Patterico's Pontifications


Good News: Obama Got in a Round of Golf Today

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 8:53 pm

I think I tend to resent these stories more when I am cooped all weekend working. Which, come to think of it, is about as often as this guy plays golf.

UPDATE: Link fixed. Thanks, happy.

Explosion at Nuclear Power Plant in Japan; Meltdown Feared; UPDATE: Has the Worst Passed?; UPDATE: Maybe Not: Report Says There Has Been a Meltdown

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 2:49 am

Aaron mentioned the explosion in an update to this post — but it is clearly going to be the story of the day and, with new information just breaking now, it deserves its own post:

IWAKI, Japan (AP) – An explosion at a nuclear power station tore down the walls of a building Saturday amid fears that its reactor was close to a disastrous meltdown after being hit by a powerful earthquake and tsunami. Friday’s twin disaster, which pulverized Japan’s northeastern coast, has left 574 people dead by official count, although local media reports said at least 1,300 people may have been killed.

Here is video:

As I write this, it is not clear whether the building whose walls collapsed houses the reactor. Hardly reassuring is the L.A. Times‘s statement that “[a]t least one reactor at the plant was already showing signs of a partial meltdown.”

Stay tuned. This could be ugly.

UPDATE: Allahpundit has running coverage here. This kind of thing is his specialty, so if you’re looking for continuous updates, I suggest you follow the link. There is a lot of contradictory information there, as is common with breaking stories. My interpretation of the bottom line: it looks like we are going to avoid the worst. But it’s not guaranteed.

UPDATE x2: DRJ posts in the comments:

The bad news is Japanese officials have admitted the explosion was caused by a melting reactor core, but the good news is they claim the metal containment unit is still in place. They also say the use of seawater is considered an act of “desperation” because it means the reactor will have to be scrapped.

From the link:

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said Saturday afternoon the explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could only have been caused by a meltdown of the reactor core.

The same day, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501), which runs the plant, began to flood the damaged reactor with seawater to cool it down, resorting to measures that could rust the reactor and force the utility to scrap it.

Cesium and iodine, by-products of nuclear fission, were detected around the plant, which would make the explosion the worst accident in the roughly 50-year history of Japanese nuclear power generation.

An explosion was heard near the plant’s No. 1 reactor about 3:30 p.m. and plumes of white smoke went up 10 minutes later. The ceiling of the building housing the reactor collapsed, according to information obtained by Fukushima prefectural authorities.

At a news conference Saturday night, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano discounted the possibility of a significant leak of radioactive material from the accident. “The walls of the building containing the reactor were destroyed, meaning that the metal container encasing the reactor did not explode,” Edano said

UPDATE x3: And while I was out, another report has come out saying the reactor has not been breached, but that there was a limited meltdown. (“The discovery indicates that meltdown, caused by a nuclear reaction running out of control, had indeed affected the reactor’s fuel rods – although possibly only to a limited extent.”) And this one, saying there was a partial meltdown. (“The detection of the materials, which are created following atomic fission, led Japan’s nuclear safety agency to admit the reactor had partially melted—the first such case in Japan.”)

So there you have it.

In summary, I still have no idea what’s going on — nor, it appears, does anyone else. It’s a breaking news story, and that is the nature of breaking news stories. At this point, there is no need to get carried away. And it would be especially silly to talk about what this means for the future of nuclear power before we really know what happened.

UPDATE x4: To illustrate the confusion, CNN reports at 5:48 p.m. Eastern: “A meltdown may be under way at one of Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear power reactors, an official with Japan’s nuclear and industrial safety agency told CNN Sunday” — and at 6:30 p.m. Easter: “At the moment, there is no evidence of a nuclear meltdown at one of Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear power reactors in northern Japan, Japan’s ambassador to the United States said.”

So there you have it. There is or there isn’t.

UPDATE x5: It may be helpful to define terms. Via Ace comes a report making the distinction between a core meltdown and the type suspected here: a fuel meltdown.

A meltdown occurs when the control rods fail to contain the neutron emission and the heat levels inside the reactor thus rise to a point that the fuel itself melts, generally temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing uncontrolled radiation-generating reactions and making approaching the reactor incredibly hazardous. A meltdown does not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster. As long as the reactor core, which is specifically designed to contain high levels of heat, pressure and radiation, remains intact, the melted fuel can be dealt with. If the core breaches but the containment facility built around the core remains intact, the melted fuel can still be dealt with — typically entombed within specialized concrete — but the cost and difficulty of such containment increases exponentially.

I have seen some folks confidently saying there has been no meltdown of any sort, and patting themselves on the back for their calm handling of the story. Ironically, some of them link to stories that say there has been a meltdown, albeit a fuel one. I wonder if the confusion of terminology is the problem here.

As for the claims of no meltdown at all, I suppose they could be right (and I hope they are) but I don’t think anything is clear at this point.

UPDATE x6: DRJ asks, isn’t the fuel part of the core — and isn’t the issue containment?

I really have no idea. I was going off Ace’s post, frankly. This is why English majors shouldn’t try to talk about science.

UPDATE x7: DRJ is quite right. I just read this, which appears to be a good explanation of the mechanics behind a reactor such as the one at Fukushima, together with an explanation of all the controls in place. The fuel rods actually make up the core, so when people distinguish between a “fuel meltdown” and a “core meltdown” it’s not entirely clear what they mean.

If you believe the piece, it provides reassurance that there is no Grand Disaster in the works. As I read it, the author insists that there is no release of radiation that can cause any significant health problems under these circumstances. The only thing I find confusing is reconciling the post with today’s reports of workers suffering radiation sickness.

I will probably link this piece in the latest post.

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