Earthquake in Japan

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The Earthquake in Japan

So we’ve all  heard what’s going on in Japan 🙁 Natural disasters are inherently dramatic…and when they hit populated areas, it’s never going to be a good thing. Still there are often happenings that are overlooked or less prominent in the news–things that lessened the damage, lives miraculously saved etc…so it is in Japan.  I’m simply going to share some of the news that I’ve received in emails (as you know I don’t watch a lot of news :))
  •  The Good News Network–I’ve mentioned this email newsletter elsewhere on this site…you can count on Geri to find and share happy stories with you!  Here’s what she shared just recently about Japan–be sure to sign up yourself to get the newsletter in your inbox:
It’s been a hard week of news headlines, no matter who you are… But these stories are bound to cheer up even the most hardened news junkie. . . It may be time for you to try (if you haven’t already) a daily dose of good news, to invest $2 each month in your mental well-being. Here’s the link: if you want to sign up. 🙂  Geri

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Top 10 Good News Stories of the Week

  1. Early Hero of Japan’s Quake Tragedy: Building Codes
    Half a day after Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake/tsunami combo, it’s clear that the country can be thankful for its preparedness, especially when it comes to strict building codes and advanced structural engineering.
  2. Group Gets Needed “Likes” to Donate $200k to Dog Rescues in Japan
    In just a few days, 101,924 had clicked “Like” on the “Dog Bless You” Facebook fan page, meaning the Annenberg Foundation is donating $200,000 to help support search and rescue dog teams to Japan for the earthquake and tsunami response.

  3. Lady Gaga Creates Prayer Bracelet to Benefit Disaster Relief in Japan
    Lady Gaga is turning to her fans, called little monsters, to help raise funds for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. The bracelet, which says Pray for Japan in English and Japanese characters, sells for $5 each with all proceeds going direct to relief efforts.
  4. ‘Miracle’ Rescue Of Man Swept Out To Sea in Japan
    A sixty-year-old man has had a miraculous escape after being swept nine miles out to sea by the tsunami in Japan. The man was discovered clinging to the roof of his house two days after the disaster struck, according to officials. (Sky News)
  5. Tyson Foods Donates 1 Million Lbs. of Boneless Chicken to Food Banks
    Tyson Foods, one of the largest food production companies in the US, has donated one million pounds of boneless chicken to 37 food banks across the country.  Each food bank will receive approximately 29,000 pounds of high quality protein, enough to serve 116,000 meals in each community.
  6. America’s Oldest Wild Bird is a New Mom at 60

    The oldest known U.S. wild bird, a 60 year-old Laysan albatross named Wisdom, is a new mother. The bird, which has likely logged 50,000 miles per year in flight as an adult, returned to Midway Atoll to nest and was spotted a few weeks ago with a new chick by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

  7. Japanese soldiers discovered a crying 4-month-old baby buried beneath the rubble. She was swept from the arms of her parents by the tsunami but reunited with them shortly after her rescue. (Time)

  8. Cambodian Town Renewed by Fair Trade, Employment & Artistic Revival 
    Famous today for the temples at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap was once famous for something else: silk. Now the city’s old artisan reputation is making a comeback. Not far from the monumental ruins is the quiet and leafy Angkor Silk Farm, part of a fair-trade initiative to employ rural Cambodians and revive a number of dying arts.
  9. Be it Depression, Heart Trouble or Arthritis, Fish Oil Helps 
    Many people are taking fish oil supplements, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, driven by the research that proves these lipids actually reduce risk of heart disease. There are, however, wide-ranging benefits, including boosting immunity, protection against arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, inflammation, PMS, severe depression, and certain types of cancer. (IndianExpress)
  10. Blind Man Keeps His Old Guide Dog After it Loses its Sight
    After six years of loyal service, Graham Waspe was devastated when his guide dog Edward was left blind after developing cataracts. Instead of discarding the dog, he got a new one and now the new guide dog leads them both around. (Daily Mail)
Video of the Week: A Tribute to the Japanese People- No Looting or Anger Despite Shortages 

The Japanese people are demonstrating an allegiance to social order and calm as they search for loved ones or wait in lines for basic necessities. There is not a hint of looting or violence, and everyone remains calm and polite, even as residents must wait in line for 12 hours to buy food. (Watch the inspiring story by Diane Sawyer)

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  • I am on an email list of a woman who teaches her version of Joel Goldsmith’s The Infinite Way.  She often shares news articles and posts that counter the mainstream media reports.  Here are a couple of items she recently sent out:
  1. Gnostic – Important Notice

    Posted By: The_Fox

    A little bit of real history.

    Back in August of 1945 two atom bombs were dropped on Japan in Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. The bomb detonated over a 1000 feet in the air, some estimate it was closer to 2000 feet, and the blast wave from this bomb created most of the destruction on the ground. However it also released 5-10% radiation upon the people as it rained down upon the earth. My Father-in-law was sent on the ground in Hiroshima right after the bomb, to assess the damage. He revealed and even took pictures of how the radiation had been so strong that it fused the shadow of people into the sidewalks…

    My friends, our own military troops were on the ground in Hiroshima not that long after the bombing, after the Japanese surrendered. Here was an Atomic Blast which reached much higher into the atmosphere than any ground nuclear facility mishap could ever do, and yet the people in the States were never affected.

    And yet what is even more amazing, the U.S. Military troops, my Father-in-law included, were on the ground right after this event in the very place that it had occurred. He is now 90 years old and still going like the energizer bunny…

    The amount of radiation being released in Japan at the moment is not even close to the amount given in a full body scan in a hospital, and yet people are worried sick that it will come to the states and start killing every one. My friends, listen, why not pray for the victims and pray for the people in Japan as food and water right now is more important than our fears of radiation. We need to stop acting as selfish humans, as if we are all that matters and send forth our concern and love to the Japanese people who did not deserve this in any way, shape or form.

    I still recall in the 50’s and 60’s how we had nuclear drills at schools; most people under 40 today have never even heard of this. Today they might practice fire drills, maybe even bomb drills — we practiced nuclear drills. We were inches away from a full scale nuclear exchange with Russia in ’61, dealing with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban crisis… And most of the fears about this technology were passed around via ignorance for the many years to come. We were not given the facts about what all of this was. In fact part of the drill was simply to hide underneath your desk and don’t look at the light of the blast,… This was very strange advice being given, if Radiation cooked you alive instantly at the radial center. According to some today we might as well been taught to kiss our ass goodbye; it would have a been better advice…

    I am not saying nuclear disaster is a cake walk. I am saying we were not told the facts on purpose because the fear worked better than to know what the truth was… I truthfully believe humanity has not been given the true facts about all of this because fear is a the best weapon to engage the populace. We went into a standstill with Russia for years over the fear of what Nuclear war would do: it was called the cold war. It was better than any hot war could ever be, simply by using fear of the unknown for most people.

    Back in the 50’s through about ’92, out of 928 nuclear test explosions on United States soil, 828 were done underground, leaving ‘100’ nuclear weapons that were detonated on U.S. soil in the 50’s and early 60’s — above ground. And the mushroom clouds could be seen over one hundred miles away. Let that sink in: 100 nuclear bombs were detonated for real on USA soil. Did it kill everyone in the Midwest or the East Coast or for that matter in the South West?

    Sure there were cases of death and cancer. Yes, they were higher towards the center than any other place. But it was not pulled all across the country and it did not start killing everyone… My Father-in-law walked right into a radiation hot-spot and is still alive today, 66 years later… Here we are over 5000 miles from Japan and they are having a nuclear ground facility issue, possibly a meltdown, and people think that this incident will do more harm to us than the detonation of one hundred actual live atmospheric irradiated bombs could ever do, right inside their own country…

    I know as well as anyone what the plans are for the dark side, but that does not mean we have to help it along to create this monster and spread fear… It also does not mean it has to come to pass… But if we keep fueling it with fear, it will!

    And even today, even so-called scientists are telling people a bunch of nonsense to create fear. Most nuclear particles are heavier than air, and it would take a detonation of a powerful warhead to even get the waste into the jet stream. Now this does not mean some particles could not reach it, with certain wind movements. But the chances are more than slim for any of what is occurring in Japan to get to the West Coast of the states, and still have any volatility left in the particles. Because it is mostly ground based, it never made it into the atmosphere — except for the explosion of the hydrogen gas, which carried a little into the air; but nothing for it to enter the jet stream. And even if it did make it to the jet stream, by the time it got here the particles would have dissipated at best. And even if what is being recorded right now in Japan actually made it here, it amounts to less than a full body scan at your local doctor’s office.

    I am not down playing the dangers. They are real and they are in Japan. I am saying our concerns and prayers should be towards the Japanese and be concerned about them… I have even heard some say, forget the Japanese, they are all dead. What callousness, my friends! They are not all dead; there are millions upon millions of very much alive Japanese and they will remain so… But they need our help and prayers… Until a real threat is warranted for us, we need to be sending our prayers and thoughts to these people and this will turn around to even bless us…

    This is why I say practice faith instead of fear. Fear leads to the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality or service to self… where faith and compassion, leads to service to others.

    “Father, bless the Japanese people in their great time of trial and please send forth help, services and food and water to supply them until they can rebound. This was a great tragedy, and we ask that you send your guidance, strength and deliverance upon the families that lost loved ones during this time of trouble. And we want to thank you for your mercy and compassion, granting them peace and safety from here on out! Thank-you Father, for we know this is your will!”

    John the Gnostic


    Japan Nuclear Fallout: How Bad Could It Get?

    by Josh Dzieza
    March 12, 2011

    Shortly after Japan was hit with the double disaster of a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a possible third reared its head: nuclear meltdown. The quake caused 11 of Japan’s nuclear reactors to shut down automatically, including three at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, 170 miles northeast of Tokyo. But the quake also cut Fukushima off from the power grid, forcing plant operators to switch to emergency diesel generators in order to continue cooling the reactor core, generators that then failed shortly after the tsunami hit. By the end of the day Friday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had declared a “nuclear emergency,” and 200,000 people near the plant had been told to evacuate.

    Then, Saturday afternoon, a building at the plant erupted in a massive explosion, apparently the result of hydrogen from the superheated fuel rods interacting with oxygen as plant operators tried to vent increasing pressure inside the reactor. Officials say the reactor wasn’t damaged in the blast, and that radiation levels have actually been declining since. Nevertheless, they took the extreme step of flooding the reactor with seawater in an attempt to cool it down, and news that the cooling system for a second reactor at the same plant has begun to fail did little to calm worries of a meltdown.

    As Japan copes with its worst nuclear mishap at least since the leak at Tokaimura, The Daily Beast spoke with MIT Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering Ron Ballinger about worst-case scenarios, iodine tablets, and why he thinks everything is going to be fine.

    What’s the worst-case scenario?

    Well, first off, we can’t have a Chernobyl-like situation. The system is designed so that as long as we keep water in there to keep it cool, nothing will happen. There are three levels of protection here. One is the fuel cladding, and if that’s damaged then it releases radioactive material into the pressure system, which is a steel container. Then there’s a containment vessel around that. What likely happened is that you had fuel damage, damage to the first barrier, which produced hydrogen in the primary system, and then to keep the pressure down they vented the hydrogen into the building that was destroyed.

    What happens if all the water boils off?

    Hypothetically, if the water all boils and evaporates, then the fuel will stay molten and eventually melt through the steel vessel. But that’s already beyond a hypothetical worst-case scenario for me. The steel vessel is four inches thick, and they could always put seawater around the vessel, and that would keep it cool, so it can’t melt. If you put a frying pan in water, you could put a blowtorch on the other side and it won’t make any difference. Then you have the other containment vessel, with a concrete faceplate underneath that’s between four and 10 feet thick. But melting through that is hypothetical beyond normal reasoning.

    Radiation spiked at 1,015 microsievert per hour before the explosion. Is that dangerous?

    No, that’s about 100 milirem. It’s high, but you get about 35 milirems on a trans-Atlantic flight. And if you live in Denver, you get about 50 milirems per year.

    What is the dangerous level, and what happens when that level is reached?

    The LD50 — that is to say, the point when 50 percent of the people exposed will meet Jesus — is in the order of 250 rem, or maybe 400. A big number. Keep in mind, what they’ve been exposed to is 0.1 rem, and about 50 percent fatality is on the order of 400 rem. What would happen with that kind of exposure is that they would get sick. Radiation damage destroys the immune system. Most people who die of radiation sickness die of pneumonia or a cold; they die of some disease which they have but their immune system can’t fight off.

    Why is Japan distributing iodine tablets?

    One of the isotopes of fission products, when fuel melts, is an iodine isotope, and it goes in your body through your thyroid. So if you take iodine tablets, the non-radioactive iodine goes to your thyroid, you bulk up your thyroid with iodine and it prevents absorption of the radioactive iodine.

    What fail-safes are there to prevent a meltdown?

    A lot. First there’s the SCRAM system; it automatically ejects the control rods into the core and shuts the plant down. That happened right after the earthquake. Then there’re a number of core spray systems, which inject water to keep things cool. Then, if the system needs to depressurize, there’s something called a suppression pool that it vents steam into. Then, when the system is depressurized there are other systems that inject water at low pressure. And then, worst comes to worst, there are pumps that can take water from the local cooling water supply, in this case the ocean, and just pump water in there. As long as there’s water in there, it might be expensive for the utility to get it cleaned up, but everything is going to be fine.

    If they’re pumping in seawater, does that mean all the other fail-safes failed?

    The earthquake plus the tsunami destroyed all the power sources to run pumps and things like that. There are diesel generators on the site that are supposed to run for that purpose, but for some reason they ran for a while and then stopped, maybe because of the tsunami. Then they hauled a bunch of portable generators to run the pumps.

    How good a fail-safe is pumping in seawater?

    The ocean’s pretty big. But it’s salt water, so from an operational point of view you’re pretty screwed. If you get saltwater into the primary system, it’s very hard to get it cleaned up. Salt water’s not good for the materials; it requires pure water. So if they have to put saltwater into the primary system, it would keep it cool, but it would damage a lot of things and there will have to be extensive cleanup.

    How will we know when the crisis is over?

    The fuel has to cool down to the point where the water that’s cooling it is below the boiling point. Usually when they shut one of these plants down to refuel they have to open it up. It takes a couple days to get the plant shut down to the point where they can take the lid off and replace the fuel. It might be a financial disaster, but no member of the public has been hurt, and I doubt anybody will be.

    Josh Dzieza is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast


    BI Nuclear Expert
    Mar. 13, 2011

    This was originally posted as a comment on Japan Death Toll Climbs Astronomically As Nuclear Crisis Spreads.

    UPDATE: We have learned that this was written by Dr. Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT. 

    I repeat, there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors.

    By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on — say — a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

    I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism — that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated.  I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

    We will have to cover some fundamentals, before we get into what is going on.

    The plants at Fukushima are so called Boiling Water Reactors, or BWR for short. Boiling Water Reactors are similar to a pressure cooker. The nuclear fuel heats water, the water boils and creates steam, the steam then drives turbines that create the electricity, and the steam is then cooled and condensed back to water, and the water send back to be heated by the nuclear fuel. The pressure cooker operates at about 250°C.

    The nuclear fuel is uranium oxide. Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 3000 °C. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (think little cylinders the size of Lego bricks). Those pieces are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy with a melting point of 2200 °C, and sealed tight. The assembly is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form larger packages, and a number of these packages are then put into the reactor. All these packages together are referred to as “the core”.

    The Zircaloy casing is the first containment. It separates the radioactive fuel from the rest of the world. The core is then placed in the “pressure vessels”. That is the pressure cooker we talked about before.

    The pressure vessels is the second containment. This is one sturdy piece of a pot, designed to safely contain the core for temperatures several hundred °C. That covers the scenarios where cooling can be restored at some point.

    The entire “hardware” of the nuclear reactor — the pressure vessel and all pipes, pumps, coolant (water) reserves, are then encased in the third containment. The third containment is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick bubble of the strongest steel. The third containment is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. For that purpose, a large and thick concrete basin is cast under the pressure vessel (the second containment), which is filled with graphite, all inside the third containment. This is the so-called “core catcher”. If the core melts and the pressure vessel bursts (and eventually melts), it will catch the molten fuel and everything else. It is built in such a way that the nuclear fuel will be spread out, so it can cool down.

    This third containment is then surrounded by the reactor building. The reactor building is an outer shell that is supposed to keep the weather out, but nothing in. (This is the part that was damaged in the explosion, but more to that later).

    Fundamentals of nuclear reactions: The uranium fuel generates heat by nuclear fission. Big uranium atoms are split into smaller atoms. That generates heat plus neutrons (one of the particles that forms an atom). When the neutron hits another uranium atom, that splits, generating more neutrons and so on. That is called the nuclear chain reaction.

    Now, just packing a lot of fuel rods next to each other would quickly lead to overheating and after about 45 minutes to a melting of the fuel rods. It is worth mentioning at this point that the nuclear fuel in a reactor can *never* cause a nuclear explosion the type of a nuclear bomb. Building a nuclear bomb is actually quite difficult (ask Iran).

    In Chernobyl, the explosion was caused by excessive pressure buildup, hydrogen explosion and rupture of all containments, propelling molten core material into the environment (a “dirty bomb”). Why that did not and will not happen in Japan, further below.

    In order to control the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor operators use so-called “moderator rods”. The moderator rods absorb the neutrons and kill the chain reaction instantaneously. A nuclear reactor is built in such a way, that when operating normally, you take out all the moderator rods. The coolant water then takes away the heat (and converts it into steam and electricity) at the same rate as the core produces it. And you have a lot of leeway around the standard operating point of 250°C. The challenge is that after inserting the rods and stopping the chain reaction, the core still keeps producing heat. The uranium “stopped” the chain reaction. But a number of intermediate radioactive elements are created by the uranium during its fission process, most notably Cesium and Iodine isotopes, i.e. radioactive versions of these elements that will eventually split up into smaller atoms and not be radioactive anymore. Those elements keep decaying and producing heat. Because they are not regenerated any longer from the uranium (the uranium stopped decaying after the moderator rods were put in), they get less and less, and so the core cools down over a matter of days, until those intermediate radioactive elements are used up. This residual heat is causing the headaches right now.

    So the first “type” of radioactive material is the uranium in the fuel rods, plus the intermediate radioactive elements that the uranium splits into, also inside the fuel rod (Cesium and Iodine). There is a second type of radioactive material created, outside the fuel rods.

    The big main difference up front: Those radioactive materials have a very short half-life, that means that they decay very fast and split into non-radioactive materials. By fast I mean seconds. So if these radioactive materials are released into the environment, yes, radioactivity was released, but no, it is not dangerous, at all. Why? By the time you spelled “R-A-D-I-O-N-U-C-L-I-D-E”, they will be harmless, because they will have split up into non radioactive elements. Those radioactive elements are N-16, the radioactive isotope (or version) of nitrogen (air). The others are noble gases such as Xenon. But where do they come from? When the uranium splits, it generates a neutron (see above). Most of these neutrons will hit other uranium atoms and keep the nuclear chain reaction going. But some will leave the fuel rod and hit the water molecules, or the air that is in the water. Then, a non-radioactive element can “capture” the neutron. It becomes radioactive. As described above, it will quickly (seconds) get rid again of the neutron to return to its former beautiful self.

    This second “type” of radiation is very important when we talk about the radioactivity being released into the environment later on.

    What happened at Fukushima I will try to summarize the main facts.

    The earthquake that hit Japan was 7 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 8.9 that happened is 7 times, not 0.7). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up.

    When the earthquake hit with 8.9, the nuclear reactors all went into automatic shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the moderator rods had been inserted into the core and nuclear chain reaction of the uranium stopped. Now, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat. The residual heat load is about 3% of the heat load under normal operating conditions. The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. That is one of the most serious accidents for a nuclear power plant, and accordingly, a “plant black out” receives a lot of attention when designing backup systems. The power is needed to keep the coolant pumps working. Since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself any more.

    Things were going well for an hour. One set of multiple sets of emergency Diesel power generators kicked in and provided the electricity that was needed. Then the Tsunami came, much bigger than people had expected when building the power plant (see above, factor 7). The tsunami took out all multiple sets of backup Diesel generators.

    When designing a nuclear power plant, engineers follow a philosophy called “Defense of Depth”. That means that you first build everything to withstand the worst catastrophe you can imagine, and then design the plant in such a way that it can still handle one system failure (that you thought could never happen) after the other. A tsunami taking out all backup power in one swift strike is such a scenario.

    The last line of defense is putting everything into the third containment (see above), that will keep everything, whatever the mess, moderator rods in our out, core molten or not, inside the reactor. When the diesel generators were gone, the reactor operators switched to emergency battery power. The batteries were designed as one of the backups to the backups, to provide power for cooling the core for 8 hours. And they did. Within the 8 hours, another power source had to be found and connected to the power plant. The power grid was down due to the earthquake.

    The diesel generators were destroyed by the tsunami. So mobile diesel generators were trucked in. This is where things started to go seriously wrong. The external power generators could not be connected to the power plant (the plugs did not fit). So after the batteries ran out, the residual heat could not be carried away any more.

    At this point the plant operators begin to follow emergency procedures that are in place for a “loss of cooling event”. It is again a step along the “Depth of Defense” lines. The power to the cooling systems should never have failed completely, but it did, so they “retreat” to the next line of defense. All of this, however shocking it seems to us, is part of the day-to-day training you go through as an operator, right through to managing a core meltdown. It was at this stage that people started to talk about core meltdown. Because at the end of the day, if cooling cannot be restored, the core will eventually melt (after hours or days), and the last line of defense, the core catcher and third containment, would come into play.

    But the goal at this stage was to manage the core while it was heating up, and ensure that the first containment (the Zircaloy tubes that contains the nuclear fuel), as well as the second containment (our pressure cooker) remain intact and operational for as long as possible, to give the engineers time to fix the cooling systems. Because cooling the core is such a big deal, the reactor has a number of cooling systems, each in multiple versions (the reactor water cleanup system, the decay heat removal, the reactor core isolating cooling, the standby liquid cooling system, and the emergency core cooling system). Which one failed when or did not fail is not clear at this point in time.

    So imagine our pressure cooker on the stove, heat on low, but on. The operators use whatever cooling system capacity they have to get rid of as much heat as possible, but the pressure starts building up. The priority now is to maintain integrity of the first containment (keep temperature of the fuel rods below 2200°C), as well as the second containment, the pressure cooker. In order to maintain integrity of the pressure cooker (the second containment), the pressure has to be released from time to time. Because the ability to do that in an emergency is so important, the reactor has 11 pressure release valves. The operators now started venting steam from time to time to control the pressure. The temperature at this stage was about 550°C. This is when the reports about “radiation leakage” starting coming in.

    I believe I explained above why venting the steam is theoretically the same as releasing radiation into the environment, but why it was and is not dangerous. The radioactive nitrogen as well as the noble gases do not pose a threat to human health. At some stage during this venting, the explosion occurred. The explosion took place outside of the third containment (our “last line of defense”), and the reactor building. Remember that the reactor building has no function in keeping the radioactivity contained.

    It is not entirely clear yet what has happened, but this is the likely scenario: The operators decided to vent the steam from the pressure vessel not directly into the environment, but into the space between the third containment and the reactor building (to give the radioactivity in the steam more time to subside). The problem is that at the high temperatures that the core had reached at this stage, water molecules can “disassociate” into oxygen and hydrogen — an explosive mixture. And it did explode, outside the third containment, damaging the reactor building around. It was that sort of explosion, but inside the pressure vessel (because it was badly designed and not managed properly by the operators) that lead to the explosion of Chernobyl. This was never a risk at Fukushima.

    The problem of hydrogen-oxygen formation is one of the biggies when you design a power plant (if you are not Soviet, that is), so the reactor is built and operated in a way it cannot happen inside the containment. It happened outside, which was not intended but a possible scenario and OK, because it did not pose a risk for the containment. So the pressure was under control, as steam was vented.

    Now, if you keep boiling your pot, the problem is that the water level will keep falling and falling. The core is covered by several meters of water in order to allow for some time to pass (hours, days) before it gets exposed. Once the rods start to be exposed at the top, the exposed parts will reach the critical temperature of 2200 °C after about 45 minutes. This is when the first containment, the Zircaloy tube, would fail. And this started to happen. The cooling could not be restored before there was some (very limited, but still) damage to the casing of some of the fuel. The nuclear material itself was still intact, but the surrounding Zircaloy shell had started melting.

    What happened now is that some of the byproducts of the uranium decay — radioactive Cesium and Iodine — started to mix with the steam. The big problem, uranium, was still under control, because the uranium oxide rods were good until 3000 °C. It is confirmed that a very small amount of Cesium and Iodine was measured in the steam that was released into the atmosphere. It seems this was the “go signal” for a major plan B. The small amounts of Cesium that were measured told the operators that the first containment on one of the rods somewhere was about to give.

    The Plan A had been to restore one of the regular cooling systems to the core. Why that failed is unclear. One plausible explanation is that the tsunami also took away / polluted all the clean water needed for the regular cooling systems. The water used in the cooling system is very clean, demineralized (like distilled) water. The reason to use pure water is the above mentioned activation by the neutrons from the Uranium: Pure water does not get activated much, so stays practically radioactive-free. Dirt or salt in the water will absorb the neutrons quicker, becoming more radioactive. This has no effect whatsoever on the core — it does not care what it is cooled by. But it makes life more difficult for the operators and mechanics when they have to deal with activated (i.e. slightly radioactive) water.

    But Plan A had failed — cooling systems down or additional clean water unavailable — so Plan B came into effect. This is what it looks like happened: In order to prevent a core meltdown, the operators started to use sea water to cool the core. I am not quite sure if they flooded our pressure cooker with it (the second containment), or if they flooded the third containment, immersing the pressure cooker. But that is not relevant for us. The point is that the nuclear fuel has now been cooled down. Because the chain reaction has been stopped a long time ago, there is only very little residual heat being produced now.

    The large amount of cooling water that has been used is sufficient to take up that heat. Because it is a lot of water, the core does not produce sufficient heat any more to produce any significant pressure. Also, boric acid has been added to the seawater. Boric acid is “liquid control rod”. Whatever decay is still going on, the Boron will capture the neutrons and further speed up the cooling down of the core.

    The plant came close to a core meltdown. Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material. After the meltdown, there would have been a waiting period for the intermediate radioactive materials to decay inside the reactor, and all radioactive particles to settle on a surface inside the containment. The cooling system would have been restored eventually, and the molten core cooled to a manageable temperature. The containment would have been cleaned up on the inside. Then a messy job of removing the molten core from the containment would have begun, packing the (now solid again) fuel bit by bit into transportation containers to be shipped to processing plants. Depending on the damage, the block of the plant would then either be repaired or dismantled.