An educated opinion on Japan’s nuclear problem

It is probably not common knowledge that I used to work at a nuclear power plant. This fact is probably scary enough as it is, but trust me when I tell you that the situation in Japan is worse than you think it is.

Any time you hear the words “spent fuel rods” and “uncovered” in the same sentence, as I saw earlier today in a CNN article, then you are dealing with the potential to depopulate LARGE portions of the nearby geography. Dumping sea water onto a nuclear reactor is an act of EXTREME desperation. I am very concerned about this. Not for my OWN safety, but because a lot of people are very close to wishing they had died in the earthquake/tsunami.

ALSO, and this is speculation on my part… it seems to me that the Japanese government is understating the problem. The word “meltdown” had been thrown about entirely to freely without much explanation of what it means. I see scientists on CNN almost 24/7 explaining how earthquakes and tidal waves work… but there is a noticeable lack of folks describing in detail just how screwed the people working in/around those reactors really are. The phrase “walking dead” comes to mind. Let’s hope they get a handle on this thing.


  1. WeREwOLf, March 15, 2011:


    Sorry, had to be done. Back on topic…

    Maybe I’m reading unreliable sources, or maybe it depends on one’s level of paranoia (pessimism?), I dunno, but here’s what I’ve “learned” about the topic since the disaster began. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong, ’cause I’m no expert of course.

    Reactor cores operate at about 550°F — which incidentally is only 50° hotter than the ovens we baked pizza in back when I delivered pizza in the 90’s; I thought they’d be much hotter. Darn hot, but not enough to melt stone or anything. (I’ll get back to this.)

    Japan’s Fukushima reactors are Generation II, which means they have the outer containment structure made of concrete that is around 10 feet thick, while the core itself is lined with steel. (It’s worth noting that the melting point of most types of steel is over 2500°F, well above the temperature inside the core.)

    In those Gen II reactors, whenever anything out of the ordinary happens, the control rods drop which puts a stop to the reaction. Any heat left over is residual, due in part to the radioactive material, and will take more than a week to cool down. This is when it’s important to keep dumping water on the rods so they don’t overheat during this time. We keep seeing in the news that they’re using sea water due to its proximity and abundance; while that’s great and all, you can be sure those reactors will never be restarted, due to the water’s corrosive effects. At this point, it’s purely a last-ditch disaster-prevention measure — those reactors are, obviously, paperweights by now. Those Gen II reactors rely on electric pumps to keep the cooling system flowing (as opposed to new Gen III’s which will use convection to circulate water without pumps); those pumps were knocked out by the tsunami, so dumping ocean water into the reactor makes a lot of sense when your priorities are minimizing the risk to the public, reactor salvage be damned. I dunno that I’d call that “extreme desperation”, but rather just good sense: sacrifice the reactors in order to save lives.

    Anyway, if the coolant falls below the level of the fuel rods, they’ll be exposed and consequently overheat and melt down to the floor of a reactor… hence the term “meltdown”. Now, as I understand it, a meltdown doesn’t necessarily mean massive amounts of radiation pouring into the air; it just means the fuel rods have melted down. Whether the results are catastrophic or not depends on whether the melted rods melt through the floor of the reactor casing. As mentioned earlier, they’re encased in very thick steel and concrete *even after* the outer containment structures were blown away by the hydrogen explosions. Seems very unlikely that the melted fuel rods will melt through the floor of the reactor and into the environment outside. The massive amounts of radiation inside the cores will likely be contained, barring any additional unforeseen disasters.

    (It should be noted here that Chernobyl’s disastrous meltdown was caused in part because they used graphite instead of water to control the reaction, which meant that while it had a reaction-control mechanism, it effectively had no liquid cooling mechanism whatsoever; the graphite caught fire and burned for days, whereas water doesn’t ignite below 5000°F, nearly 10 times the temperature inside the Fukushima cores.)

    Frankly, I think it’s a testament to the design of those old Gen II reactors that these things have withstood a 9.0 earthquake AND a raging tsunami and haven’t (yet) breached containment to the point of posingi a health risk greater than a couple dental x-rays.

    Ok, so that’s my layman’s understanding of the situation. Go ahead and tear it apart, I’m ready for it.

    As for the so-called experts describing earthquakes and tsunamis… those interviews are a joke. Their explanations were so dumbed down and over-simplified that I almost thought I was watching some 4th-grade introductory classes on plate tectonics and fluid dynamics. Nothing worthwhile there whatsoever, not even anything that could give John Q. Public a reasonable layman’s understanding of the events; some of them even gave the WRONG idea. Rather sad, actually. But I digress.

  2. DarkIcon, March 15, 2011:

    You are mostly correct, but the magnitude of the danger is largely unknown by people who haven’t worked around nuclear material.

    Lemme do some ‘splaining.

    My concerns aren’t with the nuclear reactions themselves which, as you pointed out, shut themselves down the instant the earthquake happened. My concern is with the fuel… but NOT necessarily the fuel that is in the reactor core. I’m about 99% sure you know this already, but for the people that don’t: Nuclear fuel rods are radioactive. Duh. A brand new rod isn’t something you will want to have sitting around in your house, but it isn’t the Living Wrath of God or anything. But once a fuel rod has been “spent”, then it becomes something else entirely. Just one of these bad boys will go full Ark Of the Covenant on your ass from half a football field away. (God: “wtf happened to your FACE!!?”). These things are kept in nice dark, quiet pools in the reactor building. The rods, the pool, the water in the pool, the machinery that circulates and filters the water in the pool, the dust in the f’ing AIR in room with the pool… none of this is meant to come into contact with anything outside the reactor building. Without the constant water circulation and cooling, the water will evaporate and the spent fuel rods in the pool will start burning.

    Just how bad would that be? It depends on how those reactor buildings are designed and what, if any, systems are still operational. In a perfect world, everything would be contained in the reactor building(s)… at least long enough for some pre-planned contingency to be activated. I have no idea what such a contingency would be, but hey, I got out of that business a long time ago.

    But what about an imperfect world? A world where a blast blew the top off of one containment building and “may have affected the integrity of…primary containment vessel.” Where safety systems have already failed and where there are already fires inside the spent fuel pool area? In a worst case scenario, containment is broken, spent rods start sizzling, and smoke/gasses/dust from burning fuel rods (and other things) go into the air. I’m not even talking about a Billowing Cloud of Black Death here (although that is not an impossibility). All it takes it a little bit of the wrong stuff to get into the environment. Almost everything in those reactor buildings is the “wrong stuff”. Wherever that smoke goes, it is the End of Days. And this has nothing to do with what’s going on in the reactor. Fortunately most of the areas likely to be impacted have already been evacuated, but it still won’t be a fun time. But the last I heard, the only thing keeping those spent rods covered were teams of guys with fire hoses. Better than nothing, but clearly not good.

    By the way; I’m not saying the plants were poorly designed. I’m just saying that God is the ultimate test case. Things that are designed to never fail… will fail. Designing a plant for a 10,000-year earthquake just means you’re gambling that you (and your family) won’t be around when the dice come up snake-eyes. Then you will find yourself using sea water and fire hoses to prevent a disaster. And this is from a person who SUPPORTS nuclear power, even now.

  3. nate, March 16, 2011:

    I remember that you were once in the power industry, but didn’t know about it being at a nuke plant.

    Most of my current reading up on these plants must have come from the same sources as Werewolf’s information. (By the way WW, if you ever get back to writing the Werewolf Chronicles please be sure to mention it here).

    Just this morning I was reading an article about the 50 people who have elected to stay and fight the ongoing dangers. It’s not being reported as such yet, but I’m pretty certain these 50 heroic individuals are in the process of giving the ultimate sacrifice. FWIW, my prayers are with them and their families.

    I’ve also heard that this event is putting a stop to the nuclear resurgence in the USA that was just beginning to pick up steam. The short-sightedness of people never ceases to amaze me. The nuke plants we currently have up and running, like these over in Japan, are all a few decades old by now. That means they are nearing the end of their design life. I read somewhere that at least one of the reactors at Fukushima was slated to end service in the next year or two. Building a new facility is a time consuming task. If we don’t start building them a decade ago (that’s right, past tense) we will not be able to build them fast enough to replace ageing reactors when they are shut down. That means we either continue running them (and blindly ingoring their age), we find another form of energy, we quit using energy, or we pay much more than we currently do.

    From what little reading I’ve done over the years, there are now designs out there that use much more passive methods to keep things cool.

    I guess I’m rambling a bit here. Sorry. Too much going on to keep track of it all.

    Bottom line: The ongoing events in Japan will be with us for quite a while yet, and have impact for decades to come.

  4. DarkIcon, March 16, 2011:

    A few other points:

    1) I didn’t know Japan still had an emperor!

    2) Quote: “News of the blaze renewed concern over spent fuel rods sitting in an uncovered pool inside, which would release dangerous radiation if they caught fire.”
    This is my whole point. Most lay people have no idea just how scary this is. I do.

    3) Quote:”Tests find traces of radiation in tap water 50 miles from Japan’s damaged nuclear plant, government says.” Ditto my previous remark. This is scary not because of the radiation that is there, which, admittedly, is just ‘traces’, but because it demonstrates just how far this could go if they don’t get a handle on things. When I mentioned large sections of the landscape depopulated, this is what I meant.

    4) My comment about the “walking dead” was addressing just what nate said. The workers at that plant have either ALREADY received lethal doses, or are in the process of receiving them as they work.

  5. WeREwOLf, March 16, 2011:

    Thanks for the elucidation. I figured that, given your real-world experience and level of alarm, there must be some things I was missing that you’d be able to fill in for me. I didn’t realize just HOW dangerous those spent fuel rods can be. Scary shit, man.

    Also, I too did not know you worked in a nuke plant; you only said you were an engineer with the power company. Slight understatement on your part. :)

    @Nate: Um, Werewolf Chronicles? You mean that short intro story I had on my main page for a while a few years ago? Honestly, I never really intended to expand on that as a full-fledged work of fiction; it was just a fun way to hook people into checking out my site at the time. But since you bring it up — hell, the fact that anyone REMEMBERS it — maybe I’ll do more with it at some point.

    If that’s not what you’re referring to, then… um, I musta been drunk at the time I wrote whatever it is you’re talking about.

    But don’t worry, the Werewolf Experiments will live again. It just won’t be focused (much) on written fiction.

  6. nate, March 16, 2011:

    Werewolf: Dammit, that intro story was EXACTLY was I was referring to. It was so good I was hoping to see some more of it, and since DI’s writing has been on hiatus for a while now I’m really starting to look around for something decent to keep my attention. Oh well, life goes on.

    Those 50 workers are real heroes. Doing something when it MIGHT end up killing you is one thing, but doing it when you KNOW it will is quite another.

  7. DarkIcon, March 16, 2011:

    When I was a college student I spent a few semesters as a co-op student (essentially a paid intern) at a nuclear plant run by the local utility. It isn’t part of my ‘official’ adult career as a distribution engineer, but you learn pretty quick what to be afraid of.

    Well the news media isn’t helping, especially since certain words they are using have different meanings to people with nuclear experience. A perfect example is the quote I used about the fuel rods begin uncovered. What they PROBABLY meant is that the spent fuel pools don’t have a cover over them… they are exposed to open air just like a swimming pool. This is how they are DESIGNED, at least in the US. The rods themselves are “covered” by the water in the pool, and the reactor building is the cover for the pool itself. Again, this is the way it is supposed to be (at least here in the US). Now, in at least one case, the reactor building doesn’t have a roof any more. This is incredibly bad, but not catastrophic. But when someone with nuclear experience hears “uncovered fuel rods”, we think they mean that the spent rods themselves no longer have a covering of water. THIS is catastrophic. The fact that guys with fire hoses are the only thing keeping the first definition from turning into the second is… well, you know.

  8. epm, March 16, 2011:

    Interesting. Nuclear energy was used for a while here in Brasil during the military regime, but we built only two or three reactors and stopped. Patially due to problems with nuclear waste.
    Due to stupid bureaucrats some Cesium from medical facilities ended in a commom dumpster and people that live from colecting and reusing trash died ugly deaths. This probably stopped a program that was already dying.
    Anyway, what is happening in Japan is caused by nature, what is happening in Libya is not. I am much more worried about Libya and what it teaches us about popular revolutions in our times (they are impossible if the dictator really wants to kill as many as needed).
    I do not blame the UN and the US for not interfeering, but it is sad to know what will happen when Ghadafi takes the country back.
    OK, lesson learned: if you:
    1- are a dictator.
    2- have money.
    3 -the majority of the population is against you.
    4 – The military is starting to revolt.
    All you have to do is:
    1- Hire foreign mercenaries to keep the military in place and to shoot the peacifull demonstrations.
    2- Threaten the families of your soldiers or otherwise convince them to kill the population.
    3 – If 2 fails, sent mercenaries in airplanes to do the job.
    4 – To put a cherry on the cake, give the police, disguised as your “civilian followers” weapons and tell them to kill anyone that opposes you.
    5 – Do not forget to arrest and torture anyone that appears at the hospitals with gun wounds.
    Not only dictators, but every oligarchy in the world is learning from Ghadafi. If the people get too difficult to deal with, now you already know that you can kill them all.

  9. WeREwOLf, March 16, 2011:

    “I do not blame the UN and the US for not interfeering”

    I think we should just agree to disagree here, because I DO hold them accountable for their lack of action. I have a very strong opinion on this matter, but it would take a rather long diatribe to explain why I feel the way I do about it.

    Suffice it to say, every leader in the democratic Western world should feel utterly ashamed right now. It’s a colossal disgrace that they fret over policy and political fallout so much that by the time they even BEGIN to entertain the possibility of assisting the anti-Qaddafi rebels, it’s already too late — the rebellion is being slaughtered.

    Damn… here I go, and I wanted to keep this short. I’ll just shut up now.

  10. WeREwOLf, March 16, 2011:

    Well shit!

    “There is no water left in the spent fuel pool of reactor No. 4 at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, resulting in “extremely high” radiation levels”

    (Yeah, I know, Fox News is the devil, blah blah. Funny how the first few hits that came up when Googling for “japan reactor spent fuel rod water” were right-wing news agencies… but that’s another story.)

    So, that shit’s actually goin’ down right now. Damn. Just… damn.

  11. DarkIcon, March 16, 2011:

    Normally I LIKE being right. Not this time.

    The shit has officially hit the fan now. Despite what the TV news may or may not be saying… everybody that is attempting to put out those fires is a walking corpse at this point. They all probably knew this when they went in, but I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.

    If the rods themselves have started to burn… Jesus.

    I am going to ASSUME that they have some sort of plan to deal with this. I’m very interested to know what it is. If they dump water on this mess from above then the resulting steam and runoff will contain dust and fragments that will kill people. They might be able to contain the runoff… but how do you contain air in a building that has no roof? But if that puts out the fire, maybe it is an acceptable risk. I dunno. I’m gonna go watch some news.

  12. epm, March 17, 2011:

    Well, add some helicopter pilots to the walking dead list.
    A lot of heroes here.
    And in Lybia to.
    Dead heroes.

  13. nate, April 7, 2011:

    I’m only posting this here becuase it’s the latest topical thread.

  14. nate, April 11, 2011:

    Last night I watched a movie titled The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu. I couldn’t figure out if it was a horror or a comedy. The acting was poor, but the plot was pretty decent. An artifact that would release Cthulhu is discovered. To make it work, the second piece must be joined to the first. The second piece is in the posession of a secret society, and they are tasked with getting it into the hands of the last living descendant of H. P. Lovecraft, as he is the only one who can withstand the powers of the old ones.

    As I said, the acting was poor the overall the story was ok. I think I’d rate this one about 5 out of 10 overall, and maybe as high as 7 out of 10 if you only consider the Lovecraftian elements.

  15. WeREwOLf, April 12, 2011:

    That’s an interesting take, pulling the writer himself into his stories as if he were a character within them. Kinda reminds me of that movie “Time After Time” where H.G.Wells follows Jack the Ripper into the modern day after Jack uses Wells’ time machine.

    Then again, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this premise elsewhere as well…

  16. nate, April 18, 2011:

    While waiting for the continuation of In Deed, I went back and read (once again) The Expedition. It’s probably my favorite DI story. One thing that struck me this time though is a questions about the Overseers. If the gold plate creature is supposed to bond with the carrion eaters to make an overseer, why did Chthrain/Park teleport humans from the surface for use as overseers instead of the carrion eaters? Apparently the armor creature works with pretty much any biped, but wasn’t it meant for use with the carrion eaters?

    I’d really like to have the story of how that Chthrain city beacme abandoned…

  17. DarkIcon, April 26, 2011:

    The honest truth is I’m not exactly sure why Park did that. My first thought is that at that moment, the possessed Park knew *exactly* where there were large numbers of humans for the taking, but the carrion eaters may have relocated since the original abandonment of the city. My second thought involves information that was never revealed in the story: the Cthrain in question was unstable from eons of imprisonment and couldn’t be expected to take logical decisions. AND, human beings were partially responsible for what happened to the city, so any Cthrain, sane or not, might harbor a bit of resentment for the species.

    I’m sure the real answer is somewhere in there.

    As for the history of the city, there was going to be such a story. A very important one, in fact.
    Might still be… who knows.

  18. nate, April 27, 2011:

    One more pair of questions, and then I’ll try to hold off on asking more for a while.

    1. Is this the city that J’hasp is originally from, or was there another Cthrain city? I seem to recall something about there being at least 3 cities.

    2. In one of the early December stories, N”doki mentions that there is something underneath Montfort. He’s sent spirits to check it out, but they haven’t returned. I’m pretty sure that was a reference to the Cthrain city from The Expedition, but wouldn’t mind a confirmation.

    Work is getting scarce for me, so there’s a good chance I’ll need something to occupy some of my time. I might be going back and reading your stories again. There just isn’t anything else much out there that I can really get into.

  19. DarkIcon, April 27, 2011:

    1) J’Hasp isn’t from any of them. There weren’t any actual slaves in the city in Expedition, so the slave caste must have relocated when the city was abandoned. Some of them ended up near the arctic regions, and others inhabit an island somewhere (for reasons that escape me at the moment). Unless you meant was J’Hasp *descended* from slaves in that city, in which case the answer is yes.
    2) I can’t remember.

  20. nate, August 22, 2013:

    Still going on, but most people have forgotten it.

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