He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry. I asked him to write this information to my family in Australia, who were being made sick with worry by the media reports coming from Japan. I am republishing it with his permission.
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.
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.
The plants at Fukushima are so called Boiling Water Reactors, or BWR for short. Boiling Water Reactors are similar to a pressure cooker. The nuclear fuel heats water, the water boils and creates steam, the steam then drives turbines that create the electricity, and the steam is then cooled and condensed back to water, and the water send back to be heated by the nuclear fuel. The pressure cooker operates at about 250 °C.
The nuclear fuel is uranium oxide. Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 3000 °C. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (think little cylinders the size of Lego bricks). Those pieces are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy with a melting point of 2200 °C, and sealed tight. The assembly is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form larger packages, and a number of these packages are then put into the reactor. All these packages together are referred to as “the core”.
The core is then placed in the “pressure vessels”. That is the pressure cooker we talked about before. The pressure vessels is the second containment. This is one sturdy piece of a pot, designed to safely contain the core for temperatures several hundred °C. That covers the scenarios where cooling can be restored at some point.
The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor – the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. For that purpose, a large and thick concrete basin is cast under the pressure vessel (the second containment), which is filled with graphite, all inside the third containment. This is the so-called “core catcher”. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down.
This third containment is then surrounded by the reactor building. The reactor building is an outer shell that is supposed to keep the weather out, but nothing in. (this is the part that was damaged in the explosion, but more to that later).
The uranium fuel generates heat by nuclear fission. Big uranium atoms are split into smaller atoms. That generates heat plus neutrons (one of the particles that forms an atom). When the neutron hits another uranium atom, that splits, generating more neutrons and so on. That is called the nuclear chain reaction.
Now, just packing a lot of fuel rods next to each other would quickly lead to overheating and after about 45 minutes to a melting of the fuel rods. It is worth mentioning at this point that the nuclear fuel in a reactor can *never* cause a nuclear explosion the type of a nuclear bomb. Building a nuclear bomb is actually quite difficult (ask Iran). In Chernobyl, the explosion was caused by excessive pressure buildup, hydrogen explosion and rupture of all containments, propelling molten core material into the environment (a “dirty bomb”). Why that did not and will not happen in Japan, further below.
In order to control the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor operators use so-called “moderator rods”. The moderator rods absorb the neutrons and kill the chain reaction instantaneously. A nuclear reactor is built in such a way, that when operating normally, you take out all the moderator rods. The coolant water then takes away the heat (and converts it into steam and electricity) at the same rate as the core produces it. And you have a lot of leeway around the standard operating point of 250°C.
The challenge is that after inserting the rods and stopping the chain reaction, the core still keeps producing heat. The uranium “stopped” the chain reaction. But a number of intermediate radioactive elements are created by the uranium during its fission process, most notably Cesium and Iodine isotopes, i.e. radioactive versions of these elements that will eventually split up into smaller atoms and not be radioactive anymore. Those elements keep decaying and producing heat. Because they are not regenerated any longer from the uranium (the uranium stopped decaying after the moderator rods were put in), they get less and less, and so the core cools down over a matter of days, until those intermediate radioactive elements are used up.
There is a second type of radioactive material created, outside the fuel rods. The big main difference up front: Those radioactive materials have a very short half-life, that means that they decay very fast and split into non-radioactive materials. By fast I mean seconds. So if these radioactive materials are released into the environment, yes, radioactivity was released, but no, it is not dangerous, at all. Why? By the time you spelled “R-A-D-I-O-N-U-C-L-I-D-E”, they will be harmless, because they will have split up into non radioactive elements. Those radioactive elements are N-16, the radioactive isotope (or version) of nitrogen (air). The others are noble gases such as Xenon. But where do they come from? When the uranium splits, it generates a neutron (see above). Most of these neutrons will hit other uranium atoms and keep the nuclear chain reaction going. But some will leave the fuel rod and hit the water molecules, or the air that is in the water. Then, a non-radioactive element can “capture” the neutron. It becomes radioactive. As described above, it will quickly (seconds) get rid again of the neutron to return to its former beautiful self.
I will try to summarize the main facts. The earthquake that hit Japan was 7 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 8.9 that happened is 7 times, not 0.7). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up.
When the earthquake hit with 8.9, the nuclear reactors all went into automatic shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the moderator rods had been inserted into the core and nuclear chain reaction of the uranium stopped. Now, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat. The residual heat load is about 3% of the heat load under normal operating conditions.
The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. That is one of the most serious accidents for a nuclear power plant, and accordingly, a “plant black out” receives a lot of attention when designing backup systems. The power is needed to keep the coolant pumps working. Since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself any more.
Things were going well for an hour. One set of multiple sets of emergency Diesel power generators kicked in and provided the electricity that was needed. Then the Tsunami came, much bigger than people had expected when building the power plant (see above, factor 7). The tsunami took out all multiple sets of backup Diesel generators.
When designing a nuclear power plant, engineers follow a philosophy called “Defense of Depth”. That means that you first build everything to withstand the worst catastrophe you can imagine, and then design the plant in such a way that it can still handle one system failure (that you thought could never happen) after the other. A tsunami taking out all backup power in one swift strike is such a scenario. The last line of defense is putting everything into the third containment (see above), that will keep everything, whatever the mess, moderator rods in our out, core molten or not, inside the reactor.