They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me

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A Nuclear History Lesson

A Question

So a student asked at the beginning of class today, "What's this incident in Pennsylvania that they keep talking about on the news?"

Now let's be fair here. The student had heard of Three Mile Island. And Chernobyl. But the talking heads on the TV, while covering Japan, keep mentioning Three Mile Island and Chernobyl like you know what they're talking about. And then there's the simple fact that while Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were bigtime events in my life, 1979 and 1986 respectively were both before nearly all of my students in both classes were born.

I noticed in passing through channels late Monday night that Rachel Maddow on MSNBC was doing a heroic job of explaining terms, putting in historical context and making sure she was interpreting what the statements about the nuclear reactor woes in Japan were and more importantly were not saying. Then had a real nuclear physicist indicate whether she'd done a good job. She had. Rachel prepares her material better than anyone on television.

So Some Background

This afternoon I cobbled up a short list of links for my students, which I'll put here. Yes, it's Wikipedia, but they do a pretty good job of aggregating information on events like this:

# Japanese Reactors Fukushima I (Units 1-4) (ongoing 2011).
# Three Mile Island (1979).
# Chernobyl (1986).
# Article on Michigan and Midwest nuclear reactors.

The most interesting quote from the last article:
In one corner, there are those like Don Williams, a “seriously pro-nuke” retired Hope College professor, who has studied the industry and advocates for more nuclear energy.

He doesn’t think what happens in Japan should have any bearing on U.S. nuclear policy.

“But it will,” he concedes.

“Those poor people over there, they planned on a 25-foot tsunami and they got a 30-foot one. What are the chances of that?” Williams said.

I spent some time in both classes talking a little bit about the ongoing situation in Japan, which is steadily deteriorating. But from halfway around the world, and not precisely my area of expertise, except in the most general Physics teaching sense, it's hard to know exactly how bad this is or how bad it will get.

It's easy to make dire pronouncements about nuclear power global or awful predictions about what might happen in Japan. Easily lost in all this, which Williams referred to above, is that they did plan for a bad earthquake -- and the ten reactors involved got through that relatively in good shape. They did plan for a tsunami -- but what hit the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Station was far greater than they planned for. And this story is far from over.

Fictional References

The China Syndrome (film) vs. The China Syndrome (fact) -- a reference to a core meltdown burning through the bottom of a containment structure and "can't stop until it reaches China". The movie came out in 1979, just 12 days before Three Mile Island.

Finally, growing up one of my favorite disaster novels was the 1975 nuclear power plant meltdown story The Prometheus Crisis by Thomas H. Scortia and Frank N. Robinson. Typical of this type of book, you have a rather contrived set of multiple circumstances -- the two authors also wrote The Glass Inferno, which was combined with The Tower to make the movie The Towering Inferno. No doubt if I read The Prometheus Crisis today, it wouldn't hold up nearly as well as I think it might. (grin)

Dr. Phil
Tags: accidents, books, classes, disaster, earthquakes, energy, japan, movies, nuclear, technology, tsunami

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