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From Far Labs, a Vivid Picture Emerges of Japan Crisis

 

April 02, 2011

From Far Labs, a Vivid Picture Emerges of Japan Crisis

For the clearest picture of what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, talk to scientists thousands of miles away.

Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, via Reuters

Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force towed a United States military barge carrying water for cooling toward the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Thursday.

 
Multimedia

Thanks to the unfamiliar but sophisticated art of atomic forensics, experts around the world have been able to document the situation vividly. Over decades, they have become very good at illuminating the hidden workings of nuclear power plants from afar, turning scraps of information into detailed analyses.

For example, an analysis by a French energy company revealed far more about the condition of the plant’s reactors than the Japanese have ever described: water levels at the reactor cores dropping by as much as three-quarters, and temperatures in those cores soaring to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to burn and melt the zirconium casings that protect the fuel rods.

Scientists in Europe and America also know from observing the explosions of hydrogen gas at the plant that the nuclear fuel rods had heated to very dangerous levels, and from radioactive plumes how far the rods had disintegrated.

At the same time, the evaluations also show that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi escaped the deadliest outcomes — a complete meltdown of the plant.

Most of these computer-based forensics systems were developed after the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, when regulators found they were essentially blind to what was happening in the reactor. Since then, to satisfy regulators, companies that run nuclear power plants use snippets of information coming out of a plant to develop simulations of what is happening inside and to perform a variety of risk evaluations.

Indeed, the detailed assessments of the Japanese reactors that Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave on Friday — when he told reporters that about 70 percent of the core of one reactor had been damaged, and that another reactor had undergone a 33 percent meltdown — came from forensic modeling.

The bits of information that drive these analyses range from the simple to the complex. They can include everything from the length of time a reactor core lacked cooling water to the subtleties of the gases and radioactive particles being emitted from the plant. Engineers feed the data points into computer simulations that churn out detailed portraits of the imperceptible, including many specifics on the melting of the hot fuel cores.

Governments and companies now possess dozens of these independently developed computer programs, known in industry jargon as “safety codes.” Many of these institutions — including ones in Japan — are relying on forensic modeling to analyze the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi to plan for a range of activities, from evacuations to forecasting the likely outcome.

“The codes got better and better” after the accident at Three Mile Island revealed the poor state of reactor assessment, said Michael W. Golay, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

These portraits of the Japanese disaster tend to be proprietary and confidential, and in some cases secret. One reason the assessments are enormously sensitive for industry and government is the relative lack of precedent: The atomic age has seen the construction of nearly 600 civilian power plants, but according to the World Nuclear Association, only three have undergone serious accidents in which their fuel cores melted down.

Now, as a result of the crisis in Japan, the atomic simulations suggest that the number of serious accidents has suddenly doubled, with three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in some stage of meltdown. Even so, the public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic.

“They don’t want to go there,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999, was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy. “The spin is all about reassurance.”

If events in Japan unfold as they did at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the forensic modeling could go on for some time. It took more than three years before engineers lowered a camera to visually inspect the damaged core of the Pennsylvania reactor, and another year to map the extent of the destruction. The core turned out to be about half melted.


 
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