The ground hadn’t stopped shaking. Tsunami waters had not receded. And yet coverage of this awful natural disaster – a scene of almost unfathomable devastation and death – was already giving way to single-minded focus on radiation exposure and meltdowns.
Addressing justifiable concerns is essential, to allay fears and refocus attention on finding the missing, burying the dead, helping 450,000 displaced people, and rebuilding ravaged communities.
Like a third of nuclear plants in American service today, providing 20% of all US electricity, the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant is a “boiling water reactor.” Uranium in fuel rods generates heat to turn water into steam that drives turbines, which power generators.
Though not designed or built according to current standards, the Japanese plant had many upgrades and enhancements over the years. For the most part, they worked.
Originally designed to withstand a Richter scale magnitude 8 quake, Fukushima was struck by a magnitude 9 earthquake. The tremor carried ten times the power and released 32 times more energy than an 8, and rattled the plant with more “peak ground acceleration” than it was designed for.
Fukushima withstood all that. But then a 45-foot tsunami roared over the plant’s 25-foot-high seawall, took out its backup diesel generators and knocked out electricity for miles. After backup batteries died, fuel rods and spent fuel began to overheat and cause explosions and radiation leaks that crews are still battling, mostly with increasing success.
While 28,000 people are dead or missing from the earthquake and tsunami, nuclear fuel damage appears to be short of a meltdown. Radiation levels are being addressed though distribution of potassium iodide tablets, evacuations for several miles around the plant, food supply testing, and other measures.
That is reassuring. But better reactor designs are clearly needed, and are under development. High temperature gas reactors employ helium, rather than water, as a coolant. One version, the pebble bed modular reactor, replaces fuel rods with 2-inch-diameter graphite balls containing uranium granules. The South African version has been designed, and sub-assemblies and fuel balls manufactured and tested successfully, but economics have put the project on hold. A Chinese pebble bed design is under construction.
Another reactor type could be powered by molten fluoride salt containing thorium. This fuel is more plentiful and more easily handled than uranium, and produces more energy per volume of fuel.
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