It’s a Blast at a Nuclear Plant

NOT a Nuclear Blast

Note: I’ve updated this story, see final paragraph.

The continuing coverage of the disasters in Japan has been, for the most part, pretty concentrated on the actual events and the efforts to rescue people and deal with the aftermath. I have only seen a few whackadoo and crackpot postings about supposedly magical, looney, or other mystical causes for these disasters. The natural catastrophe of an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, has a huge effect on human structures and life. I, and probably most of you reading this, watched yesterday the many videos that have been posted showing the inexorable push of water inland during the tsunami. It was pretty awe-inspiring (and not in a good way) to watch those waves push houses (some of them burning) inland, engulfing people in cars and trucks,  and turning the landscape into a vast dump of debris. This is the nature of a natural catastrophe, and we struggle to comprehend and understand it. It’s bigger than we are in power and magnitude. As I said yesterday, this is what we face by evolving and living on a planet with tectonic plates and shifting subsurface rock. It is a story life on Earth has always had to deal with.

Then, there’s this story about the nuclear power plant pumps failing.

Nuclear power is, like any other power source, accompanied by pluses and minuses. The plus side gives you lots of power that isn’t likely to go away very soon. It’s reliable and could well be the answer to our future power needs. However, there’s a minus. A big one. It requires extremely careful handling and planning, and I can’t think of too many more people on this planet MORE careful than the Japanese. They planned for earthquakes and other disasters when they built their power plants. And yet, this one bit them hard, despite their safety planning. As I write this (Saturday morning), we read that the power plant operators have flooded the nuclear containment area with sea water in an effort to cool down the reactor that has been overheating ever since its cooling pumps failed.

Earlier today, a hydrogen explosion at the plant leveled part of the building.  It did NOT breach the core, but that has NOT stopped CNN (for example) from greeting us with the headline saying, “Pump system caused nuclear blast.”  (CNN has since changed the headline.)

Well, yes, the pump system failed. And there WAS a blast. But, it was NOT a nuclear blast. It was a non-nuclear explosion at a nuclear plant. A nuclear blast would have been a nuclear explosion, sort of like the ones that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II,or that dotted the South Pacific and Nevada, or other parts of the world during the worst of the nuclear armaments race.

There’s a precise and fine difference between an explosion at a nuclear plant and a nuclear explosion. An astute editor and headline writer would know that difference and would not have written it that way.  A better headline (and a more accurate one) would be:  “Blast levels nuclear plant walls” — and, it’s the same  length as the original headline.  And, in news and journalism, accuracy is supposed to be everything.  Unless you are going for shock value.

The good news here is that, at this point, the core of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor has not melted down and the seawater is cooling the core. Radiation levels in the immediate area are falling, and the crews are working to get this thing under control.  I would imagine that those crews are at great risk themselves, particularly from the radiation effects. That is one of the downsides of nuclear power — it is a dangerous way to light our homes and offices. But, that is the nature of working with nuclear reactors. Their rewards come with risk. So do other forms of power generation — something we should all be educated on as we make our way through a world that is constantly looking for more ways to power our technology and our lives.

For a good explanation of the basics of nuclear power plants, read this fine entry at BoingBoing.

Moral of the story:  look beyond the headlines. And, if you want to help out the folks in Japan as they struggle back to normalcy, here’s a list (compiled by my friend Phil Plait) of places where you can direct your donations. We’re all on this planet together, so let’s help each other out.

Note:  this entry was written early Saturday, March 12 at a time when the Japanese authorities were still confident that there would be no meltdown of the plant’s core.  Now, more than ten hours later, they are measuring radioactive isotopes in the air around the plant. Authorities are still working to stabilize the core and struggling to understand the readings they are getting. It is possible that the measuring instruments are damaged; it is also possible that the core is undergoing some kind of breach.  There is simply not enough data to go on at this point. However, as of Saturday night, authorities in Japan are telling the media that they are assuming there has been a meltdown in a second reactor. If so, this could become very much more catastrophic for the country that is already reeling from the earthquake and tsunami damage. I’d recommend that you read the  coverage of the situation from the BBC, NHK, AlJazeera, and CNN, to keep on top of the situation. And, as I mentioned above, if you can do so, please help the people of Japan in any way that you can.