The news when I initially read it in The Jamaica Observer, sent a cold shiver down my spine. Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan on Friday March 11 2011! Same date as the Apple iPad Launch and Telecom Provider Digicel and America Movil swapping Telecom Operations in Jamaica (CLARO Jamaica to be exact!), El Salvador and Honduras (both Digicel outfits!) respectively. Technology “earthquakes” in their own right, cannon fodder for two (2) separate articles!
Then, like now, there was a accompanying Tsunami, as the shift in the Earth’s crust raised up a wall of water that pushed towards shore, killing all in it path. Why it resonates with me and makes me sympathize even more, however, is that in this case, not only was the earthquake bigger, a decent 8.9, the biggest in Japan’s history, but it has raised the ugly spectre of Chernobyl in this Asian Tiger of the Orient.
If you have been reading, the Earthquake and Tsunami combo, did more than just kill a few hundred thousand people on the Japanese archipelago located on the so-called Ring of Fire, smack dab on the edge of the Pacific Plate. The Japanese have long accepted the risks of living with the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant run by Tokyo Power Electric Co, and the modern comforts it brings in terms of cheap electricity.
For geographic reference, Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (Dai-ichi simply means “number 1”) is located some 250 km north of Tokyo City, Japan’s Capital and the damaged Fukushima Number 1 Nuclear Reactor is actually located in Okuma, some 50 miles (83km) from Fukushima City.
Thus, it was no surprise to many that their Electric Trains and other feats of engineering were accomplished thanks to the availability of cheap Nuclear Energy. What did surprise many was when the Earthquake struck, it ruptured the Water Cooling System for their Nuclear Reactor that supplies Tokyo City, capital of Japan with Electricity.
It resulted in a loss of control over the Reactor due to a failure of the Diesel Generators that pump the Heavy Water as well as control the Air Filters and Air Pumps. Regular water is used under normal operation, which gradually via irradiation becomes Heavy Water (H2O with Deuterium, Hydrogen with two Protons and one Neutron!!) due to constant exposure to the Nuclear Fuel Rods. Thus the Heavy Water used to extract Thermal Heat from the Nuclear Reactor’s Core, was leaking due to the hit from the Tsunami.
Good to point out that a Nuclear Reactor, despite the ominous sounding name, is nothing more than an over-glorified steam engine. It uses Heavy Water to transfer waste heat from the controlled Nuclear Reactions of the unstable isotope of Uranium, namely Uranium-235 in Nuclear Fuel Rods, set off by firing Neutrons. The Heavy Water also acts as a natural Modifier and Cooling Jacket.
In the case of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, they use MOX (Mixed Oxide) or UO (Uranium Oxide) of the Uranium to power the reactor. My focus is on the UO Reactor Fuel.
To reduce the amount of highly energetic Neutrons, the enriched Uranium-235, which is unstable, is mixed with a 92% by mass of Uranium-238, its more stable isotope cousin. Uranium-235 is made either via the bombardment of Uranium-238 with a strong Gamma Ray source.
The more popular and cheaper way, however, is via centrifuging a solution of Uranium Hexachloride, with the heavier isotope of Uranium-238 sinking to the bottom of the centrifuge and the more unstable Uranium-235 floating to the top of the Centrifuging Chamber and removed by Decanting. These processes, which are different examples of Enrichment, are Trade Secret among Nuclear Nations unraveled with the help of a little Inorganic Chemistry!
Uranium-238, which is has two (2) extra Protons in its Atomic Nuclei, so it is more stable. Somewhat like adding more Sugar and Cream to your cocoa so it reacts a lot better with on your tongue!
The Heavy Water is usually pushed via Circulator Pumps through the Nuclear Fuel Rods in a Closed Circulatory Loop so as to avoid contaminating drinking water supplies. Consequently, the Heavy Water has to be ultra-pure, with no dissolved impurities that may clog the Circulator Pumps.
As the Reaction in the Sealed Nuclear Chamber proceeds, Graphite Rods, which act as Moderators for the Nuclear Reaction, are inserted and withdrawn from the Reactor Core to control the rate of Nuclear Decay. This process of Nuclear Decay is what releases the Neutrons in the first place for the Controlled Nuclear Reaction to take place.
Graphite Rods or Moderators absorb the extra highly energetic Neutrons ejected from the Uranium-235 Nuclear Fuel Rods that may push the controlled Nuclear Reaction into a more critical State call a Chain Reaction that may lead to a Nuclear Explosion.
Thus they slow down the Controlled Nuclear Reaction, but by themselves, they cannot prevent a Thermal Runaway Reaction, or “Reactor Meltdown”, as the Media often sensationalizes the process.
If you work at a Nuclear Power Plant, the ever present smell of Ozone near to the Reactor Chamber, which is a low-pressure, double-walled sealed Chamber should remind you of the smell immediately after a lightning strike.
However, the air is not radioactive. Air Filters and Air Pumps remove any traces of Radioactive Dust or Particulates from the air extracted from the Reactor Chamber, necessary to keep the Nuclear Reactor cool.
These Air Filters and Air Pumps are critical to the function of the Nuclear Reactor and must be periodically changed to prevent overheating and more importantly, contamination of the Nuclear Power Plant, thus reducing the risk of Radiation Exposure to Employees.
Both the Air Filters and Air Pumps and Circulator Pumps for the Closed Heavy Water Circulatory Reservoir are run by electricity from the Nuclear Reactors, with large traditional Bunker-Seed Oil or Diesel Standby Generators to provide backup power.
This, should an Emergency Shutdown of the Nuclear Reactor e.g. the twenty five (25) to fifty (50) year maintenance cleaning cycle for the spent Nuclear Fuel Rods. It is also necessary as well as to provide a layer of Power Redundancy for the Nuclear Reactor.
Further protection of the outside environment is provided by the Reactor Inner Chamber being sealed with thick Steel, with the Outer Wall of the Inner Chamber of the sealed chamber being encase in at least ten (10) feet of stressed concrete. This is the outer Concrete Dome often shown in the Media, the one thing they do get right!
Insertion and removal of the Nuclear Fuel Rods as well as the Graphite Rods or Moderators is done by robotic controls; humans are not allowed in the Reactor Chamber!
The Heavy Water used to transfer the Waste Heat from the Nuclear Fuel Rods is kept in either a large Reservoir or in Underground or Surface Holding Tanks. Excess Steam from being released by a giant smokestack so designed to electro-statically remove Radioactive Dust or Particulates in the Steam.
So now it becomes apparent what happened at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power in Tokyo Japan. The Earthquake must have either ruptured the Air Filters and Air Pumps, the Closed Heavy Water Circulatory System – or worse – shutdown the backup Diesel Generators that independently run these systems to maintain Cooling.
Thus, not enough Heavy Water was present to cool the Nuclear Reactor, as it was apparently leaking out of the Reactor chamber. The Nuclear Fuel Rods, now exposed to the bare air in the Reactor Chamber, began to spirally upwards in temperature, uncontrolled.
This is because without the Heavy Water as an additional Modifier and Cooling Jacket, the Graphite Control Rods were not sufficient to control the runaway Chain Reaction that threatened to engulf Tokyo in another Hiroshima sized explosion.
Thus in their desperation, the Tokyo Power Electric Co frantically began manually pumping Seawater into the now cracked Reactor Chamber, as the Air was becoming contaminated, possibly putting Tokyo City in danger of Breathing Radioactive Air.
But by then it was too late. The Nuclear Fuel Rods, now super hot, reacted with the regular Seawater (H2O, one Proton, one Neutron in the Hydrogen Nuclei!!) and turned into steam. The energetic Neutrons, now freely escaping from the exposed Nuclear Fuel Rods, began ionizing the steam into Hydrogen and Oxygen.
Thanks to intense heat of the Nuclear Fuel Rods, now with temperatures reaching close to those of the Sun, the ensuing explosion was inevitable . However, they Engineers prevented a worse scenario: Nuclear Meltdown or worse a Nuclear Fission Explosion.
Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (May I now call it that?) is slowly beginning to look a lot like Chernobyl on June 2nd 1986. I won’t even go back there to describe that horror of 100 mile radius of unlivable Ukraine. The scenes of empty Tokyo streets and it is not even Sunday is eerily similar . But the purchases of Geiger counters and breathing masks by the Japanese seen out on the streets, betray their fear of the invisible death of Radioactive Poisoning.
So how does this affect the production of Consumer Electronics? And what if any, are the implication for us here in Jamaica? A detailed analysis coming in my next article.
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