstandings could arise is with reports of radiation leaks and rising radiation levels. A number of reports have indicated that radiation levels have spiked up to 1,000 times in the affected plant. A closer look, however, shows that these spikes have occurred in the reactor control room. To be clear, such radiation level spikes are not good, but they should be kept in context. First, there is no indication of what the baseline is. Levels have spiked a thousand times from what? This is important. Humans are perfectly capable of withstanding substantial amounts of radiation. We are subject to it constantly. We need it to live. But too much is without question harmful. And just as important as how much is duration. Was it a quick spike or a sustained spike? So 1,000 times whatever amount is not good, but how bad it is is unclear. Further, the control room having a spike does not mean that environmentally significant amounts were released outside the plant. It could have been significant; it likely was not.

    A couple of things are clear, however. A major earthquake hit Japan yesterday, and at least one and maybe more nuclear power reactors are under severe stress as a result. But it is also the case that no nation is better prepared than Japan to respond to such an emergency.

    Posted in Energy [slideshow_deploy]

    10 Responses to Understanding Japan’s Response to Its Nuclear Reactor Emergency

    1. Lee, Ontario, Canada says:

      A very well thought-out article. I never ceases to amaze me that the word "radiation" can cause such fear. Like the author mentions: a 1000 times background is still very low. Nukes are very well built and the comparisons to Chernobyl are toatlly unfounded in today's nuclear world. I wish the Japanese success in recovering from this unfortuate event

    2. John Nagle says:

      This is premature. There's insufficient information to evaluate this yet.

      Radiation at 1000x background in the control room would mean that the control room has to be evacuated. That removes many of the options for controlling the reactor. They've already had an earthquake and a hydrogen explosion around the reactor, with the outer skin of the building blown off, so many of the plant's systems will have been damaged. Plant management is talking about filling the containment vessel with boron (the USAF just delivered this, apparently) and seawater. That's a drastic emergency action, never before necessary in a nuclear accident.

      At Three Mile Island, the control room remained in operation throughout the incident. Once the operators figured out that they had some valves closed that shouldn't have been, the cool-down process proceeded reasonably well. The reactor was partly melted, but almost all the trouble was inside the containment vessel. Other than being expensive, TMI wasn't a major disaster for anyone other than the stockholders.

    3. Peter Mallard says:

      Hmmm…How about people now being tested as positive for radioactive exposure and the government being forced to flood the containment vessel with sea water? Would you call this fear mongering when it is factual information?

    4. Alan says:

      We need radiation to live? What kind of radiation are you referring to? The radiation from a uranium fueled nuclear reactor consists of high energy neutrons, which are very different than the photons emitted by the sun. AFAIK, we do not need neutron radiation in order to live, in fact, just the opposite–too much will kill us, and exposure to any amount poses an increased risk of cancer.

    5. Drew, Brooklyn says:

      Your performance on MSNBC and your little blog here are at the least disingenuous, or a blatant attempt to mislead and obfuscate the facts concerning the release of radioactive gas,and the partial meltdown of the reactor.The situation is in actuality dire and needs to be presented in that light. your commentary on MSNBC and your words here suggest political and economic motivation as opposed to a true dialouge concerning nuclear power. I am a proponent of nuclear power but being aware of and tuned to the dangers and risks is part of the equation. I would hope in the future you temper your remarks or analyisis to the Facts and not conjecture.

    6. George Colgrove VA says:

      Rather than jump on the band wagon and start pushing for reduced dependency on Nuclear power, I feel we need to take all that “energy” of the debate and put it towards studying (using private sector funding and experts) first and foremost what went right in Japan and immediately start implementing those strategies NOW!

      Then we need to study what went wrong: government impedance, human response, structural, logistics, regulations, automatic response, etc. Then get private sector volunteers from the industry across the globe to form task forces to study the core parts that went wrong and what needs to be done to fix those issues. We need to know when to involve governments when it comes to informing the public –ONLY, and keeping them out when it comes to finding and implementing solutions. Remember, in this country it is advantageous for the liberal unionized federal workers to make nuclear to look as bad as it can to shut down the industry, in the same way they did for American oil drilling. They would prefer a meltdown and casualties if it could shut down the industry. Many on the left has said so. You put the feds in charge of finding solutions, we will not have nuclear energy in this country and without oil or coal, we will be literally in the “dark” ages. We should not trust the federal workforce with this serious and far reaching issue.

      What we are seeing in Japan is the worst case scenario (NO WAY NEAR common day dangers) and we need to learn, not negatively react. Nuclear energy is by and large the cleanest and safest means of creating and providing energy. We need to make nuclear power better, more cost effective and even more safe.

      With the massive tragedy that is occurring in Japan, we need to keep our hearts and prayers with the people, but we also have to keep our eyes out for the feds who will take advantage of this crisis and attempt to shut down a vital component of our energy strategy.

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    8. Sam, Wisconsin says:

      Although the events in Japan are an indication of what can go wrong, they are no excuse for refusing to build any more nuclear power plants, or shutting down ones already built. Once the cause for the diesel generators going offline is discovered it will be possible to prevent such a problem from occuring even if there were to be another earthquake and tsunami identical to what has hit Japan.

      Further more, I have a relative who works at a nuclear power plant in the state. Considering the geography, if it gets hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, the reactor is going to be a rather small issue. The same applies to many such power plant across the country.

    9. John Nagle, Silicon says:

      Heroic efforts to cool the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools continue. Some of the workers have already been exposed to enough radiation to make them sick. Some cooling water is getting in, but not enough. (For technical details, see the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum ("http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/"), which is providing updated tables of reactor status every few hours.)

      Nobody is yet talking publicly about the next phases. The spent fuel rods will have to be removed from the damaged pools (#4 is the big worry, but #3 is also damaged) and moved to an off-site disposal site, The building is too radioactive to work in, and has fire damage. Humans can't do the job. Remote controlled cranes, maybe. Robots, possibly.

      Then there are three reactors to contain and eventually dismantle. Units #1, #2, and #3 still have dangerously low cooling water levels, despite seawater injection. Units #2 and #3 have damaged containment vessels. It's not yet clear how bad the damage is. Nobody can get close enough.

      Years of difficult cleanup lie ahead.

    10. Rodney Tatro Las Veg says:

      Seaside nuclear power plants obviously a bad idea. If it needs to be Seaside it should be underground. I'm just saying

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