Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From ridiculous to sublime

Time to weigh in, quickly, on the nuclear crisis in Japan.

As I commented on a link dump at Uncertain Principles that points to a half decent article that has since been moved and corrected to some degree, the news reporting about the reactor problems was truly awful for the first day or two. What an abomination.

It has, however, improved a LOT. Tonight I was stunned at how well MSNBC covered the subject. And not just with the experts, who no longer need scare quotes around their titles, but also in a lengthy intro by Rachel Maddow on her show. Yeah, she was still a bit confused by the fact that rust is oxidation (of iron) but the oxidation of zircalloy is not rust, but the presentation was not wrong and well pitched to a (scientifically illiterate) audience.

It is worth watching on Hulu or wherever they archive it.

The real key, however, is that they have real experts. I missed the name of the guy from Sandia who was on an earlier show, but they had Frank von Hippel from Princeton on the Maddow show along with some others of similar quality but whose work is not personally known to me. Clearly a whole bunch of people were as horrified as I was by the junk that was being broadcast and had the pull to get the attention of the networks and change what is out there. It probably also helped the DOE Sec Chu can teach as well as do physics, and did a good teaching job in front of Congress.

The changes are dramatic.

The comparisons to Chernobyl are now rational, rather than nonsensical.

No idiot is out there saying that a scrammed boiling water reactor will go prompt critical if it melts down. The "expert" that didn't seem to know that the heat in the shut down plant comes from internal radioactive decay of fission products is long gone, replaced by one that knows spent fuel rods are also hot -- and "hot" with radioactive elements that live just long enough to be very dangerous if they were to be released.

OK, one Congressman (who as a physicist should know better) was out confusing a civilian nuclear power program that only uses fuel under IAEA supervision with a rogue state operating a clandestine enrichment program probably designed with help from North Korea and Pakistan, but let's ignore that one.

Actual facts, like the location of the spent fuel storage pools 40 feet in the air !! ????? !! above the containment structure in an earthquake zone, are now clearly featured in the stories. Ditto for giving radiation levels in Sv rather than in "chest x-rays" (which deliver much less radiation than they used to). Even Livermore managed to get out the fact that they have a nuclear weather forecasting program for this, and other purposes.

And I am particularly impressed that we are sending some of our specialized monitoring equipment (I'd guess it is the stuff developed to look for weapons or the result of a "dirty bomb" or an event just like this one) to Japan. I hope it works as well as advertised.

That is about all that I have time for tonight, but I will try to blog about some specific details when I get a chance.

I'll close with the most important point that hasn't been emphasized in the reporting so far, and might have confused people about the extent of the radioactive plume. Radiation detection is EXTREMELY sensitive. I heard of a case where the detectors outside of a nuclear plant were set off by the alpha radiation from the Thorium and Uranium in the smoke from a coal plant that had been pushed down to the ground by an inversion layer. A nuclear carrier would have similarly sensitive monitors on the ship, so we would need to be told the level that was detected -- not just the fact that radiation was detected -- to get a sense of what our carrier picked up off the coast of Japan. Further, it can be far more discriminating that a simple Geiger counter. You can tell what radioactive isotope is out there as well as how much, and the specific isotopes tell you where they came from. That is how people know fuel elements have been damaged without being able to see inside the plant.


CarlBrannen said...

There's been a run on KI pills here in Seattle. Someone should explain that the potassium in the pills is probably more of a radiation danger than the stuff that could get her across the wide Pacific.

Doctor Pion said...

Very funny, and true!

Someone should also explain that I-131 was a much greater risk in the Ukraine because their diet was low in Iodine, so their bodies eagerly absorbed the new supply from the reactor. The risk should be lower in places like Japan and Seattle where seafood is a common part of the diet.

CarlBrannen said...

And that the US blew up 105 nukes in the Pacific (not counting on Japan) so it's not like a little reactor steam is going to make a difference. Uh, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Proving_Grounds

Doctor Pion said...

Absolutely, as I happen to know very well for reasons I won't go into here. We vaporized interesting quantities of Pu and sent it off into the stratosphere, both there and in the US.

However, it is also the case that truly impressive quantities of "spent" and active fuel rods are at this plant (over 1000 tons), half of which is at serious risk. Some might be just barely contained, given the 40 rem/hr dose rates reported at the plant.

CarlBrannen said...

What I heard is that the 40 rem/hr dose rates existed only for a few minutes at a time. Immediately after a release and immediately before the wind disperses them.

But for other than a few hundred people, it's probably impossible to know what is going on there. Too much information being passed from person to person. Like the child's game of "telephone", or as we called it back when I was a kid, "telegraph".

CarlBrannen said...

Ah, here we go: "A single very brief spike of 400 millisievert/hr, recorded by an instrument near reactor No 3 following an explosion on Tuesday, is still being widely reported as if it were the current level at the site, probably not helped by a poorly translated and somewhat belated TEPCO press release issued yesterday, which mentions it. Nonetheless, levels even adjacent to the stricken reactors have seldom been above 4 millisievert/hr, and much lower elsewhere in the plant. Higher levels are detected by aircraft above the buildings because the steel-lined rooftop pools are shining short-ranged radiation straight up: this is why helicopters do not linger above them."


Doctor Pion said...

Thanks for that link. I've got some others I should also post.

That is the event I was talking about. I know where you encounter 40 R/hr in the experimental nuclear business, so even a transient cloud registered on a local meter (or shining straight up) is indicative of a significant problem with the fuel.

Similarly, 0.4 R/hr in the plant is not my idea of a work area. Worse it if happens to be at the plant boundary, which is where they are required to report radiation levels on a regular basis.