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Will Catastrophe in Japan Stop New Nuclear Plants in US?


Is dirty coal safer? Is cheap natural gas the immediate response? Energy has had a tough 12 months, and big questions are now being raised.

To nuke, or not to nuke. That is the question.

I'm not talking about bombs, just your friendly nuclear power plant down the road. The mess in Japan is, well, a mess. But, let's step back and take a non-hysterical look at what actually happened at the nuclear power plants in Japan as the Magnitude-9 earthquake hit. Immediately as the tremors hit, the plant's automatic controls slammed the control rods into the core of the reactor and immediately stopped the fission of uranium. Paraphrasing Martha Stewart, that was a really, really good thing, because if it didn't happen, things would be really, really bad now.

Nuclear reactors speed up the natural splitting of radioactive elements (usually Uranium-235; the 235 stands for the sum of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the uranium atom). When U-235 breaks apart it produces at least two new atoms. Cesium and iodine are common byproducts of U-235 fission. In addition, there is a tremendous amount of heat released as the splitting occurs. From a 30,000-foot viewpoint (about as close as you probably want to get to these Japanese nukes at the moment), a nuclear power plant looks pretty similar to a coal-fired power plant. There is a heat source that creates steam, the steam runs through a turbine, and electricity is generated.

There is one difference between coal and nukes and it is critical. If you stop feeding coal or oxygen to a coal plant, it stops generating additional heat. Stopping uranium fission in a nuke doesn't completely stop additional heat generation. Here's why: Virtually all of the initial new atoms formed by U-235 fission are also radioactive, and many decay to a more stable version quickly. This happens in seconds, minutes, or hours, and in the process, a lot of heat is released.

Back to the reactor. These reactors were (I'm using were, not "are" for a reason we will get to...) boiling water reactors, meaning that water around the core was heated, steam was generated and sent to a turbine, electricity was generated, and the water was cooled and returned to the core to be recycled again. This process takes pumps, it doesn't happen on its own. The pumps need electrical power.

The earthquake hits, control rods stop the fission reaction, the plant starts to shut down, but the main power grid is wiped out. The cesium and iodine are still banging out new heat and the temperature and pressure starts to build in the reactor. No problem, all these plants have backup diesel generators to keep the cooling pumps running. Twenty minutes later the tsunami hits. As good as Japanese engineering is making cars, TVs, and all sorts of goods, they built the nukes a little too low above sea level for a Mag 9 tsunami. The diesel generators got wiped out, but there were still battery backups to keep the pumps running for a while. New backup generation equipment had to get there in time, but it didn't happen.

Back to the reactor, again. New heat is still being produced, but now there is no circulation of cooling water. Just like a pressure cooker on a stove, the heat and pressure starts rising but there is no immediate way to stop it. The safest thing to do is open a pressure relief valve on the containment shell to reduce the internal pressure. This does release some radioactivity to the local area, but it's very short-lived stuff. Inside, the water level is being reduced and the critical issue is keeping the fuel rods under water. The uranium oxide, the actual chemical form in the fuel rods, melts around 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the uranium pellets are clad by a zironium metal alloy that melts at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The zirconium alloy is designed to keep all of the cesium, iodine, and everything else tightly contained in the fuel rod. If a fuel rod fails under normal operation, some cesium and iodine could leak into the cooling water. That's really not that big a deal. However, if radioactive cesium or iodine is detected in the air, then the logical explanation is that the fuel rod melted because the core is uncovered. There is one other big clue to an uncovering. Water heated to extremely high temperatures breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen. That temperature is around the same temperature of the zirconium alloy melting point. Since cesium was detected outside of the plant and a hydrogen explosion occurred, it seems rather obvious that the core did become partially uncovered. Tokyo Electric, the owner and operator of the plant, has thrown in the towel and started to pump seawater into the unit. As corrosive as saltwater is, this plant is now a "were" -- it will never be run again. Here's a blog post from a guy at MIT that discusses the whole subject in more detail.

This was a pretty long introduction, but the stakes are very high. Does this stop any new nuke plants in the US? Is dirty coal safer? Is cheap natural gas the immediate response? There are a lot of big questions being raised here. My personal viewpoint is that despite the horrendous events, the nuke plant has been controlled without anyone apparently being killed, just like Three Mile Island.

Peak oil is coming some day, and I am on record saying that batteries are the answer to local transportation (see Who Killed the Hydrogen-Powered Car?). Nukes will be a critical supplier of base load electricity at night to recharge batteries.

Between the Gulf oil spill and now Japan, energy has had a tough 12 months. I'm not coming up with any obvious plays today. I'd take profits in any pop in coal or natural gas stocks based solely on a Japan reaction. The fallout (bad word choice) from Japan will be substantial, but it's too early to make any bets.

Starting today and lasting through the end of March, 100% of the donations made to The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children's Education will be channeled to the children of Japan as they attempt to find their footing following this natural disaster; and to kick off this drive, we'll pledge $5000 to get it started. Please do what you can, as it will add up, and thanks.
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