I Don’t Know About Anyone Else

But I could have gotten through the whole day without having a nuclear energy facility blow up. Maybe that’s just me.

I don’t have a whole lot to add to that. This isn’t an issue of human error or negligence from what I can see; it’s the aftereffect of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history. You can plan for it — which the Japanese did, which is why at this point there are still fewer than a thousand dead in a country of 100 million — but no matter how you plan, you don’t know if the planning will rise to the moment when it happens. Here’s one of the limits of planning, apparently.

138 thoughts on “I Don’t Know About Anyone Else

  1. Fukushima doesn’t have a combustible graphite core like Chernobyl, so in theory a total meltdown would flow underground as opposed to being scattered in the atmosphere.

  2. It hasn’t blown yet, thank god. Right now it looks like the explosion was from a hydrogen leak and that the core itself is still undamaged. But yeah, really didn’t need to add this on top of earthquake and tsunami and fires.

  3. The press, naturally, is in panic mode.

    I just want to say I’d much rather have been living next to this nuclear plant during the earthquake than the oil refinery in Chiba.

  4. None of the containment vessels/buildings have yet to be breached and likely will not be breached. The reactor design appears to be working as intended. And I am with Foobear; there are lots of worse places to be during a massive earthquake other than well designed and built nuclear reactor facilities. You are welcome to build a nuclear reactor in my backyard any day.

  5. Trust me folks, I know all the above, re: the nuclear cores. If there were an actual meltdown occurring at the moment, my response would be a bit different.

  6. Reporting from Osaka. We were glued to the TV for most of the evening, and the press conference given by the chief cabinet secretary was very reassuring. Pretty much as noted here – a gas leak cause the building to go up, the reactor itself is undamaged, but they’re keeping the 20 km evacuation order in effect because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

    Worse than this are some of the videos that have been coming in. Towns that have been scrubbed clean by tsunami waves, another town – Kesennuma – is almost entirely on fire. This reactor problem is small potatoes compared to everything else.

  7. Huffington Post is reporting that the quake moved the entire island of Honshu 8 feet to the east. I defy anyone to engineer anything that can stand up to that. Astoundingly, some buildings did.

    God, I hope they locate those 4 missing passenger trains, and that the news is better than expected.

  8. A wise man once said,”History shows again and again, how nature points out the follies of men”. Coincidentally, he was also speaking of events in Japan.

  9. How this plays out re: the reactor cores, time will tell. But I am in total agreement with John: I, too, could have gone the whole day, hell, even the whole month without having anything anywhere near a nuclear power plant blow up.

  10. There is no other country better equipped for this sort of thing than Japan. The damage is a testament to the impossibility of perfect protection.

    As a world, we’ve gotten a live test on how safe a modern nuclear reactor is in an earthquake zone as no reactor is likely to see a bigger hit than this one got.

    Sadly, I am fairly certain the death toll will go higher. There are reports of 1500 missing in one village alone. Still, it’s pretty incredibly how low it is considering that there were over ten aftershocks that were bigger than the Loma Prieta quake. I lived about 80 miles from the Northridge quake and experienced only moderate shaking and no damage. Tokyo was three times as far from the epicenter and suffered major damage.

    Fortunately, the coworkers I have in Japan are all safe, as far as I know, though it sounds like it was pretty miserable as the whole of that train-dependent city had to walk home. It took one guy I know six hours.

  11. When I studied environmental engineering before becoming an urban planner we were taught the vital importance of distinguishing between “fail-safe” and “safe-fail” systems. Most critical facilities (water and sewage treatment plants, nuclear facilities, etc.) now have “safe-fail” systems designed to act as a back-up (or at least contain damage) when something goes wrong.

    “Success,” under disastrous circumstances, is measured by how much less worse the damage (and loss of life) is than it could be without such safeguards. Hence buildings and highways in earthquake-prone areas designed to absorb shock and remain standing even if they subsequently have to be rebuilt. Since ‘fail-safe’ requires a delusional belief in good luck, we rely on ‘safe-fail’ protocols to deal with the reality that worst-case scenarios may ultimately be more damaging than the best simulations can anticipate.

    Safe-fail protocols weren’t in place when Chernobyl melted down in 1986. It remains to be seen whether they are sufficient at Fukushima.

  12. This, I worry and honestly ask you about. What happens if our government screws us royally and doesn’t pass the budget. Not only do we loose our NPR, and PBS, but we could loose money for things like Red Cross, Health Care and other Government Rescue and Protection Programs.
    I know other countries don’t rely on us, but we do and can help. I would have felt much better in the past thinking of our country going and help in rescue and reconstruction efforts. If we can’t help, is it possible for things like Cholera (and possible worse plagues) outbreaks to become a lot worse? Can epidemics that have happened in the past (some things have gotten worse with drug resistant super bugs) spread through countries that have less resources than us, and even stronger countries like ours?
    I know I may sound like a slightly paranoid person, but it angers me when people don’t look at the long term picture but instead just focus on their wants and petty feelings of the present. (Please Don’t Anyone Think I Am Saying Anything Bad About You, I refer to those in office who are screwing the pooch, so to speak)
    I worry, I won’t deny it, it honestly scares me. What happens?

  13. I can’t help but think of the terrible irony of Japan having to endure concern about another dire nuclear event after Hiroshima and am depressingly aware that for more and more Americans that defining moment of the “nuclear age” is as remote as the age of the Tudors and has less immediacy because at least the age of the Tudors was colorfully portrayed on HBO.

  14. @Amy Lavender Harris

    “Safe-fail” is an awesome paradigm. I’m impressed as all get out that after the fifth-strongest earthquake in recorded history, the nearby plants are in any position at all to control what happens in their reactors.

    I wish as much attention could be paid to safe-fail systems for forms of energy that don’t have nuclear’s tendency to freak out the general populace. The natural gas storage facility in Chiba just up and exploded after the quake.

  15. One statistic I will be interested in seeing after this is over and the numbers are tallied: A comparison of the amount of radioactive material this plant leaks, compared to the yearly amount of radiation a typical coal-fired power plant releases in a year.

    I’m placing odds on the coal plant.

  16. @8,

    Looks like most of the buildings did. Tokyo is one of the most populated cities on the planet, and it did very well. Very few countries have the expertise, know how and willingness to deal with such an event.

    Frankly, if the 5th largest earthquake in recorded history followed by several powerful aftershocks is what it takes to cause this sort of damage, the engineers who designed the reactor did all sorts of things right.

    Andrew

  17. Andrew@20: “Tokyo is one of the most populated cities on the planet.”

    Actually the most populated city on the planet. It’s one of those small little internet factoids that always amuse me a bit: if you google for “ten largest cities by population”, you’ll get several dozen different listings, all in their own order based on the methodology, but the one thing that they will all have in common is that Tokyo will be #1 by a long yard (usually about 10 million people more than whoever they slot in as #2). Tokyo is immense.

  18. My head keeps cycling through: Japan, Haiti, Boehner…

    Rather than beating my breast about the horror in Japan, I’m spending the weekend updating our earthquake prep kit, and figuring out whether to donate money. The thing I’m amazed about is that only thousands died. The engineers and planners in Japan deserve incredible kowtowing kudos for what they’ve done. As Amy noted, safe-fail is incredibly cool.

    Compare that to Haiti, where the society is largely deregulated and the rich live at the expense of the poor.

    Then look at Washington, where there’s this rumor that the republicans want to cut, among other things, our tsunami warning center. SIGH!

    Boehner has many, many problems, but the biggest one is that he’s from Ohio. Why is that a problem? In terms of natural disasters, Ohio is one of the safest states in the Country. Floods and blizzards are about as bad as it gets. Maybe a minor drought or two. Heck, I’m still scratching my head, wondering why people aren’t streaming into Ohio, away from the coasts. Guess we’re stupid or something.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure Boehner doesn’t get it. If he was in earthquake country, he’d might have a (slightly) better idea of why prepping for earthquakes really is fiscally prudent. Is anyone (cough, cough) here one of his constituents, and willing to send him an email to that end? I really don’t want to live in an unregulated Haiti.

  19. Heteromeles: Ohio has natural disasters. They’re called “tornadoes”, and having lived in both Ohio and (currently) San Francisco, I’d rather take my chances with the earthquakes.

  20. Heteromeles:

    As Doctor Memory notes, Ohio (and specifically OH-8, Boehner’s district) is at the tail end end of “Tornado Alley.” We have our share of natural disasters here.

    Remember also that the GOP holds only one branch of the legislature. If the tsunami warning stuff eventually gets cut, it will have to be a bipartisan effort.

  21. I feel like I should reiterate this: on the continental US, major earthquakes are rare, and deaths from earthquake are vanishingly rare. Tornadoes, on the other hand, kill about 80 people a year (source: NOAA), and cause quite a bit of property damage on top of that: the only tornado-resistant building is one that is out of the tornado’s path!

    And of course, to keep it all in perspective, the internal combustion engine automobile kills around 45,000 people in the USA every year, like clockwork, going backdecades.

  22. Ohio doesn’t really get that many tornadoes:

    http://www.city-data.com/forum/weather/250368-state-map-average-tornadoes-per-year.html

    Having lived in MI, IN & IL for the first 30 years of my life the only way tornadoes affected my thinking and planning was making sure that any house we lived in had a basement, just in case. I’ve seen one funnel cloud, ever, and it didn’t touch down. As natural disasters go they are pretty tame. Horrible if your house/car gets hit, but your neighbor is as likely as not unaffected by the storm.

    Now blizzards and ice storms those you planned around and all four of those states get more than their fair share of each. Living somewhere that gets some snow but nothing like any Midwestern state I’m deeply appreciative of the effort and expense the road commissions on my counties went to to take care of the snow, as I really miss it now that I don’t have it.

  23. Alex R@18: I am told that it is considered funny in Tokyo by a coworker who is there.

    Doctor Memory@25: You can’t really do statistics with earthquakes because of their rarity. Tornadoes happen nearly every year. Earthquakes like the one in Japan happen once every few centuries. If one like that happened on the West Coast this year, the statistics would look very different. (And we are substantially less well prepared than Japan.)

  24. The Japanese are a pretty hardy and industrious people. They take these large scale natural or otherwise disasters in hand and move on, a brief look at there history tell us a lot about why they are such good planners. And honestly I am not overly surprised (thankful to be sure), that the largest earth quake in their history + a 10 meter tsunami + large scale fires + possible nuclear plant melt down, has killed so few people; the Japanese get it and they plan accordingly.

  25. @ Jim Barker #29

    That doesn’t sell, there for its not necessary to the perspective they are trying to frame. At work CNN and Fox cycle through their routines on mute and their stupid banners drive me up the wall; not simple because they are meaningless emotional hooks but they are generally misleading.

  26. Steve@28: oh, I agree, I would really not want to be in a position to do a compare-and-contrast on how California would cope with a similar-magnitude event. I suspect the answer would be: “poorly”. We’d probably do okay on the quake itself, modulo the Bay Bridge collapsing, but we’ve basically got fuck-all for protection from a major tsunami, and our emergency services infrastructure does not get the kind of regular practice that Japan’s does.

  27. amazing how many people have telepathic insight into quantities of radiation leaked and psychic powers of prediction to dismiss the fukushima nuclear disaster. Anyone who is not shaken by the situation and deeply and profoundly concerned about a worst case scenario is an idiot. Small forebearance perhaps, for those too young to remember Chernobyl, but that disaster was much worse at every stage than anyone expected. Workers who sealed chernobyl died of radiation poisoning because they didn’t know how much radiation was coming out of it. This is some serious shit.

  28. Catherine: I don’t claim to be psychic, just playing the odds. Historically, nobody has been worse at running reactors than the Russians, and few have been better than the Japanese. Factually, based on what we know (which could be incomplete or flat-out wrong, but it is what we have), this is not a disaster…yet.

    But yes, the pucker factor is high. We can only hope for the best: some incredibly brave people are, right now, risking life and limb to keep things non-disastrous.

  29. @ Steven R. In hindsight, I agree and retract it. I just found out how people are making light of this tragedy and I am disgusted. There are actually people on Facebook saying that this was “payback” for Pearl Harbor.

    Yeah, I don’t want to be a part of that group of jackholes.

  30. Tsinghua University, China, has posted on this internet, reactors that circumvent all these possibilities! Pebble bed, He Gas transfer, safe, efficient, non-bomb material producing reactors with much less waste material! Already up and operating! In China! Also: China invests Billions of Yuan – not in demolishing Iraq, in research of Thorium reactors, reactors that promise waste products safe for mankind after 100 years storage! Reactors that promise operation on Thorium fuel, a much more plentiful fuel! The ugly Babylon, the Corporatist, Capitalist pseudo-democracy, the U.S.A., falling behind as we speak! Only very few in that system ever attain great riches, the rest are slave to and illusion! American style reactor designs are most assuredly dangerous to humanity, and must change.

  31. Catherine@33: One huge difference was that Chernobyl happened under a government well known for shading the truth and minimizing disasters. We have a lot more information about the Japanese plant now than we did about Chernobyl at the time.

  32. Jason@35 – I agree with you and, wouldn’t one say that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more than adequate “paybacks” for Pearl Harbor?

    I believe that the largest earthquakes in US history occurred in New Madrid, MO in 1811 and 1812. Contemporary accounts say they were felt as far away as Boston. Take a look at the USGS summary of New Madrid here. So much for the Midwest being protected.

    John and all the others who have said this are right: There is no plan that will cover an 8.9 magnitude earthquake. And, there seems to be a very strong consensus that Japan is the best prepared nation in the word.

    I had the dubious pleasure of experiencing the California Northridge quake in 1994. It was a 6.7, lasted 45 seconds and was one of the worst experiences of my life. If I’m reading the scale right, the 11 March earthquake in Japan was about 10e12 times as powerful and lasted 3 minutes. The fact that Japan has endured as well as it has s testament to their planning.

    Given the experience of Katrina and the unfortunate reality of the inmates running the asylum in DC, one can only hope that US planning is half as good.

  33. Doctor Memory@25 “And of course, to keep it all in perspective, the internal combustion engine automobile kills around 45,000 people in the USA every year, like clockwork, going backdecades.”

    And the population and the number of miles driven per year has increased significantly, which means driving has become safer. Also, driving is something many, many people due every day. Earthquakes and tornadoes are things that many people have never experienced.

  34. Uncle B! I’d just like to point out that periods exist! Not only that, you’re not limited to one per post!

  35. I’m pro nuclear power. The number of people wiped out by nuclear reactors for all of human history pales in comparison to a single year of automobile deaths and injuries.

  36. I don’t claim to be psychic, just playing the odds.

    There are few things sillier than confidently asserting the future. “Hey, it looks like everything’s fine” should be carved on innumerable gravestones.

  37. I’m generally pro nuclear power, but the hydrogen explosion that blew up the turbine room on top of the main reactor containment structure was pretty darn scary. I know a number of the nuclear proliferation experts; we were all throwing emails around late night and early morning, and Not Happy.

    With that said, the actual situation from the reactor seems to be dire, but not yet disasterous. The radiation being vented (last numbers I saw) is serious, and justifies the evacuation, but it’s nowhere near killing everyone nearby or long-term contamination of the region.

    What now annoys me – the reactor’s now got all our attention (including most of mine), but there are whole multi-ten-thousand person cities and towns washed away further up the Japanese coast. The “thousand dead” figure is off by a couple of orders of magnitude. There will be few if any survivors from many of those towns. Nobody benefits from prematurely touting very high numbers, but they’re going to be very high.

    What’s slightly amazing is that there was an 8.9 quake right off a major inhabited area, and few deaths and little damage from the quake. The Tsunami is what did almost all the damage.

  38. #4 by Gary Willis: “You are welcome to build a nuclear reactor in my backyard any day.”

    [shrug] Feel free to put the reactor in my backyard … if you put the nuclear waste disposal facility in yours.

    The comparison between coal plants and nuclear plants is classic apples and oranges. As bad as coal plants are, when they stop operating the problem ends. When there’s a disaster that knocks it out of commission, you don’t need to evacuate the entire region, making a bad situation that much worse. When the coal is burnt, yes, that’s a lot of nasty shit into the atmosphere, but it doesn’t leave behind spent fuel — and contaminated equipment — that needs to kept away from humans for thousands of years.

    It’s not the day-to-day stuff that’s the issue, and the facile comparison conveniently ignores that.

    At best, you’re not making an argument for nuclear, you’re simply making another argument against coal.

    Our unwillingness to plan ahead may force us into using more nuclear … and coal and other shitty measures. But if we don’t insist on treating them as a temporarily necessary evil while we do our damnedest to ramp up some better alternatives, we’re just kicking the shit down the road to the kids and the grandkids. And I for one think they’re going to have too much of our shit to deal with as it is.

  39. I found the most worrying part of the BBC report linked at 26 was this:

    ‘As with its counterparts in many other countries, Japan’s nuclear industry has not exactly been renowned for openness and transparency.

    Tepco itself has been implicated in a series of cover-ups down the years.

    In 2002, the chairman and four other executives resigned, suspected of having falsified safety records at Tepco power stations.

    Further examples of falsification were identified in 2006 and 2007.’

    That doesn’t -necessarily- mean that we can’t trust the current reports on what’s going on but it does mean that I don’t find them as reassuring as I might.

  40. @George William Herbert: Northeastern Honshu is pretty sparsely populated (by Japanese standards.) The epicenter was 200+ miles from Tokyo. Put that quake in Tokyo Bay (or anywhere directly south) and you’d see a million dead minimum. Basically, they got lucky.

    @Cathrine Shaffer: The only resemblance between Chernobyl and Fukushima is that they are nuclear plants. It’s a serious situation, but there’s no realistic possibility of such a massive, wide-spread disaster as Chernobyl. (Much of the fallout from Chernobyl was radioactive debris from the reactor exploding (note for pendants: steam explosion, not a nuclear explosion); Fukushima uses a different design that shouldn’t explode when it melts down.)

  41. The only resemblance between Chernobyl and Fukushima is that they are nuclear plants. It’s a serious situation, but there’s no realistic possibility of such a massive, wide-spread disaster as Chernobyl

    For fuck’s sake; you would know this how, exactly?

    Jesus.

  42. @David: Because the engineers designing this reactor weren’t morons and didn’t build the pile out of graphite. Because the engineers running the plant are smart enough to risk venting steam rather than having the reactor vessel explode. (They still have containment control, even with the outer building destroyed.) Because they’ve *already* reported a drop in temperature inside the reactor, which will lead to a drop in pressure (this bit is simple physics.)

    I’m not saying everything is wonderful and there’s no concern necessary. It’s serious — local contamination is probably a foregone conclusion at this point. But Chernobyl was a disaster on an entirely different scale, botched from the get-go. Chernobyl put radioactive fallout in the upper atmosphere because the reactor was *on fire* — entirely separate from the meltdown, and due to the reactor being built of graphite (flammable at high temperatures.) This isn’t the case at Fukushima.

  43. Bearpaw: As bad as coal plants are, when they stop operating the problem ends.

    Global warming, the gift that keeps on giving.

    Our unwillingness to plan ahead may force us into using more nuclear … and coal and other shitty measures. But if we don’t insist on treating them as a temporarily necessary evil while we do our damnedest to ramp up some better alternatives, we’re just kicking the shit down the road to the kids and the grandkids. And I for one think they’re going to have too much of our shit to deal with as it is.

    Well, sure, but what the hell are we gonna make power from right now??? There is nothing that can generate power on par with a fossil fuel plant, except nuclear. I’m all for funding lots of research into wind and solar and other renewables, but, seriously, they just can’t cut it with today’s technology. The capacity factor for nuclear it .95. For wind its something like .2 to .4 Solar is .1 to .2. And there is currently no cost effective technology that allows storing gigawatt-hours of energy from wind/solar so that it can still feed the grid when the wind dies and the sun disappears behind clouds or its night time. The most serious idea I’ve hear was massive underground pressurized air tanks. Pump air into the tanks with wind power, release the air to spin generators and make electricity when the wind isn’t blowing. ANd they put them underground so they don’t kill as many people when these gigantic high pressure air tanks fail and explode.

    When and if someoen invents high temperatur superconductors and we can store several gigawatt-hours in something the size of a car battery, this whole energy production issue will dissappear. Orbital solar power stations will charge up superconductor storage cells. They’ll get dropped down through the atmosphere on some Virgin Galactic ships, who will brign them to various distribution stations where they plug into localized grids. And then VG ships will take the discharged cells from last weeks run back up to the orbital stations. eternal solar power, without the disadvantage of having a deathray in orbit.

    Until then, we have to work with what we’ve got. And this is what we’ve got:

    Fossil fuels are killing an entire planet right now. That’s what it does. That’s its effect. Every MWatt of electricty produced by coal brings us a little bit closer to remapping the entire globe for the worse.

    And the only thing that can replace it is nuclear power. It’s got long term storage costs that need to be paid for, but it won’t kill the planet.

  44. For those who didn’t live through Chernobyl… it was a fuckup of epic proportions. It was a case of compounded human error, and I’m getting pretty tired of that being used as a comparison with the Fukushima case, which is a case of human error only in that it wasn’t of sufficient strength to withstand a massive earthquake. I’m also fed up of anti-nuke proponents (see Greenpeace and others) trying to make political hay out of what is still an ongoing crisis situation. At least we haven’t had anyone claiming that god is angry at J-pop and Shinjuku yet.

    /rant off/

    Oh, and more people were hurt by the tsunami hitting California than we had confirmed quake and tsunami related injuries here in Hokkaido (1 old lady falling down the stairs). That amusing statistic gave us a little bit of a laugh last night while trying hard not to watch the news for a couple of hours, an attempt that was quite successful due to some good old fashioned board games.

  45. Bryan Taylor@50: Sparsely populated in general yes, but Sendai has a million people in it. It’s not like the area is completely empty.

  46. Bearpaw: As bad as coal plants are, when they stop operating the problem ends.

    All that mercury that’s in the tuna fish these days? Precipitated out of smoke from coal plants.How many centuries do you think it’ll take to get that out of the oceans?

  47. You’re not hearing about fatalities in Hawai’i because we had planned and had a night to prepare. Lost some beachfront property in Kealakekua Bay near us — most spectacularly a large house that floated around the bay for awhile. Some tourists made really good efforts to get themselves killed; fortunately they failed.

  48. It takes years for the cost of establishing windpower farms to amortize, but then it is basically free. And constantly renewable. And clean.Just build more. Oh, wait! Dead birds!!! Percentage wise, what percent of the population of “Foggy London” died because every one was burning soft coal? Wear more sweaters. Move south. Nothing is perfect. We know as much about this as we know about the drums of yellow cake behind the warehouse in Iran. My husband worked at Argonne, after being in the Navy and working on Nuclear subs. Also worked on old subs with asbestos. Some people get sick. Some don’t. Pretty soon, in that perfect world, you would have to shoot humans to get to walk to your mailbox. Blah. Blah. Blah.

  49. @51

    Well, for one thing, the Japanese Engineers aren’t mucking about trying to make the reactor do things it wasn’t designed for and ignoring what was going on around them. To put that in perspective a Nuclear Engineer I saw at a conference once said what the Russians were doing was the equivalent of trying to change the oil in you car while driving in the dark down and icy road on a moonless night with your headlights turned off at 70 miles an hour. Comparing that to an Act of God is a great leap IMO

    The reactors themselves are two completely different designs.

    Andrew

  50. Latest news is that the Japanese government says that there is certainly a partial meltdown in Fukushima 1 and a “probable” partial meltdown in Fukushima 3. My guess, based on the Japanese government’s track record of opacity, is that means there was certainly a meltdown in Unit 1 and a partial meltdown in Unit 3. We won’t know until they can crack open the containment vessels and take a look — in another decade or so.

    Additionally, 25 workers at Fukushima are reported to be suffering from acute radiation sickness. So there was significant, though apparently not catastrophic so far, release of radionuclides within the plant; this means that flooding the damaged reactors with seawater to cool it off is creating a giant, if low-level, radioactive waste problem.

    The only good thing so far is that there’s been no catastrophic breach of either of the containment vessels. Well, that and the fact that the core wasn’t a giant pile of radioactive materials and graphite that could catch fire, which is what happened in Chernobyl.

  51. I am having a hard time believing Japan. I want to but there tune has changed so many times. I am guessing like John @61 there has been a meltdown. Now we just cross our fingers and hope the safeguards which they have in place stops a leak. Things don’t need to get any worse over there than they already are.

  52. I read that the epicenter of the quake was 150 miles offshore, and the resulting tsunami traveled toward shore at almost 500 mph–so, even with the best possible warning system, few people had time to get out of the way. Presumably in the very BEST case scenario, you had maybe 20 minutes warning that an immense, unstoppable wall of water traveling at the speed of a jetliner was heading for you and everything around you.

    And, yes, given that current reports in the media state the terrain was moved 8 feet (and the planet was also moved on its axis), it’s hard to see how even a well-built reactor with proper safety measures could have survived THAT unscathed.

  53. Heteromeles, I can only assume your attitude about Ohio is due to never having seen your town devastated by a tornado, and never having known anyone who died in a tornado hit. I can assure you from personal experience that it’s not something to dismiss as irrelevant.

  54. There are obviously two ways to look at Fukushima: as a testament to the powers of human engineering, scientific research and an opportunity to learn more/better for the next time or as “proof” that no matter what you do, nuclear based power generation is and will always be completely unsafe and dangerous to the species.

    And re#48: no lasting effects? what about the tailings at the mines that leach lead, arsenic & etc.

    what about the underground coal fires…?

    Shut it down and it’s done. Yeah. Ok.

  55. Because the engineers designing this reactor weren’t morons and didn’t build the pile out of graphite. Because the engineers running the plant are smart enough to risk venting steam rather than having the reactor vessel explode

    No, they’re just trying to deal with the aftereffects of one of a horrendously powerful earthquake. That the disaster won’t be like Chernobyl doesn’t mean that it can’t be as bad as Chernobyl. Blithely spewing optimism from the remove of an Internet thread when we don’t really know anything yet is epically foolish.

  56. I design the safety systems for nuclear reactors. Every country designing reactors has put new regulations in place since both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the #1 priority in our designs is safety to the public.

    The media is taking comments out of context and even contradicts themselves within the same article.

    The Nuclear Energy Institute is compiling the facts and is the best source of facts as they learn them. This link continues to be updated as more facts are revealed..

    http://www.nei.org/newsandevents/information-on-the-japanese-earthquake-and-reactors-in-that-region

  57. I’ve found World Nuclear News (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org) as a pretty accurate source of information on things thus far. While there may have been a partial or even full meltdown of fuel rods inside the core, it appears that core integrity and containment remain intact. The only public radiation releases have been intentional atmospheric vents to relieve pressure inside the core, and the only people affected by radiation are the brave folks still working at the plant to manage the event.

    Speaking as a nuclear engineer I think the Japanese are doing incredibly well handling things as they have so far. A disaster-scale earthquake followed by a giant tsunami is a helluva double whammy. You can only prepare against so much.

  58. after being told “just playing the odds. Historically, nobody has been worse at running reactors than the Russians, and few have been better than the Japanese”

    David@46: There are few things sillier than confidently asserting the future. “Hey, it looks like everything’s fine” should be carved on innumerable gravestones.

    after being told there’s no realistic possibility this will be as bad as Chernobyl

    David@51For fuck’s sake; you would know this how, exactly? Jesus.

    After being told that that Japan is a completely different design than Chernobyl and that the Japanese operators are doing things smarter than the Chernobyl operators did

    David@68 No, they’re just trying to deal with the aftereffects of one of a horrendously powerful earthquake. That the disaster won’t be like Chernobyl doesn’t mean that it can’t be as bad as Chernobyl. Blithely spewing optimism from the remove of an Internet thread when we don’t really know anything yet is epically foolish.

    David, you may think you are being logical here in arguing that no one must be allowed to make any positive assertions about Fukushima, but you seem to be driven to deny any positive information peopel are saying so that you can keep all the worst case scenarios running around in your mind. It is understandable for someone to be afraid of something potentially dangerous especially when they don’t understand all the details of hwo it works. But you’ve now ignored a number of people who have tried to explain to you why this is probably not goign to end like Chernobyl or as bad as chernobyl.

    For example, the design of the plant really does matter. It’s not designed like chernobyl, so it can’t fail like chernobyl. That it is a completely different design means people can actually point to some reasonable assumptions that say it cannot fail as bad. i.e. exploding Pinto->bad design. 2011 Volvo->THey’re boxy, but much safer.

    If I hear someone was in a car accident, that they were wearign their seatbelt, that the car had airbags, that they were driving a 2011 Volvo, then I could say that their odds of surviving are better than someone not wearing a seatbelt, no airbags, driving a Pinto, Saying the person has better odds of survival isn’t saying they will survive. You seem to be ignoring that subtle difference between (1) the complicated statistical probabilities that safety engineers have to deal with and (2) making shit up out of thin air. Probability is not prediction. Treating them as the same is something you need to sort out, not them.

  59. If I hear someone was in a car accident, that they were wearign their seatbelt, that the car had airbags, that they were driving a 2011 Volvo, then I could say that their odds of surviving are better than someone not wearing a seatbelt, no airbags, driving a Pinto,

    And I’d say that if the firemen were still cutting the person out of the car, it would be foolish to start talking about air bags, seat belts, etc, instead of waiting to find out how they actually were.

    This is especially true given that this is turning out to be the fourth largest recorded earthquake ever.

    You seem to be ignoring that subtle difference between (1) the complicated statistical probabilities that safety engineers have to deal with and (2) making shit up out of thin air. Probability is not prediction. Treating them as the same is something you need to sort out, not them.

    I’m sure all those dead people appreciate that the probabilities were on their side, and that their deaths were unlikely.

  60. Problem is, all the people who have died from civilian nuclear accidents so far… their deaths were likely.

  61. David, in a previous life I worked on life critical avionics systems where bugs could get people killed. I worked on fail safe electrnics designs for space systems. In a life long before that, I got certification as an EMT. I am no longer active in either of these now, but it does feed my perspective.

    If you want to discuss how to help the survivors through donations and such, thats one conversation. If you wamt to discuss preparedness through safety training, first aid trai.ing, and desgn improvements, thats another conversation. if you want to have a moment of silence for those who have died, thatz yet another conversation we could have.

    but If you wish to argue, essentially, that a modern day Volvo is no different than an exploding Pinto because people can still die in a volvo and, you know, the dead dont care about any improvements in automobile design, then I dont know what to tell you. it doesnt help the survovors in need of immediate help and it doesnt reduce the chance of deaths happening agan in the future by acknowledging design improvements.

    as far as i can tell all it does is attempt to associate nuclear power with people dying in an emotionally based attempt to simply make people fear nuclear power. or did I miss something?

  62. I Don’t Know About Anyone Else, But I could have gotten through the whole day without having a nuclear energy facility blow up.

    Amen to that!

    Hoping for the best outcome that’s possible at this point.

  63. Then spit it out, please.

    I did in my first comment: #46.

    But to re-explain it: my comments have nothing to do with nuclear power or with Japan, in particular. They have to do with the blitheness of pronouncing “it looks like everything’s fine” or “this won’t be a disaster of epic proportions” when it is not possible to know either things with that much certainty. People did it the day after Katrina came ashore and then we watched as New Orleans disappeared. How about not doing it now?

  64. My first worry is that Fukushima is all gonna go to hell. But I trust the engineers, and I know that’s unlikely.

    My second worry is that this is going to set nuclear energy back at least a decade, no matter how it turns out. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this will be a blip. Maybe it will be celebrated as a case of human ingenuity beating back nature’s destructive influence. Maybe, just maybe, it will push R&D on nuclear energy forward, increasing interest in pebble beds, and liquid core Th reactors, and U-Th hybrid upgrades.

    csdaley@62: perhaps they’re changing their tune because its a developing situation. I think the upshot is that the immediate danger is manageable, the mid-term danger is of concern, the long-term danger is unknown.

    David@74: I’d guess they don’t, being, y’know, dead and all. Besides, risk-benefit on Japan’s reactors comes out in favor of benefit, probability of survival is never 100%, in fact, probability of death is 100% in all cases anyway.

    Luke@76: citation needed, and some context for relevance would be nice.

  65. Besides, risk-benefit on Japan’s reactors comes out in favor of benefit, probability of survival is never 100%, in fact, probability of death is 100% in all cases anyway

    I’m sure their families will be comforted by those thoughts.

  66. So, what it all comes down to is a major disaster caused by the nuclear reactors probably won’t happen, but it’s not impossible.

  67. @David — Again, I’m not saying there will not be a disaster here. I’m saying that the comparison to Chernobyl is hyperbole in the extreme. Lemme break it down one more time.

    At Chernobyl, three things happened:
    1 – Reactor melted down due to operator stupidity
    2 – A steam explosion destroyed the only containment building
    3 – The radioactive graphite pile in the core caught fire (and was scattered everywhere by the explosion.)

    That fire, in turn, was what put radioactive material in the upper atmosphere and caused a continent-wide contamination.

    At Fukushima, the outer containment building has been destroyed, but the inner building around the reactor is still intact. They still have control over containment. The reactor core may have melted down (the reports are not clear yet) but there’s not enough graphite in the reactor to cause a fire like Chernobyl.

    Worst case scenario at Fukushima is that the reactor vessel blows; that will contaminate pretty much the entire prefecture. It will not cause an international crisis because there’s not enough force to get fallout material into the upper atmosphere.

    So yes, I can reasonably believe this won’t be Chernobyl 2.0. It *sucks* for the Japanese people, and in that respect I am very concerned. But it doesn’t pose a direct threat to the rest of us.

  68. I’m saying that the comparison to Chernobyl is hyperbole in the extreme

    You’re making the assumption that a comparison to Chernobyl requires the accident to be much the same as what happened at Chernobyl, as opposed to something different, like, say a massive earthquake and tsunami, both worse than designed for.

    So yes, I can reasonably believe this won’t be Chernobyl 2.0

    The ground is fully of dead people who “reasonably” believed something.

    that will contaminate pretty much the entire prefecture.

    With 2 million people living in it.

    It *sucks* for the Japanese people, and in that respect I am very concerned. But it doesn’t pose a direct threat to the rest of us.

    See, and this is exactly my point. How about, while the Japanese are having a massive natural disaster, we don’t go around saying “it doesn’t pose a direct threat to us”?

    (“Well, New Orleans is under water, but it doesn’t pose a direct threat to us.”)

  69. I’m sure their families will be comforted by those thoughts.

    I am sure the people of Japan will find rants about how horrible everything is going to be very comforting.

    I personally think it would be better to wait to see what actually happens (and wait for the Japanese at get a chance to bury their dead) before turning the Internet into a nuke-debate royale. In a week or two, we’ll know exactly how bad this is. Ranting can be saved until then.

    Would you argue about whether a neighbor’s house had a fire-safe roof while it is still burning down?

  70. “You’re making the assumption that a comparison to Chernobyl requires the accident to be much the same as what happened at Chernobyl, as opposed to something different, like, say a massive earthquake and tsunami, both worse than designed for.”

    Well, yes. If the comparison is to a disaster known for a continent-wide fallout, it’s hyperbole if there’s no means for that scale of disaster to occur here.

    “See, and this is exactly my point. How about, while the Japanese are having a massive natural disaster, we don’t go around saying “it doesn’t pose a direct threat to us”?”

    Because others are saying that it does pose a threat, and that is factually wrong, and it irritates me to see people running around screaming “the end times cometh!” I also believe that this accident, while serious, should not overshadow the massive disaster that is this earthquake. (To clarify: I think the nuclear accident is overblown; I do *not* think the earthquake and tsunami are.)

    In any case, it seems we’re at an impasse. Respond as you wish, I’m going to withdraw before I have the chance to irritate our host.

  71. I went to bed last night and there were 1,000 victims. This morning I wake up and they are estimating 10,000 victims.
    No, I don’t know anything about nuclear power plant technology, but I’m quite sure the Japanese have state of the art facilities and were as well prepared as any nation could possibly be for just such an emergency. Which leaves me to ask, “Should these facilities ever be built in an active earthquake zone?”
    A little common sense, people. If we feel we must have nuclear power plants, and maybe we must, they’ve got to be build in the safest areas possible. They can withstand level 5 hurricanes, tornadoes, you name it, but earthquakes are a real wild card.
    If the Japanese, with all their technological expertise, couldn’t predict such a powerful earthquake, then we must all evaluate where to build nuclear power plants.

  72. My thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese at this time. A pray that their lives will get back to normal as quickly as possible, and I pray for the victims and their families. May God, or what ever higher power, if a higher power exists, be with them in their time of critical need.

  73. I personally think it would be better to wait to see what actually happens (and wait for the Japanese at get a chance to bury their dead) before turning the Internet into a nuke-debate royale. In a week or two, we’ll know exactly how bad this is. Ranting can be saved until then.

    Uh, that was my point: let’s not announce things are fine, until we’re actually sure that they’re fine. Let’s wait to see what actually happens. I haven’t actually opined one way or the other on nuclear power, I’m just asking people to stop orating that “things are fine” when they have no real idea.

    #wishingforreadingcomprehension

    Would you argue about whether a neighbor’s house had a fire-safe roof while it is still burning down?

    Jesus Christ. That. Was. My. Point.

    Well, yes. If the comparison is to a disaster known for a continent-wide fallout, it’s hyperbole if there’s no means for that scale of disaster to occur here

    I’ll make subsidiary point here: let’s not show up at someone’s funeral and say “well, it could have been a lot worse.”

    #sinceImusinghashtagshowaboutWestboroChurch?

  74. David@92:People should stop orating *period*.

    It would be nice if people wouldn’t be concerned about making points at a time like this.

  75. I don’t think too many of us are here just to express our sympathy about the situation, but rather because we enjoy the discussion, debate or argument.

  76. People should stop orating *period*.

    Why, yes, yes, that was my point.

    I don’t think too many of us are here just to express our sympathy about the situation, but rather because we enjoy the discussion, debate or argument.

    Your enjoyment should, of course, be the primary concern when thousands of people are dead.

    Or, to to put it more politely: shut the fuck up, people are dying.

  77. Things seem to not be getting better. This is a summary from All Things Nuclear regarding on going developments at Unit 3, the /other/ reactor they’re having trouble with.

    The nuclear crisis in Japan took a turn for the worse as serious problems developed in reactor Unit 3.

    Officials from Tokyo Electric reported that after multiple cooling system failures, the water level in the Unit 3 reactor vessel dropped 3 meters (nearly 10 feet), uncovering approximately 90 percent of the fuel in the reactor core. Authorities were able to inject cooling water with a fire pump after reducing the containment pressure by a controlled venting of radioactive gas. As they did with Unit 1, they began pumping sea water into Unit 3, which is highly corrosive and may preclude any future use of the reactor even if a crisis is averted.

    However, Tokyo Electric has reported that the water level in the Unit 3 reactor still remains more than 2 meters (6 feet) below the top of the fuel, exposing about half the fuel to air, and they believe that water may be leaking from the reactor vessel. When the fuel is exposed to air it eventually overheats and suffers damage. It is likely that the fuel has experienced significant damage at this point, and the authorities have said they are proceeding on this assumption.

    They also go on to note that the Mark I containment vessels used with this type of reactor are somewhat vulnerable to failure during a fuel melting incident.

  78. The ground is fully of dead people who “reasonably” believed something.

    The ground is full of everyone eventually, cynics and optimists alike.

    Which leaves me to ask, “Should these facilities ever be built in an active earthquake zone?”

    That would be all of Japan really. Lets not forget that all evidence was pointing to this quake happening in an entirely different place, Tokai.

    Given Japan’s energy needs, only nuclear could supply it so they built the plants to withstand some pretty big quakes. Unfortunately they got enormous huge mind-buggeringly massive quakes instead. Something like the fourth or fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, which produced a tsunami that overrode their substantial defences and destroyed something like three levels of backups. I think we can cut them some slack on the safety grounds, and direct our ire where it belongs. Mother Earth herself.

  79. Yeah, it’s not too bad here in Tokyo. But the strong, constant aftershocks and lack of power (no A/C) is a bit stifling. But that’s nothing compared to the northern area — we’re doing our best to help them out. Thank you for all your concern. We’re on the job and Japan is just about as civil as you can get in the face of such an event.

    Shall remain nameless due to my position.

  80. @97: It does not appear to be as bad as all that. See

    http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Venting_at_Fukushima_Daiichi_3_1303111.html

    The “2m below the top” reading appears to be due to a faulty gauge, and a) pressure levels are around 250 kPa (compared to 400 kPa while the plant is operating normally) and b) radiation levels have dropped. That last one is key. If the fuel rods were exposed to air, they would begin to melt in about 45 minutes and release Cesium-137 and Iodine-131 into the containment chamber.

    To add to the pile of links in this thread:

    http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

  81. Did anyone know that you can shield the Thyroid from radiation poisoning using Iodine tablets? Just head on the news that you can remove your clothing and get washed to remove 90+ % of the contaminated material. Suspect that not a lot of us knew that before a couple of days ago. I guess the point here is that these people know how to protect themselves against radioactive disasters. They live with this fear and have plans to mitigate the impact. Imagine how this would be if the reactor was in a country that didn’t have this sort of elevated preparation? Like the US for example.

    Praying for them,

    Dave

  82. David@81:They have to do with the blitheness of pronouncing “it looks like everything’s fine” or “this won’t be a disaster of epic proportions”

    oh, that’s all well and good, except for the slight issue that no one actually ever said that.

    Your first post@46 says: There are few things sillier than confidently asserting the future. which was in reply to Doctor Memory@34. Lets review what Doctor Memory at 34 actually said: I don’t claim to be psychic, just playing the odds. … Factually, based on what we know (which could be incomplete or flat-out wrong, but it is what we have), this is not a disaster…yet. But yes, the pucker factor is high. We can only hope for the best

    That is certainly far and away from “everything’s fine”.

    Your interpretation of what everyone else is saying goes rapidly downhill from there. And attempts to correct your misinterpretations appear to be willfully ignored. Several people have tried pointing out to you just how far out in left field you are, yet your last message asserts that the real problem here is that everyone is blithely saying “everything is fine” and blithely saying “this is not a disaster” when not only has no one said anything like that, the first person you quoted that spawned your first reply on this thread was from a post packed with so many disclaimers that it reads like a car commercial.

    There is a term for what you are doing. It’s called “concern trolling”.

    my comments have nothing to do with nuclear power

    First of all, your comments have nothign to do with anything anyone has actually said here. You’re concern trolling and justifying it based on imaginary posts or subquotes taken completely out of context. Secondly, you’re concern trolling specifically against nuclear power and if your not against nuclear power, I’ll eat my fucking flat hat.

  83. @102:

    Gee, Greg. How’re things going now? Fine? How’re the odds doing? Still in our favor?

    Again, what I’m objecting to is pronouncements about the situation before we really know anything.

  84. Derf@100:

    According to the NYTimes, radioactive particles including cesium-137 and iodine-121 have been detected by a helicopter 60 miles away from the reactors. Which seems to indicate that the fuel rods are getting kinda melty? (In case that less-than-rigorous scientific language doesn’t give it away, I r not nuklear xpert.)

  85. If anything this is a testament to Japanese engineering. 8.9 folks. That’s an insane amount of energy. The fact that they have something to respond with and something is left to respond to is amazing.

  86. I didn’t see anything wrong with discussing what might or might not happen before it actually happens. We have people exchanging ideas, opinions, facts and news about the nuclear reactors. No one’s getting paid to post here and this discussion isn’t going to change how nuclear power is regulated. It seems to me that the reason most people are posting here is because they enjoy a discussion like this.

    That’s why I said what I said before I was told to shut up. That in no way means I enjoy what’s happening in Japan. I was just enjoying the discussion, it was informational.

  87. Jon@111: Read the link at the bottom of my post. Or, to quote the relevant section: “The cooling could not be restored before there was some (very limited, but still) damage to the casing of some of the fuel. … 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. … Plan A had failed – cooling systems down or additional clean water unavailable – so Plan B came into effect. … In order to prevent a core meltdown, the operators started to use sea water to cool the core.”

    Also, later on: “A very small amount of Cesium was released, as well as Iodine. If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy.”

  88. People who whine and scream about how this proves that nuclear power is inherently evil and unsafe and we should all switch to hydro/geothermal/solar power would do well to try to imagine what a Richter 8.9 near, say, the Hoover Dam would do to the area immediately downstream.

    (Or for that matter, Uncle B @#37, how geologically stable is the area around your precious Three Gorges Dam again?)

  89. I Don’t Know About Anyone Else, But I could have gotten through the whole day without having a nuclear energy facility blow up.

    I could go a lot of days without someone who really knows better pushing the hyperbole button on a situation that’s awful enough without going there.

  90. Craig:

    It wasn’t hyperbole. A nuclear energy facility did, in fact, explode. And in fact I could have gone through the whole day without it doing so.

    You do seem to be implying that I suggest it exploded because of a nuclear meltdown, but no such implication existed, and I linked to the story which carried the details of the explosion in any event.

    So: No hyperbole, and a link to context for the statement.

  91. I am a former US Navy Reactor Operator, and worked at a commercial nuke plant for years. I am currently working on I&C design for new plants both in the US and China. I’m willing to field some questions, but I may not be able to answer them right away (I am at work y’know). In the meantime, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) is doing a pretty good job of collecting credible news reports on their website: http://ansnuclearcafe.org/

  92. It is not possible to be totally prepared for a worst ever natural disaster. That being said, given that this was such a large earthquake, I think the japanese did a remarkable job preparing for it. Compared to much smaller quakes around the world in the last few years the death toll here is much smaller. People may forget, but 70,000 people died in remote areas in Pakistan and over 20,000 died in China from an earthquake. That is not to mention the 7.0 quake in Haiti that killed over 200,000 people. These are much, much poorer countries than Japan so you cannot expect them to be as prepared as the Japanese.

    We should learn from the Japanese about how they prepared for natural disasters and follow their lead. They really are remarkable.

    As far as the nuclear plants. The Japanese don’t have any natural resources. They have to use Nuclear power. There are no other viable options. Maybe in the future they could consider switching to wind power or wave power, but I do not know if the technology is there yet or if there is anywhere to even put the window turbines in Japan. All that being said, I do not think these events should derail us moving forward with nuclear power plants. It means we should assess where to put them. It does not make sense to build any in California or anywhere near a fault. This is really the only practical way to reduce how much coal and natural gas we burn. Wind power does not appear to be there yet.

  93. Reuters (not always reliable) is reporting that the rods in one reactor are “fully exposed” and the official announcement has been made that they have rods melting. There is no way this will end well

  94. John@#118:

    You do seem to be implying that I suggest it exploded because of a nuclear meltdown, but no such implication existed, and I linked to the story which carried the details of the explosion in any event.

    *sigh* I thought I’d pretty explicitly said I thought “nuclear energy facility blow up” was hyperbolic. And, dude, big ups for the link but that’s really no substitute for putting that important nuance in the lead.

    BTW, let me give you a little context: Christchurch, New Zealand. Three weeks of media that, all too often, has been heavy on the colour adjectives and short on any useful information. I’m bloody lucky that all my friends and family are safe, but many of them have homes so badly damaged they’re uninhabitable. Some can be repaired, others can’t. It really does matter to draw those trivial distinctions, and do it upfront.

  95. Craig Ranapia:

    “I thought I’d pretty explicitly said I thought ‘nuclear energy facility blow up’ was hyperbolic.”

    Well, except for the part where a nuclear energy facility blew up. Which is what actually happened; there’s video of it and everything. Accurately representing an event that has occurred is not hyperbole. You may not like the characterization, but that’s a different thing than hyperbole.

    You’re not going to win this argument, Craig, so I suspect you should probably drop it.

  96. Doc Rocket science @82: “Luke@76: citation needed, and some context for relevance would be nice.”

    I was responding to 74, which ended “I’m sure all those dead people appreciate that the probabilities were on their side, and that their deaths were unlikely.”

    Examining Wikipedia’s list of civilian nuclear accidents (this page is pretty well backed up by more solid citations, btw), none of the fatalities were of the ‘unlikely’ sort, i.e. in a reactor designed in under well-established design principles for safety, with the safety procedures being followed. For example, two experimental reactors killed some of their operators. That’s not particularly likely, but it’s not of the same order of safety as a commercial plant. And in chernobyl, as had been explained, it’s more of a wonder that it lasted as long as it did. In another fatal case, it wasn’t even a reactor, but a screwup at a processing plant.

    Total deaths from civilian nuclear power from cases deemed ‘unlikely’ to cause civilian deaths, by the criteria given in-thread: zero. Maybe 1 if you count 3-mile island as unlikely and if it actually caused a death, which we’ll never know.

  97. Yes. While it’s not a Chernobyl, the facilities suffered large gas-phase explosions with hydrogen gas mixed with air. Those explosions vaporized equipment and the sheet metal outer walls of the top of the reactor buildings (not the main containment structure, but the machine room above it). They probably generated detonation pressures of around 3-400 PSI in the whole building, created obvious supersonic shockwaves, threw debris hundreds of feet, etc.

    It’s important to differentiate “Part of the reactor building exploded, but not the reactor containment or the core” from “Chernobyl”. But those were serious detonations.

    How serious?

    Those buildings are 50×50 meters, and the top part was about 20 m tall. Thats about 50,000 cubic meters. Hydrogen’s lower explosive limit is 3% by volume, or 1,500 cubic meters STP gas (that machine room isn’t pressure tight). Hydrogen’s energy of combusion is 141 Megajoules per kilogram. H2 is 2 grams/mole. 22.4 liters per mole, 44.6 moles/cubic meter, x 1,500 cubic meters is 67,000 moles of gas, or 133 kg of gas. 18,700 megajoules of energy, 4,465 kilograms of TNT equivalent.

    4.5 TONS of TNT.

    That’s the lower explosion limit for H2 gas in air; it could have been much more than that (hard to tell, nobody may ever know). Energy would max out at at a molar fraction where all the O2 in the air burns, which works out to 28%, with a total energy of about 41 tons TNT. I have no idea how to tell what the actual percentage was at the time of detonations.

    In case you’re questioning my math on this – I have done explosive engineering semiprofessionally, including fuel-air weapon engineering proposed for military applications. I could have done something wrong, including the math, but I have the engineering and science background on this. A copy of the standard textbook – Cooper’s “Explosives Engineering” textbook is at home in my quick reference pile, along with several more academic and specific textbooks on gas phase reactions, detonation energy and behavior modeling software, etc.

  98. You’re not going to win this argument, Craig, so I suspect you should probably drop it.

    Quite, John. Some folks in the media can’t tell the difference between steam and smoke. You’re not interested in making any meaningful distinction between a nuclear power plant “blowing up” and a calmer more useful reporting of what actually happened (and is awful enough). And I’m really done with blogs and media who cause needless anxiety because they forgot their sugar-free decaf; back on planet Earth, I’ve got to deal with people who have enough pain to deal with.

  99. Craig Ranapia:

    “You’re not interested in making any meaningful distinction between a nuclear power plant ‘blowing up’ and a calmer more useful reporting of what actually happened (and is awful enough).”

    Well, what actually happened in the real world is that a nuclear power plant blew up. You seem to have some definition of blowing up that does not include things genuinely exploding and being destroyed, which is an interesting definition, but not one I’m obliged to follow.

    Craig, I get that there’s apparently something going on with you stress-wise, and I’m sorry for that, but in point of fact, a nuclear facility blew up. It wasn’t a nuclear explosion, nor did I suggest it was, but it was a significant and worrisome explosion nonetheless, and that’s what I was reacting to. Again, you may not like the characterization, and that’s fine. However, it’s not incorrect. It’s merely not how you would have preferred to put it.

  100. A third explosion, this time at Unit 2. Supposedly, they’re withdrawing all but the workers actively engaged in trying to carry out cooling operations.

  101. I wish them luck with the plants – and would pray if I were a religious man.

    One thing that concerns me is the way various media seem to be reporting this: from where I sit it looks like people are all too interested in connecting the nuclear accident to the total death toll from the earthquake and tsunami.

    They’re all terrible things, but I’m worried that connecting all the deaths to the nuclear accident could set nuclear power even further back in both Japan and other countries, and that concerns me, coming as I do from the “Nuclear may not be good but the alternatives are worse,” school of thought.

  102. Now there is a fire at Unit 4. Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned that there are dangers of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles (30 kilometers) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex stay indoors or risk getting radiation sickness.

    There are also reports that the third explosion breached the containment structure of Unit 2.

  103. Radiation is reaching harmful levels now. There is reportedly a hole in the #2 reactor (reports are confused) levels are apparently 400 milisieverts. The evacuation area is 30km. I’m MUCH further away from that (1000+km, Western Japan), but I am now officially terrified.

    Someone give me facts to calm me down.

  104. 400mSv of what? The effects and risk depend on the type. Alpha particles are stopped by paper but do damage if swallowed. 1,000 mSv is when mild radiation poisoning kicks in. Wikipedia has a basic overview(under radiation poisoning) but there are a lot of variables and details that shift the odds around.
    I think you are at a pretty good distance.

  105. Fyi, the current confirmed death toll is around 6K, with another 15K missing. Officials believe that at least 10K have been killed. U.S. papers have been reporting locally-reported, confirmed-identity deaths as totals.

    I’m still missing 4 people. Prefecture officials have been very kind. If any of your other readers are still seeking friends and family, here’s a finder app: http://japan.person-finder.appspot.com/

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