Thursday, March 17, 2011

Do the nuclear reactors in Japan have a flawed design? (Democracy Now)

Today's episode of Democracy Now (Mar 17, 2011) contains some, uh, explosive claims from Karl Grossman and Paul Gunter. What they say is that nuclear fuel rods are themselves designed with explosive materials. Not the "fuel" (uranium) inside the fuel rods, but the rods. The design of the fuel rods themselves requires being under water to prevent explosions. It's probably better if I quote from the report rather than try to replicate it with my words:

Interviewed were: Karl Grossman, investigative journalist and professor of journalism at SUNY College at Old Westbury. He is author of several books on the nuclear industry. Paul Gunter, reactor oversight project director at nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. He is the co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance anti-nuclear group.

The main thrust of the story was that nuclear officials were warned and knew of design flaws and the level of danger. But the powers that be deployed the risky design that, as we'll see in a minute, is explosive by nature. However as I noted yesterday just because the powers that be screwed up doesn't absolve us from our own responsibility in this. It is our purchase of electricity which causes the electricity companies to exist. (see: Higher Purpose: Japans earthquake and nuclear crisis asks us what we really want)

JUAN GONZALEZ: Japan is facing an unprecedented triple crisis caused by the earthquake, tsunami and the partial nuclear meltdown. The official death toll has now risen to above 5,000, while 9,400 people remain missing. Fears of radioactivity have severely hampered relief efforts in parts of northern Japan, which was hit with a snow storm on Wednesday.

We should remember that the nuclear radiation emissions so far essentially haven't caused any deaths. It is the flooding and earthquake. The level of fear our society has over anything nuclear is obvious here. The earthquake and tsunami would itself be a big story with lots of coverage (e.g. the Haitian earthquake last year) but it's the nuclear issue that's getting the coverage.

PAUL GUNTER: Well, Unit 3 is burning what they call plutonium oxide. They like to call it MOX as an acronym rather than POX, but in fact it’s plutonium oxide. This fuel has a lower melting point, for one, and it’s just loaded with plutonium, which is highly toxic at micro levels.


KARL GROSSMAN: What has happened here is an enormous nuclear power tragedy, and we’re on the cusp, I fear, of an even more horrific tragedy, with a loss of cool down accident—and we have multiple loss of cool down accidents underway—and, importantly, breach of containment. And as Paul said, that’s quite possible now. Just the most enormous disaster, except for a loss of water accident in a spent fuel pool, where you have tons upon tons of nuclear poisons—no containment, except for some corrugated steel ceiling. That stuff gets out in a loss of water accident, and it would get out explosively, because of the fuel rods being made of zirconium. And I could explain that. It will just burst into the environment, become airborne, affect not only Japan but much of the world.

Here's where he's setting up the the fuel rods being explosive claim. But, let's unpack this paragraph a bit. There are two sets of nuclear rods - those in the reactor being actively used to generate power - and those in the spent fuel pond. See Rachel Maddow compares the Japan nuclear disaster to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl for some insight into the distinction. As Rachel reported, the spent fuel pool has lost its cooling water. Also the spent fuel pool doesn't have the same quality of containment as the reactor core. The reactor core on these plants has three layers of building and a gigantic steel vessel. The spent fuel pool is simply a pool of water in a simple building, and in these reactors this pool is part of the outer containment building and hence as the containment building has blown up the spent fuel pools are now essentially open to the atmosphere with zero protection.

KARL GROSSMAN: Yeah. They have known the consequences all along. This is a report—it’s called "Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2"—done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not Greenpeace, and it projects peak early fatalities, peak injuries, peak cancer deaths, scale cost in billions in terms of property damage, and a large hunk of the earth being rendered uninhabitable for millennia. And just, for example, for the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant, which is about 35 miles from where we sit now in New York, 50,000 peak early fatalities; 167,000 peak early injuries; cancer deaths, 14,000; scale cost of billions, they say $314 billion—in 1980s dollars, we’re talking about a trillion.

As to the likelihood of a severe core melt accident, in 1985 the NRC acknowledged that, over a 20-year period, the likelihood of a severe core melt accident to be basically 50/50 among the 100 nuclear power plants—there’s 104 now—in the United States. They’ve known all along here in this country that disaster could come, and there’s a good likelihood of it coming, and they’ve known the consequences.

The danger has been known for years - and essentially ignored.

KARL GROSSMAN: ... "What does the NRC and its staff believe the likelihood to be of a severe core meltdown?" So, you know, when you hear these lines about, "Oh, the chances of a severe core meltdown, infinitesimal," and if there is, like you’re hearing these reports out of Japan, an accident, "Oh, just some minor effects among the population"—not at all.

You go to the documents. And many of them were, well, secret for years. In my book—I did a book in 1980, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know about Nuclear Power—there’s a line in a Atomic Energy Commission report, "WASH-740-Update": "The possible size of the area of such a disaster might be equal to that of the State of Pennsylvania"—in other words, covering the whole state of what would be the state of Pennsylvania, which almost occurred with the Three Mile Island accident. We’re talking about huge disasters here. ...

And just let me mention one other thing. Everybody should, when you hear about these hydrogen explosions, understand that the fuel rods are composed of a substance called zircaloy. It’s based on something called zirconium. And way back in the late '40s and ’50s, they were looking for something to build these—not control rods—fuel rods with, and they decided to use zirconium, because it allowed the neutrons to move from fuel rod to fuel rod and keep the chain reaction going. Problem was zirconium, the other major industrial use is the speck on a flashbulb. Zirconium is explosive; at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it explodes. Before that, it emits hydrogen gases, which have exploded in several of these plants. There's, in a nuclear plant itself—this is in my book—20 tons of zirconium. At spent fuel pool, you’re talking about, because there’s all these old fuel rods, hundreds of tons. That stuff, again, as things get hot, explodes.

That's where it gets to the claim that the reactors were designed to be explosive. This was an accident waiting to happen.

The fuel rods are long tubes - 12 feet or more long - made of zircaloy, as he says. The fuel (uranium) is made of pellets inserted into the rods. The rods are gathered into bundles and lowered into the reactor.

The thing is that zircaloy itself is explosive. As it breaks down it emits hydrogen (the explosions at the plants were said to be hydrogen gas explosions) and the zirconium itself is explosive. If/when the rods reach 2000 degrees F.

UPDATE: A friend pointed out this may have been a bit over the top.

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