Home > 2011 Japan Quake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Crisis > Six Ways Fukushima Is Not Chernobyl: Five Are Slightly Reassuring

Six Ways Fukushima Is Not Chernobyl: Five Are Slightly Reassuring

March 19th, 2011

It feels like we’ve gone from “It’s hopefully not going to be bad” to “It’s probably not going to be catastrophic.” Along those lines, this is an article from Talking Points Memo about how Fukushima won’t be like Chernobyl. Note that one of the points denotes a difference which is worse in the Fukushima case. The six points, in bullet list form:

  1. Chernobyl’s reactor had no containment structure. [Not that Fukushima’s is top-flight…]
  2. Chernobyl’s reactors had several design flaws that made the crisis harder to control.
  3. The carbon in Chernobyl’s reactor fueled a fire that spewed radioactive material further into the atmosphere. Fukushima’s reactors do not contain carbon, which means that the contamination from an explosion would remain more localized.
  4. Unlike Chernobyl, however, a meltdown at Daiichi could end up contaminating the water table.
  5. Much of the public health impact of Chernobyl was the result of the Soviet government’s attempt to cover up the crisis, rather than moving quickly to inform and protect the public.
  6. Emergency workers at Chernobyl took few precautions, and may not have been fully informed about the risks they were taking.

Like I mentioned, #4 is less than reassuring, less so than a lot of other news we’re hearing.

  1. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 11:23 | #1

    I still don’t get the ground operation at reactor 3. Why do people have to be involved all the time and risk radiation

    – Install a mobile crane with firehoses (multiple, so there is fail-safe when one firehose stops working) attached to top of crane with hoses running water from sea. Eg. a mobile crane like this:


    That one doesn’t even look very advanced but seems high enough.

    – Spray water 24/7. Using several cameras attached at crane remote operators can see if pool is hit and adjust accordingly.

    There must be a reason this 24/7 method isn’t used.

  2. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 11:30 | #2

    Before anyone mentions I’m completely flawed I understand that water pressure would be low near the top and firehoses don’t have much capacity.

    On the other hand, you can get near the target (pool) and let water flow unattended 24/7.

  3. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 11:54 | #3

    There are also *unmanned* helicopters than could drop payloads/water at very low attitude. K-Max is one of these.


    They could perform dozens of flights a day to reactor 3.

  4. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 12:01 | #4

    The author of this apparently graduated from Harvard in 2009???


    Chernobyl’s reactor had no containment structure

    I see the comments to this bullshit at the original link address this directly but I’ll add my own.

    This PDF seems to be a offer many important details of the situation to the educated reader. Granted, I didn’t know a millisievert from a megasievert a week ago, so all I say here is just my own guesses and I could be entirely wrong on some if not many things.

    This is apparently from an upper house member, Hattori Ryoichi. It lines up with my general understanding of the situation well.

    For reactor 3’s 燃料プール lists 済:514本, 新52本

    You know what that ‘本’ are? 514 used assemblies (full of byproducts from years of fission) and 52 NEW assemblies, assumedly fueled with MOX (6% plutonium) fuel rod.

    Each assembly houses 64 [wikipedia says 96] fuel rods. Each rod is 4m long and has 180kg of uranium (or its fission byproducts and 103kg of Zircaloy casing.

    Numbers from here:


    I’ll get to the Zircaloy below.

    (Uranium oxide Pellets are stacked a fuel rod, encased in Zircaloy, arrayed in a assembly and hundreds of assemblies are placed into the reaction chamber to form a core.)

    THAT’s OVER 40,000 FUEL RODS somewhere under all that rubble of the blown-up “roof” of unit 3 since the spent fuel pool was only protected by the secondary containment structure (which apparently blow up real good).

    Hattori’s pdf says building 4 has 済:1331本, 新204 assemblies.

    THAT POOL WAS FULL when the reactor started burning up last week.

    It’s well known that the reactor was shut down in November and the core (~500 assemblies IIRC) was moved to the spent fuel pool for storage.

    1535 assemblies is 98,000 fuel rods!


    Chernobyl’s reactors had several design flaws

    I’ll withhold my snark since this is simply too serious to joke about any more.

    Watching Kan last night, I just about shit a brick.

    The carbon in Chernobyl’s reactor fueled a fire that spewed radioactive material further into the atmosphere

    OK, the Zircaloy mentioned above. When it gets hot and is exposed to oxygen, it will auto-catayze itself and burn up.

    Unit 4 has 98,000 rods each rod has 103kg of zircaloy — that’s 10,000 tonnes of “fuel”.

    I don’t really believe this math, and it’s odd that the response teams haven’t tried filling up Unit 4’s pool — they knew it was 86 degrees last Tuesday,

    The Chair of the US Nuclear Regulator Commission said his information was the pool was empty. Maybe it’s just compromized and the reason the response team isn’t tackling it is that they know they can’t fill it any more (and spraying water on it will just encourage more reactions).

    This is just all guesswork here, btw.

    a meltdown at Daiichi could end up contaminating the water table

    Nobody really cares about core “meltdowns” at this point. Hopefully the reactor vessels will in fact contain them.

    Much of the public health impact of Chernobyl

    The Ukrainians and Russians were lucky that the winds blew the Chernobyl stuff into the marshland of Pripet. A plume of Cesium 137 and Plutonium being blown onshore for any length of time is just an unimaginable catastrophe!

    I think Kan’s mien last night was shocked and serious enough to match that assertion above.

    Emergency workers at Chernobyl took few precautions, and may not have been fully informed about the risks they were taking

    The Japanese certainly can’t be accused of acting too quickly in this crisis.

    Sorry about the snark.

    Like I mentioned, #4 is less than reassuring, less so than a lot of other news we’re hearing.

    My only hope is that my natural pessimism is just totally offbase.

    Maybe my numbers are off and there aren’t 100,000 fuel rods racked in pool 4.

    Maybe the pool is full like the Nuclear and Industrial Safety guy said and the NRA commissioner is wrong. (But I didn’t hear any reporter ask him THEN WHAT WAS BURNING IN BUILDING 4)

    Frankly the Japanese style of information management on this is stupid.

    We get handouts at press conferences, reporters asking stupid questions, and then the cycle repeats.

    I don’t know what kind of news you’re getting but the general impression is the media really isn’t covering this well at all.

  5. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 12:09 | #5

    One more thing: maybe the Zircalloy is all burned up already (Japan dodged a bullet in this case since the wind was blowing out for most of this) and the stuff in the pool isn’t going anywhere any more, just get hotter and hotter as the nuclear decay goes on.

    The damage to building 4 would indicate one helluva fire happened.

    I don’t know why they’re engaging in such heroics to save pool 3, maybe since it was less full than 4 it still has water or something, or they want to at least get the MOX rods back under water containment (water also serves to block radiation, which coming off these assemblies is REALLY lethal).

  6. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 12:40 | #6


    Unit 4 has 98,000 rods each rod has 103kg of zircaloy — that’s 10,000 tonnes of “fuel”.


    Unit 4 has 98,000 rods each rod has 1.6kg of zircaloy — that’s 160 tonnes of “fuel”.

    10,000 tonnes is the size of a big-ass cruiser so I should have caught this . . .

  7. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 13:55 | #7

    man, these reactors are massive

    115′ from the bottom of the steel containment vessel to the top.

    That’s the height of the typical 10 story building I think!

    (Mark II are even bigger!)

  8. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 14:27 | #8

    Look, look, my idea mentioned above using seawater and continuos watering wasn’t even that stupid:


    Screenshot from NHK.

    (I mentioned mobile cranes because I wasn’t sure the fire trucks reached high enough)

  9. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 14:47 | #9

    yeah, I assume the people there don’t lack ideas on how to tackle this.

    turns out the pump idea had to be delayed just now after the battery on one of the trucks ran out.

    They’re also looking at repurposing a concrete crane (that is used to lay concrete floors in buildings) to pump water.

    Too bad these trucks weren’t onsite a week ago.

  10. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 15:20 | #10

    I thought about the mobile crane and unattended 24/7 watering with sea water since Wednesday and finally decided to post it this morning here.

    At that time of posting this morning I thought it was probably a too easy idea – otherwise it would have been implemented since the beginning.

    I was surprised to hear about the same idea a few hours later on NHK when I posted the screenshot.

    So, if I got the numbers correctly (my Japanese is not so good):

    3 tons of water per minute would equal 180 tons/hour (?). Let’s assume 100 tons actually hits the pool. Even minus vaporization, that’s a start.

  11. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 15:30 | #11

    yeah, the plan is to do a 7 hour unmanned operation, putting 1000 tons into the building.

    That we’re only getting video from 30km away is not the American style.

    One failure point I see here is the “Hyper Rescue” team getting pulled due to too much radiation. If this happens we’ll know things are in a very very bad place.

    This is not a movie with a satisfyingly ending necessarily coming at the end. (then again tthere was a Japan disaster movie not too long ago that seemed pretty extreme)

    I don’t know the odds for sure but it wouldn’t surprise me that this is a 50-50 thing between not getting any worse from here and getting a lot worse.

    ie there may or may not be more shoes to drop here.

  12. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 15:34 | #12

    Isn’t the operation supposed to be unattended at least part-time ? (Again, my Japanese is not good enough)

  13. Troy
    March 19th, 2011 at 15:46 | #13

    yes, run 7 hours unattended.

    Nobody wants to spend 7 seconds where that ladder truck is parked.

    It’s getting irradiated just sitting there, and what gets irradiated can also become a source of radiation, through its constituent atoms getting knocked into unstable isotopes that come back.

    I haven’t seen any announcement of the dosage where that truck is, but 1 full sievert/hr would NOT surprise me. Those four reactors venting crap left, right, and up is not something this world has ever seen before.

    The storage pools alone are pumping out unimaginable amounts of radiation.

    This is the nastiest stuff we humans create, and its just out in the open now, tons and tons of it.

  14. z
    March 19th, 2011 at 17:05 | #14

    European cancer institutes already offered taking care of patients from Fukushima (bone marrow transplants). TEPCO management and the government officials should pay the care out of their own pockets, should teach them a lesson.

    “Putzmeister” will be a familiar name in Japan soon, they will provide the mobile crane apparently. Saw their logo on NHK image:


    The company already used an earlier machine in Chernobyl, pouring concrete:


    Fingers crossed all goes well this weekend. I’m more optimistic again.

  15. Troy
    March 20th, 2011 at 07:26 | #15

    Here’s a good summary by radiation.


    Like all essays on this topic, it has a detectable bias, but the informative part is informative.

    A couple of points he doesn’t cover:

    1) Some doctors argue radiation damage from decay of particles within the body is much more dangerous than being dosed outside the body, he says otherwise.

    Thing I learned: gamma radiation doesn’t damage atoms by just “hitting” other atoms, but also by passing close. “damages every 10th atom it passes”

    What the term “passes” means and how many atoms an alpha particle actually passes in the body is a mystery still, but I for one think it’s safe to say all the weird-ass cancers and stuff we’ve been getting since the 50s is directly due to all the radioactive crap we produced from all the nuclear testing we did.

    2) Induced radioactivity is due to neutron capture. eg. the firetrucks they’ve parked close to the reactors are being bombarded with neutrons, and some metal atoms in the steel are picking up or losing neutrons (dunno), they will decay back to the stable isotope later, and when they do the will emit radiation.

    This is why things can become radioactively “hot” without actual contamination by fallout.

    And yeah, I note that none of the pro-nuke people riding crowd-control on this event ever use the word fallout, but that’s exactly what’s happening now.

    3) In his meltdown + fuel fire case, he says:

    Briefly happened at Fukushima spent-fuel pools? (reports vary?)

    yeah, we don’t know now and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Hopefully events are finished with 1,2,3. Things look OK with 5,6. 4 is the wildcard.

    This is very bad but still not as bad as Chernobyl

    I’m really getting tired of this way of minimizing the situation. When I mention Chernobyl on reddit I get downvoted immediately. I really think there’s an active campaign to bullshit the public about this. Kinda like global warming in reverse, LOL.

    Fukushima reactors have now been “off” for 5 days

    This doesn’t really matter if the rods in reactor 4 start fissioning or other bad things.

    Turns out just *2* MOX rods in building 3 have enough plutonium for criticality!

    Not that they would start fissioning, but who the hell knows when there are NINE HUNDRED KILOGRAMS of plutonium in a single open pool with no containment, encased in a metal THAT IS BURNING ITSELF UP on exposure to air.

    I really hate how he shows a picture of Chernobyl’s blown-up corpse without showing the SAME (well, nearly) goddamn corpses of buildings 3 & 4.

    Biggest fire risk is 100- day-old spent fuel, i.e. 100x less radioactive than Chernobyl material

    That may be the case but there is a LOT MORE “material” on this site. This was apparently the largest fission plant on the planet, and 2/3rds of it was in a very bad way not too long ago.

    Chernobyl: bad plumes to 60km

    I think this is really wishful thinking wrt Japan and plumes in an onshore wind condition.

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