I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.Barry Brook on the situation earlier
Here is a précis of the situation as I understand it:
Eli recommends you go there and read.
1. There is no credible risk of a serious accident. All reactors responded by insertion of control rods to shut down their nuclear reactions. Thus, power levels in all cases dropped quickly to about 5% of maximum output, and the nuclear chain reaction ceased (i.e., all units are subcritical).
Note: I judge the situation would currently be rated INES Level 4: Accident with local consequences on the international nuclear event scale. Update: This level has been confirmed by WNN (5:50 GMT).
2. The concern is providing emergency cooling water to the reactor cores to remove decay heat from the fuel rods. This residual heat comes from the fission products, and will be persistent, but diminishes rapidly over time (i.e., most decay heat occurs over minutes and hours, with cold shutdown within a few days).
3. At one plant, the 40-year old Fukushima Daiichi (unit #1 opened in 1971), the backup diesel generators supply power to the core cooling system failed (apparently due to damage from the tsunami). This allowed pressure to build up in at least one of the reactors cores to about 50% higher than normal (unit 1), and requires venting of very mildly radioactive steam (contains trace levels of tritium). Some discussion here.