[Updated from the original post to include a few things I accidentally left out- JB]
With another circus of scary headlines, rumors and wild speculation about things radioactive and nuclear. No doubt every bit as insanely distorted and hyped like TMI and Chernobyl in the past. Great, simply fucking great…..
First off, this is a topic that just can’t be laid out in a paragraph or three. The subject can’t be condensed into sound-bites that ‘splain it well enough to be of use. Obviously the biggest problem with the subject, is our short attention-span society.
I think to start off, it’s necessary to give you a little of my background in this area, just to establish my bone-a-fidos to let y’all know I ain’t speaking outta my ass with this shit. I spent 6 years in the US Navy nuclear program as both an operator, radiation and chemistry technician and instructor. Following this I entered the commercial nuclear field as a radiation safety officer for a year, then transferred into plant operations. I obtained an NRC Reactor Operator license and following the additional requisite training and experience an NRC Senior Reactor Operator license and served as a Control Room Supervisor. I decided to leave the shift-work of operations and transferred to a position as a Senior Emergency Planning Engineer. This allowed me to obtain a Master’s Level certification in Nuclear Engineering Technology. We developed, trained and tested implementation of the nuclear emergency plans for the state and local government as well as the company. I also had a sub-specialty in emergency planning for what is called Severe Accident Management, which is precisely what Japan is facing.
As the tragedy in Japan unfolds, the magnitude of which is almost beyond comprehension, the media focuses almost entirely upon the problems at a number of their nuclear power plants. I’ve been pretty much glued to the news (as usual) when home and the absolute bullshit, speculation, lies, misconceptions and generally piss-poor “experts” I’ve seen talking about the emergencies are sickening me. Literally. Even FOX News can’t seem to realize the ‘experts’ they keep trotting out aren’t really experts. It’s an endless parade of policy wonks from various think-tanks, that from what I’ve seen have only a rudimentary knowledge of this subject. I’m sick of these clowns being portrayed as nuclear experts when in reality they’re PR flaks. The ONLY expert I’ve seen is surprisingly, “The Mustache” Ambassador John Bolton, who was on yesterday. He blew me away with his ability to discuss this with an idiot talking head, news anchor. That man never ceases to amaze me with his intellect. Some of the worst were docs. O’Reilly had a doctor on The Factor tonight that dished out a somber stew of half-truths and lies in an even, soothing tone that belied his obvious anti-nuclear agenda. But hey, he’s an M.D. and knows this shit right? Wrong !!
Entirely predictably, howls for shutting down and canceling plans for new nuclear power stations are arising. I only expect them to get worse as the enviro-commies get their act in gear. The Ogabe administration now has the perfect triad of energy production to destroy. He’s actively against coal, gas and now we might as well add nuclear. The left’s pipe dreams of ‘renewable’ energy is decades if ever, capable of supplying more than a tiny fraction of our energy needs.
First of all, about engineering design. All structures have a design basis from which the engineering particulars are created and built. Obviously with something as complex as a nuclear power generating system this is a precise, scientific consideration. All types of accidents are considered, probabilities are calculated and the design and operating constraints are implemented. This design includes seismic events as well as other natural disasters including flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, civil disturbances and other weather related events. The design basis seismic accident for U.S. nuclear plants varies and is generally in the 7.0-7.2 Richter-Scale range of events. It’s interesting to note here that the U.S. and Japanese designs and operation parameters are nearly identical. The Japanese have an outstanding nuclear program, and their folks are every bit as capable, competent and well-trained as ours. Both country’s nuclear industry shares expertise and often inspection and technical visits are made on both sides of the Pacific. I have every confidence in their abilities. The accident conditions they’re experiencing far exceed anything that could be planned for. The probabilities of an extended loss of offsite power (nukes need power too), an earthquake 1000 times more powerful than their design bases AND extreme flooding from a tsunami are astronomical as a gross understatement. Nonetheless, severe accident management teaches the plant operators how to approach exactly this type of situation with a minimum impact on the public as a goal. It’s roughly the equivalent of teaching pilots to be able to fly minus engines and one-wing.
I’ve been able to sort through the bullshit and it seems that the plants are getting some water into their reactor vessels, though sporadic and likely barely sufficient to cool the cores. This problem rapidly diminishes over time as the heat being produced by the cores, called decay heat, falls off and reaches a very low level about a week after the reactor is shutdown.
The primary problem they’re currently facing is hydrogen gas. The reactor cores were not sufficiently cooled, they then overheated and some melting of the fuel rods has occurred. The metals used in the nuclear fuel’s outer covering, called cladding, when severely overheated and then coming in contact with water for cooling creates hydrogen gas. The gas is 100% hydrogen and inflammable until it’s diluted with air and then poses a hazard. The concern with this is that an explosion, producing a rapid over-pressure shock, can mechanically challenge the reactor vessel’s structure. The plant designs all include a method for venting this gas, but as the hydrogen becomes diluted with air during venting, it becomes explosive until further mixed with Oh-Two. The explosions we’ve seen are all the result of hydrogen being vented controlled or uncontrolled into the secondary containment buildings or auxiliary buildings and the evil-looking brownish color probably from paint and insulation. It must be kept in mind that a nuclear power reactor cannot explode on a nuclear level. Nuclear weapons need very, very precise designs and the slightest imperfection renders them duds. Also weapons need highly enriched Uranium or Plutonium to work, about 90-95% enrichment. Nuclear power plants all use Uranium enriched only to about 3-4%, useless for a nuclear explosive.
The next big issue is radioactive releases that are pretty much unavoidable, they are again, the result of the cores overheating and releasing some of the radioactive gases produced by the fission process. These gases while initially intensely radioactive, also decay to less radioactive forms, over days and weeks following reactor shutdown. I cannot stress this point enough, that there is absolutely NO COMPARISON of this accident to the Chernobyl accident. The Chernobyl reactor used a design that has ONLY been used in the former Soviet Union. It’s a completely different type that was inherently flawed and literally a disaster waiting to happen as it did. Another, more subtle reason to thank Socialism for it’s horrific impact on the world. Those plants should have never been built, let alone used in the manner they did, skipping common sense procedures and precautions at the behest of politically motivated supervisors. The Chernobyl plants used large amounts of graphite in the core. The form of graphite used is closely related to charcoal and caught fire during the accident. This produces massively radioactive particles of fly-ash that was carried high into the atmosphere contaminating large areas, with nasty fission by-products with very long radioactive lives (half-life). No western countries’ reactors have ever used this design. Our reactor cores cannot catch fire as Chernobyl did. Again, the fly-ash produced by the fire was the cause of long-distance problems. The reactors in trouble in Japan would only produce releases of radioactive gases. As these gases decay in the atmosphere a tiny, tiny amount of radioactive particles are produced. I CANNOT stress this point enough, nuclear power plants of the designs both here and in the rest of the world CANNOT produce ‘fallout’. Fallout is ONLY produced by nuclear weapons. The gases being potentially released pose a radiation exposure hazard that is slight and rapidly decreases as the gases move downwind and are diluted by the atmosphere. They do not contaminate the ground to a significant extent and also do not pose a contamination hazard to humans of significance. It’s important to note here, that radiation exposure and contamination are two distinct hazards.
Radioactive contamination is from getting radioactive materials on your body or ingesting them. Like cow shit, it can easily be washed off and internal ingestion is removed from the normal cleansing mechanism of the lungs and digestive system. The particulate matter that would occur from even a large release is absolutely minimal and pretty much poses no real threat to health.
Radiation exposure is directly analogous to getting a routine x-ray. Radioactive waves zap through the body completely in the case of gamma radiation (a wave) or for the Beta and Alpha emissions which are both particles, zapping the skin during a severe contamination or through ingestion and inhalation, delivering a radiation dose to the internal organs of our body. Back in the day, we related these two things to cow shit in a field. Getting close to the pile one could only smell it, that’s radiation exposure. If we step in the steaming heap, that’s contamination. The contamination is on us and we can smell it, so to sum that up in our case here, we receive an exposure from being close enough to a radioactive gas or from being contaminated. Just like what the cow left, the contamination can be washed off, taking away the smell or we can step farther away from smelling range. Either way eliminates our radiation exposure.
Radiation health effects- We know that small doses of radiation pose no hazard. We all receive a continuous dose from the environment as well as from outer space. We also know that routine exposure to X-rays poses little or no danger. We know that massive doses of radiation can have serious consequences up to and including death immediately or after a few weeks. Another long-term hazard is increases in cancer rates from less than fatal radiation doses. It’s interesting to note that during Chernobyl we learned a lot more about medical treatment of severe exposures and were able to save folks that had what was previously considered, fatal doses. Following that accident rad health experts predicted a large increase in cancers in the populations of east and western Europe. After decades of study the actual cancer rates were much, much lower than predicted, proving the the human body is more resilient than we thought. Any reasonably possible doses that the Japanese people might be exposed to would be very much below any possible short or long-term health effects. Again, those reports of persons with radiation sickness that aren’t plant operations people are complete nonsense.
Back to the gas releases, again keep in mind that these gases are rapidly diluted by the atmosphere and diminish quickly as they move away from the release point in strength as well as falling off in intensity like all electromagnetic radiation with an inverse-square function. This means if you double your distance from it, the levels are reduced to 1/4 of the first point. U.S. emergency planning research has determined that a maximum of 10-miles downwind from an accident is the limit of potential health hazard to the public requiring sheltering or evacuations. Environmental contamination would be monitored to a distance of 50-miles, but this is only for infinitesimal levels of contamination to soil, water and plant life. Within the 10-mile planning limits, it’s not possible for any member of the public to receive a radiation exposure anywhere near enough to cause radiation sickness. Any reports you hear of the public getting ‘radiation sickness’ is absolute, total, completely bullshit. If people are getting sick, it’s purely psychosomatic and something we saw following Three Mile Island. Let’s talk about that accident to those that remember it.
TMI experienced a nearly complete core meltdown following an extended loss of cooling water, cause by design and operational errors. The resultant accident was a complete circus caused largely by the federal government providing poor information and speculation that was at odds from the plant operators. They intervened inappropriately in decision-making and had unqualified bureaucrats over-riding plant authorities as well as the state and local government officials. There was never any need to order evacuation of the public and the panic created by the decision. The accident investigation determined that highest radiation exposure to the general public might have occurred to 2 men camping nearby the plant fence, though in reality it appears they had left a few hours prior to the gaseous release in that area. They might have received an exposure equivalent to 1/2 that one receives from an ordinary chest x-ray. 30 mRem to our knowledgeable LCs. In comparison airline pilots and passengers receive about 200 mRem in one cross-country flight. I don’t want any smartass LC out there pointing out my use of these units, they’re old school and I’m not about to relearn what was pounded into my head for the majority of my adult life, so STFU.
Next up, Iodine. The Japanese government is issuing Iodine tablets to the general public. This is used as a prophylaxis treatment for the thyroid gland, which absorbs lots of iodine. One of the radioactive gases that could be released in a major accident is a form of Iodine. This isotope as they’re called, has a relatively long ability to remain radioactive inside the body. (a fairly long biological half-life for our scientific-type LCs) This potential danger can be avoided by ingesting a large dose of stable iodine which ‘fills’ the thyroid gland’s ability to absorb more iodine that might be inhaled during a release. This is more of a potential health-hazard to infants that adults, but calculations of the amounts possibly released are quite small. The U.S. in the earlier days of nuclear power also stockpiled this for issue to the general public. It’s no longer considered necessary as the avoided exposure is slight and because of the allergy to large doses of iodine that 1 in 7 humans have. Risk vs. Benefit calculations proved Iodine issuance was not of any reasonable value during an accident. The issuance of Iodine even in Japan in my opinion is also very premature. Massive amounts of gases would need to be released and from what I’ve been able to determine hasn’t occurred at this point. The Navy reported that some helicopter crewmen needed to be decontaminated and this would have been from their exposure while flying through the release gases, called a ‘plume’ and as it was reported a very minor issue of showering them off to eliminate the hazard. There would have been little or no measurable exposure to them as a result.
Long distance issues- Any and I mean ANY talk about ‘radiation hitting the US or Hawaii’ is utter bullshit. Any gases released are immediately diluted to safe levels within a few miles of the release point. At tens or hundreds of miles it’s doubtful we could even measure the radiation, barring unusual atmospheric conditions. Certainly a gaseous plume would never be of hazard thousands of miles from it’s point of release. Again, Chernobyl effects were seen world-wide as the radiation was from the tiny particles of fly-ash that are able to be carried into the upper atmosphere and remaining there to be pushed around and somewhat concentrated by the jet stream. The gaseous releases from these reactors physically cannot do this.
Enough of Nuclear 101 for now. I want to sum up this whole situation simply-
1. The accidents no matter how scary they sound and are reported, are a fraction of the threat to the population there, compared to the immediate and serious threat from the earthquake and Tsunami, lack of shelter in freezing temperatures, lack of food, water and medical attention in addition to huge blackouts on the affected islands. The plants can’t blow-up and spread radiation all over the world. It’s absolutely ridiculous and in my opinion reckless for the news media to endlessly talk about this to the exclusion of the other very real problems. The term ‘meltdown’ while scary sounding isn’t an awful situation as far as danger to the public. Three Mile Island did this and as we discussed it above, posed no real threat to the population. All of the issues being faced in Japan will diminish over the next week or so when the core and whatever portions that have melted are no longer producing significant amounts of decay heat and radiation. They are in that respect a self-limiting situation even without effective engineering fixes.
2. The outcry to shutdown our nuclear plants for ‘investigation’ into their safety is nonsense. This condition of multiple serious problems cannot be designed for practically or financially. All human structures and processes pose some element of risk. We wouldn’t consider banning the construction of high-rise buildings because they might fail in an earthquake, nor should we ban construction of a nuclear power plant with reasonably adequate designs for seismic or natural hazards. The worst-case consequences of these accidents will not pose a credible threat to anyone outside the plant area. Nuclear is a safe and viable form of energy production and the frankly the best source we have. Many of the challenges presented by coal and natural gas energy production are not an issue with nukes. We cannot turn our backs on this energy source, especially out of these ignorance driven, merit-less fears. We can expect the environmental socialists to hammer away at this in the coming weeks and months and they’ll have the full blessing of the administration. Some of the so-called experts that have had face time in the media are completely agenda driven and as the opportunity to cash-in presents itself, we’ll see more. Anybody that speaks of renewable energy sources as an alternative can’t be taken seriously. These technologies at present do not have the capability to supply what is referred to as ‘base-load’ for our electrical supply system. Wind-power can never be made to perform this function, it’s a crude, inefficient mechanical means to produce power and just can’t be improved upon enough to ever be of real use. Likewise with current technology, though vastly improved over the last few decades, solar power doesn’t have any future promise of becoming a base-load source of energy. It’s entirely dependent on localized weather systems as well as a powerful radiant energy density that’s really limited to few geographic areas. As with wind-power another drawback is the massive area needed to construct a power “farm”. A nuclear facility can produce electricity for heavy industries and millions of homes on a few acres. Hundreds of acres of wind or solar power can at best, provide a few thousand homes and no heavy industry.
3. The biggest nuclear issue Japan faces is not the results of the radioactive side of the accidents but the permanent loss of a huge power generation capability these plants provided. The use of seawater for last-ditch cooling rendered the entire reactor system irrevocably damaged due to the insidious corrosive properties of salt water in the specialized stainless steel piping used throughout the systems. They have at this point be rendered rather expensive junk metals that will never again be used for power production.
In short, we MUST educate ourselves to the risks and benefits associated with nuclear energy, so we can make informed decisions about it’s critical need for our infrastructure. We just can’t afford to succumb to the hype, fear-mongering and lies that are being fed into our homes over the last few days about Japan.