Nuclear reactor crisis in Japan: FAQs, diagrams

Are you confused about the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan? Looking for some background info? Here’s a list of links that provide information about nuclear reactors generally, the nuclear reactors specifically having problems in Japan, what exactly a meltdown is, and other common questions:

1. How a Reactor Shuts Down and What Happens in a Meltdown, via The New York Times

This is an interactive, multimedia slideshow that helps explain what happens when a nuclear reactor shuts down, what happened in Japan regarding the shutting down of the nuclear reactors, and what would happen in an actual meltdown. The image is very helpful, since the main association most people have with nuclear power plants are the large cooling towers, but the reactor itself.

2. Japan’s nuclear emergency, via The Washington Post

This is a slideshow that is a little different from the Times — the illustration isn’t as crisp, but it provides more information on how the cooling system works, what caused the explosions, and what the worse-case scenario would be in the event of a meltdown. It also has a map comparing where nuclear power plants are located with geographic seismic activity.

3. What exactly is happening with the Japanese nuclear reactors?, via Grist

This is a great overview, in very simple terms, of how a reactor works, how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami affected the nuclear reactors at this Japanese plant, what the worst-case scenario would be, and what is currently being done to prevent a meltdown. No graphics, but very straightforward and informative explanations.

4. Mini-FAQ About Japan’s Nuclear Power Plant Crisis, via TreeHugger

What I like about this post is that it addresses the question, “Can Japan’s nuclear power plants explode like a nuclear bomb?” There are other general FAQs as well, but I think the confusion about what a meltdown is just leads people to assume it would be a mushroom cloud — here’s the answer (full of jargon but the first sentence is key):

Thankfully, it is physically impossible for a nuclear power plant to explode like a nuclear bomb. It simply doesn’t have the right kinds of materials: A fission bomb uses highly enriched uranium or plutonium (90%+ of U-235 or Pu-239), while a nuclear power station generally uses Uranium that is only enriched to around 5% (sometimes up to 20% in smaller research reactors). A nuclear power station also lacks all the other mechanisms that are necessary to create a nuclear explosion (like for example the implosion or gun-type assembly configurations that allow supercritical mass to be reached).

I considered adding some links to news stories regarding the nuclear reactors, but the situation in Japan is evolving so rapidly that articles become outdated within hours. I hope these links provide some helpful foundation though, as many news articles I read initially discussed nuclear reactors, cooling systems, and meltdowns as if their workings were common knowledge.


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