March 17, 2011

6th Interview with My Dad, a Nuclear Engineer, about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster in Japan

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Update: Again, there is an echo starting partway into the recording. Not sure how to fix- I am using Pamela Call Record to record skype-to-landline. I have tried two different call recorders, and I do NOT recommend either simkl or Pamela Call Record. However, I am happy to announce that a PR representative from Skype just contacted me and is providing me with free software and trying to help me. Thank you, Skype! I cannot recommend Skype enough. Unfortunately, we were not able to set up the new software for the call today, but tomorrow should go better hopefully. Fortunately, my dad does most of the talking and he does not echo. Please volunteer to transcribe if you are able. If you can transcribe everything except where I echo, I will fix the transcript when I have time.

Here is the 6th interview I have conducted with my dad, a nuclear engineer. Please see the rest of the blog (sidebar) for previous interviews.

In the interview today, we address many questions from listeners. Please keep sending questions and comments to [email protected]. You can also follow me on twitter @GeoEvelyn but please do not send questions via twitter.

Please see the announcement page for more information about these interviews:
Announcement Page

Update: Thanks to Maria, there is now a transcript after the jump. Because of the echo, the transcript isn’t perfect. I will try to fix it when I have time.  

Transcript for Interview 6: 
Q: Good morning Dad. My name is Evelyn Mervine and this is a series of interviews with my Dad, Mark Mervine, who is a nuclear engineer. This is the sixth in a series of interviews, and if you’d like to listen to any of the previous interviews, I encourage you to do so, on my geology blog, Georneys. That’s G-E-O-R-N-E-Y-S, And because this is a series of interviews, I would like to state that it is currently the 17th of March, and it is 9:15 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
So to start off with, Dad, can you please give us an update about what’s going on at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan?
A: OK, so, we’re talking about the Fukushima One Nuclear Power Plant, which consists of six separate reactors. And in the interest of time, because I’m a little bit limited on time today, I’m only going to cover the difference between the status from yesterday and today. So I would encourage people to at least listen to the first part of yesterday’s interview, where we had a little bit more time to give a more comprehensive status.
So in the past 24 hours, to the best of my knowledge the actual condition at the plant hasn’t changed a lot. They’re still in the process of trying to get outside electrical power to the site. And today’s report I saw said that TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, hopes to be able to do that at some point today. But given their track record so far, I guess we’ll have to say that we’ll believe it when we see it. What they have been doing in the past 24 hours is using military helicopters to drop water on top of reactors 3 and 4. Unfortunately, it appears from the videos that they were having to fly quite high, probably due to the radiation levels, and as they tried to drop the water most of it was carried away by the wind and very, very little of it actually was dropped on the reactors buildings.
I normally try not to make a statement unless I’ve gotten it from a couple different sources but they were in the process of bringing at least ten or eleven police water cannons to the site. And I saw one report where they indicated that they had used those water cannons to put water onto the building. Again they were limited as to how close they could get, and how much time they could pour the water on because of the radiation levels.
Probably one of the biggest news items was that the US nuclear regulatory commission announced that they believe that there was no water in the number 4 spent fuel cooling pool and they recommended that the evacuation zone be extended to 50 miles, which is significantly larger than the 30 km evacuation zone that the Japanese authorities had recommended.
Q: Just to check, that’s 50 miles not 50 km, right?
A: 50 miles, that’s correct. That would be something on the order of 75-plus km. About 80 km.
Q: OK.
A: The other, I think, very interesting news item this morning is that the US government is chartering flights to fly American citizens out of Japan. I’m not sure that because they have more data than the rest of us relative to radiation levels in the environment, or whether like the rest of us they’re growing concerned with the lack of information that’s being provided and they’re taking the conservative route of just getting American citizens out of there given the loss of confidence in the data that’s being reported from this event.
I was happy to see that the mainstream media has stepped up their coverage. Their coverage is more comprehensive, and in particular I was glad to see Anderson Cooper really take the Japanese government to task yesterday evening for the lack of information that’s being provided. It’s, again, I think important to be transparent, to treat people as if they’re intelligent and given the information upon which they can make decisions and this is not happening in this case. And I realize that there’s obviously a lot of chaos and the status is probably changing hour by hour, but nonetheless it seems like they could do a better job with the information. With that being said I think it’s important that we keep in mind that that’s not a reflection in the people who are actually on that site, who at great risk to their own lives are trying to keep that site as safe as possible and bring this horrible situation to an end. I think we owe those folks a debt of gratitude.
Q: OK. So it sounds like there’s a couple of different things that have changed that we have been talking about over the past few days. I asked a few days ago if you would recommend that American citizens leave Japan. And now it sounds like the United States government is recommending that people ???. It probably sounds like if you can leave it isn’t a bad idea. Would you agree with that statement?
A: Well it’s a difficult question to answer in that the data that we have is just not comprehensive. You know, based on the data that was provided it wouldn’t seem that that was necessary. But like I said my assumption at this point is either the US government has more information, or in the absence of information have decided to be conservative. And as we talked yesterday, people asked the question about, should we be concerned about California? I made the statement that I thought our government would be more forthcoming, more transparent. And I think that’s the case here. You know, given the information they have, or the lack of information, they’re being very conservative. There have been no reported numbers of radiation levels in Tokyo that would cause I think a significant alarm, but I think this is a very conservative action. Again, my recommendation is to do what the government asks you to do
Q: The United States government in particular.
A: In particular, if you are an American citizen I would do what the American government asks you to do.
Q: OK. Is there anything else you want to say before we move on to some questions?
A: No, I’m ready for some questions.
Q: Alright. We have received many questions, probably more than we can answer, particularly because we are also have so little time. We’ll ask as many as we can, and you just let me know when you need to go. And I encourage you, if you would like to send in questions. Again, we may not be able to answer all of them but we really will try because I feel that it’s important for people just to get some answers to their questions. If we can provide those answers we’ll be happy to do so. ??? that the mainstream media is doing a better job, because maybe we won’t have to keep doing this. Because it is a lot of work for us and it’s tiring. The first question was actually ???????? MIT??? Can you comment on where you go for information and where you would recommend that people go to get some good reliable information?
A: Well again that’s a difficult question to answer because although there’s a lot of information out there, it’s in bits and pieces. I’m not aware of any one site that’s comprehensive enough for people to go look at, unless they have some engineering expertise in this area. So in particular I think there’s been an excellent effort by the world community to keep the Wikipedia article for the accident up to date. but it’s, as Wikipedia is, it’s a collection of little bits and pieces that people have put together, and if you are, I think, an average citizen without a lot of knowledge of nuclear power, you would have a difficult time of reading that article and putting together a status. But I do look at that article. Also, obviously look at any press releases from TEPCO, which are few and far between, I would add. Releases from the Nuclear Energy Institute. The International Atomic Energy Agency. Obviously the news reports: CNN, MSNBC and other places that do a pretty good job at least providing some real time information. And again, with my background then I’m able to assimilate all that, and put together as best as possible a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on. But it is difficult for the average person.
Q: And I like what you said there, ??? you try not to answer things here unless you’ve seen it in multiple locations, because you know, although people are trying to do a good job of reporting information, there will be errors, so if you see something in multiple places that is more likely to be true.
A: Yeah, as you know sometimes people copy reports from other places so you may see it in more than one place and it may not be correct. One advantage we have here is we’re not in real time, so I have the opportunity to get up early in the morning and spend time looking at all these different reports. We’re not obviously live, so we have a bit of advantage over a live news report in that we have some time to assimilate the information and put a more complete picture together. But the mainstream media is doing a better job. There are still some mistakes being made. I saw a very well respected journalist last night make a pretty big mistake. They held up a ??tiebeck?? like radiation suit and claimed that it would prevent people from receiving gamma rays. A gamma ray is like an x-ray, so we all know that an x-ray will go right through your clothing. That suit is very good at preventing particulates from getting on your skin and that kind of stuff, but it’s not going to stop a gamma ray.
Q: Ok. Let’s move on to the next question. I’m going to paraphrase the question actually. Basically the person was commenting that many of these power plants were built ??? during a war. Basically there was a concern about a bomb attack. And this person was wondering if a bomb attack could inflict damage to a nuclear power plant, and you know, basically what would it take to inflict damage to a nuclear power plant?
A: ok that’s an interesting question, and I think the answer is pretty apparent that if you look at what’s happened to the secondary containment for these reactor buildings, with these internal hydrogen explosions you can see that they can be pretty easily damaged, and then the spent fuel would be exposed to the environment. And once the water drains on the spent fuel then begins to heat up, release radiation to the environment. But I think the big thing there is if you had a nuclear bomb explode, that in and of itself would release radiation and contaminate the environment so any effect that you would get from a nuclear power plant that was within that radius, I don’t think really would matter. It’s a good question, but clearly the outer buildings would not survive that, assuming it was in close proximity, but again I think the impact of the nuclear bomb itself would far exceed any additional that would be added from the nuclear power plant
Q: Alright. Moving on a few people have asked about radiation and radioactivity. Yesterday we decided we didn’t want to go into this because it is sort of a longer explanation. I don’t know if there’s a good place in the internet that ??????
A: Well just briefly, you know radiation. For instance the gamma rays, or x-rays when you go to the doctor and you get an x-ray. That radiation exposure is cumulative, and there are limits as to how much you should get in a year. And radioactivity is more in reference to a material that would be decaying off. So there are a number of commonly occurring radioactive materials like Uranium. People have become aware obviously of Radon, and it’s not uncommon when you buy a house to have the house you’re buying tested for Radon, because it’s a naturally occurring gas that comes out of the rocks on the ground in the US. So, again we don’t have time to go into a lot of detail, but hopefully that helps a little bit.
Q: Thanks dad. Here’s a question that I actually received from a few people. They were wondering if it was possible for engineers??? to use an ROV, remotely operated vehicle, like those used by bomb squads for instance, to deliver some water to the reactors. It sounds like that may be sort of a complicated procedure, but is that the sort of thing that might work, and perhaps, I don’t know, if you could speculate about something that could be designed ???? nuclear plants.
A: That’s a good question, and I think the problem we would have is in navigating the path that it would take to get up to where the spent fuel pool is. From the drawing you see that it’s quite high up in the building, and so there would be a series of doors and stairs that would have to be navigated and of course you would need to bring a fire hose with you. So given the state of robotic technology today, I would say that would probably not be realistic.
Q: OK. And this is a question we ???don’t have time for today, but again please keep sending questions and  you really want to know the answer send it again??? This, actually this person sent in two questions, and we’ll answer both of them. And this is related to the spent fuel pools again. Now it sounds like there is no water in one spent fuel pool. I wanted to know, what would happen if they can’t get water?? And it would be sort of a worst case scenario. Would there be a chain reaction? Would there be a big explosion? Or would there just be a massive and long lasting release of radioactivity? What would happen?
A: OK. Let me clarify. It was the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that stated they didn’t believe there was any water in that pool. The Japanese authorities have refuted that, and on the International Atomic Energy Association website they have reported that the temperatures in some of those spent fuel pools… So it’s not clear whether there is, how much water is in those pools, but it’s also not certain that there’s none. So again that goes back to, I think you need to corroborate more than one source. But to answer the question, the way the fuel is installed in those pools, it’s kind of similar to the question that I asked about the fuel melting, the geometry is important. If you were to damage the fuel to the extent that it begins to melt, and the geometry changes, and you were able to get enough Uranium together in one place without any of the materials that are designed to remove the neutrons, then it would be possible for that blob to go critical. Again, the goal here obviously is to prevent that from happening, and you know the water that they’re adding is a water-boron mix, and the boron would absorb neutrons and hopefully keep that from happening.
Q: And, critical just means that it’s a self-sustained reaction, and that’s how the power plant normally operates. Obviously you don’t want that to be happening in a spent fuel pool, where you’re storing, you’re not meant to be controlling a nuclear reaction.
A: That’s correct, that would be something that you definitely don’t want to have happened. Again, the way fuel pools are designed and the way the fuel rods are placed, there’s spacing and geometry that would prevent that from happening. But when you lose that, it… obviously then that becomes a concern. I don’t personally know what the probability would be, but I think the answer that was given was the probability is not zero. So it’s not, certainly not a hundred percent, but it’s not zero, and it’s important to have water and boron to prevent that.
Q: OK and actually I wasn’t going to ask this question, but it think I will because it relates. Also about the spent fuel pools. I was wondering ??? Spent fuel pools in a larger earthquake. I’m wondering if the water ??? like it’s a swimming pool. Is water ??? flush out? If there is an earthquake and would an earthquake, would you expect that to cause any sort of cracks, ??? leak the pool?
A: So, I guess depending on the exact height of the water, I guess it would be possible if the ground shook enough, or maybe if because of one of the explosions the building shook enough that a little bit of water  could have flushed out. But if it was that full then – there’s something like fourteen feet of water above the fuel rods, and I don’t think that would be too much of a concern. A bigger concern might be if there was some damage to the fuel pools. Again, these are designed to survive the maximum expected earthquake for that plant. You know, it does not appear that any of these pools were cracked or damaged, that the loss of water is due to the heating up and evaporating, and not because there’s a crack in it. So I would say that that reflects a pretty good design, because the earthquake was indeed larger than the plant was designed for. It’s good design, good quality workmanship, and hopefully we can get some electricity back, we can get some water in there, and get these pools cooled back off, and covered back up.
Q: And I think we’ve said this before but these pools are not affected by the initial earthquake, they are actually being affected by the explosions. And correct me if I’m wrong Dad, but there have been three explosions now that were pretty serious, and I think we don’t know what effect those might have had on any of the spent fuel pools. And correct me if I’m wrong, there are spent fuel pools at each of the reactors. Is that right?
A: There are actually seven spent fuel pools at that site. One at each of the reactors, and then there’s a common one that they all share that is located in a separate building. So there are a total of seven spent fuel pools that ultimately we need to make sure get water and cooling.
Q: OK, that’s all we have time for today, unfortunately we do have some work constraints today, you may notice that we’re doing this interview earlier. But we will ???continue to do these daily interview updates at least through the weekend and hopefully at that point  ???should be under control. Hopefully also the mainstream media will start to do a better job so perhaps we won’t need to do these updates every day. After that maybe we can do an update every few days or so. Do you have anything else you want to say before we end?
A: I think one last comment that I would have is that the work that’s being done to get outside electrical power into that plant is probably the most important thing that needs to be accomplished. There may be other issues that arise when individual plants are reconnected to electricity there. Obviously from the photograph there’s a lot of damage, and there may be things that don’t work, but hopefully… I shouldn’t say hopefully, there are multiple redundant systems that were build at these plants, and my hope, my sincere hope is that once they get electricity back, that we can at least get enough pieces and parts from the various different redundant systems functioning to get water and cooling back to these plants. And that, in my opinion, is the most important thing, getting power back to be able to begin to restore some of these systems.
Q: OK, actually I just want to ask a question again. You know, we talked about Japan, but in terms of the US there really ??? are precautions that we should be taking. I know that people are panicking, but I think it’s really encouraging that the US government is taking an active role in this. Please make a final comment about what US citizens, since we are from the United States, should be concerned about?
A: I don’t think anybody in the US should be concerned at this point in time. There’s approximately 5000 miles distance between Japan and the United States, as we explained yesterday. As any radiation that would be released travels it disperses geometrically, and therefore the amount that you would see in any given volume decreases the farther that it travels. It’s very heartening to see our government being proactive, and the one precaution that they have taken is we have a number of portable environmental monitoring stations, and some of those have been moved to California, and they’re setting up additional stations to monitor just in case. But I think any scientist would tell you that at this point in time the probability of having any detectable radioactivity is very, very, very slim, and there’s no concern. But it’s very heartening to see our government being proactive and I’m absolutely positive that if there was a concern that they would let us know, and again we have the luxury of time. It will take some time for the winds to carry that to the United States, so we don’t have that concern that you have in Japan, where if the winds were to shift and the radiation release was to get larger, that they would only have an hour or two, we should have many, many hours, if not days, to take care of any precautions that we’d need to take care of. But again, I think the probability is extremely low, but it’s very heartening to see our government step up.
Q: I agree with that. I feel certainly comforted by that. I’m also comforted by talking to you dad, even though this situation ??? it makes me feel a lot better to actually get the facts, and get them all in some sort of a cohesive story, and get some questions answered, and I hope this makes our listeners feel better too.
A: I hope it does. I wish there were more information available so we could do a little bit better job, but were trying to do the best that we can with the information that we have and with the time that we have.
Q: Alright thanks dad, I know you have to go to some meetings so I’ll let you go.
A: Alright, thank you!
Q: Alright, bye.