The Quake: The Physics of the Reactors & Implications of Their Design

At 1:30pm EST on March 12, Americannuclear experts gathered for a call-in media briefing. While various participants discussed the policy ramifications of the crisis, physicist Ken Bergeron provided most of the information regarding the actual damage to the reactor. …

Bergeron summed up the events so far: “Based on what we understand, the reactor has been shut down, in the sense that all of the control rods have been inserted. Which means there’s no longer a nuclear reaction. But what you have to worry about is the decay heat that’s still in the core, that will last for many days.

“And to keep that decay heat of the uranium from melting the core, you have to keep water on it. And the conventional sources of water, the electricity that provides the power for pumps, have failed. So they are using some very unusual methods of getting water into the core, they’re using steam-driven turbines—they’re operating off of the steam generated by the reactor itself.

“But even that system requires electricity in the form of batteries. And the batteries aren’t designed to last this long, so they have failed by now. So we don’t know exactly how they’re getting water to the core, or if they’re getting enough water to the core. We believe, because of the release of cesium, that the core has been exposed above the water level, at least for a portion of time, and has overheated. What we really need to know is how long can they keep that water flowing. And it needs to be days to keep the core from melting.

“The containment, I believe, is still intact. But if the core does melt, that insult will probably not be sustained, and the containment vessel will fail. All this, if it were to occur, would take a matter of days

Nuclear Experts Explain Worst-Case Scenario at Fukushima Power Plant: Scientific American

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