Saturday, September 8, 2012

What my father did in Japan

While my family and I were driving my car around to recharge its battery, I had a chance to talk to my father about his interactions with the Japanese nuclear industry. While growing up, I remember hearing that my father had gone to Japan on business. When I heard that he worked on the design for the Fukushima 1 cooling system, I thought that his work in Japan was related to the Fukushima 1 reactor. But that turns out not to be the case. All the work he did on the Fukushima 1 reactor was done in the states. He never went to Japan while he was working on that design. Everything he did was on paper.

His work in Japan had to do with something else. During the seventies, Japan had GE conduct a series of experiments. These experiments were tests to see what would happen if the cooling system failed at a nuclear reactor. These experiments were basically a controlled version of exactly what happened at Fukushima after the earthquake. The experiments were run in test reactors. During these experiments, the reactor cooling system is stopped. Because the cooling system is stopped, the nuclear fuel rods overheat and begin to melt. Radiocative material is turned into gas. This material is captured within the test reactor, measured, and analyzed. By running these experiments, Japan could see what would happen if the cooling system failed at one of their reactors.

While we were talking about this, my father gave me his opinion on what happened at Fukushima. He did not believe the reactor itself released a large amount of radioactive material. The reactor itself has a containment system which is meant to prevent the release of that material. If this contaiment system was not breached, then the reactor should not have released a lot of radioactive material (he didn’t think the system was breached, as he had not found a story which said that the system had been breached). He believes that what caused the large release of radioactive material was the pool of spent fuel rods. After the fuel rods are used up, they are removed from the reactor and placed in pools of water. These fuel rods have to be cooled as well, or else they will melt and release radioactive material. Those spent fuel rods do not have the same containment system surrounding them as the reactors does. This makes those fuel rods more susceptible to releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.