Social Question

SpatzieLover's avatar

No water in the spent fuel tanks in Japan? Is this doomsday for this area of Japan?

Asked by SpatzieLover (24554points) March 16th, 2011

It looks like they have now done the last Hail Mary they can perform at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

What is your opinion on the state of this nuclear disaster?

My Take:
I now understand how important cooling the spent fuel tanks are thanks to Rachel Maddow.
What I don’t understand is:
How Japan will protect their citizens?
What will be done to capture this radiation?
What can Americans learn from this to prevent this here?

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40 Answers

Coloma's avatar

Nobody has those answers, yet, exactly, I’m sure.

All the prep and planning in the world cannot take into account an actual disaster scenario.

Really, there is nothing that can be done except watch things unfold as they will.

marinelife's avatar

The Japanese are denying that their is no water in Reactor 4. They are working on getting the power back on at the plant which would really help with the cooling process.

Let’s all just keep sending positive thoughts to them.

Summum's avatar

My son is over there in Japan and I’m very worried I have offered to bring him back here and pay for it. Things are much worse than they are telling. They are even preparing Hawaii and the West coast for possible contamination I heard that on the news tonight. A couple of the plant workers are going in and trying to stop the problem knowing it is going to take their lifes. One daughter talked with her father who told her good bye. :(

SpatzieLover's avatar

@marinelife And from what I’ve seen on the news, the citizens are not believing their gov’t at this point because of the helicopter water dump. I’m trying to keep positive thoughts. I just don’t know how to put a positive twist on a nuclear disaster.

Summum's avatar

I just heard a report that the West coast will not be in danger that the radiation will be dispersed in the ocean if the winds carry it in that direction. Whew

CaptainHarley's avatar

1. Japan will have to move as many people as they can as far away from the reactors as they can.

2. Once the radiation has escaped, there is no way to recapture it.

3. Do not build any more reactors, the downside risk is too great.

SpatzieLover's avatar

@CaptainHarley What can we do to properly protect Americans on either coast near our nuclear plants, should this type of earth quake happen here?

CaptainHarley's avatar


Sadly, I have no idea, not being an engineer. : ((

ETpro's avatar

I’ve been doing a lot of studying since this situation erupted. The situation could yet be resolved, but we haven’t been catching many breaks lately and everything would need to go miraculously well for that to happen. At worst case, the fuel rods in one or more reactor and or spent fuel pool will melt down. That would generate heat sufficient to ignite the zirconium shells of the fuel rods, which would violently expel radioactive cesium, iodine and other contaminants. In addition, if the zirconium overheats under water, it rapidly oxidizes, releasing elemental hydrogen from the water. The hydrogen builds up in a bubble, and when temperatures ignite the zirconium the hydrogen explodes. At Chernobyl, 180 tons of fuel melted down. Over 400 tons are at risk in the Daiichi reactors. Do the math.

If we get the worst cast, this disaster could release far more radiation than the Chernobyl meltdown did, and release it in an area that is far, far more densely populated. Evacuation of the area would be nearly impossible because of the destruction from the 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.

Summum's avatar

GA @ETpro Unfortunately it could happen I just hope it can be contained.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Indeed! I also sincerely hope it can be contained.

ETpro's avatar

@Summum & @CaptainHarley I definitely join you in that hope. I don’t know what it would take to do it, or how quickly it could be done, but one option would be to build walls around the crippled reactors and flood them with sea water.

jerv's avatar

One thing that is overlooked here is that it is contained, or at least contained better than Chernobyl. One disadvantage of the RMBK-type reactors like Chernobyl is that their construction pretty much precludes the possibility of a containment vessel like reactors pretty much everywhere outside of Russia have.
Put another way, which has more protection in the event of a rollover accident, a NASCAR “Car of tomorrow” with it’s rollcage and mandatory HANS device, or a Harley Davidson ridden without a helmet? That is about the degree of difference we are talking here.

Another thing to bear in mind here is that if there was any possibility of releasing enough radiation to harm our West coast, the entire Pacific coast would’ve died back in the middle of last century. I mean, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the tests in the South Pacific… and here on our own soil… how much radiation has already been released?

I am going to grumble about how people fear things that they know little.nothing about. There is plenty of cause to be concerned, but not scared shitless and running around panicking.

Qingu's avatar

“Doomsday” is way, way too strong a word.

First of all, it’s important to understand that not all radiation is lethal. There are very nasty kinds of radiation (namely heavy elements like plutonium and uranium). There are lighter forms that can mimic chemicals in your body, like cesium and iodine, that are also nasty. But then there’s also inert radiation that does nothing, and there’s radiation that only lasts a few seconds. Also, low doses of even the nasty radiation is harmless, and radiation disperses rapidly.

Secondly, Japan has already taken important precautions against the radiation. The thing that made Chernobyl so lethal (thyroid cancer from radioactive iodine) is already protected against, for example.

Third, the reactor is not nearly as bad as Chernobyl was. In Chernobyl, the control rods weren’t even inserted, so fission was still very active. That’s a huge difference in energy. Also, Chernobyl lacked many of the containment safety features that Daiichi has. Chernobyl also exploded in a kilometer-high plume, which not only shattered the uranium fuel rods but ended up dispersing them over a wide area. The uranium at Daiichi is not shattered or exploded; it simply needs to cool down.

This is a terrible disaster, and it should lead people to reflect on the safety of nuclear power. But the media’s reporting of this crisis has been too heavy on hysterics, and too light on scientific facts. It’s worse than Three Mile Island, but not as bad as Chernobyl.

ETpro's avatar

@jerv The containment buildings have seriously compromised apart by hydrogen explosions in at least 3 reactors. They are venting directly to the atmosphere. They are dumping water into one from helicopters. That would not be possible if the roof were still in place.

SpatzieLover's avatar

@ETpro Exactly. This is what concerns me. It is not contained. Today’s mission is being called “last ditch”, “an act of desperation” and a “hail mary” by experts in this field.

SpatzieLover's avatar

@jerv I am a racing fan and grew up with a race car driving dad in Harley town…thank you for the analogy. It helped.

You said Another thing to bear in mind here is that if there was any possibility of releasing enough radiation to harm our West coast, the entire Pacific coast would’ve died back in the middle of last century. I mean, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, the tests in the South Pacific… and here on our own soil… how much radiation has already been released?

I get that due to the precip in Japan, the high levels of radiation won’t reach Hawaii.

I’m more concerned that we’ve experienced a few big earth quakes now. It seems our chances for a major coastal earthquake is pretty high. What measures should we here in America be taking now to prevent this type of disaster here? In your opinion is fine by me

jerv's avatar

@ETpro Yep. The buildings aren’t the tough part though. I guess scratching a car’s paint job will cause it to explode like a rear-ended Pinto, eh?

I wonder how many people who are so worried actually studied nuclear power plants or reactors, and how many of them would dial their paranoia down to mere concern if they actually knew.

Don’t panic

@SpatzieLover The biggest thing is to make sure that the maintenance is done (unlike BP oil rigs) and that the people are highly proficient (unlike Three Mile Island). There is a reason that many plants now hire only ex-Navy reactor operators.
As I said elsewhere though, the basics of reactor design involve answering ten questions:
1) What could go wrong?
2) What can we do about it?
3) What do we do if that fails?
4) What do we do if that fails?
5) What do we do if that fails?
6) What do we do if that fails?
7) What do we do if that fails?
8) What do we do if that fails?
9) What do we do if that fails?
10) Is there something else we can do?

Also bear in mind that Japan got ass-raped without lubricant Watch that for a few minutes (or lick the “Faster” button) and, if you are anything like me, you will be impressed that there is anything left North of Tokyo after this week. Seriously, I almost think the Earth is trying to take the Northern end of the island off the map!

Qingu's avatar

The buildings that exploded were not actually containment buildlings. They were the outer shells of the reactor buildings and they had no safety purpose. In fact, they are designed to blow apart easily if there is an excess of pressure.

The containment structures include several concentric layers of very thick concrete and stainless steels. These have not blown up, though they do have vents built in (to release pressure) and they appear to be damaged.

Summum's avatar

The core containment structures are damaged as well.

jerv's avatar

@Summum Is there anything in Japan that isn’t damaged right now?

Summum's avatar

Not much but my son isn’t damaged and he is over there.

Qingu's avatar

They are damaged, but they haven’t blown up. So that’s good.

And I’m glad your son’s okay!

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – I hope the American drone can shed some light on this taking high-resolution pictures. Especially about the situation of the spent fuel ponds. Any news here?

Qingu's avatar

I’m surprised that there aren’t more robots at work here, considering Japan is basically Robot Central.

Fun* fact: Some of the first drone planes were used during the Bikini atoll nuke tests. (video)

*by fun I mean terrifying

SpatzieLover's avatar

@mattbrowne From what I’ve heard/read, one spent fuel pond has a crack and another is dried out.

From what I’ve heard from TV, there are American workers from the plant that have talked to reporters, but won’t give names/faces. The workers cannot speak out about what is currently happening in the plant due to their contracts. This American worker spoke about the earthquake damage. Christiane Amanpour did speak about her interviews with the American workers on The View today.

jerv's avatar

Health consequences for people who have not been at the site look set to be effectively zero from events so far. Significant emissions of dangerous radio-iodine, the main health hazard which could eventuate, don’t look to be on the cards from the cores: and the spent fuel at the No 4 pool – not having been involved in a chain reaction for months – no longer has significant quantities of iodine-131 in it, this isotope having a half-life of 8 days.

The last remaining possibility of serious consequences would appear to be that of severe heating in the spent rods at No 4 melting them down and so perhaps causing significant airborne emissions of longer-lived radioisotopes such as caesium, or even heavy fuel metals. This would be unlikely to affect peoples’ health given the evacuation and public protection measures already in place, but it might mean areas having to be abandoned for lengthy periods as occurred after Chernobyl.

However, airborne dispersal of radioactives from Chernobyl was driven by the fact that they were mixed with graphite (carbon) coolant which remained on fire for days, carrying carbon soot mixed with radioactives far from the site. Fires at Fukushima’s cooling pool thus far have been doused within hours, and there seems no obvious reason why large amounts of rod material should become airborne even if rods do melt down in defiance of the Japanese industry’s assurance that they won’t.

“If someone can explain to me how those heavy particles, the heavy metals and even the non-gaseous fission products can be carried over a wide area, I’d like to hear it because I don’t know a mechanism where that could happen in these sort of reactors,” Professor Barry Brook told Australian media yesterday [4]. Brook is director of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

“To be honest, and I don’t want to sound too optimistic, but I think the worst is probably over,” added the prof, who is a longstanding advocate of nuclear power as a means to battle climate change.


Sounds to me like even if things so to Hell in a handbasket, there isn’t much to worry about. Concern? Definitely! But not worry. Then again, inducing panic gets ratings and sells papers, so why listen to science?

Qingu's avatar

Okay, I would hesitate to treat a climate scientist advocate of nuclear power as an expert on this subject.

That said, one of my main concerns—that the active fuel will melt through its steel and concrete containment (one source I looked at said it could “melt through it like butter”) appears to be unfounded. At Three Mile Island, the fuel also melted, but it only got a half inch or so through the 6-inch thick steel container.

So in this sense, the rods at #4 are probably the main danger. They don’t appear to be in a container. And there are more of them. But they are cooler than the rods in the active reactor, and there is no chance that they can melt together and become supercritical.

jerv's avatar

@Qingu As would I, except that it matches what I already know. It’s just I think that he has more credibility than I do. Note that the news agencies haven;t been asking me for an analysis of this disaster. Granted, that source is slightly more optimistic than I am, but it also jibes with the empirical facts far better than much of what I have been seeing/hearing. All news should be taken with a grain of salt, facts corroborated, conclusions questioned, and nothing and noone taken at face value. Not even me!

I believe that you are correct; the nearly-inert rods in the pool of #4 probably are more dangerous than the still-hot rods in the heavily shielded cores, yet most overstate the danger they pose, and we still have people convinced that a radioactive cloud will drop 750 rads over half of the US by this weekend.

Qingu's avatar

I agree that people should be less hysterical about this in general.

mattbrowne's avatar

What about Gregory Jaczko’s view?

‘Citing that threat, Mr. Jaczko and the White House said Wednesday U.S. citizens living within 50 miles of the facility should evacuate, contradicting their own prior statements about the radiation risk, and a Japanese recommendation that only people living within 12 miles of the plant needed to leave. The information the NRC had about the Fukushima plant’s spent fuel pools “was really one of the major changes that led us to re-evaluate some of our information and come up with a recommendation, and we did,” Mr. Jaczko said.’

funkdaddy's avatar

From the same link

An NRC spokesman said Thursday “the evidence is so far inconclusive” on the condition of the fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor. But, he said, “we have to err on the side of caution.”

Better safe than sorry, so hard to argue with recommending a greater distance. And it’s a lot easier to be cautious when your warning affects a couple thousand Americans rather than millions of Japanese.

I guess in short, we’re all watching, we’re all concerned, we all don’t have enough information, and only time will tell if it’s a disaster or a distraction.

mattbrowne's avatar

Japanese authorities just raised the Fukushima accident from INES Level 4 to 5.

Level 5 indicates “an accident with wider consequences”, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

jerv's avatar

Bear in mind that there is quite a difference between the level of radiation that will cause harm and the maximum level of exposure allowed. Nuclear regulatory agencies tend to be cautious almost to the point of paranoia. And with people in California worried about getting a mutagenic dose of radiation despite the Inverse Square Law, I think people actually want paranoia.
Then again, there isn’t anything wrong with erring on the side of caution here since it is a high-stakes situation.

mattbrowne's avatar

@jerv – I agree that paranoia is uncalled for. In the US and also in most European countries pharmacies are running out of iodine pills. And people don’t realize that 200 µg pills are totally ineffective as a precaution.

But we should learn something from this. Fear is a survival emotion. You and I are alive because our ancestors were able to deal with all kinds of dangers including an ice age and all sorts of natural disasters. Our brain has been optimized to interpret signs of dangers, for example clouds changing their form indicating an upcoming storm.

What makes radioactivity so special? We don’t have sensory organs for it. We can’t feel or see gamma rays. And at first we can’t feel alpha decay happening inside our bodies. We can feel strong earthquakes. And when at the beach we can seek higher grounds if possible. Action helps us deal with our fears. This is why people buy ineffective iodine pills. We should take these fears seriously. Most people actually don’t know what radioactivity is. Ask 100 people. How many will be able to explain to you what an isotope is or what decay or half live really means?

Yet most will know the reason why they can’t eat boars in southern Germany in 2011: Chernobyl. People understand the concept of long-term damage. People understand that scientists are fighting over where to put nuclear waste. Deep inside mountains. And because this is so, the whole matter must be dangerous. A logical conclusion. Again, let’s take people’s fears seriously.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, I agree we should take it seriously and err on the side of caution, but then the danger of going too far in this direction leads to people in California or Kansas loading up on potassium iodine pills. And there’s a limited supply of them.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – Absolutely, especially because there are people who need to take small-dose iodine supplements on a regular basis. In a worst-case scenario should the danger at some point reach North America and Europe it will be in the form of food, not particles diluted by our atmosphere.

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne I think we are finally closer to a middle ground. Fear only helps you survive if it motivates you; when fear paralyzes you, it can kill you quicker than whatever you are afraid of.

mattbrowne's avatar

@jerv – All the high-dosage iodine pill stocks should be sent to the people in Fukushima (50 mile radius) instead of handing them out to worried Americans and Europeans. I wonder how many high-dosage pills do exist? How fast can they be manufactured?

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne And that is why I hate when people get paranoid and/or hysterical. Stores in Seattle are out of any OTC pill that even resembles Iodine (high-dosage or otherwise) and that sort of thing can screw us (especially the Japanese in the area) over in the long run.

The pills will be sent where Capitalism demands; disaster will not be allowed to impede the Free Market. Sad but true. On the plus side, demand will cause an increase in production, si not all is lost.

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