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Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Explained

March 17, 2011

A lengthy article on what has and is happening in Japan’s Nuclear Emergency- both explanations and timeline updates.

From Mother Jones

By Kate Sheppard and Josh Harkinson

Fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe are high in northern Japan, where multiple explosions have occured at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and the cooling systems at four separate reactors are suffering problems. Officials have reported that a partial meltdown has likely occured at three reactors, though the extent of the damage to their cores is not yet clear. Spent fuel rods at a fourth reactor also threaten to melt down. The emergency at the plant comes on top of the devastation caused by an 8.9 earthquake and a 33-foot tsunami.

What is wrong with the plant? There are six boiling-water reactors on the site, though only three were in operation at the time of the earthquake. These systems, designed by General Electric, rely on an influx of water to cool the reactor core. But the water systems require electricity that was cut off by the earthquake. It also appears that something—the initial quake, the tsunami, or aftershocks—knocked the site’s back-up generators offline. Without the cooling system bringing in water, the core of a reactor will start to overheat—which in turn heats up the water already in the system and causes more of it to turn to steam. Emergency responders have been forced to vent some of the steam, releasing radiation, in order to prevent the containment domes from exploding. They are in a race against the clock to bring in new water supplies before the reacting nuclear fuel heats up beyond control.

It is believed that at least three of the units have already suffered a partial meltdown of their reactor cores—the uranium fuel rods where the nuclear chain reaction happens—and four of the plants have been damaged by explosions or fires. There was a blast on Saturday afternoon at Unit 1, followed by explosions at Unit 3 on Monday and Unit 2 on Tuesday along with a fire at Unit 4 yesterday, where spent fuel rods may have boiled off all of the water in their cooling pond.

Froom Mother Jones

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