Monday, March 14, 2011

On nuclear scares

Let me say this once and for all: Fukushima will not be a Chernobyl 2.

And I'm not just saying this to make you (or me) feel better. I say it based on information provided to me by Japanese authorities, and analyses of this info from specialists from several diplomatic missions in Tokyo. I learned more abour nuclear physics (chemistry?) yesterday than I ever wanted to. Let me try to put it in layman's terms, as it has been explained to me.

First of all, the Fukushima reactors do not contain burnable material. The problem in Chernobyl was that the reactor overheated, started a fire which burned for days, and the smoke from the fire spread radioactive material over vast areas. In Fukushima, no such fire is possible.

Secondly, the explosions that have occurred were scary, but not as dramatical as certain news channels (and Twitter) claimed. It was not - I repeat not - a nuclear explosion, and it did not take place in the actual reactor. During a controlled venting of the containment vessel for the reactor in Unit 1 of the Fukushima power plant, hydrogen gas leaked. This gas is explosive when in contact with oxygen. Thus when it leaked further into the operational floor of the unit, it came in contact with the air there, and exploded. This is what blew the roof off the building. Four people were injured, and some (but very little) radioactive material was released, in amounts so small that it amounts to no more than what you are exposed to during a regular x-ray. Also, the containment vessel of the reactor is intact and suffered no major damage, and there is no indication that the actual nuclear core is damaged. It does appear that the second explosion (Unit 3) was similar (and this time expected, although obviously still not wanted) to the first one, and we have received no indication that the situation is more severe as a result of the second explosion. 

Both the reactors have also been cooled down, by use of seawater. This means two things: first of all, the reactor is forever ruined, and cannot be put to further use. This is doubtlessly a tough decision to make, not only because of the value of the reactor itself, but also because the temporary termination of the nuclear power plants have created a power shortage here, and that in turn affects the reactors that depend on pumps to cool it down.

Secondly, it poses challenges because there now will be contaminated sea water that cannot be returned to the sea. Japanese authorites have confirmed they will not do that.

These are severe problems, and Japanese authorities are aware of them - but they are still not in the Chernobyl range. We have all seen disaster movies. It is easy to imagine a "worst case scenario" much more bleak than what actually is likely, or even possible. I have asked our expert all sorts of questions, ranging from what the actual (as opposed to media) worst case scenario is; how likely this is; (selfishly) whether this would affect Tokyo; and so on.

His answers have been reassuring. He does not believe an actual meltdown will happen, based on the current information we have available. It seems that the reactors have been cooled down, and they are monitoring further activity. The sea water that has been used to cool down the reactors have been infused with borom, which kills nuclear reactions. Both of these things are good news, since it decreases the likelyhood of a meltown.

Even if a meltdown were to happen, though, the effect would be much smaller than Chernobyl. At the moment the emissions we should worry the most about are probably the contaminated sea water and how it is being handled.

Because of the nuclear power plant shut-downs Japan is facing an energy crisis. We are urged to save power, and the energy company has organized "brownouts" - rotating blackouts to ration power. This is inconvenient, but again I am fortunate to be at the embassy where we have a generator so that we can keep contact with the world. For the time being, I have no plans of leaving Tokyo.

As you may have noticed, I've returned to my regular "on"-titles today. Not because I don't believe we are still very much in a state of emergency - we are - but we still have to try to move towards some sort of normalcy, or we wouldn't be able to cope. The last few days I've had very little sleep, I've been eating irregularly, and I've been under more stress than I've experienced in my lifetime. The combination is not the best; like everyone else here I am exhausted. I try to look at the Japanese. They are worried too - obviously - but they are handing this very well. They go about with their usual business if possible, and listen to authorities for advice. Training since primary school and an orderly nature helps. The only people I've seen freaking out over any of this, have been foreigners. I believe the rest of the world has much to learn from Japan when it comes to coping with crisis.

And yet. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. No, I don't believe we face nuclear meltdown. But yes, it is a grim situation. Despite my rational explanation above, I cannot pretend that I am not affected. It feels oddly like living in the aforementioned disaster movie. I feel that we by now have come to the stage where either a superhero or a rescue team of astronauts or something should arrive and save the day. I'm about ready for the end credits.


welcome to my world of poetry said...

Thank you for your most detailed post. I do hope some sort of normality can be maintained but I'm sure things must be very bleak and so upsetting to see.
Take care of yourself and also your family. We are all thinking of you.

The Words Crafter said...

You know, the news does like to sensationalize things....

Your explanation makes me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But like you said, it's still a grim situation.

Stay safe!

sue said...

It's good to know our national broadcaster tried to educate us with a similar rational description of the state of affairs as you explained with the reactor.

I'm pleased to see "on" is back; a very positive move toward a sense of normality (the new normal?).
Your post is excellent Mari, especially given the stress levels, lack of sleep and irregular sustenance. Please try to look after yourself, and give yourself's been an extraordinarily tough start to your new job.

Sending thoughts and hugs where appropriate to you, your colleagues, and all those with whom you come in contact. And yes, I too believe we can learn a huge amount from how the Japanese are tackling this crisis.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Experts say it won't be another Chernobyl because the reactors are underground as well. It just sounds terrifying to the world.
Wish the news we were getting here was more complete. They report on a situation but never get back to the resolution. Still haven't heard anything about the town missing half (9500) its population.

Jan Morrison said...

Mari- thanks for this post. It is your usual clear and non-panicky missive - perhaps you are Japanese?
As I talk about on my blog today, it takes awhile for a huge tragedy to lodge in my heart - I guess I'm big on denial in the early days - I continue to do tonglen for all affected by this event and I cherish each beauty as it presents itself on my path. Loving you across the water which as you know is no distance at all for love.

Liz P said...

Thanks for the information. Glad to hear that the nuclear situation is not as bad as it seemed, but still a terrible situation. My thoughts are with you and everyone else affected by this whole disaster.

I agree with sue's comment about learning from how the Japanese have been handling the crisis. You wouldn't see the same reaction in the States.

Michelle Gregory said...

i'm one of those people who try to not watch the news because reading about the disasters all over the world is too hard on my sensitive heart. on the other hand, "knowing" someone who's there makes this more personal and thereby, more painful. i'm glad you're ok. i appreciate your updates and information on what's really happening. i hope you get some sleep soon. praying for you and the people of Japan.

Jules said...

Reporting just the facts as they are presented is all we need, Thank You! Please hang in there and take care of yourself best you can. And most definitely the world could learn a lot from Japan.
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Hannah Kincade said...

Thank you so much for clearing things up and giving us the facts. It's nice to have more information.

Kelly said...

I really appreciate you posting this. It's hard to know what to believe from the mainstream media. You've answered some questions I've had, especially about the seawater. Thanks!

LTM said...

I wish there was some way you could take a trip home while all of this settles down... :o\ Take care of yourself! Are you able to work or are you just sitting, waiting? ((hugs))

Stacy Gail said...

What a great -- and totally calm -- post. My friends and I been talking about the stoicism of the Japanese people and wondering what our (crazy Texas) reactions would most likely be. We came to the conclusion that as we're all addicted to drama, our behavior would be of the scream-and-soil-oneself variety. Makes me think we all have a lot to learn.

Thanks for this great blog. Stay safe!

Lazarus Lupin said...

In a way this is something of an odd relief. We are focusing on this plant and not on the thousands dead. I think its somewhat of a coping mechanism. As long as we are still in crisis mode we can't mourn.

Thank you for your wonderful and insightful post.

Lazarus lupin
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jfe said...

Became aware of your blog like a week ago. It was like a digression in a posting at What.CD.

Foreigners leaving Japan (including journalists) seem to be the norm now.

Uncertainty rule :(

Perez said...

Well written post. Thanks for the information. I'd be curious about their use of boron in reducing radiation.
By the way, I ran across a bit of levity when searching this morning - "The Boron Song" sung by an up-and-coming female scientist:

Cruella Collett said...

I couldn't really hope to go back and reply to all these wonderful comments so long after (and I couldn't really hope that anyone would stop by to check for replies), and besides - I feel like some of the things I said here have changed with the continued development of nuclear scares (and media hype) over the last week(s? How long? Time stopped on 11 March for my part). However, I do feel the need to say this:

Perez: I'd be curious too. Unfortunately my extended knowledge on nuclearism begun and ended with this post. Hopefully the people STILL trying to fix the reactors over there know more about this than I do. It sucks being back outside of the information loop...

And the boron song rocks! Or raps, actually.

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