Monday, March 14, 2011

The Japanese Geo-Environmental crisis: 
A scientific view from Foot's Forecast
by Team Advisors Mr. Foot, Mr. Lear. Contributor: Greg Jackson

 Overview of today's severe storm risk / U.S. weather this week 
in development. Please check back this morning for additional details. 

6:35 AM EDT Mon 3/14/2011  We all share in the anguish and feelings of helplessness that residents of Japan face almost every few hours as aftershocks continue across the island nation. Our concerns lie with the unpredictable potential for additional quakes and subsequent tsunamis which may further enhance suffering of those whose lives were ripped away in a matter of seconds. 

There are two actions all of us can take to support the recovery and learn from the catastrophe: (1) Lend your help via the International Red Cross or the World Health Organization; and (2) Gain an accurate understanding into the science behind the disaster. After extensive review of what has been reported in the news since the earthquake, our advisory team felt a more thorough look at the scientific details was warranted to address misconceptions being presented by some news organizations.

(English video news feed from NHK Network in Japan)

Basic diagram of a Boiling Water Reactor
NEWS SUMMARY: Since Friday's earthquake concerns have understandably grown  over a possible loss of  containment  at one or more power generating plants within the  Fukushima nuclear facility in northeastern Japan. The new situation is that aftershocks totaling over 275 place rescue attempts and interventions at nuclear facilities in jeopardy. Following explosions this weekend at the facility. Early Friday morning, a loss of power at several reactors caused by the 8.9 Earthquake  (USGS link) and subsequent aftershocks was identified as the reason for a failure of water-based cooling systems at the Fukushima facility. Yesterday and today, it has been stated that  "radioactive steam" containing cesium was released to reduce pressure within one or more of the Boiling Water Reactors ( link). 

According to a press release from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, two officials with expertise in Boiling Water Reactors have been dispatched to Japan.The Maryland-based NRC Operations Center readiness level has been increased due to the on-going nuclear incident. 


Misconception # 1: Radioactive water reaching the U.S. In addition to concerns of radiation release into the atmosphere, reports on the internet also warn of radioactivity reaching the U.S. west coast via  Kuroshio Current across the Pacific. The chart above, from NOAA, shows currents of the North Pacific Ocean. First, the Kuroshio Current is among the strongest known ocean currents. A parcel of water  within the  current  travels approximately 75 miles per day. Given that the U.S. west coast is over 4,470 nautical miles from the Japanese coast, any substance introduced into water off Japan coast would, at that velocity, require at least 75 days to traverse the Pacific, if it could.

Misconception # 2: Meltdown. The term "meltdown" is being used by news organizations and utility officials to describe a possible over-heating of fuel rods within the containment facility of a Boiling Water Reactor. There is a much greater danger to the nearby population, as explosion of materials containing radiation, or a breach of the containment facility poses much more immediate risk than a supposed "meltdown." 

One could argue that the release of steam containing cesium particles is necessary to avert a wider problem. At this point, with word of multiple reactor cooling systems having failed and an on-going attempt to pump seawater in to reactor cores, it is more appropriate to surmise that despite a different type of meltdown is in progress. Despite the best efforts of multiple nations including the U.S. a true "meltdown" is underway  in our ability to prevent the physics of nuclear fission and the resulting heat of this process from becoming a third catastrophe on top of the existing two. 

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA) "meltdown" is not recognized by either agency as a defined scientific term. The term came into popular use following the 1979 US film China Syndrome in which a nuclear accident similar to the Three Mile Island incident in the same year, could theoretically cause the over-heating fuel rods within the reactor core to "melt down" into the Earth's crust. Modern design specifications of a nuclear containment facility around the reactor require a sub-surface dispersal-type apron with multiple layers of reinforced concrete, were a reactor core to melt through the containment shell. states: "Meltdown–noun: the melting of a significant portion of a nuclear-reactor core due to inadequate cooling of the fuel elements, a condition that could lead to the escape of radiation."

Though the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a catastrophic event caused by operator error, faulty construction and a resulting an explosion dispersed radiation over thousands of square miles. This eventually claimed the lives of possibly hundreds or thousands of people and remains the world's worst nuclear disaster. However it does not qualify as a theoretical "meltdown." You can compare the IAEA's reports on both accidents in this short summary.


Misconception # 3 "Radioactive steam" 
UPDATE: An explosion from within a reactor core which exposes the fuel rods to the atmosphere would be a highly catastrophic event. This differs entirely from release of steam in cooling towers or planned release of pressure. 

Boiling Water Reactors are constructed with  cooling towers, through which  water used to cool fuel rods is allowed to safely undergo a change in phase  from liquid to vapor. This process results in the release of harmless steam, while any potentially high risk radioactive material remains within the containment facility. A New York Times article states: "The plant was preparing to release vapor to ease pressure from the reactor so the water could be injected, said Naoki Tsunoda, a spokesman for the operator, Tokyo Electric Power. The vapor could contain trace amounts of radiation, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has warned." "Radioactivity" according to accepted definitions by the Physics community, "refers to the particles which are emitted from nuclei as a result of nuclear instability." (source: Georgia State University [references] ). Believe it or not, but there is trace radiation in many  substances into which every person on Earth comes into contact. (source: report on sources of background radiation.) 

Misconception # 4: Widespread dispersal of radioactive material onto other countries. Atmospheric venting in the area of the facility is a concern, but only within a 12-mile radius. A question has been raised over the possibility of Pacific winds carrying the radioactivity to North America. The winds over Japan, called the Prevailing Westerlies, do not resemble winds near the Poles or  the Equator, which are generally closed systems. The Westerlies are known as the "Zone of Mixing," which would disperse any potentially radioactive material introduced into the air over Japan, greatly reducing its atmospheric density after a 5,000 mile journey. Though we are deeply concerned about the unparalleled catastrophic impact on Japan and East Asia were there to be a loss of containment, the radiation release would be confined to a small region and would disperse into the atmosphere  

Furthermore, in an ironic twist of history, it is the work of a Japanese meteorologist named Wasaburo Ooishi which may help save the country from itself regarding risks of radioactive venting. Mr. Ooishi pioneered research in upper-air patterns long before World War II, and is widely credited with the initial observations which led to discovery of the "Jet Stream." It is this same jet stream driving a cold front to  sweep across northeast Japan by tomorrow. This will drive the parcel of air over the nuclear power plant, and any potential contamination, well out to sea and away from land.  

Yes, there are valid public safety concerns from Japanese officials about cooling and pressure levels within the Fukushima facility reactor cores. We urge you not to fall victim to the panic, doomsday scenarios that are being generated by some of the media. Get the facts, research the subject and do as the U.S. Geological Survey says: Start with science.

Background on the authors: Mr. Brad Lear is a retired Science Teacher from the Baltimore County Public Schools, having taught Oceanography, Earth Science, Physical Science and Chemistry for 39 years. Mr. Rich Foot is a Teacher-in-Residence with the Baltimore Partnership for Environmental Science Literacy and taught Earth & Environmental Science in the Baltimore County Schools for nine years. 


9:00 PM EST Friday 3/11/2011 - Even the most sweeping of descriptions can never truly convey the absolute terror felt by the people of Japan in the moments during the Earthquake, and then the horrific tsunami which followed. The simple but powerful force of subduction by one of several tectonic plates which interface under the island nation of Japan created the wrath which played out on live television, in Twitter, Facebook and on blogs across the planet. It has been nearly seven years since many of us recall scenes of devastation so stunning, as in the December 26, 2004 Indonesian magnitude 9.1 earthquake which claimed over 250,000 lives.

Our prayers for safety and survival are with those facing the herculean task of reclaiming their country from the havoc wrought by nature. (Forecaster Foot and the Eastern U.S. Team)

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