So…what’s really behind the two Fukushima explosions? Were they hydrogen, or something else? You tell me, Dr. Fabulous. But here’s what I know, and here’s how an anti-nuclear activist just pissed me off by setting off my bullshit detector.
CommonDreams.org has a piece by Karl Grossman, journalism professor, anti-nuke activist and author of the 1980 book Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power, that is getting a lot of play in the wake of a second hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima I plant. It appears to have been written before the second explosion.
In this article, Grossman makes some claims about the element zirconium, used in the fuel cladding around the nuclear fuel, that set off my bullshit detector for no good reason. I don’t, or didn’t, know squat about zirconium or zircaloy. But his arguments sounded strange.
Here’s the background, as I understand it, summarized/repeated from my last post. Again, I’m not a chemist, but here’s what I gather. The matrix that holds the fuel rods in a nuclear reactor element is made of the element zirconium, as one of several alloys called zircaloy. At extreme heat, zirconium reacts with water and gives off oxygen, which is required for combustion, and hydrogen, which is flammable. That was the cause of the two explosions at Fukushima, according to the Japanese government. At Three Mile Island, a hydrogen bubble formed, but did not ignite.
Now here’s what Grossman said:
[T]here’s a huge problem with zirconium—it is highly volatile and when hot will explode spontaneously upon contact with air, water or steam.
The only other major commercial use of zirconium through the years has been in flashbulbs used in photography. A speck of it, on a flashbulb, ignites to provide a flash of light.
But in a nuclear plant, we’re not talking about specks—but tons and tons of zirconium, put together as a compound called “zircaloy” that clads tens of thousands of fuel rods.
Heat, a great deal of heat, builds up in a very short time with any interruption of coolant flow in a nuclear power plant—the problem at Fukushima after the earthquake that struck Japan.
Zirconium, with the explosive power, pound for pound, of nitroglycerine, will catch fire and explode at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the 5,000 degree temperature of a meltdown.
Before then, however, zirconium reacts to the heat by drawing oxygen from water and steam and letting off hydrogen, which itself can explode—and is said to have done so at Fukushima.
As a result of such a hydrogen explosion, there is additional heat—bringing the zirconium itself closer and closer to its explosive level.
Whether in addition to being a hydrogen explosion, zirconium also exploded at Fukushima remains to be known.
But what has happened regarding hydrogen at Fukushima, like the “hydrogen bubble” when the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania underwent its near partial meltdown, is no mystery—but precisely what is expected in a loss-of-coolant accident.
I’m as skeptical of Grossman’s claims as I am of the guy who must be Grossman’s very best friend, atomic entrepreneur Rod Adams of the blog Atomic Insights and the company Adams Atomic Engines. (It turns out Adams doesn’t like Grossman much). I couldn’t ask for two nuclear advocates on opposite sides of the issue who make their agendas more screamingly obvious.
What set off my bullshit detector is Grossman’s claim that zirconium is dangerous because it’s used in old-school photo flashbulbs. Ever looked at a flashbulb? It has little wires in it, not zircaloy fuel cladding. My chemistry teacher built a flamethrower out of pastry flour and a ketchup bottle. Hey, do you think that must be why I no longer have a kitchen? I knew I shouldn’t bake bread! They also build racing wheels out of magnesium, which burns, and I’ve personally set aluminum foil on fire — but I wouldn’t want to stick a fuse in a 20 pound aluminum ingot and hurl it at a charging Cossack.
Secondly: “Zirconium, with the explosive power, pound for pound, of nitroglycerine, will catch fire and explode at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Zirconium explodes at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit? The melting point is 3,371 degrees F. Run that by me one more time?
Don’t get me wrong — again, I’m just a caveman; I don’t know chemistry. I just finished reading a book about plutonium, and that stuff does some serious whack-ass shit. Other elements do strange things, too (though none so strange as plutonium). So I did not dismiss Grossman’s claims out of hand. Maybe solid zirconium really does explode.
But. When I search “zirconium explodes at 2,000 degrees,” the first four hits I get are Grossman articles, and a bunch of later ones are just people reposting Grossman’s quotes about it. The next, a 2002 AOPA report on terrorist attacks, plane crashes and nuclear security, refutes his claim and says solid zirconium will not burn. Incidentally, page 2 is where the really whacked-out Bible Prophecy posts start.
Everywhere else I go, I find indications that zirconium powder or shavings will burn or explode. That’s what’s in old flash bulbs. NOT the solid zirconium (as zircaloy) that’s used in nuclear fuel cladding. The only stuff I find about solid zirconium or zircaloy exploding at 2,000 degrees comes from Grossman, or seems to be a refutation of Grossman’s claim (once in the AOPA report, once from a right-wing environmental blogger). I can’t find ANYTHING about Zirconium exploding at 2,000 degrees that didn’t originate with Grossman.
Grossman’s unreferenced statmenent that zirconium has the explosive power of nitroglycerine smelled from the start like a blatant appeal to fear, but hey, maybe it’s true. I just can’t find a directly credible reference for it, if it is.
Then Grossman commits an ethically questionable faux pas, in my mind, when he says: “Whether in addition to being a hydrogen explosion, zirconium also exploded at Fukushima remains to be known.”
That’s a classic dirty trick of argumentation. “Whether my esteemed opponent kicks puppies and hates Santa Claus, I don’t yet know.” Even if what he describes is physically possible, that’s not what NHK reported. He’s exaggerating the danger because he doesn’t like nuclear power. There’s no direct indication that the zirconium at Fukushima exploded.
Assuming zirconium really does explode at 2,000 degrees, could the Japanese government be lying by reporting it just as a hydrogen explosion? Could the Fukushima explosion have been a zirco-bomb? Of course. The Illuminati could also be planning to turn us all into cube steaks and feed us to Bigfoot on May 21, 2011; heck, you know, with everything I know about the government, “it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Both pro- and anti-nuke activists need to be careful that their competing agendas don’t imply things that aren’t supported by the available information. They also need to reference their facts. Spreading either fear or reassurance based on a political or financial agenda will just spread ignorance.