Transcript for Nuclear Expert’s Step-By-Step Assessment of the Fukushima Disaster & What You Need to Know

Below is the transcript for Nuclear Expert’s Step-By-Step Assessment of the Fukushima Disaster & What You Need to Know

Chris Martenson:  [00:00:18]  Welcome, it’s Friday, March 18, 2011, and today we are talking with longtime member, Dogs_In_A_Pile, although his friends call him Rick. His knowledgeable posts have long been valued by the community here, but never so much as in the past week when he has posted some of the most useful observations and explanations of the nuclear situation unfolding in Japan, perhaps found anywhere on the internet. Rick is an expert in the nuclear field. He is a retired Navy officer with over twenty years of experience, most of those on nuclear-powered submarines. He is a certified nuclear engineer, which means he is certified to operate, maintain, and oversee nuclear facilities. He also has extensive expertise on nuclear weaponry. I have asked Rick here today to help clarify and demystify the haze of incomplete and erroneous information circulating in the media all this week. Hopefully, after listening to this interview, you will have a better sense of what nuclear power is, how it works, what’s likely happening at the Fukushima reactor in Japan and what you should and shouldn’t be concerned about right now. Welcome, Rick thanks so much for joining us on such short notice.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:01:21] I am glad to be here, Chris.

Chris Martenson:  [00:01:23] So can you tell us about your background as a nuclear engineer?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:01:25] Sure. Briefly, just coming out of the Naval Academy, I selected submarine service as my community to serve in. You have an option of serving in either the air, surface, or nuclear power field and I went submarines. Then went through a year of extensive schooling, which was six months of classroom that worked out to about six hundred and fifty credit hours equivalent, so it was pretty much a focused concentrated effort in the pertinent areas; core materials, theory, thermodynamics, etransfer, water chemistry, radio chemistry, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering – the whole gambit that would apply. And that was over a six-month period.

Then we were sent off to prototype – an actual operating reactor plant – where we qualify as an engineer to oversee the operation. And you basically have to have a detailed knowledge of every system that it takes to operate the plant, so that you can correctly and ably supervise the workers that are operating the plant. Then you get sent off to your first shift and you essentially repeat the process. Most guys go to a different type of reactor plant than what they qualified on as a student, just because the Navy has several different types of prototype plants and only a few types of propulsion plants on the boats. So then you qualify there and you just essentially reinforce that over your career and depending the specific job you are assigned to, you are going to be given the responsibility to run a division of guys that support the operation and maintenance of the plant, whether it’s the mechanical system, the electronic system, the chemistry, what not, or the auxiliary system and then you operate the plant.

Chris Martenson:  [00:03:38] Right and so they train you obviously in how to run it during good moments and I assume you train for accidents, as well.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:03:45] We actually spend probably a third of our time in a drill scenario. And they do the same thing at commercial plants. Obviously, they can’t have the down time because they are there to produce electricity, so operating a commercial power plant; you have to have that continuous operation at power. The submarine world – the operation of the plant is much more transient. You are under different operating conditions. You may be operating at lower speeds, at lower reactor powers and at increased speed and you are driving the ship around at higher powers, but it’s just a little bit of dynamic there that the commercial plants don’t see. We produce the power for both electrical power generation and propulsion. We produce steam-core propulsion and all of that is interconnected and it’s just another element that you have to understand. In theory, it’s no different than what the guys at the commercial plant are doing, the different dynamics. We drill extensively. Each watch team will usually get about four to six hours of hardcore drilling a week and the entire crew is drilled and we’re talking about a minor drill, like an instrumentation problem, all the way down to flooding in the engine room, compounded casualty that shuts down the reactor and how you have to respond to that. In addition, it’s related but it’s not necessarily nuclear power, because the generation of contaminated material and radioactive waste, we also do quite a bit of drilling on what to do in the event of a radioactive liquid spill or a fire involving radioactive material – it’s just how you have to go about combating those types of casualties.

Much like what the guys and gals at the civilian plants are going through. They have an extensive qualification process that also includes drilling in both casualty and normal operating scenarios.

Chris Martenson:  [00:05:50] Right, the operators certainly at the Fukushima plant, like all operators, they have been extensive training, they have been through disaster modeling, they have been through their scenarios, and they have done all of that. Tell us about what you think probably happened – so Friday, this enormous earthquake strikes, a tsunami comes ripping through. Tell us what those first moments are like for them and what they were probably doing. And hopefully, that will give us some indication of what state the reactors were in when they started to go. We heard about the trouble later in the week on Saturday and Sunday.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:06:24] Well, it’s my understanding that three of the six plants were operating and three of them were in a maintenance shutdown. I mean that is just based on what I have been able to pull out of the news. But they operate separately. I mean I am sure there is some interconnectivity with some emergency fill systems –

I am guessing here, but I could imagine that about 2:46 they sitting just basically doing nothing except monitoring their panels, monitoring their instrumentation, and making sure that the plant was operating as it was intended to operate. Reactor power plants are not very dynamic, unless something is happening. So nothing is going to come on and just change power levels. So monitoring your instrumentation – you will sit there and you watch it and it’s just like you are driving your car down the road. You periodically scan your instrumentation and make sure that you are getting enough electrical output and make sure that your coolant temperatures and your oil levels – you just watch and make sure that nothing surprises you.

Chris Martenson:  [00:07:25] Yep.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:07:26] So here they are, they are sitting at the panels and the earthquake starts – well everybody knows that Japan is in the Ring of Fire, so an earthquake in and of itself probably starts out as, okay here it comes – I wouldn’t say that you ever get used to it, but you probably get a little bit skeptical – all right this one is going to shake. The expectation was that this was nothing out of the ordinary and it will shake and it will end soon. I am certain they have protocols in place that if they have a seismic event, if they have an earthquake that you have to go and do visual inspections of piping systems, just to make sure that everything is okay. Well about thirty seconds into this, they quickly realized that this was not a normal event. I have seen reports that said the reactors were automatically shut down and what happens there is that either the operators insert the control rods to stop the critical reaction or they have sensing equipment that automatically inserts control rods. Because you want to put the reactor in it’s most stable, safe condition, which is shut down. The problem is much worse if you can’t get the reactor shut down. So that is the first step, placing it in a shutdown condition. Then the immediate concern would be, okay what’s going on, this was a big quake, a lot of stuff got shaken around – checking instrumentation, making sure that all the systems were operating as they were intended to and at this point, the commercial power plant produces site power. It produces its own power and that is what you run your pumps with. So the emergency procedures were broken out. It was shut down, it is no longer producing steam, it’s no longer turning turbines and it’s no longer generating electricity, you have to shift to an alternate supply. So the emergency diesel generators they had onsite started up and were providing electricity and their pumps were continuing to run. They were continuing to circulate cooling water through the reactor and removing decay heat.

Then the tsunami comes along and we’ve all seen from the pictures that Fukushima Daiichi is right on the coast and I heard one report that was later confirmed, that a thirty-five-foot wall of water hit the plant. And unless these diesel generators were on the top of buildings or otherwise encased in a concrete building, they were going to get damage or you have the risk of getting seawater damage. And as robust as people think a diesel is, some of these diesels might have had damage following the earthquake, where they couldn’t start. There is a lot of redundancy in the system, so if one diesel generator will run all your electrical needs and electrical loads, you probably have three in the event that one doesn’t start or you have to periodically shut them down and take them offline to do preventative maintenance. So we don’t really know the extent of that yet, whether or not all the diesels were running or some of the diesels were running or none of the diesels were running, but from the reports I have seen and I have heard that some diesels were running for some amount of time when the tsunami hit, either through destroying the electrical distribution that came into the plants or the diesels themselves – they lost that ability to power the pumps.

Chris Martenson:  [00:10:56] I got an email from somebody in the region who said that the news report they had gotten was that they had two redundant electrical switching substations, so the diesels that feed into those – and then these redundant substations would then parcel that electricity out to pumps in other places. Those were apparently located in the basement, both of them and they just got destroyed by the tsunami because of the seawater affect. I heard that was part of the catastrophe as it unfolded.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:11:24] Okay. Well then we got reports that they were having problems with the diesels, either them working, them making electricity, or the electricity being distributed, which would be consistent with what we’ve seen. And then they had a secondary emergency power supply with batteries. And those ran for some amount of time. Well the assumption and in hindsight now in probably looking back, you didn’t really plan for the worst-case event. Once the battery was depleted, that was it. The pumps had no power and unless the plants have inherent natural circulation for heat removal design, they are going to start to heat up.

So you have three things happening — you have an earthquake, you have a tsunami that causes loss of power, and then your three levels of power generation are now gone. I would imagine that the tsunami wiped out external grid power or at least the ability to get it to the site, because I am sure, they have the capability to tie in and get electrical energy from another source, but with the extent of the damage we saw, I am sure the substations were just destroyed.

So now, these guys are on a clock. They knew what their core operating history was and they knew what the decay heat rate was going to be like and they knew the amount of time that they had theoretically to start removing decay heat by restoring circulation.

Chris Martenson:  [00:13:06] Can you just explain decay heat quickly?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:13:07] Decay heat is – without going into a detailed discussion of fission in general, when you have fission, you split a nucleus of a fuel particle and in this case uranium, it splits into two other particles and it releases neutrons. The neutrons go along and they populate through and some are absorbed and some do nothing and some hit another uranium nucleus and/or fuel nucleus and it generates. And under the right conditions, you produce a steady state neutron population that continues to propagate and produce the heat that you need to produce the steam.

Well, in that process, when these fission products results, they themselves are radioactive and they will undergo a decay process, either a beta or a gamma or in some cases a lower energy neutron decay, but this will happen for some time. They will have a half-life and depending upon what the radionuclide is, it has to go through that decay to get to a lower energy state. It’s that process of fission and the ejection of these different radioactive particles that continue to generate heat, even though the critical reaction is shut down. You may shut down your neutron generation, but you are going to have significant beta and gamma decay within these fission products and the decay of just the activated components of the fuel and the fuel assemblies that are within the core.

Chris Martenson:  [00:14:45] So this is what I thought was important – I have seen some confusion around this point, where people say, “But they shut them down.” And so the shutting down is shutting down the critical reaction, which is the neutron cascade, which is what we call “fission” but even once you stop that and you have all the control rods in place, there are still these residual processes, where things that have been bumped around still have to decay themselves. That decay heat is what they were struggling to get rid of all this week. Is that right?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:15:12] Correct, correct and that’s not an insignificant problem. Given the amount of fuel in a power unit, in a reactor, depending on your power history and how long you have been at a steady state power level – even though you shut down, immediately following shutdown you are looking at between 5-7% of whatever your pre-shutdown power history was. So I think the units one, two, and three were – or one, two, and four were 5,000 MWE. If they had been operating at full power – I mean that is the most efficient operation of a commercial power plant – high power and just continue to pump out steam and electricity – you do the math, you are still looking at a significant heat generation immediately following shutdown and 5,000 MWE, even if you are only at 2.5% or 1%, that’s a lot of heat and you have to remove that.

So what happens, inside the plant now this decay heat is building up and these reactors are closed systems. They are either a pressurized water reactor or a boiling water reactor and what that means is that there is boiling that occurs in the core, which is a design feature, because boiling and turbulent flow is really good at removing heat. It just has some special concerns with it in terms of how you operate the plant and how you design the plant, but basically, you have a pressurized closed system so that you can have this water in a liquid state at very high temperatures – you know 400, 500, 600 degrees, depending on the plant design. So you have a closed system and you are adding energy to it. On a closed system, if you increase the heat you are going to increase the pressure. That’s what happens. Everybody is familiar with the heat transfer equations. It’s the same concept as a pressure cooker, depending on which of the little relief thingy’s you stick on the top. It’s going to get hotter and it’s going to cook your broccoli faster.

So the same thing is going on here, the pressure is going up. So now you have two concerns – you’ve got a buildup of heat and you are decreasing your margins to the cladding, the fuel, and the conditions under which it was designed to operate and you are starting to stress the system. So long before they would that – you’ve got plants that are designed with pressure relief valves and when you get to certain pressure conditions, those relief valves will lift and in most cases the water is collected within the primary containment boundary or it is sent to a tank where it is collected. They don’t just vent into the atmosphere unless you are in the most dire circumstances – so hold that thought.

So I am sure they got to the point where they were lifting relief valves to lower the pressure, lower the temperature, trying to figure out what was going on. And the whole time, they are building up temperature because they don’t have power, they can’t run their pumps, they can’t remove decay heat. Well at some point they got to where you are continually venting this reactor vessel and the core and the coolant and you are essentially degassing. And what happens here is part of the water chemistry and radiochemistry – hydrogen is used in the plant to maintain pH and the corrosive properties or not of the water. So as you depressurize this water, hydrogen will come out of solution and under normal operating conditions that is a very controlled procedure. You degas – the hydrogen comes out and in our case we just bubbled it overboard, subject to geographical constraints and proximity to land, but a very controlled procedure – we just – we got rid of it. But if you are doing this as your only means of pressure and temperature control, you are going to start to accumulate hydrogen. And as we saw, they were explosions and it was pretty clear right off the bat, that the only source that it could be was an accumulation of hydrogen. And that was pretty consistent.

I think the situation inside the plants was a lot more dire than we were getting news on and I would also expect that. It would be nice sending all this information out there, but it’s not helping the guys in the plant. There was probably notification protocols for there emergency response and disaster response, but this – we’re talking about a normal – the only event is an event at the reactor plant-type of situation and that was not the case. You just had a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami, so whatever disaster relief and emergency response was going external to the plant, was absolutely swamped. So it’s a possible that a report came in and was lost – who really knows. Hopefully, a lessons learned critique will happen afterwards and what can we learn from this, but I am sure those guys knew that it was bad, as soon as they saw that they had no electrical power to run the cooling pumps.

So they are venting, now they are degassing, now they are accumulating concentrating hydrogen and there’s no doubt in my mind that these guys just sat there going, “We know what’s going to happen, we have to vent, we have to vent,” and then we saw the subsequent explosions.

At this point, they still haven’t had any flow restored, so your concern becomes the integrity of the fuel assemblies and at some point you are just going to exceed the temperatures at which they were supposed to operate or the range of temperature they were supposed to operate at and now you start having blistering, as you start to accumulate fission product gases inside the fuel matrix. You will start to get buckling and bubbling and cracking of the fuel assembly. And in certain cases and condition, they can get hot enough where they will actually start to deform and melt and hence meltdown.

Chris Martenson:  [00:21:30] Now I see this is because the water level has dropped below the top of the fuel assembly in some way, because of all this venting we are doing. Every time we vent, we are clearly losing fluid one way or the other.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:21:41] Without the ability to add makeup water, when you vent you are losing water level. But actually the reason why you are venting is because you’ve drawn a bubble in the core. You have boiled away the water in the core, so probably – I mean at some point within a couple of days, if not less I am sure they had bubbles in the core. Fortunately, it was a boiling water reactor, so it was designed to have some portion of the core uncovered, probably the upper portion and the fuel assemblies there are constructed so that the upper parts of the fuel rods had less fuel in them, just because they are going to be uncovered or partially covered or subject to a steam and water interface.

But they are losing water level and now you have the risk of hydrogen accumulating in the top of the core, like what happened at Three Mile Island. Fortunately, that was contained within the primary boundary inside the pressure vessel or the core pressure vessel itself that we know of. So we just don’t know. My guess is that with these guys their first steps were to vent within their primary containment boundary and once that got full or they reached their temperature pressure relationship inside their primary containment or hydrogen levels, they had no choice but to start to vent into secondary containment, assuming that they had some form of secondary containment. This would be consistent with what we’ve seen with the diagrams and reports that have come out.

Chris Martenson:  [00:23:20] So it’s primary containment, they’ve got a big steel 5.5 to 6-inch steel vessel – that’s our inner pressure cooker, than secondary, there is this big concrete thing that looks like an upside down light bulb, the Taurus and all that, and then there is the outer building, right? So when you are saying that we are venting at this point, I assume you mean that they are venting between the steel container and into that first concrete primary containment vessel.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:23:44] Right, without knowing the specifics of how that plant was constructed, I mean I can only go with what we had – we had a pressure vessel and a primary system that was inside a reactor compartment, so the primary is the first containment boundary and then the reactor compartment on the submarine is a secondary containment boundary.

Chris Martenson:  [00:24:09] But then hydrogen had to get out into what we might call the tertiary or the third layer, right? Because that’s what we saw with the first – reactor one when that blew up – that was a hydrogen explosion somewhere between the concrete and the outer building.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:24:23] Right. I am sure – at that point in the progression of the casualty, they didn’t start venting to that boundary until it became absolutely necessary. You could have started venting to atmosphere, almost immediately, but you’ve got to weigh the – how much radioactivity do we release to the environment, versus the expectation of when we might be able to restore cooling. So that’s not what you are going to go to first, starting to vent directly to the environment. You are going to vent to the most contained boundary first and then the next one and if you have a third system you are going to go there. Well at some point hydrogen ignites and it did and the first explosion we saw on unit one and then the really high energy explosion on three, which I hate to speculate, but –

Chris Martenson:  [00:25:22] Please do. That one looked different to me, what are your ideas there?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:25:23] Well, they either got to the point where they were pinning relief valves shut and allowing temperature and pressure to go above whatever the design limit was for that boundary or you saw a breach of that primary concrete boundary, because you actually saw chunks of concrete getting thrown up and out. My guess is that is probably what it was, is they actually broke the boundary – that inner boundary – whether it’s their secondary containment or – that’s probably what it was. You see the pictures where you have this big concrete dome – that’s what I think happened.

Chris Martenson:  [00:26:08] It was a huge amount of material and just by eye, it was ejected six to seven hundred feet into the air. That’s a pretty high-energy explosion right there.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:26:16] That could be the cause of a couple of things or a combination – it could either be because the same mechanism of explosion, a hydrogen explosion occurred at a much higher pressure or it was something else. And I think what happened is they had a higher pressure and when the hydrogen ignited, you just need that first little stress crack in the concrete and then the whole things rapidly depressurizes from there. There was just so much energy behind that. It had to be because the initial pressure condition inside that boundary when the hydrogen ignited was higher and it just let go.

Chris Martenson:  [00:26:55] Yeah and the first reactions from the officials were – they said there had been no breach of the containment vessels, which was really puzzling to me, because I couldn’t square that up with me because I couldn’t square that up with what I saw and today they admitted that maybe things were a little further off than they thought. So I completely understand that they were trying to manage a situation. That is clearly a bad moment in nuclear operation, right? I mean that looked to me like a certified bad moment. What are the chances that that released and scattered all kinds of material that we might call radioactive?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:27:27] Oh, there is no doubt it did. Just the venting process alone is going to carry away entrained particulates, just normally occurring stuff that is supposed to be on the other side of the pipe. That stuff is supposed to be contained, but when you vent, now you are introducing that into a place where it is not normally supposed to be, maybe under a casualty control situation, but when that thing exploded, the first two things that came to my mind – that had to be an inner containment boundary, maybe not the primary itself. But that dome – that concrete dome – if that’s how they were constructed – it was a big explosion, it was not like what we saw before and because of that, what damage to support systems, sampling systems, charging system, makeup water systems, could have possibly breached the primary and now allowed water to leak. It’s 600-degree water and it’s not going to stay water for very long when it hits the atmosphere, it’s going to vent. Almost right away, we saw continuous plumes of steam, as the systems were draining out.

So now you have a compounded situation where you are releasing particulates into the atmosphere, so you have an airborne issue. You are depositing this stuff all over the place, so you are going to have a general radiation issue from the contaminated material, and if you are uncovering the core, you’re losing shielding potentially and you have all kinds of issues with where this stuff is going and what’s happening. Not to mention, what you’ve got elsewhere in the building and that gets us to these spent fuel pools.

Chris Martenson:  [00:33:20] Yeah, so . . .

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:33:21] Go ahead.

Chris Martenson:  [00:33:21] But if the core is getting exposed – just before we move on with the spent fuel, because that is really the issue I have been focused on for a while – so if they have a core like in reactor three, just speculating for a moment. They lost their primary containment vessel, but inside that is that the reactor core and its containment vessel. Assuming that has been breached in some way, what are the options then? What do you do at that point? It doesn’t sound like there is any possibility of turning on a pump and covering it at that point. You now have an exposed core – could that go re-critical? Meaning could it slip back into a neutron generating state that feeds off itself or I mean what happens at this stage, if what we have speculated about has actually happened there?

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:34:08] Well if you’ve lost – I am going to differentiate between the primary boundary and a primary containment. Your primary boundary is your coolant piping, the pressure vessel in that closed loop. Now your primary containment is going to be the concrete building built around that. So if you’ve had a rupture of that primary containment boundary, which is probably what happened, you had damage to those support systems. I would be surprised if there was a breach of the pressure vessel itself. I would be pretty surprised, but let me couch that. These things as they get old – they are constructed of steel and iron alloys so that they have the properties of strength and ductility so that you – you don’t want to have a high carbon steel that is very, very tough, but very, very brittle. These things have to be designed to be operated from a range of temperatures from basically ambient up to whatever temperature they see when they are operating. So you have this metallurgical concern where you have this – and I think this plant was installed in ’74, if I remember correctly. You have this thing that has basically been annealed for thirty years and it becomes neutron embrittled, so it’s possible that they had a brittle fracture of the core. It’s not going to be like dumping nitrogen on a piece of metal and hitting it with a hammer and having it shattered into a million pieces, but it’s possible that you could crack it to the point to where you are starting to expose the core directly to the environment. And your concern there is going to be streaming radiation. The pressure vessel does a pretty good job of shielding, but at power it’s not going to be – inside a reactor compartment had power, you are looking at a levels that are going to exceed your lethal dose. But when you are shutdown, it’s not going to be the case. But when you expose that huge point source of radioactive material, now you’ve got this potential for streaming radiation through a breach.

All of that said, I would be surprised to find out that there was a major breach of the pressure vessel. But at the same time, I would be surprised if they went in found that it happened, given the age of the plant. I – clearly that boundary was destroyed in the explosion and there is nothing that you can do to operate your normal piping systems, unless you are just going to run your pumps – pumping into the atmosphere. Then it just becomes an issue of pumping seawater on them. And that is kind of the part that has me confused and puzzled a little bit, because they went to seawater quickly. The first reports started coming in that they went to – were pumping seawater in on Saturday – which tells me that they recognized right away that either the recovery was going to be long and they had to go to a backup system that was taking water directly from the ocean and pumping it in there or they had no chance of getting any type of normal flow back and they were attempting to fill the volume of that primary containment boundary just to cover the thing. Cover the whole core and everything inside.

Chris Martenson:  [00:38:13] Yeah, well they might have lost water. It might have been an admission that whatever their fresh water source was gone – it might have gotten tsunami-ed away from a storage tank of something, who knows. But – or it might have been an admission that they actually had some cracks and they were leaking water out at a very early stage. But whatever, it seemed like at the time you make the instant decision to go to seawater, you’ve already down a pretty long checklist of things that say you are not in a normal condition.

Dogs_In_A_Pile:  [00:38:43] Absolutely. And I think it’s probably safe to assume that the forc