One innocent question later


This month we witnessed one of the most shocking natural disasters to have happened in my lifetime. A massive earthquake, subsequent tsunami and then nuclear disaster that seems to have devastated the majority of Japan’s East coast. What has made this series of events so shocking to us, watching on in horror from our safe little tax ridden country is that we have been able to watch live footage of the disaster as each event occurred. I’m not really sure how to describe the images of that massive wall of water literally swallowing buildings/ cars and anyone in its path including the Fukushima Power Station.

The coverage of the Earthquake/Tsunami combo has now quickly been dropped whilst the world watches a nuclear disaster evolve from the aftermath at Fukushima. People within a 30 mile radius have been evacuated and may already have been exposed to high levels of radiation and the workers desperately trying to fix the problems at the plant have been dubbed the Nuclear Ninjas on a suicide mission to save Japan. This got me, and evidently some of my younger cheerleading students thinking:

Why can’t they just turn the Power Station off??

I laughed when I was first asked this and then realised I didn’t actually know the answer. I had no idea about how Nuclear power works or is created. The only thing I really know about Nuclear anything is to be afraid of it? So I thought I’d spend some time actually finding the answer to that question. Why can’t they just turn it off??

Here is the brief explanation from my masses of research (and helpful diagram!):

  • Nuclear fuel comes in the form of enriched uranium, which naturally produces heat as uranium atoms split (a similar process is used in Nuclear Bombs).

    This heat is used to boil water, which then produces steam that drives a turbine, which then spins a generator to create electricity; the steam is then cooled and fed back through the system in a cycle. The amount of heat generated by the reactor is so vast that it needs a constant flow of water in order to ensure the fuel rods (made of uranium pellets) don’t overheat and therefore melt down which would be catastrophic.

    The temperature is also controlled by aptly named control rods, which control how much heat is generated by the fuel. When fully inserted they have essentially shut down the fuel rods, when pulled all the way out the fuel produces maximum heat. Now when the earthquake hit the control rods automatically inserted fully into the fuel rods and the plant went into shut down. Done! Well not quite….

    Uranium fuel doesn’t have an off switch and even in shut down continues to produce heat for quite some time and therefore needs the cooling system to continue operation to prevent meltdown. Obviously this was already considered and the plant has back up systems in case the electricity to the pumps supplying water was ever cut.

    1: Their main electricity source

    2: The main grid can then supply the power

    3: If that fails they have back up diesel generators

    4: If they fail they have battery-powered pumps that can last several hours until electricity is restored.

    When the earthquake hit the worst-case scenario unfolded. The plant went into shut down and therefore their electricity supply went too. Next the main power grid became unstable and therefore also shut down. Then the tsunami hit and destroyed the diesel generators, which were not high enough to withstand the force or quantity of water. The batteries were therefore the last source of electricity but only lasted a few hours. More generators were sourced but weren’t hooked up in time and without power to the pumps the fuel rods began to overheat.  This cracked the metal tubes holding the uranium, exposing the fuel to water where it began producing hydrogen gas. This is called Thermolysis! As you are probably aware, hydrogen is highly explosive and as the pressure built up we saw a series of explosions. These were hydrogen explosions not nuclear explosions.

    In a last ditched attempt to contain the situation they flooded the reactors with boron infused seawater. The boron similar to the control rods acts as a coolant to the fuel. However flooding the reactor has now permanently damaged the plant but this was a better alternative to a complete meltdown, which would have been catastrophic.

    The uncertainty now comes in Japan’s future supply of electricity. About half of Japan’s power came from these plants damaged by the tsunami and they are now potentially permanently shut down. Building a new plant may take a decade.

    To put it in perspective, Three Mile Island disaster was a level 5 incident… this is level 6, Chernobyl was a 7.

    So there it is: the not so simple answer to why you can’t just turn a power station off.


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