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on the verge of a ‘nuclear’ meltdown

March 17, 2011

Let me start by saying I lived in Sendai for six months. I consider it to be my home town in Japan. The events of the last few days leave me struggling for words.

I lived further south in a town called Hitachi for a year. From our balcony we could see the lights on the Tokai nuclear reactor south of us. Our electricity bill contained a rebate of a couple of dollars each quarter. Compensation for the risk associated with living as close as we did to the reactor. We said at the time that would be cold comfort if something did go wrong.

The people of Japan continue to endure circumstances beyond my imagining and they appear to be doing so with courage, rectitude and dignity – characteristics that hark back to Samurai times and beyond. My thoughts and prayers are with them all.

That said, if I read (or hear) one more completely misinformed idiot warning of the destruction of Japan because of a nuclear meltdown I will have a meltdown of nuclear proportions of my own.

There are too many examples of disgraceful ‘journalism’ to pick from so here is just one that I saw this morning. Sadly it came from the ABC who I know have done a better job than most others in reporting events from Japan.

Text from the ABC news website that suggests water boils at below 84 degrees celcius.

Click on the image to enlarge.


Spent fuel pools are generally kept at 25 degrees Celsius. OK.  The rods generate heat so the pools need to be cooled. OK.

If the temperature of the water reached boiling point the water boils away. OK water boils at 100 degrees so I am not going to argue.

No water = exposed rods. No problem there. On Monday and Tuesday the temperature in No.4 pool was 84 degrees but there is no data for Wednesday. Fine.

Apparently from that we are able to conclude the water boiled away and the rods are exposed. Releases of radioactive material will follow after a short time.

When does water boil at 84 degrees? In a vacuum is the only answer (but these are open pools). 84 degrees, while it is more than three times the normal temperature (Oh my God!!!) is really only a threat to dairy products like butter and ice-cream. The same website notes during a real ‘meltdown’ temperatures in excess of 2000 degrees Celsius are required before the fuel rods melt and over 3000 degrees before the uranium inside melts.

So the question is: how can the media possibly, ethically, get from a reported 84 degrees Celsius on two days and no available data on a third day to a consistent reporting of imminent meltdown on a scale second only to that of Chernobyl. It is more than irresponsible.

The incident at Chernobyl occurred while the reactor was operating flat-out at many times its design capacity. The reactors in Japan were shut down within seconds of the earthquake occurring. Days later it is the residual heat and radioactivity in the spent fuel that is causing the issues.

These are not ‘out of control’ reactors.

Other people who use media to spread fear and incite panic in populations are called terrorists…  Just saying.


Make sure you read the comments on this post by Goviini who identifies a couple of errors and provides a more extensive background on the events at Chernobyl.

Since writing this post I was pointed towards this site Morgsatlarg who had a great early post and who linked on to a site those in the media should have known about. It is the site hosted and maintained by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and if you want to be better informed about events in Japan I suggest you visit.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Goviini permalink
    March 17, 2011 9:04 pm

    Actually, the Chernobyl accident occurred during a safety drill for which the reactor power output was reduced to a small fraction of its normal (or design) operating power. It was in fact because the reactor was operating at such a low level that the inherent design flaws of the boiling water type reactor caused the explosion. The RBMK reactors in use across the former Soviet Union are in fact safest when running at full pelt, and become incredibly unstable at low power – which is what happened at Chernobyl. At very low power (and when there is little forced water circulation in the reactor core, small pockets of water can become superheated, and vaporise instantly into steam bubbles and the heat capacity of steam is nothing like that of liquid water, so the fuel rod overheats dramatically in that localised area. Then when water hits it – the cycle recurs, with devastating build up of steam. Chernobyl was, in fact, a steam explosion, caused by operators performing a safety drill, and responding according to the manual – just wrongly for the given situation (for which the ‘manual’ was never written). It blew the top off the containment vessel, which released mega amounts of vapourised radioactive fuel and waste products, and then left the remaining fuel rods uncooled – causing them to overheat and melt down through metres of concrete. At the same time, the excess heat caused a graphite fire as the moderator caught alight. They dropped sand and boron from helicopters doing quick fly overs. Sand to smother the fire and boron to try to mop up neutrons to kill the fission reaction.

    Actually, I think a meltdown could be a possibility in any uncontrolled reactor – as we seem to be seeing in this case. No one would ever contemplate flooding a core with sea water if there’s any hope of getting it under control normally – or ever using it again.

  2. March 17, 2011 10:08 pm

    Thanks Goviini. I was basing my comparisons with Chernobyl on what I heard from what I thought was an otherwise credible ‘expert’. I am happy to be corrected. What is the average person to do in situations like this? I had a conversation today with a senior academic who is working in ‘water’. He made the point that there are a small number of (enlightened) water policy advisers who will admit they don’t know what pH is but are being asked to advise Government on what course to take. A lot more just wont admit it. (And yes I acknowledge that you don’t always need to know about pH to advise on water but some understanding of the science behind a policy area should be required in my view.)

    I take your point about the reactor core. The news item was about the spent fuel pools which I understand to be a separate issue to what might be going on in the reactors themselves. ‘Credible’ experts (at least ones I and the ABC thought sounded credible) I have heard speaking say that 70% of the residual heat in the rods will have dissipated within 24 hrs – we are now many days past that – and that as each day passes the risk reduces. You seem to believe that that is not the case. Who are we to believe?

    • Goviini permalink
      March 17, 2011 10:44 pm

      Who to believe is important… I don’t think we have enough information to know if there’s a problem or not in any real sense – except for the sea water thing. The clincher for me is the photo of a Chinook with a huge firefighting bucket collecting sea water… that seems to suggest to me that the operators themselves are at desperation level. This to me is more telling than any “information” or opinion that comes from experts in the media. Having said that… the scale of the human tragedy outside the nuclear situation is already simply incomprehensible.

  3. March 18, 2011 7:20 am

    It was fascinating to watch another news outlet interviewing an Australian living in Tokyo earlier in the week. The journalist was doing her best to hype up the situation – the expat was very calm, gently explained that food and water was still widely available and that people were going about their business. The interview ended pretty quickly!

    I think we all forget that [most] TV activities are revenue based:


    There is no social conscience or responsibility, but it is in their shareholders best interest to hype it up and maximise the financial benefit.

    I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the honesty, humility and generosity of a few Japanese people and have admired their culture and traditions for many years. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.

    • March 21, 2011 6:40 pm

      Thanks LB. I heard a similar radio interview in which a measured and calm response was being given by an ex-head of an Australian nuclear research organisation. It didn’t last very long.

      We do forget that TV news presenters are “stars” just the same as those actors who appear in movies and that without the advertising dollars they go out of business. Makes me want to turn off the TV, stop buying newspapers and ignore most of what I read on the internet…

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