This is the kind of backward thinking we’ve grown to expect from congress and, more and more, from media pundits as well. It’s a sad testament to the lack of scientific knowledge in our society.
The Japanese reactors under stress are of Stage II design, meaning they use electrical pumps to circulate water for cooling. Newer, Stage III designs, use no electricity at all. New designs use convection to pump water, requiring no electro-mechanical aid because engineers finally foresaw that electricity and other mechanical backups might fail, no matter how redundant.
Such design progress is meaningless to Congressman Edward Markey, self-anointed head of the congressional tinfoil hat caucus. He wants to halt all nuclear plant plans and construction until we can prove 100% safety – a utopian pipe dream. You might recall Markey’s daily rants during the BP spill demanding that the oil industry should be stopped from all activity until they could do the impossible task of proving a negative.
Markey should lead by example. He needs to go lock himself up in a non-disclosed location and stay there until he can prove he’s 100% safe. We’d never see him again and the nation would be better off.
Meanwhile, the reactor activity in Japan is what reactors do when they fail. Exposure to the release of radiated hydrogen vapor, not always expected but certainly a possibility in any failure is about the equivalent of being on the receiving end of a dental x-ray.
To imagine what goes on in a nuclear reactor think about the average kitchen electric oven on it’s clean cycle. Dial down the heat to about 550 degrees, a little hotter than you cook at but less than the clean cycle and you are at the level a nuclear reactor operates. On failure, the fuel rods drop below the water level along with non-reactive rods to stop the ongoing chain reaction. At that point you get decay heat, which is what is transpiring in Japan now as the reactor dies. Ideally you could cool the decay heat by pumping in water but when pumps fail, the rods melt – which is not the same as a “meltdown.” Melting rods are not hot enough to pose a safety hazard.
There is no chance for the decaying rods to burn through the containment structure and zero possibility of a so-called runaway reactor. The reactor won’t explode, atomic bomb style, either.
It is a tragedy to the utility company operating the vessel but other than that, not a headline worthy event.
But, the chattering class has political agendas as well as fear and dogma to spread so you get the kind of 24-hour nonsense we’ve been reading and seeing.
Naturally, not a day can go by without an obligatory comparison to Chernobyl. That’s an illogical comparison due to the radically different design of that ill-fated plant.
The soviets used graphite for cooling instead of water. Graphite will catch on fire, water won’t. There was also no containment structure at Chernobyl. It was an accident waiting to happen and the Soviets helped it along by getting the bright idea one day to see what the reactor would do if they left it at its most unstable point for an extended period of time.
Nothing that has transpired in Japan should in any way slow or detract from building more nuclear power plants here and elsewhere. In fact, we should be fast-tracking Stage III designs to replace our aging (we have 23 Stage II designs in America) plants online now.
On a related note, everytime radiation exposure makes the news I’m reminded of Tsutomu Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi was a Japanese oil tanker designer who just happened to be in Hiroshima on business August 6, 1945. He saw the two parachutes from the atomic bomb descending on the city and was about a mile and a half from the blast’s ground zero point when it went off. Burned, wounded and now deaf in one ear, he got himself bandaged up and was back at work three days later ... in Nagasaki. This time he didn’t see the second atomic bomb drop but again he was the same distance from ground zero. While the blast knocked him down, he suffered no greater injury to himself other than a second dose of severe radiation exposure.
As you might expect, Yamaguchi developed cancer. He died of stomach cancer on January 4, 2010. He was 93.
Allan Von Werder is the Publisher of the Morgan City Daily Review.