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Stay Calm and Panic Greatly

March 15, 2011

I’m all for looking rationally at most situations. I can remember being on the way to the hospital for emergency surgery a few years back, and calling up one of my team to cover for me in a meeting that I thought I’d miss. I’m not saying that I’m always the paragon of calmness (and many of you reading are nodding emphatically), but I really do like to step back and look at what’s happening outside the noise that surrounds me.

Thus, when I see stuff like this:

News got worse overnight from Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  The containment pools covering the fuel rods now appear to be boiling in the reactors that have already been shut down, and storage pool walls have been damaged.  Earlier today, Japan took the unusual step of ordering nearby residents to seal themselves in their homes — 140,000 people:

I actually look around for what that really means.

However, as the crisis has developed, the normal coolant – pure demineralised water – has been replaced at the stricken reactors by seawater pumped in using the site’s firefighting systems. Salt and other contaminants in the seawater result in the creation of other, more dangerous isotopes – though in small amounts. Furthermore it has been obvious since the weekend – and since officially admitted – that water levels in the reactors have sunk below the level of the fuel rods on several occasions, meaning that the fuel rods will have sustained heat damage and so that some material from their alloy cases or even the uranium itself could be present in the steam escaping from the reactors.

The probability of steam escaping directly from No 2’s suppression chamber could increase levels of radiation further, as normal, controlled releases are carried out via filters and scrubbers. TEPCO said it was removing all non-essential personnel from the site as a precaution.

I’m not picking on anyone, and I’m certainly not holding myself up as the expert that should assuage all the concern.  There are people who died in the earthquake/tsunami, and there are more who are threatened by a reactor complex that’s behaving badly.  And, if you checked the market today, everyone’s in a funk as a result.  But I also think we need to take a step back and look at what’s happening.

The reactors shut down briefly during the earthquake, in tune with the early-warning systems that were in place.  The tsunami was a bit more of a shock, and there was some significant damage to the plant as a result.  Part of that damage is causing problems in the reactor cooling systems, and also (apparently) in the shut-down mechanisms (slightly updated: they actually didn’t try to restart the cores after the earthquake, so there was no issue with the shut-down mechanisms… engineering wins again).  As a result, the US brought in additional coolant (which most people call “water”) as a temporary fix.  When the systems still had issues, the engineers switched to seawater with the above-mentioned issues coming into play.  There are 140k people in the area that are being asked to stay indoors, kind of like when there’s a heavy hailstorm in an area and they want people protected. 

So yes, there are concerns, but I think we’re falling into a panic of the unknown.  I’d recommend you go read the whole Register article, which has a good overview of what’s happening.  The system failed, but I still believe that there’s a good grasp of how to handle the situation.  The reactor complex is likely toast, and the site itself will be a monmument to an engineering project that missed an important design criteria, but I don’t believe this is going to result in a nuclear escape that’s truly harmful to the mass of people surrounding the complex.

So that’s good to know.  I just hope we don’t get in a panic over what future earthquakes could do, or anything.

Updated again: Actually, let me make one more point from the Register article:

Subsequent health effects on people in the area of Three Mile Island were generally assessed as minimal if any, though naturally anti-nuclear activists have continued to claim that serious problems occurred. The way the incident was managed, and even more so the way it was covered in the news media, is generally seen as having delivered an enormous blow to the nuclear power industry worldwide – despite its extremely minor consequences when compared to losses of life and health from almost all other industries.

TMI was a pretty nasty event that caused very little damage, other than to the psyches of people who watched too much news.  I can remember learning to fear nuclear power for years as a kid until I started studying it.  So now a whole new generation is going to get inundated by panic instead of told the story of how a team of dedicated workers is keeping them safe by staying calm and doing their jobs.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 11:20 am

    I remember the old jokes from that era: “What melts in the ground, and not in your hand? Hershey, PA.”

    There are many who are working hard to capitalize on the fear possibilities here. Greg Palast sees this as an evil conspiracy between the US government and Japan of course — implying that the reactors planned for Texas would use the long-ago outdated 1960s design affected in Japan. (Those were about to be decommissioned, anyway.)

    Here’s a very good source, with many nuclear folks chiming in. Details, diagrams, analysis in abundance:

    Chiefio (EM Smith) writes very well on many other topics, and his research into the GISS temperature calculation has been quite illuminating.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

    • March 15, 2011 9:48 pm

      This is a great link, thanks.

      I always know that some people will use a disaster for their own gain. I’m waiting for the climate change group to claim that warming causes earthquakes. And I’m not at all shocked that people are using this as a way to talk down nuclear power.

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