back to article Japanese earthquake sparks nuclear emergency

The magnitude 8.9 or 8.8 earthquake that struck northeast Japan Friday has forced the evacuation of thousands within a three-kilometer radius of a nuclear power plant, after a failure in its cooling system lead to the threat of a fuel-rod meltdown that's yet to be fully mitigated. According to Japan's Juji Press, the …


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  1. Richard 30
    Black Helicopters

    fighting fires with drinking straws

    Very odd. Did the USAF really scramble to deliver a tiny payload of deionised water (it's a boiling water plant) or is something else going on? There doesn't appear to be a need to drop boron into a burning reactor core yet, a la Chernobyl, so is the USAF there to secure the reactor site, in case some terrorists turn up in the chaos to steal some hot uranium?

  2. 45RPM Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    Okay, so which numbnuts is going to be first to justify nuclear power, and explain exactly why this expensive and dirty dinosaur deserves political backing for a new generation of reactors?

    What a crock.

    1. Aaron Em

      "Expensive and dirty dinosaur" being the problem

      The Fukushima station reactors have mostly been online since the early 1970s. Forty years on, we have a pretty good idea how to build safe reactors -- check out the CANDU design, for example, which would've failed safe in a situation like this because, unlike the reactor technology of four decades past, it's designed sensibly and hasn't got enough excess reactivity to run away even if its cooling system fails instantly and completely.

      Or, you know, I could put it a different way:

      "Okay, so which numbnuts is going to be first to write off the entire civilian nuclear industry despite two generations' worth of technological advances, arguing without the slightest hint of accuracy that forty-year-old boiling-water reactors are OBVIOUSLY the best we can do?"

      But, you know, I do generally try not to be a complete fucking muppet, so...

    2. Lamont Cranston

      Isn't it oil that's made of dinosaurs,

      rather than nuclear?

    3. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Expensive and dirty? You really are a bloody idiot*

      Nuclear is as clean as large-scale power generation is possible to get, and the cost per MWh is roughly on a par with coal plants. (Depending on what emissions filtration the coal plant has fitted, and which method of waste disposal you choose for each)

      Nuclear has truly zero emissions (unlike all fuel-burning plants), and a very small footprint (unlike hydro, wind and solar).

      As to safety - this plant hasn't had the cooling going for many hours - and it's still safe.

      Even if it melts down, it's still going to be safe - just impossible to repair. A meltdown means that the fuel rods become a molten blob inside the core. In modern reactor designs, that molten blob just stays there, eventually reaching thermal equilibrium. All you have to do at that stage is keep the outer containment closed, and wait. Dousing it is optional, but means less time to wait.

      Once it's all cooled down, you're left with a sealed containment vessel with a solidified blob of radioactive material. It's safe like that - but no use as a power generator.

      So they don't want it to melt down because it'll be very expensive to replace.

      *Seeing as you started the ad hominems, I thought you'd be upset if I didn't join in.

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        "Nuclear has truly zero emissions (unlike all fuel-burning plants)"

        Amazing that they can run a nuclear fuel cycle with zero emissions!

    4. Rolf Howarth

      Re: Safe?

      'Cos nuclear power stations are clean, relatively easily turn on and offable, and they hardly ever blow up.

    5. Andy 75

      This title is Safe

      Maybe the fact that not many countries are in such an active earthquake zone? Saying nuclear power is bad because somebody built some near a major faultline is like saying ice cream vans are bad because somebody parked one up next to a major road once and a kid got hit running across.

    6. Peter2 Silver badge


      I'll justify it. The windmills so beloved of the Green lobbying mill should be providing about ~5% of the UK's power at the moment. In a recent cold spell, they managed an of so impressive 0.2% because the wind wasn't blowing. Any twit can figure out that Solar is useless in the UK, and unless your thinking that you can get the entire energy output for the country from tidal, then you have to accept that renewable energy is not going to provide everything, or even a significant amount of our energy requirements.


      That means that either you depend on Gas & Coal for your baseline supply, which produce quite a bit of carbon or you use Nuclear. Which is more dirty, Nuclear or burning coal/gas/oil?

      Despite ignorance and hysteria from certain parts of the population, Nuclear technology has progressed a lot and continues to do so. China has just started building a lot of new Thorium reactors which frankly, appear to be a far better than traditional (uranium) nuclear plants due to being inherently safe (if you turn the power off to the reactor then the reaction just stops of it's own accord) and the fact that the radioactive waste problem is down from half a million years to safe (which is a PITA to manage, but possible) to 300 years to being safe. 300 years seems to be a pretty easily manageable problem given the planning already done for half million year storage.

      Now, could I have your *rational* justifications to being anti nuclear?

      1. Homard

        Grrrrr @ the carbontards

        Will someone please accept the fact that carbon is not a problem. Elemental carbon will sit there for millenia and do nothing.

        Now carbon dioxide might be.

        Now will the fucktard green 'scientific' and political lobby get their facts right ?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Two people mention carbon on this page:

          (i) one appears to be against "green" technologies;

          (ii) the other is you.

          In the context of climatology "elemental carbon" in particulate form has an effect on albedo, and can therefore be considered to "do" something.

          Who's tarding up the facts again?

          1. Peter2 Silver badge

            I'm not against green technologies...

            I'm just saying that the existing wind/solar options are ruinously expensive and are already proven to not provide enough power. We need a rational energy policy based on facts, not hysteria. At the moment the mania for wind farms means that we won't produce enough power because the wind is to slow (or to fast). That's ok though, it's been planned for. There are a heck of a lot of gas plants going up to "back up" the wind farms.

            Great job. Was the idea not to REDUCE emissions? Sensible policy at it's best, how about we close down all of the nuclear plants for "green" energy wind farms. Would that make you happy? Ah yes, that does means that CO2 emissions will increase though. A lot.

            Looking at cold hard facts we have two options for reliable green energy generation in the UK, namely tidal and nuclear. Tidal won't provide everything, and if you want to reduce CO2 emissions then we need to copy what France did a long time ago and have a large scale nuclear building programme. Our CO2 emissions would virtually vanish. We could even copy China's Thorium programme and not have the storage problems France has.

      2. 45RPM Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Not actually Anti-Nuclear...

        ...Just anti current Nuclear. If we have a plan for what we do with the waste I have no problem with it at all (see my later post). My current objection is that we have no idea what to do with the waste we make.

      3. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "Cleanliness" of coal/oil

        "That means that either you depend on Gas & Coal for your baseline supply, which produce quite a bit of carbon or you use Nuclear. Which is more dirty, Nuclear or burning coal/gas/oil?"

        Thanks to "bits" in the coal and oil, the radioactive output of the world's coal plants is each year is significantly higher than Chernobyl event.

        It just doesn't happen all at once and doesn't include really hot isotopes, so nobody cares.

        Nuclear isn't clean by any stretch of the imagination though. Look at all the oil expended getting it out of the gound (mining), cleaning it up (refining) and then all the wasted energy from throwing rods away when they still have 95% of their potential left, lest they produce plutonium.

        Plus all the effort put into sequestering said (quite usable) fuel and other contaminants....

    7. The Cube

      If you really want it to rain radiation

      What you want is a few nice "safe" coal fired plants, if I have read correctly, they emit more radiation in their flue gases over their lifetime than we put into a nuclear reactor and let's not even mention the directly toxic combustion products.

      I am sure the Daily Mail will manage to turn this into some hideous danger that will lead to the UK filling up with radioactive homosexual illegal immigrants who are stealing our jobs and putting house prices up and down at the same time.

      Don't go on holiday anywhere with granite rock formations either, hide in a lead box with a geiger counter instead.

    8. Steven Jones

      Playing Devil's advocate?

      OK - I'll rise to your challenge, even if you don't do your argument any favour by prejudging the people who might disagree with you.

      First thing to note is that we have no evidence that anybody has, or will, come to any harm over the problems with Japanese nuclear reactors. At the worst, it appears that a very small controlled release of radiation will occur to control pressure, and if all else fails the reactor in question will have to be written off. Essentially it will be like Three Mile Island, something that was expensive, but had approaching zero health impact. Now that may yet be proved wrong, but I doubt it. THis is against the most powerful earthquake to have hit Japan in recorded history and the costs will be dwarfed by those of the Tsunami.

      In comparison, the coal-power power stations of China kill tens of thousands a year, through pollution and mining. The latter through accidents and the appalling effect on health. No doubt a Japanese coal-fired power station will be better run, but it's impossible to escape all the pollution impacts, of which one is the release into the atmosphere of several times the amount of radiation than from an equivalent nuclear reactor.

      No doubt Japan will cope with this. It is a resilient and inventive country and it truly knows the dangers of nuclear energy which they discovered in 1945. But they bounced back from that, and they will from this.

    9. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      The Irony...

      As we also watch images of that oil storage centre inferno pumping tons and tons of GHG into the athmosphere.

      Going to go out on a limb and say that is a worse ecological disaster than a media-hyped technical issue in an over-engineered nuclear reactor.

      For all we know the reactor is already shut down all the way, but then the media wouldn't have a breathless story to add, now would they?

    10. 45RPM Silver badge

      Wow - Strong Nuclear Lobby

      Wow, I had no idea that the Nuclear Lobby was so strong on el Reg. So let me explain.

      There is no dispute that coal is a dirty fuel and also that coal generates radioactive byproducts too - radioactive byproducts which are largely vented into the atmosphere. But here's the thing - you can't actually make a bomb, dirty or 'clean' from coal ash. What's more, if you wanted to dispose of the ash you could just stuff it back down the mine or quarry that it came from - we have enough abandoned workings after all. We just don't have the political willpower to do so. Ash is largely safe - yes, I know about the heavy metals and other pollutants in the ash - but generations of Welsh communities have demonstrated that it's quite possible to live your life and raise your family in the shadow of the ash pile. Perhaps not nice and yes, fatal if it slips onto your head, but ultimately fairly safe. Besides, after years of plant growth (yes, plants can grow on an ash pile - some even like it), the ash pile stabilises - and many of the nastier waste products get locked up.

      Good luck doing that with current, and even next generation, Nuclear reactors. I'd rather live in Aberfan than Pripyat. Even the most vocal adherent of Nuclear has to admit that ash is easier to deal with than nuclear waste.

      I don't actually have a problem with building Nuclear - provided we know what we'll do with the waste. And we don't. We keep lobbing ideas around, none of which work so far, and the piles of toxic and radioactive waste continue to build. And the two Nuclear solutions which seem to be cleanest (Hybrid reactors - which would reduce the overall amount of high level waste - theoretically, they could 'burn' waste from other reactors, and burn old nuclear warheads, and Fusion) are either too expensive or too impossible with current technology or lack the political will to implement. So yes. Fuck new Nuclear until we do the job cleanly and properly.

      But (whinge, whine, moan) we won't have enough power if we don't have nuclear! Boo Hoo. Turn your computer off at night. Buy less gadgets. Get rid of your energy hungry plasma TV. Recycle. Reuse. Use public transport. Problem solved. Sure, you'll have less toys - but you'll also have a cleaner world. You'll thank me for it one day.

  3. Tron Silver badge

    There cannot be a problem. The British Govt. told us nuclear is safe.

    British Govt. v reality. Obviously, British Govt. every time. Because you can always trust a politician.

    I'm not a nuclear scientist, but building more than 50 nuclear power stations in the middle of an earthquake hot spot would seem to be one of those plans that you file under 'B' for bad. Maybe post-war Japan needed to concentrate on renewable energy tech instead of making electronic things really small and selling lots of consoles.

    And yes, Britain has natural disasters including earthquakes, as well as unnatural disasters.

    You should never build anything that you cannot simply turn off or have fail catastrophically, safely.

    I'd rather they covered the entire country in giant wind turbines, every house having one (instead of the chimneys they all used to have) than turned to nuclear.

    Burying the waste is also an epic fail waiting to happen. Groundwater, drinking water, land contamination... There are still farms in Britain affected by the consequences of Chernobyl.

    1. Aaron Em

      Oh? So no conventional power plants, aircraft, trains, operating theatres...

      "...building more than 50 nuclear power stations in the middle of an earthquake hot spot would seem to be one of those plans that you file under 'B' for bad."

      Of course, no one in Japan has ever actually had this thought cross their mind. Certainly not the engineers responsible for designing the reactors and planning where they'd be built. I mean, it's absolutely impossible that anyone in Japan looked at a map, saw that the entirety of their nation *is* 'an earthquake hot spot', and did the best they could in spite of it.


      "Never build anything that you cannot simply turn off or have fail catastrophically, safely."

      Again: the subject line. No conventional power plants, no aircraft, no trains, no operating theatres...can you really not hear what kind of neo-Luddite you sound like? Or do you just not make a habit of paying attention to whatever happens to fall out whenever you unbutton your ignorant lip?

      "I'd rather they covered the entire country in giant wind turbines..."

      ...which is a great idea and all, except it wouldn't work because Britain doesn't have enough wind. (Though if they subsidized people like you to climb up the roofpeaks and run your thoughtless gobs all day, I suppose it might run a little more efficiently.)

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Cue Greenpeace howls and anger!

      "There are still farms in Britain affected by the consequences of Chernobyl".

      ...because "disposing of" is equivalent to blowing the whole graphite/uranium core of an RBMK through the nonexistent containment roof.

      In the mind of some.

      Btw, wikipedia is now "current events":

      [The last I heard of Japan maintenance skills in nuclear reactor management was that they were crap except when it's about covering the ass. That doesn't bode well.]

      Fire icon because Fire.

    3. Mike Flex

      Re: Tron

      > I'm not a nuclear scientist

      So I should pay attention to your views on nuclear power because ... ?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        So I should pay attention to your views on most subjects because ... ?

        I look forward to you wielding this argument during all future debates on climatology.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "Maybe post-war Japan needed to concentrate on renewable energy tech instead of making electronic things really small and selling lots of consoles."

      Nor did they need to grow their car industry. But they did. Something about having limited natural resources and not wanting to be blockaded by *anyone*.

      You are clearly ignorant of the *very* high level of optimism in technology that existed in in the 50s and 60s. Both 3 mile island and Chernobyl taught major lessons and the design of the Japanese reactors (now c30 years old if previous posters comments on their age is correct) would probably be *totally* unacceptable today.

      "I'd rather they covered the entire country in giant wind turbines, every house having one (instead of the chimneys they all used to have) than turned to nuclear."

      Well if you're talking about the UK you already have on shore wind turbines running at c5% and basically acting as grant farms rather than actual *sources* of energy. How this thing *ever* got allowed to be built is beyond me as it is clearly taking the p**s on a subsidy basis.

      I believe *much* better use can be made of renewable and carbon *neutral* energy but I'd think in terms of bio methane (from meat waste, animal slurry etc) and things like micro hydro, which (depending on the stream and ground temperatures) can deliver 24/7/365. Without effective *large* scale electricity storage security of supply *matters* a lot.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Would that be the same USAF plane....

    That dropped Hillary off for her famous "we had to dodge sniper fire" visit during the Bosnian war?

    Black helicopter, because I am sure they were sign right before the earthquake hit....

  5. Lars Silver badge

    Calm down

    That precaution is done also because of very minor problems, and that is good, of course.

    Their problem seems to be that they have been cheating (saving) on reserve electricity, the old diesel, you know.

    A stupidly optimistic thing to do, but lets hope things will calm down.

  6. Simpson

    stupid question?

    I've sometimes wondered why they don't build the cooling in some fail safe way. Where the core is below the level of some plentiful local source of water. With mechanisms designed to keep the water out.

    Then if there is some sort of problem, the mechanism fails and the water comes pouring in to flood the entire area.

    1. Smokey Joe


      Is that what you want?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      the water comes pouring in

      and then pouring out again once it's picked up some highly radioactive material along the way, perhaps? Or maybe it floods the system while it's still functional, takes out the operators and the electronics ...

    3. Aaron Em

      Because it's not actually necessary

      Look at CANDU's design: in the absence of a neutron moderator, the reactor can't even sustain a chain reaction. Design the reactor so that the first thing a scram does is dump the moderator, and you're home and dry; even if every single control rod is stuck in the fully withdrawn position (which, absent sabotage, is almost impossible for the CANDU design), the pile will just take longer to cool off.

      It's not impossible to build the things safely, just difficult. Too bad about all those ignorant tree-hugging assholes who fear everything they don't understand, especially technology, and want it all to die and go away so that they can go back to the 15th-century hellhole existence that's so much less irritating to the carefully self-circumscribed limits of their intellectual capacities.

      (And don't fucking talk to me about Chernobyl; I was five years old when it blew, and I watched the news coverage with my family until there wasn't any more coverage to watch. If anyone has an excuse for being too frightened of nuclear power to consider the possibility that it might ever be safe, it's me -- but I'm smarter than that, and so goddamned well should all of you be.)

      1. Sineira


        Idiot, it still needs cooling and they're failing to cool it down, i.e. the pressure is building and the fuel is melting. Disaster around the corner mate.

    4. TheOldBear

      Inherently Safe reactors

      To a great extent, this is part of the basic design of water moderated reactors - if the moderator [water] has boiled away, the reaction _STOPS_.

      What is left is the residual decay heat - not the fission chain reaction.

      There has been extensive work on designs that are 'inherently safe' - capable of sealing with the residual decay heat without damage or intervention [human or mechanical]. The gas cooled 'pebble bed' reactors and the PIUS reactor concept [] are two examples.

    5. David Webb


      I'd guess that should you build it near a source of water and then need to cool it down in an emergency, you open up that water supply to radioactive material which then gets in to the soil and in 9 months time kids with 3 heads are born, generally a bad idea. Naturally I'm not a nuclear scientist, so I could be wrong, but it's the most obvious issue that I can see.

    6. Adrian Coward
      Thumb Up

      Not stupid

      Not a stupid question at all: there are several designs of reactors that have passive cooling and/or fail-safe designs.

      For example in a CANDU reactor a loss of power will result in control rods automatically dropping into the reactor, stopping the reaction. A liquid salt reactor (not yet commercially available) has a 'thermal plug' at the bottom of the reactor. If power is lost, the plug will 'melt' and the reactants will flow into storage chambers below the reactor.

    7. Terry Barnes


      I understand your thinking, but it would cause a giant, radioactive explosion. The vast quantity of water turns instantly to a vast quantity of steam, under vast amounts of pressure. You'd be turning a faulty reactor into a fairly effective bomb.

    8. Homard

      @homer simpson

      The fact that diesel backup is present is evidence of sensible design. The electric power has failed and the diesel backup has failed too. Extreme circumstances. Just how could the plant designers mitigate further with the technology of the day ?

      Your water idea buys time, but without circulation and heat transfer you wont achieve stability. Your water just stays put and boils as though in a large kettle. You need circulation of that water to achieve cooling.

      To get circulation of coolant needs pumps, and pumps need power. Electric - nope grid dead ? Steam - works but vulnerable to pipe failure. Diesel generation - works with local cables. Actually steam is generally preferred but with earthquake risk all change. Earthquake zones are probably better off taking backup diesel generated power than other sources.

      YOU want cheap power, and you will always whine at the cost. Get the drift from here ???

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge


        > The fact that diesel backup is present is evidence of sensible design. The electric power has failed and the diesel backup has failed too. Extreme circumstances. Just how could the plant designers mitigate further with the technology of the day ?

        It's not as if Japan is a stranger to tsunamis.

        They could, perhaps, have thought about what might happen in an offshore quake and designed the diesel system to keep out water from the air intakes, allowed for backup units in case the main ones got drowned, or simply just stopped the diesels until the surge passed - it takes hours for heat to build up to dangerous levels and there was a battery backup system n place after all.

        What protection do other shore-based plants around the world have against surges?

  7. Michael Hawkes

    Be on the lookout

    Godzilla started due to nuclear testing, so a nuclear meltdown might be an up-to-date equivalent. Maybe they'll make a movie about it.

  8. krby71

    This is why we need to upgrade to the next generation nuclear reactors

    If this had been an IFR/Fast reactor, there would be no chance for an explosion or meltdown as the basic principle of the IFR/Fast is that it is a low pressure system and when it shuts down it doesn't need extra cooling.

    1. RhinoAl

      This is why we need to upgrade to the next generation nuclear reactors

      Agreed. But that means investment. And rich businessmen are more interested in taking quick profit than investing in the future well-being of the industries they make millions out of.

      Governments, such as that of the UK, rely on these same people to make these investments, but they simply haven't. And will continue not to do so, if all ends up well, for want of a better phrase.

      It's a shame we're saying 'we need to upgrade' instead of 'Thank Christ we upgraded...'

  9. davefb

    hmm this water...

    might be DDW or water with the deuterium removed. . so the talk about shipping water might not sound so daft.

  10. bazza Silver badge


    Oh dear, another knee jerker who won't understand risk.

    Amount of radioactive material released so far in this event:


    Amount of radioactive material released by your average coal fired power station:

    Tens of tons/year.

    Coal is often about 1part/million uranium, and a half decent power station can get through 35million tons in a year. 1ppm * 35^6 = 35 tons. That goes straight up the chimney of course! So which one do you want to live within 100 miles of? I've not seen anti-nuclear protesters outside a coal fired station before. CO2 protesters a plenty though!

    UNSCEAR is pretty clear that Chernobyl has had more of a psycological impact rather than a statistical change in death rates. Even including Chernobyl, nuclear has had significantly less real impact on the environment than any other large scale engergy generation scheme that mankind has dreamt up.

    Assuming you are strongly in favour of electric vehicles / trains, just where do you propose the electricity for that comes from without burning up a lot of coal, oil and gas in powerstations? Wind turbines and solar panels will not be the answer on a calm cloudy day... With current schemes seeking to supply only small percentages of current demand, how much of the landscape would have to be covered up with turbines and PV panels to make all the cars and trucks move too?

    The only renewables scheme I've seen that makes sense is the one the Spanish are pursuing, namely solar towers with molten salt heat stores. The salt store provides a measure of guaranteed supply. Not a bad idea, provided you can distribute electricity from sunny places to cloudy places well enough.

    Nuclear fussion is a much neglected strand of energy policy; more money is put in to dubious renewables schemes than into ITER. Nuclear fussion, if it can be made to work, will definitely be a significant game changer.

    The scientific crowd working on nuclear fussion have a phenomenal track record. Over the past 30 years of effort they have met every deadline and exceeded primary goals. JET was tremendously successful. Yet the worlds governments dish out the money in a very paltry manner. The UK goverenement alone put £150billion in to the financial industry, yet ITER is projected to cost just €16billion. It would seem that to the UK a few bankers are worth ten time the technology for limitless energy.

    1. bazza Silver badge

      On the other hand...

      Looks significantly more serious now...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The Fukushima #1 plant is a light water fission reactor, which means that it uses de-mineralized water as a coolant, just as all naval reactors do. It is unlikely that we had the United States Air Force, deliver demin water to that plant. They could and WOULD use any water to cool it in a pinch, assuming they could find a way to pump it into the reactor's containment vessel. They would be understandably reluctant to use anything other than de-mineralized water as a coolant, as it would then cause a major contamination problem. If we flew in anything, and I am not saying that we did, it would have been parts for the standby diesel generator sets, not reactor coolant.

  12. davefb

    the stuff they dropped off

    whilst it might have been water, it's also been reported that they supplied extra batteries. which sort of makes more sense.

    1. The Cube

      Maybe they should have flown in

      An extension lead to plug it into the sub instead, it is going to need a lot of planes to keep flying the submarine batteries back and forth to be charged up by the sub's nuke ;-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Judging from the videos I have seen...

      ...the USAF would not have been able to land anywhere near that plant with any sizeable load. So I'm now thinking that we have Hillary Clinton caught in yet another She is quick to lie whenever glory is at stake.

  13. HMB

    Core Catchers

    What I'd really like to know is if the facility and reactor design has a core catcher.

    A core catcher is an absolutely bonkers but incredibly brilliant high temp ceramic dish that as you guessed, can catch a meltdown and let it cool with perfect safety without breach of primary containment.

    Yes our new plants have them.

    The line "We had a core meltdown, but it's not serious to the environment or local population." Now that would be a line that just shows how much things have moved on and how safe the plants can be.

    A meltdown then becomes just be a large economic cost of repairing/decommissioning the affected plant. You could work at the plant and still be perfectly safe.

    Yes of course a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor would be better, but we have to wait for China to become world leader and sell us the tech first don't we? Because we're not forward looking enough to do that sort of thing anymore.

    Caution and respect is absolutely the right way to go with how to treat nuclear, but if you give it that, it could save the world. Without nuclear power I'd be seriously worried about World War III, The Last Struggle for resources, being a real shitter.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Due for retirement in two weeks?

    If I'm reading this right, that reactor was due to be shut down for good on March 26th:

    Far be it for me to suggest /anything/, but I can imagine a conversation along the lines of - those backup generators are a bit ropey, could spend money on them, but hey, they've only got to last another two weeks...

  15. Lars Silver badge

    Lets not forget

    That the water, cooling the systems, does not get radioactive and that the stuff that is burning now, in Japan, is oil and not a nuclear plant. And should I finish bye saying, I hope it will stay that way, it sounds like the classic "have you stopped beating your wife".

  16. corestore

    Interesting to see..

    The Japanese being (we hope) relatively open about the situation; they have a track record for covering up and denying problems in nuclear plants in the past:

  17. Tom 260

    BBC Science Correspondent

    Does anyone else think that BBC are employing Stephen Fry's understudies as science correspondents today? The amount of completely wrong information they're spouting is ludicrous...

    The "whirlpool" that seems to be getting featured a lot on the telly is merely a surface eddy caused by the water rushing past the end of a breakwater, yet one chap on the BBC was insisting that if the boat didn't start its engines and get clear, it would be sucked down into the "vortex" and reach the bottom of the sea... Pirates of the Carribean anyone? He was also claiming that the tsunami was maintaining speeds of 500mph over the land, yet it's because it slows down as it approaches land that it gains much of its height! Earlier in the day one of the science correspondents was the only person I've heard all day to refer to the Richter scale, which hasn't been used since the late 1970s, even the news readers were getting that one right...

    Mind you, Sky weren't escaping the idiocy either, for much of the morning they were describing (with hand-drawn diagrams, they seem to like this new graphics app that lets them draw crudely on maps of the world, rather than use charts provided for the world's press by the Japanese Met Office & others) the fault zone as a transform fault, with the Asian plate moving north and the Pacific plate moving south. Transform faults can't even create tsunamis, as it requires the uplift of a thrust fault to displace the water.

  18. Figgus

    The wonders of 70's design?

    [i]According to Reuters, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association – a nuclear industry trade group – told them that "we understand this situation is under control," after a battery-powered backup system was brought online and began pumping cooling water back into the affected reactor.

    A source familiar with battery-power backup cooling systems, however, told the NYT that such systems typically have enough juice for only about four hours of operation. Should a consistent source of power not be restored by that point, the cooling water would boil away, and a fuel-rod meltdown would likely occur.[/i]

    If only they had a nearby nuclear power plant to get power from, they wouldn't have to rely on batteries to run the coolant pumps.

  19. HMB

    What sort of Radioactive Steam?

    Looking at the beeb's twitter feed, the situation is not getting any better. Pressure has built up in the reactor vessels and has had to be vented into the containment areas. It may be that further venting to the environment might be required if this continues.

    The big question is of course, is if radioactive steam is released, what radioactive products would it actually have in it? With water only going heavy through neutron capture, the only radioactive escape artist I could think of would be Xenon from the fission products. Can anyone (who knows what they're on about) expand on this?

    1. bubba-bear

      Cesium and iodine

      The iodine has an 8 day half-life, but the cesium has a rather long half-life.

  20. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Let's keep in mind these are *fourty* year old reactors

    The design rules and respect for how easily you should be able to shut them down *without* external power have changed a bit.

  21. peter_dtm


    It is a nuclear emergency because international agreements designate ANY emergency that takes place at a nuclear plant IS a Nuclear emergency. That would include some one having a heart attack.

    For an ongoing engineering discussion try

    No, it's nothing to do with Climate Change, that blog does a lot of science too

  22. Andrew Moore


    It looks like Japan's largest non-Godzilla-related disaster could actually create Godzilla!

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Japan now has volcanoes

    I been reading this site for a while now and I know you techies are a pretty rational bunch. But is anyone here getting into the End Times vibe? I just read that Japan now has volcanoes going off:

    Are rational explanations and the whole coincidence thing getting overused here?

  24. Alan Brown Silver badge


    The issue with meltdown is not "china syndrome" - the containment building is concrete and even if molten it won't get through that.

    The risk is that the fuel melts its way out of the containment vessel (basically a boiler), lands in the bottom of the containment building (full of water) and the resulting explosion when the containment building can no longer contain the steam pressure scatters fuel over the surrounding area. That's not going to happen as the reaction has stopped.

    As the containment vessel has already popped (thanks to the boiler being vented into the containment building and then an aftershock hitting that when at design pressure limits), what would happen now is a big boiling mess.

    There was no smoke plume. Just a steam cloud and concrete dust. There might be some tritium in it, but there's some in seawater anyway and most of it went out to sea.

    The boiler itself can be prevented from bursting simply by continuing to vent it.

    The big issue now is containing the other reactors. As other have stated, cleanup is expensive.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Good article here..

  26. alis

    Molten blob "not dangerous"

    The reason there would have been a hydrogen explosion is the build up of hydrogen produced asa result of the disassociation of hydrogen and oxygen from the coolant water in contact with a super hot core. This implies a significant loss of cooling capability in the core and the potential for a meltdown.

    As a note the molten blob caused by a melt down is hotter still, so hot it can melt through the containment vessel. All things considered attempting to characterise this as "not dangerous" is not reasonable - something a seemingly pro-nuclear and damn the consequences proponent said earlier.

    Nuclear power can be safe if we spend enough money on it. If we do that then it's WAY too expensive. If we don't spend the money then we do things like build nuclear power stations in earthquake zones, on unstable shingle beaches, in areas with inadequate communications links and don't plan for disposal of the waste. Ahh - we did all of that and more - this strongly implies that we do not actually know how expensive safe nuclear power is and until we do ploughing ahead is just not rational.

  27. alis

    Some comments on other's views:

    The only nuclear reactors that cannot meltdown are ones that have a negative power gradient at high temperatures – i.e. they switch themselves off. The only design for that is one that has existed for 50 years but has never been developed, which uses a large bed of fuel with water flowing over it rather than a high density fuel core. Why has it not been developed? 70% of all nuclear power r&d has been from Defence budgets. The fuel bed reactor would never fit on a submarine, as the "core" and the supporting plant is big. So while the Canadian Candu reactor design is safer than the 1970’s generation of reactors its still a pressurised water reactor that can lose coolant. There is a reason the Chinese are building their reactors as fuel bed ones, but its a very new technology as the r&d has not been done and we don't know how they will fare or how expensive they will actually be. Aldo China has a LOT of land and a polictical stance to build them wherever they want, shall we say. Hands up who wants 20 or more acres of Nuclear Power station next to their village?

    Nuclear power is not as cheap as fossil fuel. Far from it. If you include the lifetime costs of fuel and dealing with waste and you take away the government levy on energy bills and the massive costs of an accidents then you end up with a very expensive power generation method. This is the best argument against nuclear power in my opinion – it costs too much to do correctly. For instance we don’t know how expensive its going to be to store all the high level radioactive waste that will remain lethal for millennia – we don’t know how/where or even when we are going to be able to long term store it. The fuel waste at Torness is still there and its been running since the 1960s – why? There is nowhere to put it so it stays in the cooling ponds rusting.

    An example of how nuclear power does not pay for itself can be seen in the story of Bradwell – it was found that the nuclear core was dangerously fragile as a result of neutron bombardment and was at risk of cracking open. Stop the power station? No – wrap the core in ductile copper wire to keep it running. Why? It had not yet saved enough money to pay for its own decommissioning after over 35 years of service. Its now no longer running after the nuclear watchdog closed it down, and I believe it had to be bailed out by public money.

    Nuclear power is not a zero emissions technology. Ask the people who work and live near the mines (and its getting increasingly difficult to mine) on land poisoned by the mercury used to dissolve the heavy metals out of the ore, the dirty power stations used to power the factories and mining which are almost entirely in developing or economically challenged countries. Then there are the costs for the transport of fuel and waste from continent to continent. Even looking at CO2 emissions there is a significant cost to nuclear power production, though admittedly much less than fossil fuels.

    There is a lot of rubbish spouted about Nuclear Power, unfortunately. There is blinkered view of the technophiles (of which I am one, just not blinkered I hope) who miss the fact that it is actually a glorified steam engine using a dangerous fuel and the real sexy technologies are in the renewables, efficiency and microgeneration, there is the blinkered/desperate view of the economists and politicians who miss or deliberately avoid the true lifecycle costs of a unit of nuclear generated energy and there is the unfortunately blinkered view of some greens who concentrate on mutated babies rather than economics, understandably from a human point of view, but it will not win the argument.

    Then there is the increased threat of nuclear weaponised nations and terror attacks on nuclear installations or using “primitive” weapons. I have been reliably informed that a physics graduate with a second class degree, a well stocked workshop, 10 kilos of weapons grade nuclear material, some semtex and a half decent physics and engineering library could build a very dirty kiloton yield atom bomb. Looking at what I know I totally believe I could.

    However Nuclear power is the wrong way to go because it costs too much. Its that simple from my point of view. The problem is we aren’t investing anywhere NEAR as much in alternatives, even now, as we are in Nuclear so we are left walking down a one way road.

    As far as Japan is concerned building Nuclear power stations in an earthquake zone is stupid, and was opposed at the time for the very reasons being seen now – not rocket science. And just so we don’t think how clever we are in this country by comparison, for instance building a nuclear power station on a shingle beach is stupid particularly when in recorded history a storm has changed the coastline by over a mile and normal everyday longshore drift requires trucks to run 24 hours a day 365 days a year to return the tens of tons of shingle removed from in front of the station. Dungeoness, its called.

    Also the danger from a loss of coolant and a meltdown is not the molten blob (its called the elephants foot in Chernobyl), it’s the steam explosion that results from a bare surface of the core being exposed as the water level drops. No containment building that would be feasible or economically possible can withstand that explosion, and it creates a LOT of radioactive dust from the building and core material ejected. It’s the reason that the helicopter pilot who repeatedly dropped sand on the Chernobyl core continued to fly. He knew that he had absolutely no hope of surviving the required repeated flights through the plume of smoke, but he was a trained nuclear hazmat person and knew if it was not done then 10000s could die. Not an exaggeration. He survived 3 weeks.

    There is a perception that this is a problem with shoddy Russian technology, and there is some truth to that. But I refer you to Three Mile Island incident. A reactor of the same basic design as many many reactors and the proposed new reactors in this country was something like 4 hours way from a catastrophic failure generating a steam explosion etc. after its coolant systems failed. That was some time ago, and things are much better now, but it only takes one, or sabotage etc. and power stations are built by the lowest tender.


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