Primer for Studying News Releases on the Japanese Reactor Accidents

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 8 months ago

There is a dearth of quality, technically correct information and commentary on the Japanese reactor accidents occurring at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  In fact, some of it is downright wrong.  There is no hope of comprehensively reproducing a time line or of surveying all of the available news releases or reports.  I’ll link some very good sites shortly that will assist you in studying the future commentaries and reports.  Just to set the tone, if you are interested in one-and-a-half minute reading and tabloid hysteria, close this web page now.  Go to the tabloids – or most MSM sites – or so-called news television (with their “nuclear expert” du jour).  I won’t purvey hysteria or ignorant analysis.  I’ll begin with things that can’t happen, and phrases and terms to avoid in your reading and viewing.  We’ll move to a quick summary of what we know thus far about the accident(s), and close with an assessment of the consequences of this reactor accident for the future of Japan.

Perhaps the worst tabloid journalism thus far has come from Geraldo Rivera on Foxnews on Sunday evening.  Thousands of souls had been swept into the sea, and Geraldo was discussing how “radiation was like that voodoo stuff – you can’t see it, and that’s what makes it scary!”  The kind of hysteria extends to supposedly smart people like Charles Krauthammer, who said:

It’s a terrible potential. If you get a meltdown, of course, there is a catastrophe for the region.  But also every 20 years we say let’s try again with nuclear energy, it’s clean energy — it doesn’t put stuff into the atmosphere. [Now] if you get a “China Syndrome” as in 1979 … it could put the nuclear [industry] out of business for decades.

The Daily Mail reports that “As fuel rods melt, they form an extremely hot molten pool at the bottom of the reactor that can melt through even the toughest of containment barriers.”  To dispense with the myths, the China Syndrome was a movie.  What happens in the analytical models, and also in actual reactor accidents like Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2, is that the corium, that mixture of melted fuel, cladding and other internal reactor components like control rods and guide tubes, forms in some of the channels, further blocking fluid flow.  Eventually in an extreme reactor accident, much of the fuel shatters and becomes rubblized in the lower reactor vessel head.  This is in fact what happened at TMI in large measure, along with some core melting.

It doesn’t require melted fuel to release fission products.  Having written computer codes that model such releases, I can observe that much of the fission products are released in fuel heatup, and most releases occur prior to achieving fuel melt temperature, including most or all of the Noble Gases (Kr, Xe), much of the semi-volatiles (halogens) and some of the alkali metals (e.g., cesium).  Don’t forget this point.  This is important and I’ll come back to this later.

The corium isn’t modeled to melt through the lower vessel head except in the worst accidents where there is no coolant at all.  This isn’t the case for the Fukushima reactors.  Even in the event of complete breach of the lower vessel head, the corium doesn’t under any circumstances achieve melt-through of the lower basemat, which in some U.S. reactors is as much as 12 feet of concrete.  The corium disperses and cools from the dispersal.  There is no such thing as the China syndrome.  That’s just a dumb ass movie.  And reactors also don’t explode like nuclear weapons.  Nuclear radiation isn’t voodoo, and we know how to achieve protection against it.

Now to what we know about the accident.  When the tsunami occurred it disabled the offsite power to the plant.  Emergency diesel generators automatically started, and they functioned for approximately one hour until they shut down due to tsunami-induced damage to their fuel supply.  Power to the control valves in the reactor makeup operated until they lost battery backup.  DC power from batteries was consumed after about eight hours of operation.  The plant sustained a complete blackout (loss of all power), and it was at this point that fuel damage and Zirconium alloy (Zircalloy) – water interactions occurred, i.e., cladding oxidation.  This is an exothermic reaction and produced more heat, adding to the fuel fission product decay (or residual) heat to be removed by the cooling system.  It also produces hydrogen.

During some point in the past several days, hydrogen explosions occurred on Unit 1.  In an attempt to prevent the hydrogen concentration from being above the explosive limit, releases were made from Unit 3.  Ironically, it was likely a valve opening or some other electrical arc that caused the hydrogen explosion that occurred on Unit 3, further damaging not only Unit 3 but apparently also parts of Unit 2.  Any hydrogen explosion that looks like this has already degraded a lot of nuclear fuel.

In spite of Russian experts who wax eloquent about how the world learned from the Chernobyl accident and how we’re better able to handle reactor accidents because of the Russian experience, the Japanese reactor accidents aren’t like Chernobyl, and it isn’t because we learned from the Russian design.  I studied thousands of documents concerning Chernobyl and performed many calculations.  I trained the DOE safety analysis engineers on the nuclear design characteristics of the RBMK-1000 reactor (not as a DOE employee).

The RBMK reactor design was loosely neutronically coupled, and had an overall positive power coefficient.  That is, it was graphite-moderated, and since the water was a neutron poison rather than the moderator, the reactor was “over-moderated.”  This means that upon a loss of coolant, the reactor experienced a power excursion.  It had a positive void coefficient, leading to an increase in reactor power by a factor of 100 in less than 1 second.  Furthermore, its containment structure was little more than a sheet metal “Butler Building.”  The core was in flames and pouring fission products into the atmosphere.  More than 30 souls perished attempting to mitigate the accident, and many more contracted cancer from the releases of radioactivity.

Despite what some of the more “conservative,” pro-nuclear “experts” have said on national TV, the Chernobyl accident was a catastrophe.  I was in training with an engineer from Kiev not too many years ago, and he informed me that residents of Kiev still have to frisk their food with a GM detector and pancake probe prior to eating to ensure that they aren’t ingesting radioactivity.

So why was the RBMK reactor designed this way?  For the production of weapons-grade fissile material.  I have pictures of the Russians performing online refueling operations at the Chernobyl site to remove the weapons material.  The Russians tried to combine commercial nuclear power with weapons production.  The RBMK design is the result.  U.S. reactors are designed by federal code with a negative overall power coefficient (GDC 11), which shuts the reactor down in a loss of coolant or fuel heatup.

The Fukushima reactor accidents aren’t Chernobyl because they have a hard containment design and a negative power coefficient like U.S. reactors.  Unfortunately, that containment design is being breached periodically to release steam from the sea water that is flooding the core, and with the steam releases come radioactivity releases.  As I said before, much of the release of fission products to the containment has likely already occurred (meaning that while it’s important to cool the core, its also the case that sedimentation, washout, plateout and other removal mechanisms are acting on the fission products (including radioactive decay).

We in the U.S. had our core melt event; it was TMI.  There were essentially no releases of radioactivity and thus no health affects due to the hard containment design.  The Fukushima reactor accidents are worse than TMI given the breach of containment, but with the evacuation that has already occurred, the health affects will be minimized.

The main cost now to TEPCO will be the cleanup and decommissioning of the damaged reactors, which likely have rubblized cores sitting in the reactor vessel.  It will take a decade and tens of billions of dollars.  Just as with the Takaimura criticality accident, we will probably see senior company officers bowing before the nation and asking forgiveness.  This will probably spell the end of many careers, and the beginning of much soul searching over design and licensing basis seismic events, flood events and related design criteria.

There are many reports that have incorrect or incomplete information.  The reports on exposure to the 7th fleet is remarkable for its lack of technical detail.  We could perform a dose reconstitution with the available data, but we aren’t given any.  There are incorrect and inconsistent units of radiation being reported, and there are technical facts gotten wrong.  It’s best not to speculate on what we don’t know, and it’s best not to listen to the “experts” on television.

This is a serious reactor accident, one for the books.  Nuclear engineers will be studying this accident for decades to come, and it will affect reactor regulation in both Japan and the U.S.  But the Japanese worked remarkably efficiently to evacuate residents, and thus radiation exposure will be minimized.  This was yeoman’s work given the state of transportation after the tsunami.  The Japanese faced the perfect storm of problems, and they performed admirably.

But what this accident should not do is cause us to jettison the promising future of nuclear power because there might be some cesium uptake in Tuna in the Pacific.  When nuclear workers receive regular body burden analysis to assess the radioactive content in their body, the technician can tell if they are hunters.  “Do you hunt, sir?  Yes, I hunt deer.  Oh, that explains the Cs-137 spike I see.”  The Cs-137 doesn’t come from commercial nuclear reactors.  It comes from fallout from nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and 1960s.  We’ve been there and done that.  It’s not a problem.

Only tabloid media could take a situation where thousands of souls were swept away in a tsunami and ignore that story for the real drama of a melted core (in which one soul has perished, and that from an industrial accident).  We need to maintain our perspective, and the proper perspective isn’t to have nightmares of melt-throughs to China.  We should leave that to the purveyors of hysteria.

Some good links (I will add to these later):

ANS Nuclear Cafe (for the best coverage and analysis of the Fukushima reactor accidents)

NUREG-1250, “Report on the Accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station.”

EPRI, NSAC-127, “Multidimensional Analysis of the Chernobyl Accident” (if you’re really interested in Chernobyl).



  • http://fastsurgeon.blogspot.com JF Sucher, MD FACS

    Thank you for taking the time to put this explanation together.

  • bob sykes

    Thanks for a very informative uptake.

    Could you an addendum explaining how the hydrogen gets out of the reactor and containment vessel and into the “Butler building”?

  • http://www.firstcontactproject.org/ Warbucks

    Your post is exactly what’s needed. As hard as they tried at NOAA, during Deepwater Horizon disaster the one major shortcoming of the NOAA response was an un willingness to take on direct media rumor mill and tell the facts. Either that, or they were hiding a greater truth. Matt Simpson was a highly regarded oil industry financier telling us the the was a pressure bubble on the floor of the Gulf the “could” collapse sending a 600 foot tsunami all the way in to the Tennessee state line. It was outrageous to continue to ignore Matt’s voice without bringing a sound panel of offsetting science to bear on his highly regarded opinions.

    Matt suddenly died of a heart attack, of course.

    Good job Captain. I may have actually learned something.

  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, TCJ-

    “We in the U.S. had our core melt event; it was TMI. There were essentially no releases of radioactivity and thus no health affects due to the hard containment design.”

    This is incorrect. TMI released about 13 million curies of radiation. Not nothing, though mostly in the form of Xenon, which readily dispersed in the atmosphere and was harmless.

    Secondly, the high level of radiation coming from the Fukushima plant, to the point that most employees have to be evacuated, indicates that things are spinning out of control- that between three uncooled reactors and several spent fuel cooling ponds that are drying up, the implications rise far beyond what happened at TMI. It is no Chernobyl, to be sure, but one containment vessel has already been breached, from what I am reading.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Seriously Burk? Seriously?

    I would have thought that by now you would understand that in order to maintain respectability on this site, you at least need to square your thinking away before commenting. You are not knowledgeable in this area, and so you should have been all the more careful.

    A few quick facts first. Radioactive Xenon is not harmless. Who told you this?

    Next, one doesn’t release radiation. This isn’t a trivial mistake. One releases radioactivity, which emits radiation.

    And on to the main point. No, Burk. Are you under the impression that I am arguing that the TMI core didn’t release radioactivity? Burk. I clearly said that the core partially melted and partially shattered, and that fission products were released even before that due to high temperatures.

    Read the article again. A lot of radioactivity was released from the core to the containment, and also to qualified piping connected to containment (e.g., ECCS piping). It wasn’t released to the environment. See the difference? Put your thinking cap on Burk. Slow down, take a deep breath.

    Burk. Please study before you read. And get your thinking squared away before commenting.

  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, Herschel-

    The wiki site says:

    “It was the most significant accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry, resulting in the release of up to 481 P Bq (13 million curies) of radioactive gases, but less than 740 GBq (20 curies) of the particularly dangerous iodine-131.” … “Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant, though these findings have been contested by one team of researchers.”

    I conclude that, exactly as stated, quite a bit of radioactive material was released to the environment outside the TMI plant. If the Xenon is gaseous, non-reactive, and decays relatively quickly to other relatively harmless isotopes, (as it does), it does little harm to anyone in the outside world, but it was, nevertheless, released.

    And one might also note that “releasing radioactivity” is also inapt as an expression. One releases radioactive materials, which are radioactive (adjective) and radiate (verb) radiation (noun).

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2688135/posts

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Seriously? Now you’re quoting Wiki to me? Me?

    Burk, you are conflating the lack of a target organ for Xenon (like iodine targets the thyroid, cesium targets the bone, etc.) for lack of radiological hazard. Check our FGR Nos. 11 and 12 and go do some radiological dose calculations with surrogate numbers for yourself.

    Second, no, and a thousand times no. Stop reading the crap you’re reading, whatever it is. One releases radioactivity. Curies is a unit of radioactivity. Every nuclear engineer in the industry knows that. One doesn’t release radiation. Stop parsing things from a non-educated perspective. I am trained and work in this field. You haven’t been, and don’t.

    Finally, nothing you said changes what I said. I said that the radioactivity was released to containment. It wasn’t released from containment to the environment. That’s always been correct, is correct now, and always will be correct.

    Now. Stop.

  • Rev. Mike

    Herschel, the one that nearly sent me over the edge was the NYT reporter who, based on information from “experts,” explained that Unit 3′s plume would be more dangerous than Unit 1′s because Unit 3 used MOX fuel. Therefore, the plume containing plutonium would poison anyone who inhaled it because WE ALL KNOW that plutonium is one of the deadliest substances known to man!

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Mike, it reminds me of when we licensed MOX fuel, and were opposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. They had their own PRA and risk calculations, made up, of course, with fake input, all wrapped up in a package and submitted to court docket. When we gave them the real input they went away as did the case.

  • Sus

    Sir, thank you very much for your academic essay! I stopped owning a television 6 years ago, when I realized that I was listening to drivel and disinformation on the news. Your information makes scientific sense. Thank you also for remembering that 10,000 sudden deaths is far more relevant than folks in the public eye seem to believe!

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Spent Fuel Pool Fire At The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant?

  • scott s.

    It seems the “core” problem is the need to maintain active cooling under any scenario. Makes me wonder if the CANDU design might have some advantages?

  • Than

    Since you seem to know this subject well, I have some tangentially connected questions. I’ve read about the potential for fast neutron reactors to burn previously spent fuel and leave it with isotopes with much shorter half lives. Are you familiar with this? And if so, could these reactors be built to be safe? Would the spent fuel still have the potential for overheating like has happened at Fukushima? Do fast neutron reactor designs have a “negative overall power coefficient”?

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Status of the Fukushima Reactor Accidents

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Status of the Fukushima Reactor Accidents Part II


You are currently reading "Primer for Studying News Releases on the Japanese Reactor Accidents", entry #6531 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Fukushima Reactor Accident,Nuclear and was published March 14th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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