GAMBIER — Will the perception of a narrowly averted nuclear disaster in Japan affect the future of nuclear power in the United States? It could, but it shouldn’t, said Terry Klopcic, Ph.D., director of laboratories for the Physics Department at Kenyon College.
Klopcic and Will Koehler, a Kenyon senior majoring in physics and heading on to graduate studies in nuclear engineering at either Michigan University or Oregon State University, agreed to discuss the situation in Japan and what it means for Americans. Koehler recently attended a meeting at the University of Michigan about the situation at the Japanese power plants.
What happened at the plants was actually fairly simple. Koehler explained that when the major earthquake (measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale) hit, outside power running the pumps in the plant’s cooling system cut off as deigned and backup generators came online. The problem was, that the tsunami that followed the quake was higher than the barrier walls protecting the plants and the water flooded in, knocking out the generators and ending the circulation of the water that both cools the reactor and is used to heat other water, that in turn drives turbines that generate electricity.
Control rods that inhibit the nuclear fission reaction also automatically dropped into place, but with the water circulation, heat continued to build, water boiled off and some of the reactor was exposed. When that happened the heat caused the core to start to melt.
Also during the process, hydrogen emitted by a chemical reaction (normally burnt off by an automatic system) built up in the plant’s containment building and exploded. But the building was designed to vent such an explosion through the roof, so as not to damage the reactor. However, the since much-publicized “radiation cloud” was released.
All that explanation is to illuminate Klopcic’s assessment of the impact of the incident.
The American nuclear industry, he said needs to use this as an example of how safe the plants are, not how dangerous. The plants, he noted, were sitting almost at the epicenter of a magnitude 9 earthquake but would have escaped without incident if the subsequent tsunami had not knocked out the emergency power generators.
Even with that, he noted, no lives have been lost due to the power plants, while tens of thousands have died from the quake and tsunami.