Japanese Nuclear Disaster

A March 12 explosion at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, appears to have caused a reactor meltdown.

The biggest news, by far, right now is the devastation in Japan caused by the earthquake-tsunami double disaster and, in particular, the damage done to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma. I’ll let Dave and Alex, both of whom know more about the issues than I do, weigh in on the latter but STRATFOR has what appears to be a good primer.

Red Alert: Nuclear Meltdown at Quake-Damaged Japanese Plant

A March 12 explosion at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, appears to have caused a reactor meltdown.

The key piece of technology in a nuclear reactor is the control rods. Nuclear fuel generates neutrons; controlling the flow and production rate of these neutrons is what generates heat, and from the heat, electricity. Control rods absorb neutrons — the rods slide in and out of the fuel mass to regulate neutron emission, and with it, heat and electricity generation.

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.

However, the earthquake in Japan, in addition to damaging the ability of the control rods to regulate the fuel — and the reactor’s coolant system — appears to have damaged the containment facility, and the explosion almost certainly did. There have been reports of “white smoke,” perhaps burning concrete, coming from the scene of the explosion, indicating a containment breach and the almost certain escape of significant amounts of radiation.

At this point, events in Japan bear many similarities to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Reports indicate that up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) of the reactor fuel was exposed. The reactor fuel appears to have at least partially melted, and the subsequent explosion has shattered the walls and roof of the containment vessel — and likely the remaining useful parts of the control and coolant systems.

And so now the question is simple: Did the floor of the containment vessel crack? If not, the situation can still be salvaged by somehow re-containing the nuclear core. But if the floor has cracked, it is highly likely that the melting fuel will burn through the floor of the containment system and enter the ground. This has never happened before but has always been the nightmare scenario for a nuclear power event — in this scenario, containment goes from being merely dangerous, time consuming and expensive to nearly impossible.

Radiation exposure for the average individual is 620 millirems per year, split about evenly between manmade and natural sources. The firefighters who served at the Chernobyl plant were exposed to between 80,000 and 1.6 million millirems. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that exposure to 375,000 to 500,000 millirems would be sufficient to cause death within three months for half of those exposed. A 30-kilometer-radius (19 miles) no-go zone remains at Chernobyl to this day. Japan’s troubled reactor site is about 300 kilometers from Tokyo.

The latest report from the damaged power plant indicated that exposure rates outside the plant were at about 620 millirems per hour, though it is not clear whether that report came before or after the reactor’s containment structure exploded.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to www.stratfor.com

BBC (“Huge blast at Japan nuclear power plant“):

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima 1 and 2 power plants as engineers try to confirm whether a reactor at one of the stations has gone into meltdown. It is an automatic procedure after nuclear reactors shut down in the event of an earthquake, allowing officials to take rapid action.
Cooling system failure

Television pictures showed a massive blast at one of the buildings of the Fukushima 1 plant, about 250km (160 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A huge cloud of smoke billows out and large bits of debris are flung far from the building.

Japan’s NHK TV showed before and after pictures of the plant. They appeared to show that the outer structure of one of four buildings at the plant had collapsed after the explosion.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, said four workers had been injured.

It is not yet clear in exactly what part of the plant the explosion occurred or what caused it.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said experts were trying to determine the level of radiation at the site.

Japan’s nuclear agency said on Saturday that radioactive caesium and iodine had been detected near the number one reactor of the Fukushima 1 plant. The agency said this may indicate that containers of uranium fuel inside the reactor may have begun melting.

Air and steam, with some level of radioactivity, has been released from several of the reactors at both plants in an effort to relieve the huge amount of pressure building up inside.

Mr Kan said the amount of radiation released was “tiny”.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Natural Disasters, Science & Technology, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ALP says:

    This is a significant event in the era of modern man! However, I don’t believe
    it is one that can be avoided at our current level of technology. If we want to live at the
    standards we have come to enjoy, then we must accept that these things will
    happen from time to time. Most all people do not realize that we live on this
    Earth at the pleasure of the geology of the planet. It is something that we as
    people can do absolutely nothing about. The Techtonics of our world are
    going to occur, whether we are here or not. And, they will cause great disasters
    from time to time.

    What bothers me most about this event is, what will be the reaction of the
    Environmentalists and so called “Intellectuals”? Who will more that likely
    come out against Nuclear Power with a vengeance. They just don’ realize
    that if we want to live and compete in the world, we have to have sustainable
    power generation at an affordable price. Until technology advances
    significantly, we can either continue to use what is available, or descend back
    into a time of much greater efforts to survive.

    My heartfelt thoughts go out to the people of Japan.
    But, just remember this is not their fault!
    Bad S**T happens whether we like it or not!!

  2. jwest says:

    I don’t know what sources Stratfor has, but their report seems a bit overblown. The comparisons to Chernobyl are borderline hysterical.

    As of 9:00AM Saturday, there is no indication that the pressure or containment vessels have been breached. An explosion has damaged the reactor building, but the video seems to show more of a steam release as opposed to “burning concrete”. For a visual of what this design looks like, click the link:


    Officials stated that the reactor automatically shut down in the first moments of the quake, as it is designed to do. This reduces the energy levels to approximately one half of one percent of the potential, however there would still be a tremendous amount of heat that would need to be lowered. Coolant failure in the secondary circuit (carrying steam to the turbines) would create an overpressure that could cause the damage seen in the video.

    The report of exposed fuel rods has not been confirmed by other sources, so it should be discounted for now. Chernobyl’s design was so totally different than this reactor that comparing the two is a waste of time.

    As things stand now, the reactor is not melting down and Godzilla is not rampaging through Tokyo. Both have about the same possibility of happening.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I’m no nuclear engineer, but I was puzzled by the dawdling while this event developed. Since the reactor is situation on the shore, why didn’t they have the ability to flood the core with sea water? If they did, why did they wait so long. Well, NPR just reported at 9 am EST that they are now going to flood the core with sea water to keep the temperature down. I guess they waited till now because they’ve exhausted all the other options and this is the last one. Once that happens, I guess they won’t be able to restart the reactor and would need extensive repairs or build a new one.

  4. john personna says:

    Very sad.

    On my walk to the market yesterday I talk to a guy waiting with his camera for the tsunami. Later, I ran a little what-if in my mind. What if really a big one hit right then. I thought, I’d climb that hill over there, and help people trapped in the higher houses.

    And then I thought, of course if San Onofre gets cracked, we’re all dead.

    Diablo Canyon was the one built near faults, and against protests. From wikipedia:

    “Diablo Canyon is designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake from four faults, including the nearby San Andreas and Hosgri faults.[1] Equipped with advanced seismic monitoring and safety systems, the plant is designed to shut down safely in the event of significant ground motion.”

    Nice to know it can handle a 7.5, eh?

  5. john personna says:

    “why didn’t they have the ability to flood the core with sea water”

    If the dome is under positive pressure you need power to push cooling water.

    It would be a very bad design to have a “pit” ready to “flood.” You know, given the next thing that happens (release of radioactive sea water steam).

  6. DC Loser says:

    @John Personna – Yes, I understand that it’s bad, but in a relative sense, which is worse, letting the sea in or having it blow up? I’m sure there are more than a few reactors sitting at the bottom of the ocean from all the accidents the Soviet/Russian navies have had over the years. Has the USN lost any reactors?

  7. john personna says:

    My understanding is that (a) submarine nukes are small compared to land based ones and (b) we just all agree not to talk about them.

    The ocean is still “out of sight, out of mind” for most. Read the story of the Farallon Islands dump site, and read between the lines:


  8. Andy says:

    DC loser,

    Unless you build the reactor below sea level, you need pumps to get water into the reactor. It’s the pumping systems that failed and I think the control systems (valves and such to manage the coolant) are only partially operational. They are currently using firetrucks to pump sea water and boric acid into the reactor. Sea water to cool it and boric acid to tamp down the reaction.

    The STRATFOR piece is a bit over the top. There’s no evidence of concrete burning – that would only happen after a total meltdown as the the core starts to burn through the floor of the containment vessel. Furthermore the explosion was probably due to a build-up a hydrogen gas, which is a byproduct of the reactor. The gas builds up and then ignites. There are normally systems to deal with this, but obviously they weren’t functioning. It appears the gas buildup and explosion was in the outer weather structure and not in the reactor vessel itself.

    BTW, I know all this because I’m lucky enough to be married to a nuclear engineer who understands these things.

  9. john personna says:

    I don’t know Andy, I just googled for latest news and they are talking about handing out iodine pills to children.

    Do we stockpile iodine pills here? Or do we just pretend it away …

  10. john personna says:
  11. john personna says:
  12. jwest says:

    My problem is with the media. The people of Japan have enough to deal with as it is, without blow dried idiots speculating with the worst-case scenarios.

    I suppose we should be thankful Anderson Cooper and David Shuster aren’t reporting that the Japanese are raping babies, eating corpses and shooting at rescue helicopters. It’s a safe bet that the reporting will now shift to how Japan “narrowly avoided millions dying” from a meltdown.

    This particular reactor was built in the 60’s and was scheduled to be shut down in a few months. Even with a 50 year old design, it seems to have held up well to an enormous earthquake. Still, the left will seize on this to promote ridiculous power schemes like solar and wind.

  13. john personna says:

    My problem would be with anyone who comes across as more “pro-nuclear” than “pro-people” t this stage. Seriously dude, you could have left all those “defenses” until the (radioactive) dust settled.

  14. anjin-san says:

    > My problem is with the media. The people of Japan have enough to deal with as it is, without blow dried idiots speculating with the worst-case scenarios.

    Yea, funny how the idea of folks in Japan getting irradiated does not seem to concern you, but you are borderline hysterical about things that Anderson Cooper had not said. As I said yesterday, you seem to reveal more of what you are really about every time you talk, and it tends to be kinda ugly.

    It is worth noting that it is pretty much certain tens of thousands of people (easily) are alive today because of Japan’s strict building codes and disaster planning. You know, the stuff the evil government and horrible bureaucrats do.

  15. muffler says:

    I have been on a dozen sites now and the number of armchair nuclear engineers offering solutions and people using this situation to insult the left and the right (in the US) is amazing. The fact is outside only REAL nuclear engineers, the actual plans of the plant and the people on the ground in Japan handling the crisis NO ONE knows anything.

    It is a terrible situation and being handled under the worst of conditions. I for one hope that the Japanese can contain the plant and even then they have their entire country to settle down.

    There are so many American centered political points that can be made in this tragedy, but maybe those are for another time.

  16. DC Loser says:

    I’m sure the Japanese readership of OTB is pretty low. We’re all just navel gazing and armchair quarterbacking here amongst other gaijins.

  17. john personna says:

    FWIW, it seems we were both part right. They are using sea water, but it will take a couple days to pump it in under pressure.

  18. anjin-san says:

    > I suppose we should be thankful Anderson Cooper and David Shuster aren’t reporting that the Japanese are raping babies

    It is worth noting that if you look at major news sites, by far the most hysterical reporting is from Fox. CNN, NPR and so on are pretty sedate by comparison.

    I guess we need a joke poster since bithead seems to have moved on. JWEST appears to be stepping up.

  19. NadePaulKuciGravMcKi says:

    Never forget 9/11 lies.
    Study prevailing winds.
    Traditional cooling not possible.
    Containment has been breached.
    Dishonest governments never tell the truth.
    Corrupt controlled media never tell the truth.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    The concrete structure around the containment vessel has blown up. The evacuation area has been doubled. They’re handing out iodine.

    Nothing to worry about.

  21. Tlaloc says:

    What bothers me most about this event is, what will be the reaction of the
    Environmentalists and so called “Intellectuals”? Who will more that likely
    come out against Nuclear Power with a vengeance. They just don’ realize
    that if we want to live and compete in the world, we have to have sustainable
    power generation at an affordable price.

    Yeah, don;t you hate it when your carefully crafted string of lies is mangled by an act of nature and (literally) blows up in your face? I feel for the “nuke, baby, nuke” crowd.

    Do we need sustainable power generation? Sure. Is fission a good way to go about it? No. In the first place there’s a very limited amount of fuel unless either uranium-from-seawater or speculative technology like thorium end up working (with no evidence yet that either will). See here for more on the amount of nuclear fuel available world wide:


    Beyond the fuel issue is of course the matter of it being a dirty process that produces hazardous waste that we have essentially no way of containing long term. The best we can do is bury it in a mountain so that it take a long time to eat its way out.

    And lastly, and most topically , despite the claims of the pro-nuke crowd clearly the technology is not “safe.” An explosion at a fossil fuel facility can certainly be devestating (as the deepwater rig explosion proved) but it simply does not have the incredible longevity of harm that a nuclear accident can. Chernobyl happened 35 years ago and the area is still uninhabitable (although with careful use of a geiger counter you can travel through the area there’s a photo blog of such a trip here: http://www.kiddofspeed.com/).

    If the worst happens and the Japan reactor does go full chernobyl the impact to Japan will be unimaginable. The plant is apparently just 300 km from Tokyo. Unlike the USSR Japan doesn’t exactly have a lot of space where they can move populations that need to eb evacuated. They have half the population of the US crammed into an area the size of California. And a good amount of it is mountainous.

    So yeah some people might just take notice that the pro-nuke crowd gets a big double helping of STFU.

  22. The concrete structure around the containment vessel has blown up.

    Actually it’s even worse than that: there never was a concrete structure. The Fukushima I reactor (whic went online in 1971) is a MK-I containment vessel which lacks the concrete secondary containment domes seen in more recent designs and was never upgraded to include one. The plant is horribly out of date, and indeed was supposed to have been decomission, in less than two weeks, on March 25.

    One of the sad outcomes of this is that the failure of a 40-year out of date, poorly maintained, reactor is likely to kill any new plant construction in the US for decades, which is ironically going to make nuclear disaters like this MORE likely because it prevents outdated designs from being replaced with newer ones.

  23. john personna says:

    What do you think, Stormy, about Diablo Canyon being designed much more recently to hand a 7.5?

    Another west-cost plant, the San Onfre nuclear plant is built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake 5 miles (8 km) away, according to San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) … what could happen?

  24. matt says:

    Thorium reactors are definitely functional and small scale examples exist… I’d rather we push into thorium salt reactors and away from the uranium crap..

  25. Heh. The two plants you mentioned are using Pressurized Water Reactors, which are even more prone to problems in the event of a coolant loss than the Boiling Water Reactors used at Fukishama. Which is kinda my point. Both of those plants ought to be replaced with newer reactors. But there’s no way CA is going to approve new reactors being built. They also can’t just shut them down without a replacement source of electricity. So the out of date design continues operating.

    The real advantage in more recent design is that they’ve switched from active safety measures to passive safety measures. That is, instead of systems where you have to do particular things to shutdown the reactor, the reactor will naturally go to that state unless you actively do things to keep it from doing so.

    Indeed, the newer reactors under construction right now at Fukishama were starting to incorporate these types or measures, using newer ABWR reactors in place of the BWR reactors used in the older reactors). Why are only two of these being built in the whole US (predicatbly in Texas)?

    There are designs that go even further like molten salt cooling (not to be confused with molten salt fueled reactors) or pebble bed reactors. Why isn’t more being done to develop these ideas further?

  26. Tlaloc says:

    “Thorium reactors are definitely functional and small scale examples exist… I’d rather we push into thorium salt reactors and away from the uranium crap..”

    The only examples I can find are research reactors. That’s a world away from actual power production scale. It’s like breeder reactors, pro-nuke people often bring them up as a way to extend the fuel supply, which they would…if anyone used them. But nobody uses breeder reactors for power generation. If we set out to build new nuclear plants int he US they would not be breeders or thorium reactors. They’d be one, or at most two, cycle uranium light water reactors that are terribly fuel inefficient.

  27. john personna says:

    I’m sure there is a cost issue in those proposed replacements, Stormy.

    And, people who have been slow to accept nuclear might be justified in saying, “what, again?”

    I’m not anti-nuke, but I’ve had trouble going pro-. If we need wholesale replacement of reactors in use, I can’t see the justification. Efficiency (no more incandescent bulbs) is much cheaper.

  28. john personna says:

    (No side-by-side refrigerator should be fig-leafed with an Energy Star rating. Only top-freezers, and chest freezers, really make the grade. Heck, it wouldn’t cost that much to migrate to chest refrigerators over time, drastically reducing energy consumption.)

  29. Heck, it wouldn’t cost that much to migrate to chest refrigerators over time, drastically reducing energy consumption.

    If you live in single family housing, perhaps. Where are people who live in apartment-style housing supposed to put these chest freezers and refrigerators?

  30. john personna says:

    By chest I really just mean top-access and highly insulated. Sailboats have small chest refrigerators. They are low power to run off meager solar.

    Homebrewers also do this thing where they take Sears’ smallest chest freezer (smaller than the average dishwasher, and use a custom thermostat to make it a refrigerator (for kegs). Energy consumption is tiny.

  31. Yeah, I know what a chest freezer is. You still haven’t where people in an apartment designed for a traditional refrigerator are supposed to put one, much less two of them.

  32. matt says:

    Tlaloc : They were running these as research reactors in the 1950s. One of them reached 650 c and ran for a year and half at full power production levels. Overall they ran it for 4 years or so to test various aspects of the design. One research reactor actually ran as hot as 950 C in tests. These are NOT worlds away from being used in general. They are merely funding away from being utilized. The problem with these kinds of reactors is no one wants to build them because they cannot make a killing off of selling the fuel to reactor owners like they do now. Current nuclear reactors are like really expensive razors that require specially made razors that only the original builders produces. Allow for some hella profits and they aren’t interested in building a reactor that doesn’t allow that profit..

  33. matt says:

    First allow was supposed to be Allows..

    I’m sure you realize the potential advantages to running higher temperatures in this situation..

  34. anjin-san says:

    Worth noting that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in CA is run by PG&E. As we have seen from last year’s deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, in a heavily populated area just south of SF, PG&E simply does not care about safety, and if they did, they do not have the orginzational competence to be serious about it. Profitability and bonuses for executives and senior manager are the name of the game. Worth noting also is the long string of evasions, distortions and outright lies coming from PG&E in the wake of the disaster. Oh, and they want rate payers to cover the cost of their incompetence and negligence.

  35. john personna says:

    Stormy, do you think apartments are small than 30 foot sailboats?

  36. Stormy, do you think apartments are small than 30 foot sailboats?

    No, I think sailboats are generally designed with the need to provide a space for a top opening refrigerator in mind and thus provide a place to stick them. Apartments, on the other hand, are generally designed for front loading refrigerators and provide a place to stick them. Unless you expect something ridiculous like just having a freezer chest sitting in the middle of a room for no apparent reason or having every apartment/condo kitchen in the country completely remodelled, most apartment style home are not going to work with them.

  37. madscientist says:

    ok,, grab the chopper,, lift that water canon up hi,, start spittin ,, also,,i see sumbody mention sail boat,, somebody go grab them sailboats,, fill it up with snow,, drop it inside,, go get anudder_1,, ,hurry ! come on !

    how many geniuses does the world need?

    lookit us now !