Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What's in that smoke? The lost physics lesson of Fukushima

submitted by Gabrielle Price

Chapter 12 - Fukushima Daiichi

In March 2011, emanations from the embattled reactors at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi complex were described by the global scientific community, the Japanese government and international media as 'black smoke,' 'grayish smoke,' 'white smoke,' 'steam,' and 'vapor.' Yet, collectively, these entities negligently failed to educate people that these smokey plumes were a form of radioactive pollution rarely seen on Earth and a form that was incredibly dangerous.

It all started on the day of the first explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex, which occurred on March 12th, the day after the great earthquake. On the 12th, the host of CNN 'Saturday Morning' asked a guest expert about the smoke rising from Unit 1 following a hydrogen blast [1] earlier that day:
KAYE: ...there were a couple of explosions being reported this morning. We were just looking at pictures of this white smoke coming that was coming from one of these plants. That does concern you? 
HIBBS: Right, well, the plume would propel the nuclides high into the atmosphere.'  But what exactly did Hibbs mean?   Exactly *how* were 'nuclides' rising up from the reactors via the scary-looking smoke?
The general public wasn't given much assistance with this question by CNN's guest, who was Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Either it was the CNN approach of "it just rises, that's all" or it was a very technical explanation, much like what appeared in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on March 18th. [2] In the WSJ article, reporter Gautam Naik interviewed Lars-Erik De Geer, a research director of the Swedish Defense Research Institute, who gave an overview of what happens to an overheating reactor:
"First, a range of less-dangerous gasses are liberated, including tritium, krypton and xenon. ...Overheating fuel rods then discharge gaseous forms of certain volatile radioactive elements, including cesium, iodine, strontium and tellurium. As these rise, they latch on to dust in the air and become particulates, a quarter the size of a grain of sand.... The radiation emitted...[that] still poses a big danger to workers or cleanup crews ...[includes] released volatile elements such as cesium and iodine."
So, there were so-called 'less dangerous' radioactive gasses being immediately released from Fukushima's overheating reactors that were followed by gaseous forms of things that - it sounds like - aren't ordinary gasses. Does this mean these things were liquids and then boiled off? Or were solids and somehow turned to vapor? If you believe this is the answer, you are right. As long as a reactor overheats enough, and has holes or cracks in its various 'containments,' it would leak out gaseous forms of things like radioactive strontium and cesium that are ordinarily solids. What CNN's host was referring to as 'white smoke' was part water vapor, part smoke from fires but, most importantly, part vaporized radioactive solids. If you put your vitamin pills, which are comprised of minerals like selenium and iron (not really different than minerals like strontium and cesium), into a furnace, you would have an odd-colored plume, which is vitamin minerals in their vapor form!

If we are to understand and speak the language of physics when it comes to vapor coming out of Fukushima's reactors, the 'key' word is 'volatile,' or 'volatization.'  We sometimes hear that the stock market is 'volatile.'   In physics, volatization is what happens when a solid or a liquid is turned to vapor. 
[1] On March 12th and March 14th, the Unit 2 and 4 containment structures - one of those 'boxes' - at Fukushima Daiichi, respectively, blew up, and we were told that these were caused by a build-up of 'hydrogen' gas. Some of that smoke was debris from the shattered concrete walls, etc...

[2] WSJ article: 'Low Levels of Radioactive Material Begin to Be Detected Across Pacific'

Read more HERE

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