Let's start with the first entry into the Carnival, though. The ANS Nuclear Cafe is posting a constantly-updated set of links about nuclear power stations in Japan. This is a great resource for finding specifically-nuclear news about Japan. Another source I found useful was this set of pictures: Massive Earthquake Hits Japan, the Big Picture. Amidst so much devastation, I was charmed to see a picture of schoolchildren praying for the people of Japan. I found the picture warmed my heart because the schoolchildren are in Ahmedabad, India. This is our son-in-laws home town, and a place I have visited.
1989 in Palo Alto
I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in California. That was a 7.1 Richter earthquake. I can only begin to imagine what a 8.9 Richter earthquake would be like. Even thinking about it is terrifying.
Our daughter was away at college at the time, and from TV news, she pretty much thought everyone in Northern California was dead. Including us. TV repeatedly showed the same images of the Marina in San Francisco burning and the Cypress Overpass bridge collapse. It wasn't that bad all over the Bay Area, though. At our home in Palo Alto, we lost two vases from high shelves, and we spent a lot of time on the front lawn talking to our neighbors. In other words, the earthquake was not devastating. Where we lived, that is.
In this earthquake, I am trying to figure out if the same thing is happening. The damage is much greater than it was in California. Homes have been swept out to sea. An entire city is on fire, not just a neighborhood. Oil refineries are on fire. But as far as I can tell, Tokyo is shaken, not much damaged. The damage may be more localized than the pictures suggest. Or not. I am going by my own experience here, and with an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, my experience is not necessarily a good guide.
I was in Tokyo during an earthquake once, and they have amazingly effective earthquake engineering. My hotel swayed and it woke me up. Otherwise, nothing happened. It was, however, a small earthquake, not like this one. As I watched the footage of the Japanese parliament during the earthquake, I was reminded of how good the earthquake engineering is in that country.
Anyhow, I am trying to figure things out. These are just my thoughts, and I try to have hopeful thoughts about people's survival, all over Japan.
What about that nuclear plant?
Most of the nuclear plants in Japan are still running, as I read it. The plants in the earthquake-affected area shut down automatically, as they should. The plants in that area had a loss of outside power (sometimes called a LOOP). This is a planned-for situation, though certainly not welcome. When outside power is lost, the plant shuts down automatically. The control rods go in, the plant is off-line. Within seconds after that, the diesel generators start to keep the pumps going and dissipate residual heat in the reactor. Apparently, in the case of the No. 1 reactor at Fukishama, the tsunami put the diesels out of commission.
At which point, figuring out what was actually happening became very confusing. The core of the plant is still covered with water. Batteries have been brought in. America flew coolant (water?) in, according to one report. Why? The Japanese have water, they don't have power! Then an update: No, America did not fly coolant in, the Japanese are handling it themselves. Okay, this I believe.
Besides, coolant isn't the problem. Power is the problem. Why are there batteries instead of diesel generators on the job? (I have no idea.) The fuel rods are still covered by water, and, as Margaret Harding explained, as water is brought in, the pressure rises and must be vented in short bursts. (Margaret Harding was one of the blue ribbon people when I was trying to give a blue ribbon every Monday. She is a nuclear engineer who was head of a GE task force on safety planning.) However, since the fuel rods are covered, the vented water is not particularly radioactive. If the fuel rods were not covered with water, the situation would be different. But so far, things are basically under control, or as under-control as an earthquake and tsunami allow.
I am following the breaking news, and probably some of the things I wrote in this blog will turn out to be incorrect. However, I have the advantage of following not only the news itself, but the comments of some pretty smart people on a nuclear listserve.
I hope this post is helpful to my readers. This is the sort of thing that it is easier to blog about...in retrospect.
This just in: According to my listserve, this post of David Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientist is probably pretty accurate. I try to give credit when it is due.