Update on the situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant March 15, 2011Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Physics, Science, Uncategorized.
The situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant remains fluid, but it makes sense to do an update. It turns out that the situation is more challenging then I originally thought. To recreate what is happening (based mainly on TEPCo’s press releases and Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) press releases), let us take a look at the Mark 1 BWR reactor (for a short description of physics of the nuclear power generation and schematics, please see my earlier post):
This picture was modified (by me) from the materials provided by Department of Energy’s Nuclear Regulatory Comission’s (NRC) website. It is Mark-1 BWR-type nuclear power reactor supplied by General Electric.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant operates six reactors, Units 1, 2 and 6 are supplied by General Electric (Unit 1 is the oldest, built in the 70’s — I’ve heard it was supposed to be decommissioned this Spring), while Units 3-5 are supplied by Toshiba and Hitachi. So, what is happening there?
As you already know, the magnitude 9.0 on Richter’s scale earthquake hit Japan. The reactors at the Fukushima plant were designed to withstand the 8.2 magnitude quake. Nevertheless, the structures held (note that the Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that 9.0 earthquake releases 10 times energy than 8.0). Since Japan is located in seismically-active zone, there exist provisions on what to do in case of one, especially for the nuclear power stations.Reactors 1-3 were operational at the time of the earthquake, while reactors 4-6 were in a shutdown mode.
So, first and foremost, control rods (containing boron, neutron-absorbing material) were automatically inserted. According to TEPCo’s press release, this was done successfully at all three units that were in operation. There was an alarm on Unit 1 that one of the rods was not fully inserted. The alarm then went away. It is now believed that all control rods were fully inserted and chain reaction in fuel assemblies was stopped. Even after this, one must keep circulating water in order to continue cooling fuel assemblies due to the heat produced by decays of nuclear reaction products in the fuel rods. It needs to be done for several days.
It appears that over the course of three days reactor cooling systems kept failing, which resulted in increasing steam pressure in the reactor pressure vessel (see the picture above). In this case you really don’t want to keep the pressure rising, as it eventually would simply blow up the containment vessel and you’d get pretty much what happened in Chernobyl. So, the idea is to gradually release pressure by disposing the (slightly radioactive) steam through the vent line (see above picture). The steam is only slightly radioactive because one is using purified water, which does not get activated by the radiation from the fuel assemblies. This was done at all three units. You have to still keep cooling the core, which was done at Units 1 and 3 with injection of seawater into the Primary Containment Vessel and at Unit 2 with seawater injection into the Reactor Pressure Vessel. Injecting seawater is a desperate move, as it contains salt and other staff that can get activated. Which means that the reactor will be decommissioned regardless of whether there is a meltdown or not. Along with seawater, they injected boric acid to capture neutrons.
Now, if the cooling is ineffective (as it appears is at Fukushima) and you keep disposing steam, you lose the amount of water you have in your reactor (think of a boiling teapot). This leads to water levels in the reactor dropping to the point that the fuel assemblies get exposed to steam. This is what happened at Fukushima. This is bad, because this drops cooling efficiency and fuel rods start to heat up (recall the decays of radioactive decay products that are still going on). At some point, zirconium in the ziralloy (the alloy of zirconium and tin that makes up the fuel rod casings) starts react with water vapor. Here is the chemical reaction:
2 H20 + Zr = 2 H2 + Zr O2 + energy
which means that you start producing hydrogen (H2), some of which will escape into the reactor building. Most likely, escaped hydrogen exploded in units 1-3, blowing off the roofs of the reactor building hosting Unit 1, 2, and 3, like this:
This picture is done by the local TV station and posted on Wikipedia. According to the power station owners, the containment vessels are still intact, which is precisely what they are designed to do. Let’s hope that this is an accurate assessment.
Now, if there is a meltdown (fuel rods are damaged), some of the reaction products might get into the atmosphere (the troubling news is that the monitoring stations did detect small amounts of iodine nearby the reactor). The most immediate concern are radioactive Iodine (half-life of 8 days) and Cesium (half-life is 30 years). Iodine can accumulate in human’s thyroid gland – so the first line of defense is to saturate the gland with non-radioactive Iodine. This is why the population around the station is given iodine tablets as a precaution. The detected amounts of iodine are not of a concern for the US West Coast (too far).
In the case of a serious meltdown, the melted fuel will likely remain in the reactor containment below the rector pressure vessel. This would be bad, but still nowhere near Chernobyl’s explosion. BTW, I was on a school trip in Kiev when the Chernobyl power station blew up. I had to bury my shoes because the radioactivity levels on them were too high (dust)…
To add to the problem, rector unit 4 (which was not operational at the time of an earthquake) developed problems of its own. In particular, it appears that the personnel missed that the water level in the spent fuel pool came down. This exposed spent fuel rods that contain more long-lived radioactive isotopes. You want to keep spent fuel rods in the water to cool them, as the decays still produce heat. In this case, usual convection cooling (warm water is rising and is replaced by cooler water) is sufficient to keep them cool. That is, if there is water! There was report of a fire at the spent fuel pond. This might indicated that the water level in the pool went down and spent fuel caught on fire. This might be bad, as this would release radioactive material in the air. Japanese scientists monitor the situation.
I’ll try to keep you posted as well.