View of the Omega West Reactor Core. The Omega West reactor is a heterogenous reactor. The fuel elements contain aluminum and enriched uranium, are arranged in a matrix near the bottom of a stainless steel tank about 24 feet tall.
Image Credit: Department of Energy
I was hoping that during the night, things would become better at Japan's troubled nuclear power plants. Much like last spring's petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico, contingency planning doesn't really help because of a succession of worst-cases. It doesn't take too many worst-cases before the remaining option is to evacuate the island.
Unlike like the Gulf of Mexico disaster, we have not had new vocabulary like 'top-kill', and 'junk-shot'. That doesn't mean that Tokyo Electric Power Company isn't gambling - they did not hesitate before flooding Unit #1 and Unit #3 with seawater, knowing the seawater would prevent the reactors from ever being restarted. That was a commendable and gutsy call - writing off $6B to take the best shot at preventing a meltdown.
As the operators and engineers attempt to keep the fuel rods submerged in water, the rest of the world can only pray they are successful. Hopefully we will not have another hydrogen explosion at Unit #3 as happened with Unit #1 where the outer containment building had its roof destroyed. (The reactor contaiment vessel is still intact.) The fuel rods are encased in zirconium, which will react with steam at high temperatures to produce hydrogen. Some nuclear experts believe this hydrogen presence confirms some of the fuel rods are not immersed in coolant.
Meanwhile, protests against nuclear power such as Japan's Nuclear Crisis Stokes Fear in Europe seem unproductive. The New York Times tells that on Sunday, 40,000 people in Germany formed a human chain to protest nuclear power. Possibly 70 percent of the German population are opposed to nuclear power. Mmm. I don't recall them concerned about the possibility of the Gulf of Mexico being permanently poisoned.
No doubt Tokyo Electric Power will be condemned for something they should have done. It was a succession of worst cases: 1) the reactors are damaged by the earthquake, 2) the power grid is likewise damaged, so it was impossible to have prime power for the coolant system, 3) the backup diesel generators are flooded by the tsunami, 4) the last-option batteries run out before additional power can be rushed to the power plant. Then the nuclear cores began to cook.
Sheesh. Everything is so big today - companies, governments, and problems. Is it time to colonize a new planet?