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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Following the Fukushima Story

— By T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

The series of events at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunamis will be something many of us will remember forever. If we ever doubted that we truly live in the “atomic age” as it was so fondly dubbed in the 1960s, we must surrender conception that now. From medical isotopes that diagnose disease and save lives to nuclear power plants that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sometimes breakdown and create massive drama, we humans do live in a world that is controlled and affected by “physics” beyond the human eye.

As a science communicator for Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, I’ve been working almost non-stop to help track, interpret, and translate the unfolding drama of the heroic efforts to cool down and shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. With the team here at TRIUMF, we have provided 15 radio interviews, five TV interviews, and numerous print comments in addition to online exchanges. Its not that we have special communications channels, its not that we operate a nuclear power plant, and its not that we have a crystal ball.

No, its that we know the difference between a dose and a dose rate; we have people who can translate the stream of high-quality information coming straight from Japanese twitter feeds (TRIUMF’s first PhD student is a now a Univ of Tokyo professor in Japan who is leading much of the scientific and technical communication efforts in the crisis); and we’ve been around radiation before. We are a particle and nuclear physics laboratory and we have radiation health and safety people that rival the best in the world. We don’t deal in quantities of radiation or material nearly as large as a nuclear power plant, of course, but we can shed some light on the issues and the context of what constitutes significant and what does not. In a way, providing this interpretation and even guidance is part of our responsibility as publicly funded researchers.

But it is a challenging and frustrating situation. Getting hard facts about what is going on in Fukushima Daiichi is difficult. This is because of language barriers, distance/transmission delays, cultural attitudes (parts of Japanese culture are more reserved than North America and its media), and the tremendous concentration required to actually focus on resolving the situation. You’ll notice that when the fire department is extinguishing a house fire, its only afterward that the fire chief starts talking with the media. All of her attention is on managing the crisis. As I said, its a tough challenge to balance getting the job and sharing news with the public—particularly when it might impact them.

I’ve thought about trying to blog about the situation, but the reality is that I’d be behind and since we don’t have all the facts, some of it would be speculation. I can say that the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, despite the deteroriating fuel material at Daiichi, is still quite safe from “blowover” of radioactive dust. The latest summary of where things are at is from the Washington Post with this nice graphic. There are even online geiger counters in Tokyo where you can check the “background radiation” weather.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan. What is making headlines this week will change their country forever…as it will the entire world.

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4 Responses to “Following the Fukushima Story”

  1. Rainer Grotheer says:

    Dear experts,
    going to bother you with a probably stupid question. Sorry for that in advance….
    What would happen when you throw lead borosilicates directly in a melting nuclear reactor…. would it just explode to make everything even worse or would it bind radioactivity when melting ?
    I guess you are all pretty busy right now, but maybe you find the time in the future, as I am really curious on the answer.

    • TRIUMF says:

      @Rainer — Good question. Depending at what stage of meltdown you apply the borosilicates, the results might vary. In the real world, meltdown is actually an imprecise term. It’s like saying that your food is too hot to eat — that refers to a whole range of phenomena (my food is on fire, my food has burned a hole in my plate, my food burned my tongue, my ice cream melted, or whatever). In a meltdown, what we mean is that the reactor fuel, typically stored in pencil-thin rods, has started to liquefy. As in, like when a candle burns, it starts to drip into a puddle of liquid wax. The risk posed by a fuel rod melting is primarily the mechanical problem — how do you control and manage a puddle of radioactive sludge? It is extremely unlikely that all of the fuel will melt and that the larger blob will suddenly “go critical” and cause a nuclear explosion. So, adding lead borosilicates would just add more material to the blob. When the melted fuel finally cools (as its radioactivity decays), you might then end up with a glassy substance, but it would not be the elegant spent-fuel storage compound that is being considered for long-term waste storage. –Isaac.

  2. TRIUMF says:

    @All — Interesting analysis from the UK’s Science Medica Centre about why the media got loopy on the nuclear side of the Fukushima story. Fascinating analysis and good hypothesis. thanks to @frogheart for referral! –Isaac.

  3. Maria Jose Crousillat says:

    As I followed the Fukushima story I wondered how the TRIUMF communications team, one that I was once proudly a part of, was delivering on the situation and collaborating with the general public. Thanks for the post ‘Isaac’ ..it’s great to learn about TRIUMF’s efforts, as you say it’s not about the crystal ball but the amazing hub of brilliant people that speak a scientific language most of us dont..and that’s all we could ask for..All the best to the TRIUMF team

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