Japan’s Nuclear Problem

Pouring seawater in means these power stations are done! That, of course, is the least of anyone’s concern.

Seawater. That was the scare word for me. Reuters reported

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) workers on Sunday were pouring seawater into two reactor cores at the coastal Fukushima Daiichi power plant and were considering using seawater on a third. Authorities have been forced to vent radioactive steam into the air to relieve pressure in the plant and reactors at the company’s nearby Daini plant are also troubled.

Pouring seawater in means these power stations are done! That, of course, is the least of anyone’s concern.

“I am not aware of anyone using seawater to cool a reactor core before. They must be desperate to find water and the seawater was the only thing nearby,” said Richard Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Nuclear power is enticing. When it works well it works really well. Electricity produced at nuclear power plants normally comes with little environmental impact. Here’s the icing on the cake: The Department of Energy says after all costs are taken into account nuclear generation costs half as much per kilowatt hour than conventional fossil fuel plants! That’s a big deal.

Of course when nukes go bad the downside is catastrophic. The devastation Japan has already seen might be just the beginning.

Nuclear power production is similar to conventional power production: steam powers turbines. The heat that produces the steam comes from nuclear fission.

Here’s the rub. The fission must be kept under control otherwise the nuclear fuel will get very hot. We’re talking thousands of degrees hot!

If left uncontrolled temperatures can rise high enough to melt the radioactive fuel rods and breech the reactor vessel and containment structure. That would release uranium and it’s byproducts into the environment.

After Chernobyl the Russians were forced to permanently evacuate a sizable radius around the power plant. That’s already happened at least temporarily in Japan.

Using seawater to try and cool the reactor has been described by one expert as a “Hail Mary pass.” Hail Mary passes usually don’t work.