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Sunday, March 13, 2011

What It All Boils Down to in Fukushima

Nuclear fission. That's it right there.

This process, while providing electricity for millions, creates a tremendous amount of heat. When water can't get to the fuel rods--those babies that heat the water that turns the turbines that create all the electricity--we have a big problem on our hands.

At Fukushima right now, the cooling systems are operating on "back ups of back ups": steam-powered batteries. In the last 24 hours "radiation levels in one room [of the Daiichi 1 plant] spiked to 1,000 times the normal level" according to The New Yorker's senior editor Amy Davidson.

Four other reactors are in similar states of coolant emergencies.

When you take a look at the International Nuclear Event Scale, you'll notice that Chernobyl is at the top of the pyramid, a Stage 7 - Major Accident. What I woke up thinking this morning is this: the Chernobyl accident involved one reactor that melted down, but this "event" in Fukushima involves up to five nuclear reactors, and who knows, maybe more.

But it gets even scarier. One of the plants is not a Uranium 235 plant; it's plutonium. Plutonium, people. Do you know what that means? Way worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Way worse. I am not a nuclear physicist, and I am not an extremist crack pot survivalist; I am merely reporting what is in the news right now.

Plutonium is way more dangerous than Uranium 235. Way more, because it takes much more to cool it, to stop the reaction.

Where on the scale would this latest event be placed?

I hate to alarm you, dear event scale creators, but I think you're going to need to do some revising of your scale here pretty soon.


seana said...

I did get some understanding of this from watching the Rachel Maddow show the other night, but that was before things had gotten to the place they are now. Before plutonium, anyway.

I find it hard to keep up to where things actually stand in the moment, for some reason.

Beautiful as it is here, it hasn't been a great week to be on the Pacific Rim. Not at all.

Martha Silano said...

It's hard to keep up. It's a wait and watch right now. If you pray, pray that they can keep one or more of these reactors from melting down. Pacific Rim? If a plutonium cloud with radioactive materials of all sorts of crap in it (Strontium 90, Cobalt 60, etc.) starts circling the globe. we're all at risk for radiation exposure. Not to ruin your day or anything.

Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

What I find most disturbing is that even if this is eventually controlled, or even if it isn't, we would like to think the world would learn a lesson from it. We won't. We didn't learn from Three-Mile Island. We didn't learn from Chernobyl. We just don't learn.

seana said...

If my day, or week--or life--is ruined, Martha, it certainly won't be by you.

Kristin said...

My inner Apocalypse Gal (the one who watched "The Day After" and "Threads" and "Testament" in my college years) is enjoying your posts.

My grown up self is feeling uneasy at the thought of actually having to live in an apocalyptic movie plot.

I remarked to my spouse just a few hours ago that I never thought we'd be living through another nuclear reactor meltdown in our lifetimes--other nuclear disasters, sure, but I thought we had put safety measures into effect and . . . oh, heck, I was just happily living in my state of denial, worrying about terrorists and such.

My word verification is "ingod"--no joke. Hmmm.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Big planet, small world.

Last I heard it is now 6 reactors in trouble, and they are using fire engines to pump sea water into the worst case in a desperate attempt to cool the rods.

Loss for words, really.

Martha Silano said...

Seana: I hope my comment didn't come off as flip or snooty. My apologies if it did; I was quite distressed when I responded to you. I certainly did not intend to be snarky or preachy or know-it-all-y. :-)

Jane: I think what it is is that we have a limited ability to imagine various disaster scenarios before they occur: an earthquake followed by a tsunami, for instance, wherein the power was cut off by the tsunami. Seems like a no brainer, but only in hindsight, perhaps. And why don't the back-up batteries last for more than 8 hours? That one really boggles my mind, but again, in hindsight. Bottom line: nuclear accidents are inevitable. If we are going to enjoy the benefits or nuclear power, we have to accept the consequences. No such thing as 100% safe and secure. Mother Nature has other plans. She can always outwit us with disaster scenarios. And terrorists? Huh! They can do that too, but right now it's just what I suspected: so worried about terrorists we took our eye off the biggest threat: our own stupidity and shortsightedness in the face of what Earth has been doing for billions of years: quaking.

seana said...

Martha, no, not at all, I understood and agreed with your meaning. It is a distressing time. I keep thinking over the last 48 hours or so that even young people have been telling me lately that nuclear power is safe.

If anyone knew how to do safe nuclear power, surely it was the Japanese. And yet, here we are.

Martha Silano said...

Oh, good, Seana--sometimes tone is hard to read. Japan has done an amazing job with retrofitting their buildings and preparing their people for tsunamis. I commend them. I just don't think anyone could have imagined what is happening over there right now. It's unthinkable ... until it happens, and even then it's hard to get one's mind around. Sigh.

seana said...

Right. And it's not looking any better this morning.

Martha Silano said...

I was away at a writing retreat till last night, so I didn't have a tv. Last night I watched the news. I am stricken and humbled by what the people of Japan are facing. A story of a mom who held onto a tatami mat and floated in the churning sea till a rescuer picked her up (her daughter was not so lucky). 100s of thousands homeless. And then the unthinkable: radioactive isotopes to breathe and, to bone-seek, to burn the skin and attack the thyroid. It is too much to bear . . .

Supervillainess said...

How Japan differs from Chernobyl:
Chernobyl's reactor was a different style that was more dangerous than any of the reactors in Japan. Chernobyl used a carbon control medium and carbon burns; Japan uses water which does not burn. Even if you have a meltdown in Japan, it won't result in the dangerous fires that caused so much pollution in the Chernobyl disaster.
Not that it's a great situation, as radiation leaks go. But it does differ in some signifigant ways that may make these disasters more contained.

Martha Silano said...

That's heartening new, J9. Thanks for posting. I will pray for the water to keep those fuel cells cool. The news doesn't look very good at the moment. Plutonium is very much worse than U235/9. Did Chernobyl's plant have Plutonium-enriched uraniuim? That stuff will burn your lungs out.