But proper nuclear reactors are designed so that you can't get water breakup to hydrogen and oxygen inside the containment vessel, only outside it: triumph number four for the Japanese plants' designers. Thus the hydrogen explosions which subsequently took place, though visually spectacular, did nothing more than blow the roofs off the reactor buildings – the containment vessels and their systems remain unbreached and under command from the relevant control rooms. The risk of explosion was known and notified in advance: it was accepted by the plant operators and regulators in return for the very slight reduction in radiation exposure close to the reactor buildings.
All reactors' temperature is now under control and the residual heat reactions inside them continue to die away; soon, no further cooling will be required. The three worst affected will cost more to put right than the other ones, having been cooled with the backup-backup seawater system and lost their roofs, but the process of sorting them out will not be a lot more onerous than a normal periodic refuelling. All the other affected reactors have achieved quite normal shutdowns, though nuclear safety being nuclear safety it will be some time before they can be fired up again.
Radiation health effects have been pretty much zero. At times there have been heightened radiation levels inside the plants from short-life isotopes in the steam releases – sometimes enough that an unprotected person next to a reactor building might have sustained a year's normal dose from background radiation in an hour. This is not particularly terrifying, really – nobody is scared at the prospect of living another year on planet Earth – but it is being reported under scaremongering headlines. Another thing the weekend reporters have missed was the fact that all but tiny traces of the airborne radionuclides (from the salt in the seawater coolant) were disappearing before they could even cross the street; there is essentially no health hazard to people living nearby. Precautionary evacuations and tests were just that: precautionary.
In fact only one person so far has sustained any measurable extra radiation dose above normal: a plant worker, according to the IAEA, sustained about 10 per cent of a normal year's background radiation dose. Other workers have been injured by the hydrogen explosions and the quake/tsunami, and one killed in a crane accident, but quite frankly being a nuclear powerplant worker at Fukushima has been pretty safe compared to just being an ordinary citizen in quake-hit Japan.
So to sum up: all plants are now well on their way to a cold shutdown. At no time have their operators come even close to running out of options. No core has melted down and come up against the final defensive barriers: the safety systems did not come even close to failing, despite being tested far beyond what they had been designed to take. One person has sustained a small dose of radiation which need cause him no concern.
The whole sequence of events is a ringing endorsement for nuclear power safety. If this – basically nothing – is what happens when decades-old systems are pushed five times and then some beyond their design limits, new plants much safer yet would be able to resist an asteroid strike without problems.
But you wouldn't know that from looking at the mainstream media. Ignorant fools are suggesting on every hand that Japan's problems actually mean fresh obstacles in the way of new nuclear plants here in the UK, Europe and the US.
That can only be true if an unbelievable level of public ignorance of the real facts, born of truly dreadful news reporting over the weekend, is allowed to persist.
Spread the word. And if you doubt us on any of this, please read this excellent early description of the events, or follow the reports from the IAEA and World Nuclear News. Very few other channels of information are much use at the moment. ®
1There is an enduring popular myth suggesting that such a core would become so hot that nothing could resist it: being heavy, it would thus melt its way through the foundations of the reactor, through the planetary crust and notionally to the other side of the planet – the so-called "China syndrome". The idea that the core could burn through the base of its containment is about as credible as the idea that it would remain together in the planet's molten interior and then – having somehow done so and thus reached the centre of the Earth – then ascend back to the surface again at the antipodes.
A well-reasoned Lewis Page article that I can agree with and recommend, I think hell must have just frozen over :)
While I have no axe to grind myself...
This article was premature in the same way that most men are their first time out. We are just over 72 hours from the quake and tsunami, with nothing yet contained, and someone is going off half-cocked about how this is a win for nuclear energy concerns the world over. However, let's toss a little (boric) acidified seawater on this reaction.
First, as of 6 AM Japanese local time on Tuesday, officials confirmed that a third explosion had indeed damaged and weakened the containment of Rector 2, making any build-up of pressure in the reactor core that much more dangerous. Additionally, after the explosion, the radiation level climbed to at 11,900 μSv/h, which is approaching dangerous territory for anyone at the plant.
Second, Reactor 4 was suffering from a runaway fission reaction and nuclear material was actually burning in a fire, releasing much larger amounts of radioactive materials into the air than any previous situation at the plant. While Reactor 4 wasn't running, it still contained spent rods, which seem to be having a grand old time right now. (Update: While I was writing this, Japanese officials indicated the fire had been extinguished for now.)
Third, due to the containment breach, threat of further explosions, the aforementioned fire, and rising radiation readings, Japan was considering an evacuation of all workers from the site. Let me repeat that. They are considering a wholesale evacuation of all technicians and support personnel from the site, effectively ceasing any and all recovery and containment activity. In essence, the plant is being given up for dead, and it's entirely possible that Reactor 2, at least, will suffer a containment-busting explosion and/or meltdown, resulting in the release of uranium and plutonium into the air, let alone their decay products.
Fourth, if this does occur, a little known problem could be the cooling pools used to store spent rods. As Rector 4 is demonstrating, they still have enough energy left in them to burn and release radioactive material. The problem is that they are in cooling pools are lightly protected and poorly contained, and only have enough water over top of them to remain unexposed to air for a week or two. Clearly, a full-scale meltdown would make any kind of mitigation impossible, and they would soon begin burning and releasing even more radioactive material into the air at a rate much greater than the relatively contained reactor cores.
So, while I don't personally find nuclear power abhorrent or otherwise unpalatable, it seems like this piece was exceedingly short-sighted and resulted in the tarnishing of a reputation that had to this point been decent. It's unfortunate that someone clearly let personal bias trump the facts on the ground and didn't even let the events settle down to a point that experienced people in nuclear physics would say the threat was contained. Poorly handled by Mr. Page.
A better article would have been something like this: While we don't know the extent of the damage and fallout (har) of the Fukushima nuclear incident, we know that nuclear power is safe most of the time, assuming we aren't dumb enough to build on the coast in a tsunami-prone area that is very near a large fault. Such self-evident things, sadly, only become apparent after calamity strikes.
Thank you - a lone voice of common sense in a sea of eco-hysteria
Thank you Lewis for a cogent, well-reasoned and above all rational (in the Enlightenment sense) defence of nuclear power. Already the greenies and watermelons in the media are seizing upon the tragedy in Japan as an argument AGAINST nuclear energy - as you've explained, this is 180 degrees out from the rational interpretation of events, but we all know how quickly lies can get around the world. A particularly impressive example of the "this is the final nail in the coffin of the nukular industry" genre from Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph, here:
...although somewhat gratifyingly, the comments below his article show he hasn't convinced many readers!