Explaining Fukushima to a 12-year-old

Nuclear Power Plant Explodes

As of 12:41 a.m. JPT Saturday, a nuclear power plant had exploded, though there wasn’t a “meltdown.” As of Sunday, there was a second nuclear power plant with reactor problems, also in Fukushima.

Ninety people who hadn’t fled from the rapidly expanding evacuation zone were hospitalized with radiation sickness. Closer to the plant, the radiation exposure collected in a day was equal to typical radiation exposure over the course of a year.

If you want an explanation in technical terms of what happened to the Fukushima Nuclear reactor you can read one here, or a more reassuring one here.

But if you want the process explained as if you were 12 years old, you are in luck. My grandfather designed nuclear power plants in Japan. As a child of the cold war, I had a terrible fear of anything nuclear and I would often probe him about nuclear meltdowns.

Here’s what I remember. My grandfather passed away in 2007, so I can’t ask him to clarify.

The plant has three layers of protection, “the metal clad that encases the uranium fuel, the reactor pressure vessel, and the containment.” The reactor shut down automatically after the quake – something all plants in Japan are designed to do – but the rods were still extremely hot.

These rods need to be cooled by lots and lots of circulating water – the media is calling this water “coolant,” which makes it sound more complicated than it is. This water is kept under intense pressure so it doesn’t boil. When it contacts the extreme heat of radioactive rods, it turns into steam; this steam builds up and needs somewhere to go. This is the work of the safety valve, which had been letting out little bits of pressure (aka “steam”) all day at the Fukushima plant.

At Fukushima, the water was evaporating without being equally replenished. This meant the rods weren’t submerged deep enough, which speeds up the evaporation of water – just as a tea kettle heats faster when you heat one cup of water instead of twelve.

If the steam was hot enough it tries to leave. If the valves were damaged, it would be like welding the spigot of a tea kettle closed. It would eventually explode. If that steam was radioactive, those particles would be spread in the blast. That is a total meltdown of a nuclear power plant.

Thankfully, that is not what has happened in Fukushima.

Imagine that tea kettle again. But instead of being heated from a stove, imagine that the heat is being generated at the center of the teapot: A 2,200-degree (F) fire burning at the center of the kettle, instead of beneath it. Then imagine the fire is encapsulated in another tea kettle. The outside tea kettle could explode, but so long as some water managed to continue circulating inside of the smaller kettle, the pressure would never build up enough to explode.

At Fukushima, the hydrogen in the steam was released from the pressure valve. When hydrogen met oxygen – most likely in a failure of the vents – there was an explosion. To put this in perspective, the containment unit is designed to handle the full impact of a jet fighter:

That should give you some idea of the pressure already in the plant.

That, to a 12-year-old, is the situation happening at Fukushima. The outside tea kettle exploded, sending some radiation outward, but the inside kettle is still intact.

What is a meltdown?
Using the very, very simple tea analogy, a meltdown is when the fire inside the tea kettle gets so hot that it melts the kettle.

According to experts interviewed by The Associated Press, any melted fuel would eat through the bottom of the reactor vessel. Next, it would eat through the floor of the already-damaged containment building. At that point, the uranium and dangerous byproducts would start escaping into the environment. – AP

That is a meltdown.

Earthquakes Continue
There are continuing earthquakes tonight and into tomorrow. Two hours ago a size 6 earthquake hit Fukushima. Affected areas include Aomori – where my former university has an exchange program. Hope everyone is alright. They’ve shrunk the tsunami warning zone, but they could swell again on a moment’s notice.

This video is completely surreal, seems like a dream sequence:

What’s important to know is that this is really not over.

Pokemon Creator’s Death a Hoax
The creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, did NOT die in the tsunami. Those rumors are disproportionately annoying me because all the BS talk about god damned Pokemon is filling up legitimate social media channels for gathering useful information.

Here in the Safest Part of Japan
It’s depressing as hell here. Imagine if America went through Three-Mile Island, two Katrinas and five 1994 LA Earthquakes with the threat of MORE earthquakes, Katrinas and a full-blown Chernobyl on the horizon. To give you some scale, today was not merely a day when the death toll rose, today was a day when the toll of obliterated cities went up.

We went to give blood but gave up when we found out there was a three-hour wait; we’ll go back in two weeks when the replenishment cycle gets desperate.

Expectedly, the Japanese reaction to the disaster has been very… Japanese. Given the call to cut electricity usage in Japan, neighbors are being asked to arrange electricity time shares, basically rotations of self-inflicted blackouts. Also, no looting reports to speak of; everyone’s just waiting in 50-minute queues for their bottles of water at convenience stores.

If you are looking for ways to help, this site has an exhaustive list of methods.

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4 Responses to Explaining Fukushima to a 12-year-old

  1. Pingback: After Disaster, Laundry. | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  2. Pingback: Earthquake, Tsunami Warnings in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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