It’s hard to watch TV these days but I’m glued to the set.
Our friend is in the midst of it all in Japan, not far from the reactors. Every email from him is precious and freaky.
His apartment was not damaged; yet his parents’ city to the north half swept away. They happened to live up on a terrace and are safe — undoubtedly many more of his friends there did not have such luck.
His office was badly damaged — the staff go in to clean but they have no water. He has email and work. His parents have no gas or power.
Radiation levels rise and he stays inside, but reports that outside children play in the street. He’s worried about those kids, and that was before the most recent blast.
It’s hard to understand the Richter scale, I find. It always sounds like each number is ‘just a bit’ more. But when I saw a YouTube video of the big quake as recorded by seismic equipment in Scotland, thousands of kilometres away, I got it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ij-EW7EBuI&NR=1).
It’s also difficult to understand the differences in reactors and what is happening. A scientific friend who is disgusted with the lack of knowledge in the media sent me a few files that were very helpful in clarifying the differences (http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/13/fukushima-simple-explanation/).
I’ll try to summarize some of the information from that link in layman’s terms.
It appears that references to Chernobyl are completely inaccurate. Chernobyl did not have the several layers of containments that the Fukushima reactors have.
Criticisms of Japan having nuclear facilities are unfair considering it has no fossil fuels of its own. Importing them would be very expensive and environmentally dangerous as well.
Likewise, I must say that my heart goes out to the workers at the Fukushima plant, as does my respect in that they are continuing to try to stop the cascading reactions in the face of serious injury or death to themselves.
Apparently these facilities have cores that are made of a series of tubes stuffed with ceramic pellets that have the radioactive elements within the ceramics. Around this are three layers of containment — ranging from a thick steel body armour, to larger layers of physical constructions. The core can superheat if it is not cooled with water — and when the earthquake knocked out power, the onsite generators kicked in; but then the tsunami, much higher than ever anticipated in the design, swept in and knocked out the generators.
Pumping seawater onto hot rods creates steam — a steam so hot that even the oxygen and hydrogen separate as molecules, and then go ‘boom.’ That’s what blew the roof off. (Note: Hydrogen is what powers the space shuttle off the launch pad.)
But inside the building there are still two layers of containment that were not blown apart — at least we think not, until the most recent blast. It is impossible to know because no one can get close with temperatures from 1,000 to 2,000C and much radioactivity at close range up top — and heat rises. Damaged gauges are not reporting accurate information anymore.
Within that steam are radioactive elements, but from most of the reactors these elements are of a lower grade for which the radioactivity quickly dies once liberated. But one reactor contains plutonium — a much more pernicious element that is quickly toxic in small amounts if breathed in.
The process of cooling is a long process because the plants have a series of reactions that are in progress. Each stage (i.e. flooding with seawater) leads to a reaction such as a build-up of steam or gases that must be vented, which leads to another stage in the cool-down, etc., etc. If only the workers had just one problem to deal with, the situation would probably be stabilized by now, but no such luck.
So now we wait and see.
As this tragedy unfolds, will the environmental lobby now divest themselves of iPods, iPads, computers, plasma TVs and all the many brilliant Japanese elements and innovations that fuel our high-tech world — including those fuel-efficient cars?
All of these were fuelled in their manufacture by nuclear energy.
My friend sent some sage advice of Dr. Kary Mullis: “The future of the Earth has got nothing to do with the creatures that live clustered along the shores of its great bodies of water. We are just here for the ride. And the ride is not smooth. …We are a thin layer of moss on a huge rock. We are a little biologic phenomenon that makes words and thoughts and babies, but we don’t even tickle the soles of the feet of our planet. The appropriate demeanor for a human is to feel lucky that he is alive and to humble himself in the face of the immensity of things. … ”
We are very lucky.
Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka-based freelance columnist.