First, my sincere hopes and wishes to the people of Japan who face a massive recovery after the earthquake and tsunami. Of course this is made even worse by the current nuclear incident that is ongoing and the subject of this post. I think that to a large extent nuclear energy suffers from a poor perception in the public view. That is not to say that nuclear energy is not dangerous, just that - as in everything - the dangers must be assessed (and that is a whole different post).
Anyway, in the past few days I have seen a large amount of news dealing with the reactor incident and while I am sure that it reflects the changing knowledge, a lot seems inaccurate and has spread considerable concern where there should be none.
To begin with, I do not see any radiation issues for Canada coming from this incident. I have done a fair amount of digging and from what I gather the radiation levels at the main gate (i.e. away from the site) are changing all the time but the peak seem to be about 10 mSv/h (i.e. ten mili-Sievert per hour). Now, that is a very serious level of radiation - for comparison it is about the same radiation level as a chest CT scan so imagine one of those every hour. But, by the time any possible radiation reached Canada it would be so diluted that it would be hard to measure. You would easily get more radiation by eating a banana (seriously, the high potassium levels in bananas make them slightly radioactive). So if anyone here is concerned about iodine pills being sold out, don’t be. I can’t see this event ever getting bad enough to cause radiation problems here.
However, there are significant problems for Japan and I want to take a look at the incident, trying to be fact based (and I’ll throw in some opinion as well later).
The reactor plant has a total of 6 reactors. The main concerns come from reactors 1, 2 and 3. Reactor 4 is also problematic. Reactors 5 and 6 are in good shape and I would guess they could be operated after this incident (I doubt they will be, but they could be).
On looking at the images you see there is a lot of destruction and obvious explosion remains. The explosions are almost all due to the fast combustion of hydrogen gas. When nuclear fuel heats up too much, hydrogen gas is generated and if this is ignited it can burn and cause an explosion if enclosed. This has apparently happened for reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4 which has left those buildings severely damaged - but on the positive there is now no way for hydrogen gas to accumulate so there should be no more explosions.
The current efforts are focused on keeping cooling water supplied to all the reactors. If this can be done then I suspect that we have seen the worst. The good news in relation to this is that reports are saying that the plant will soon be reconnected to the external grid. The plant has been without external power since March 11 and having available power could only make the situation better. If for some reason we can’t keep water supplied, then the worst outcome would be a major loss of containment on a reactor that superheats. I don’t see something like the so called China Syndrome taking place but radioactive steam would be a major problem.
Now, here is some opinion. I think that things look bad now and probably will continue to look bad for another day or so, but I don’t think things will actually get any worse. While Reactors 1, 2 3 and 4 have been damaged and are going to leave a mess which will take years to clean up I don’t think they will cause any more problems than they have already done. Reactors 5 and 6 bear watching but if they get water to them they should be OK as well. As for the surrounding areas, as long as there is nothing physical escaping from the reactor (e.g. contaminated ground water) the areas should be fine to return to, but don’t expect housing prices to rise for a while.
But I would like to dispel a number of rumours that seem to pop up here and there.
- The plants will not explode in the nuclear sense - they can’t!
- I doubt that we will see any effects here in Canada - certainly not severe enough to need iodine tablets for.
- I would be very surprised if this was to be as severe an incident as Chernobyl so don’t worry about that.
In my opinion this is not a death knell for nuclear power. This reactor was 40 years old and ironically reactor 1 was due for shutdown in a month or two.
If there is interest I will update tomorrow, but feel free to update in the discussion thread. However please provide links for updates. If you want a quick snapshot of the official situation, reactor status updates can be found here!