6 Important Questions About the Crisis at Japanese Nuclear Power Plants

Panicking Doesn’t Help, We Need Facts

The crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plants continues, and if you’ve been paying attention to the media, things seem to be getting progressively worse. But it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, as there are many slightly contradictory reports, and a lot of speculation and fuzzy language (for example, a radiation level “thousands of times higher than normal” might not be very dangerous if the normal level is very low). I’m no expert on nuclear meltdowns, but I know a little bit, just enough to compile a list of the questions that I think are most important to answer right now. Read on for the list and my tentative answers.

What is the cooling situation in the reactor cores and storage pond? Is water still being pumped in, even if at a reduced rate?

This is a very important question because the cores are cooling down by themselves over time, but until they become cool enough to not melt through the reactor vessel, water needs to be used to dissipate that heat.

The latest reports are that seawater is still being pumped, but it is a “struggle” and they are using “temporary fire pumps”, so that’s definitely not optimal.

What kind of radioactive materials/isotopes have been released so far? Where? In what quantities?

That’s another important question, because there are different types of radiation (some are stopped by a piece of paper or surface skin, other types can go through thicker materials) and different types of radioactive isotopes; some have a very short half-life, which means that they decay very rapidly into lighter atoms, while others take a lot longer to decay.

There’s a trade off . Radioactive isotopes with a very short half-life are usually more radioactive, but they become safe much faster, while long-lived radioactive isotopes can stay radioactive for a lot longer, but they are less dangerous.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

on 15 March a dose rate of 11.9 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed. Six hours later, at 06:00 UTC on 15 March a dose rate of 0.6 millisieverts (mSv) per hour was observed.

These observations indicate that the level of radioactivity has been decreasing at the site.

As reported earlier, a 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour radiation dose observed at Fukushima Daiichi occurred between units 3 and 4. This is a high dose-level value, but it is a local value at a single location and at a certain point in time.

So while it isn’t yet clear what isotopes have been released, they probably came out when steam was vented to reduce pressure inside the containment vessel, and the dosage appears to be relatively low so far (10 mSv is the equivalent of a CT scan) and you would have to be right there to get these dosages (the power plant’s control room is heavily shielded from radiation).

What kind of radiation do they emit?

Once again, I’m no expert. But I do know that there are many kinds of ionizing radiation, and it would be important to know what type the people near the nuclear power plants are at risk of being exposed to. As you can see in the image above, alpha radiation is easily stopped and does go very far (“In general, external alpha radiation is not harmful since alpha particles are effectively shielded by a few centimeters of air, a piece of paper, or the thin layer of dead skin cells. Even touching an alpha source is usually not harmful”), but gamma rays are harder to avoid (“Gamma rays and neutrons are more penetrating, causing diffuse damage throughout the body (e.g. radiation sickness), increasing incidence of cancer rather than burns.”). See Matt’s post for more on this.

If the reactor vessel melts down, how likely is it that the molten core could get through the containment building’s floor? And if it did, what would happen?

If the molten core stays hot enough for long enough to melt through the reactor vessel (which has 6.7-inch-thick steel walls and 8.4-inch-thick steel for its roof and floor) and into the containment building, what then? My understanding is that the radioactive fuel and fission byproducts would still be shielded from the outside, but would this make it much harder to keep cooling them down and to vent steam to reduce pressure? Would it increase the radiation that could escape through vented steam and gases?

How fast are the fission byproducts cooling down?

That’s another important variable. How long until the cores are cool enough that they can’t melt through the containment layers anymore? Days? Weeks?

Are the explosions that we’ve seen so far all been caused by venting to release pressure, or are some of those uncontrolled explosions?

At high temperatures, water can split into hydrogen and oxygen, which can cause explosions, especially when the high pressure gases and steam are vented to the outside. Are the explosions we’ve seen so far all of that type (like the one at Fukushima Daiichi 2 this morning)?

This post treehugger.com writer and editor Michael Graham Richard first appeared at at the site treehugger.com.

Public domain.    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/03/questions-about-crisis-at-japan-nuclear-power-plants-nukes.php

by Michael Graham Richard, Ottawa, Canada


Green Road A.
Eric Straatsma6 years ago

TOTAL Radiation In Water Stored On Site
UNKNOWN – No estimates
TOTAL Radiation Released Into The Groundwater Under Fukushima
UNKNOWN - No estimates
NO ONE is counting the total of ALL OF THE ABOVE. No one is counting or tracking ongoing radiation releases. We are NOT counting what is in the large radioactive water storage tanks on site. We are NOT counting radioactive water that went underground, or the two nuclear explosions #3 reactor and spent fuel pool.. Both of these have way more tonnage of Plutonium and Uranium MOX fuel, about 1 million times more dangerous than plain old Chernobyl style fuel, and they went up into the air.. This is NOT in any calculations or guesses I have seen yet.

According to one expert who actually included the #3 reactor and spent fuel pool blowing up, :”under the Conservative Estimate, and using .89% Plutonium per Table 1, this would be 640 pounds of Plutonium aerosolized.” It only takes about 200 pounds of plutonium dust distributed globally to kill everyone on the planet. This very dangerous radioactive plutonium release has been totally covered up, with very good reason.
Of course, this radioactive air release is still going on, despite claims o

Green Road A.
Eric Straatsma6 years ago

Ocean Radiation Release

Fukushima already ten times worse than Chernobyl in ocean waters, suggests data
Saturday, June 11, 2011 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Learn more:http://www.naturalnews.com/032678_Fukushima_ocean.html#ixzz1P1ShowKB

Air Radiation Release

UN Agency’s Fukushima Report: “The total release amount was equal to that of Chernobyl nuclear explosion” Summary Report of RSMC Beijing on Fukushima Nuclear Accident Emergency Response, WORLD METEOROLOGICAL ORGANIZATION (United Nations), Oct. 27, 2011:


We are still NOT counting ongoing radiation releases. We are NOT counting what is in the large tanks on site. We are NOT counting radioactive water that went underground, or the two nuclear explosions #3 reactor and spent fuel pool.. Both of these have way more tonnage of Plutonium and Uranium MOX fuel, about 1 million times more dangerous than plain old Chernobyl style fuel, and they went up into the air.. This is NOT in any calculations or guesses I have seen yet.


Green Road A.
Eric Straatsma6 years ago

93 Long lived radioactive elements, 17,000 years to BILLIONS of years total decay life;
This is what you can tell your kids that you left for them to clean up, once you are gone. The Egyptian pyramids are only 5,000 years old, and the Bible is about 2,000 years old.
How much sense does it make to heat water for only 30 years with fuel that blows up and melts down (creating huge non livable zones for 50,000 years, and then have to deal with the radioactive leftovers from the spent fuel, laying around for billions of years? Do you REALLY want your kids and grandkids for infinite future generations to pay for the storage and guarding of these dangerous, terrorist inviting waste products?
More details on just 13 of the above long half life radioactive elements;
Part I http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/3047473 Elements 1-9
Part II http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/3048444 Elements 10-13

Ruth R.
Ruth R6 years ago

Thank you, shared, emailed.

Luke M.
Luke Murphy6 years ago

Luckily this doesn't sound as bad, I am confident this will will not become anything major!!!

Monique D.
Mon D6 years ago


Ira Herson
Ira Herson6 years ago

We are very lucky that we have a nuclear safety expert that surveyed the very plant some years ago. His response to the current situation has been recorded by ABC radio in Australia and is http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/03/16/3165307.htm
It is very clear and explains the science involved.
Listen to a man that actually knows the plant and the science.

Sharon K6 years ago

With the Tv Stations making this Japan nuclear situation sound as bad as possible, I took the time to look up other Nuclear Meltdowns, and the worst seemed to be Chernobyl in 1987.
From what I read. the Cores actually blew the comtainment chambers, and were expelled into the outside. To make matters worse, the people from the area, not understanding how dangerous this was, were collecting it, and attempting to sell it for money, as they were very poor. Some of the radiation from Chernobyl actually reached usa in the form of radioactive rain, but was so weakend by the time it got here, that no apparent harm was done. If you type in Chernobyl, a whole bunch of info comes up. I really object to the chaos anhd fear that the TV stations are causing among people, who in this economy do not need any more stress. However, my heart goes out to the people in Japan, and the News Media really should focus on that fact, and use their resources to help them. I do not like the prospect of any radiation coming in contact with the enviornment, however we all need to get the proper perspective on what is actually going on.

Fábula G.
Fábula G.6 years ago

As humanity we need to learn, Who wants another Chernobyl, Hiroshima, nuclear war or sort of? All are paying the price... animals, air, water, plants, human beings...absolutly all. We should use renwable energy, thats all.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

Rev Zak Z I find this very interesting and would like to learn more. Thanks.