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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 14, 2011


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Posted by Derek

Like everyone else, I spent the weekend following the events in Japan. A great many organic chemists have or have had Japanese colleagues; it's a field with a strong history in that country. I've heard from several people, but one of my former colleagues is still in the "unknown" category: Masanori Yamaura, of Iwaki Meisei University.

Iwaki, unfortunately, was hit pretty hard, and it's not that far away from the Fukushima reactor complex. So things are pretty chaotic up there, to say the least, and I'm sure that a great many people in the area remain unaccounted for.

As far as the reactors go, from what can be figured out at this distance it doesn't look like they're going to do anything Chernobylish - seawater and boric acid should forestall that. But the only reason you'd pump that mix into your reactor cores is if a meltdown is the only alternative; that's surely going to turn them into nothing but massive cleanup sites for many years to come. It's also going to take a mighty amount of generating capacity offline for good, which is another long-term problem. But for the moment, when the good news is that your primary containment vessels are still intact, then you know that you have a pretty full schedule.

I've often thought that if intelligent aliens looked over the planet's population centers, they'd ask us what the heck we thought we were doing when we developed Japan, coastal California, and a number of other areas. But here we are.

Update: many of you may have seen this link already. It's a clear-headed explanation of what seems to be going on (and going wrong) inside the Japanese reactors, with links to other useful sites. By the way, I agree with the comments that one of the other long-lasting bad effects of this crisis is the damage it will do to the idea of using nuclear power.

Comments (40) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. anchor on March 14, 2011 8:33 AM writes...

Derek : I among others share your sentiments and hope that things work out for the people of Japan. In my opinion they are very resilient and need to be helped by all during this difficult in their history. Is there any fund rising for this occasion you are aware of among the chemists? If you do please let us know and thanks.

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2. Vader on March 14, 2011 8:50 AM writes...

The most serious consequence of the reactor incidents is likely to be the strong opposition to further nuclear development. Never mind that the reactors in question are 40 years old and we've got much better designs now.

"I've often thought that if intelligent aliens looked over the planet's population centers, they'd ask us what the heck we thought we were doing when we developed Japan, coastal California, and a number of other areas. But here we are."

Tectonically active areas tend to have very fertile soil. That's the quick explanation.

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3. John Wayne on March 14, 2011 9:07 AM writes...

The news from Japan is going to be one of the most important tragedies of our current times; a magnitude 9 earthquake is an event of nearly unbelievable destructive power. At the same time, I cannot help to be impressed by just how little damage and loss of life occurred. This relatively positive outcome is a testament to Japan's earthquake readiness via public policies like their draconian (godzillian?) building codes. If this 'quake had happened almost anywhere else, the results (deaths and destruction of infrastructure) would have been staggering.
I hope that the governments of any area near a fault line takes this event as an opportunity to learn what Japan did right, and looks for some areas to improve upon. My best wishes go out to the Japanese and anybody who is waiting to hear from friends and loved ones.

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4. anchor on March 14, 2011 9:13 AM writes...

#3- It is still very early (death count) and the help has not reached all parts affected. Lot of people still unaccounted for!

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5. Sleepless in SSF on March 14, 2011 9:17 AM writes...

I have a colleague who was in Tokai when the quake struck and he's had a very interesting few days since then to say the least. He reports that things have gone remarkably well since then given the circumstances, but he still evacuated to Osaka as soon as he could manage it.

Regarding coastal California, I don't think the soil has much to do with it. "Coastal" California soil is great for vineyards, but that's not why people live there. The weather is by far the major reason, as the climate from San Diego through Santa Barbara and up to about Mendocino County is utterly unlike any other part of the United States -- in a good way. My wife is native to the Bay Area and she's almost at her breaking point living in north Florida, which has a climate much like Sonoma County for seven months of the year; it's the other five months that almost break her :)

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6. Andy on March 14, 2011 9:57 AM writes...

This catastrophe is a good excuse to decommission these aging reactors. Granted, you'd prefer more controlled circumstances, but it's not that much of a long-term loss so they probably don't feel to upset over pumping in seawater. Altogether, I'm really impressed with the Japanese resiliency so far. What we didn't hear, unlike in Haiti, was a lot of stories of buildings that pancaked under 8.8+ magnitude stresses.

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7. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 11:02 AM writes...

We have raised a couple of generations that are basically ignorant of the fundamentals of science, and of physics and chemistry specifically. Just say the word "radiation" and most people cringe like they've seen Satan himself.

The public was much more knowledgable of how nuclear energy works, and what various radiation levels mean, back in the '50's and '60's than they are today. Add to that an equally ignorant mainstream media, and the results are predictable.

"Keep your eyes glued to our channel as the horrible thing we are reporting just gets even worse!"

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8. jasonP on March 14, 2011 11:35 AM writes...

Costal Cali isn't that bad, you just have to make sure your buildings are earthquake proof (which they are not mostly). We're largely tsunami proof.

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9. partial agonist on March 14, 2011 11:46 AM writes...

#4- Deaths caused by the quake itself seem extremely low, but those caused by the tsunami is another story for sure.

There was one video on CNN showing utter devatation by the tsunami in a coastal town, then showing just beyond where the water reached in that same town, and there was hardly any noticable quake-induced damage at all.

You can design buildings to withstand 9.0 quakes, which is somewhat amazing, but a 10 meter high wall of water & debris is something else altogether.

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10. daen on March 14, 2011 12:13 PM writes...

The reason people get exercised about nuclear power is not entirely irrational. It's partly to do with the complexity and mystique, partly to do with understanding the difference between risk and hazard, and also how human beings deal with unusual events.

The 'risk vs hazard' calculation gets invoked a great deal in this technological age.

The risk of dying in a plane crash is less than that of dying crossing the road. However, with planes being the complex systems that they are, operating in harsh conditions outside of normal human experience, the chance of surviving a plane crash from 30,000 ft, should you be involved in one, is vanishingly small.

Likewise, nuclear power has, over its lifetime, certainly killed fewer people per MW hour than fossil fuels. And yet the memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, now, Fukushima are imprinted in the world's collective consciousness.

And that's precisely because these are such rare, complex and grimly fascinating events. Radiation leaks are just so different to anything in most people's experience - invisible, pernicious, sometimes fatal, sometimes with effects not felt for a generation, sometimes innocuous. Which leads people to wonder. If you can't see it, how can you avoid it? How does Joe Public know if the reactor really is safe when the only way to detect fission byproduct radiation is with a radiation detector - not something that most people have lying around? Can you really trust the Japanese authorities to be honest about the extent of the damage to the containment systems? N16 decays via gamma ray emission with a half-life of 7.2 seconds, I131 via beta particle emission with a half life of 8 days. Which is more likely to be vented in the kind of events we are seeing at Fukushima? Is the radiation emitted by N16 and I131 going to give the same Sievert dose? The same Gray dose? Which is, in short, more dangerous? Could the same thing happen elsewhere? If so, why, and what could be done to prevent it? If not, why not? Why did it happen at Fukushima?

Now imagine explaining the answers to the above questions, which let's face it are not entirely unreasonable, to someone who doesn't know what an atom is.

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11. Virgil on March 14, 2011 12:18 PM writes...

Derek, you had me right up to the last sentence... "one of the other long-lasting bad effects of this crisis is the damage it will do to the idea of using nuclear power."

Why is that necessarily a bad effect? Until we figure out a way to deal with the waste (now Yucca Mountain is not going to happen), it would appear the current happenings are a timely reminder that nuclear power is not the safe answer to this country's energy independence woes. If this drives further investigation and investment into truly renewable alternatives, then something good can be said to have emerged from this crisis.

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12. Hap on March 14, 2011 12:48 PM writes...

The effect of the Japanese nuclear problems cuts people of lots of political stripes - people will be hesitant to deal with the potential of global warming unless they can do so without too much pain, and nukes are probably the best hope for preventing such pain. Without expanding nuclear, power will have to come from renewables, but it isn't likely that renewables will be able to replace coal or oil anytime soon. This makes people more likely to forget about CO2 reduction because they can't do it without lots of pain. Renewables also require some semblance of a steady-state - you can't use more resources than there are (unless there is so much more than you have that it's not a problem, which is unlikely). Also, we haven't figured out how to run a no-growth society without unleashing the Four Horsemen and playing zero-sum power games. Finally, we could renew nuclear (breeders), but that has added risks (nuclear proliferation).

The US has some options for renewables (lots of open, not very used space for solar, wind, some geothermal) that other countries don't - Japan can use geothermal, but solar and wind are probably difficult to implement there because of space constraints. There isn't a whole lot of room for Japan to use renewables.

I'm surprised that a lot could stand an 8.9 - if it happened in the US, how much would be left?

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13. luysii on March 14, 2011 12:48 PM writes...

I seem to recall a lot of controversy (reported in Nature and Science some years back) about the siting of a new nuclear plant in Japan near a fault. I don't recall anyone worrying about the plant being near the coast where a tsunami could hit it. Does anyone remember?

A milliLiter and a cc. are pretty close in volume. Given the density of water at 1 gram/cubic centimeter, a cubic meter has 10^6 grams of mass. At 2.2 pounds/1000 cc that's over a ton of mass coming at you in every cubic meter. Granted that water ccan flow around things, but when it hits something flat perpendicular to its motion, the something gets plastered, particularly by a wave 2 meters high and a mile long moving at 30 - 40 miles an hour.

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14. Ed on March 14, 2011 12:49 PM writes...

I guess this video is one of many telling the same story, but the speed at which the wave grows and destroys everything in its path is incredible.

Also note, as a #9 mentions, the lack of actual quake damage visible in a town.

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15. MTK on March 14, 2011 1:18 PM writes...

One thing that may have made the tsunami even more devastating, however, is that their may have been underlying structural weakness from the quake. Not enough to bring a structure down, but enough to weaken it severely. Lots of additional damage occurs in aftershocks for this reason.

As for nuclear power, a commenter above may be thinking of Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo, CA. It's built very close to some fault lines including one 10 miles offshore that had a 7.1 quake in 1927. The plant is designed to withstand a 7.5 quake. Chew on that for awhile.

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16. Celbio on March 14, 2011 3:24 PM writes...

JasonP, have you read about the underwater avalanche induced Tsunami's, or "tsunamigenic submarine landslide"?

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17. daveh on March 14, 2011 4:23 PM writes...

Regular landslides create tsunamis too. See Alaska.

Here in South Florida we're all awaiting the big tsunami from the collapse of the Canary Islands. Should send us at least 100 meter wall of water.

Then there's the antacrtic ice shelf break. I believe that's just 10 meters of tsunami.

At least the nuke plant near me survived a Cat 5 hurricane hit (FPLs Turkey Point). Should be around for long enough to require dykes to keep the sea out as it was built in a swamp at sea level (Ya ya, global warmings a farce until my electric bill gets a surtcharge for it).

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18. Bruce on March 14, 2011 5:58 PM writes...

I have a difficulty with a so-called scientific explanation which refers to the Richter scale. As I understand it the Richter scale was replaced in the early 1970's and in any event is unreliable at magnitudes greater than 7.

The material within his expertese may be correct, and while it makes sense to me, I have no way of knowing.

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19. Dave on March 14, 2011 6:20 PM writes...

Hap, the answer to our energy dilemma is thermal solar, IMO:

The amount of solar radiation striking desert and other open land areas of the Earth at any given moment is far more than sufficient to supply all of the humanity's power needs. We simply lack the will to build the necessary infrastructure at the moment no doubt, at least in part, due to the poisonous influence big oil, big politics and other such influences.

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20. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 7:18 PM writes...

Screw all the other energy sources.
There is only one logical source of energy:
Element number one.

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21. J. Peterson on March 14, 2011 9:14 PM writes...

The "clear-headed explanation" linked above was little comfort about significant amounts of radiation being released. Even if the primary containment structures aren't breached, there's a lot of plumbing going in and out of them that's of questionable integrity right now.

If the primary fuel has melted down - a plausible situation, apparently - I don't see anything stopping the heavier radioactive elements from eventually escaping. Perhaps not in a dramatic Chernobyl style explosion, but escaping none the less.

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22. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 14, 2011 9:21 PM writes...

Japan was, by all accounts about as well prepared for such a disaster as any place on earth, but I don't think there is any way to be completely prepared for something on this scale. As a child I once experienced a much smaller flood and found even that quite frightening, I can scarcely imagine what this inundation must have been like for those in its path.

Politically, I think this disaster may have more impact on the politics of nuclear energy than did Chernobyl. After Chernobyl Western nuclear experts could blame Soviet bungling, because that reactor was of a design that would never have been approved in any Western nation. But the stricken reactors in Japan are very similar to US reactors, and indeed much of their technology was made by US companies. It does not seem like these reactors were defective, they just got overwhelmed by the tsunami. We also have reactors in places where they might be hit by earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes.

My own basic view on nuclear power has not changed in over 30 years. Accidents happen, as they do with any complex technology, but it is intellectually dishonest to advocate banning any technology without considering the alternatives. Over the past 40 years coal mine disasters alone have almost certainly killed far more people than have nuclear disasters, and of course burning coal also emits lots of pollution. Not only CO2 and particulates, also mercury. Some people make a fuss about the mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs, but by far the biggest source of mercury emissions in the environment is from coal-fired power plants; if a substantial part of the juice to run an incandescent bulb comes from coal then its use actually causes much more mercury than the tiny bit in modern CF bulbs. Every fossil fuel has its downside, and while I think we ought to be doing much more than we are to promote renewable energy, let's not kid ourselves: replacing our fossil fuels with stuff like solar and wind ain't gonna be quick or cheap. For the next couple of decades any plausible plan to cut greenhouse emissions must include nuclear power in the mix.

The one objection to nuclear energy that does carry some cognitive weight for me is the problem of radioactive waste disposal. But we already have lots of nuclear waste, and even if no civilian reactors had ever been built we'd still have lots of that from military nuclear programs. So we must solve that problem, and adding more of the same stuff to the pile ain't gonna make the problem qualitatively worse. Nor would turning off every reactor forever beginning tomorrow make the problem qualitatively better. If we did not already have a big nuclear waste disposal problem, I might consider that a valid reason not to start operating nuclear power plants. But that horse left the barn decades ago.

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23. Conflicting info on March 14, 2011 9:42 PM writes...

I am a bit confused I read the link in the post this morning, and it says everything should be just fine (although now seems to be under edit from more sanguine comments earlier). Conversely, - 3/14 at 10:40pm EST - I am looking at the NY Times saying the condition is highly serious with possible damage to the steel containment and things spiraling out of control?

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24. Lindsay on March 15, 2011 2:12 AM writes...

#22: "burning coal also emits lots of pollution."

Not to mention actinides.

That said, the nuclear fuel cycle needs to be looked at from a rational economic perspective when compared with alternatives.

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25. Dr Jimbo on March 15, 2011 5:07 AM writes...

Developing renewables to supply a large chunk of current energy requirements is certainly expensive, but how would it compare to, say, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date, or the US military's annual budget.
I can never understand why military budgets seem to be exempt from scrutiny for waste and value for money, compared to say, healthcare costs, especially by fans of small government.

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26. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 15, 2011 6:21 AM writes...

@25: I strongly agree that we ought to be spending much less on the military, but plausible estimates for the cost of developing renewable energy on the scale needed to make a substantial dent in fossil consumption are at least an order of magnitude bigger than the total US Defense budget over the past decade.

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27. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 15, 2011 6:51 AM writes...

@24: Actinides in coal, good point! Most coal contains trace amounts of actinides (mostly uranium and thorium); since these are heavy metals they mostly end up in the ash fraction, very little of it goes up the stack so most of this ends up in landfills. The average coal-fired power plant would be shut down if it had to meet the radiation standards currently imposed on nuclear power plants. Coal miners get some radiation exposure, but I would imagine the various other hazards of that job (such as coal dust and methane) would be a much bigger concern for them.

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28. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 9:03 AM writes...


The problem with nuclear "waste" is that there isn't much. Carter signed an executive order back when he was president prohibiting recycling of nuclear rods. His concern was of accidents in transporting rods to be recycled. Recycling means that a very small amount of true waste is actually produced. The vast majority of the material in the rod is reprocessed for reuse. I realize that the estimates aren't expressed very scientifically, but instead to explain to the average joe, but the amount of waste, if rods are recycled, produced nuclear-only sourced electrical use by a family of 4 over their lifetime, is in the neighborhood of a thimble to shotglass full of expended nuclear material. This is what the French do, and in excess of 80% of their electricity is nuclear origin. Solutions are reasonable, but the politics and hysteria stand in the way.

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29. Paul on March 15, 2011 9:39 AM writes...

Anonymous: the French admit that on an economic basis their reprocessing doesn't make much sense. That they do it at all is because the back end of the fuel cycle doesn't cost very much.

The de facto way spent fuel is going to be handled in most countries is long term dry cask storage. It's safe and robust and cheap. The only problem with it is that after a few centuries, the Pu in the spent fuel becomes relatively easy to extract, since the "self protection" from fission product activity declines so much.

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30. dearieme on March 15, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

"The only problem with it is that after a few centuries, the Pu in the spent fuel becomes relatively easy to extract, since the "self protection" from fission product activity declines so much." Which means that you've got a new fuel supply for suitably designed nuclear reactors.

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31. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 10:54 AM writes...

-29 Paul

Maybe by then all the terrorists will be with their 72 virgins (or 72 raisins, depends on the translation.)

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32. chris on March 15, 2011 2:41 PM writes...

Perhaps it will encourage more effort into Thorium Reactors?

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33. daen on March 15, 2011 3:42 PM writes...

The link you posted is now being curated by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

One of the first things they edited was the title:

***Note that the title of the original blog does not reflect the views of the authors of the site. The authors have been monitoring the situation, and are presenting facts on the situation as they develop. The original article was adopted as the authors believed it provided a good starting point to provide a summary background on the events at the Fukushima plant.***

It's also been further edited for style, content and factual accuracy, and expanded as events have unfolded.

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34. metaphysician on March 15, 2011 4:12 PM writes...

Regarding renewable energy- wake me when someone figures out how to make the sun shine 24/7.

Electricity needs to be produced when it is consumed. There is no feasible way to store electricity on a magnitude useful for large scale electricity consumption. Thus, even the best solar plant only provides power when the sun shines, and can thus only provide a portion of the power demand for a given area. And that is *after* you find an area that has really good, reliable sunshine.

Until such time as we can put a giant solar satellite in orbit, and beam the power down to Earth, solar will remain what it is now: a viable source of power for some places, but not a broadly useful solution to electricity demand. You need power that works *when* you want it, *where* you want it.

( and wind power is even worse )

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35. daen on March 15, 2011 6:09 PM writes...

wake me when someone figures out how to make the sun shine 24/7.

Um, it does already.

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36. metaphysician on March 15, 2011 7:21 PM writes...

35- :p

Okay, "wake me when someone figures out how to make the world stop inconveniently spinning."

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37. FMC on March 16, 2011 3:05 AM writes...

So Derek, following the news threads all over the world, I do think that even you have to admit that there now appears to be ample evidence that nuclear energy is not the best way to obtain energy.

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38. metaphysician on March 16, 2011 4:23 PM writes...


The "best" way to produce energy doesn't exist. There are only "different" ways to produce energy, which may or may not be useful or advantageous versus each other.

So, bluntly, aside from nuclear, your choices for broad scale generation are "hydroelectric" and "fossil fuels". Your options:

1. Radioactive release in the event of a disaster, which unless the reactor design is epically horrid ( Chernobyl ) or the disaster is a once every couple millenium earthquake + tsunami ( Fukushima ), probably won't even cause a single death

2. The risk of flooding or dam failure, in the much more probable and regular event of heavy rain ( and the certainty of flooding and destroying a valley ecosystem )

3. The certainty of releasing combustion byproducts into the atmosphere, with statistically measurable effects on human health ( including actual deaths )

Pick one. If its not on the list, its not there for a reason. Typically because it can't be made to work on a large enough scale to matter for a major nation.

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39. Dave on March 16, 2011 6:24 PM writes...

@26 I'd like to see some numbers to back up your claim 'cause I disagree!

@34 molten salt:

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40. metaphysician on March 17, 2011 5:03 PM writes...


Okay, that's actually not that bad an answer. Certainly better than things like "flywheels."

You'd need a tank three times as big, because for most practical purposes you want 24 hour supply, but that shouldn't be that big a scaling issue. In fact, bigger tank should make for better efficiency, due to less thermal leakage. You'd also need twice as much solar power input to power the thing ( since you need to provide both immediate demand and storage demand ), but again, that's not too bad a scaling issue.

That said, there are a couple challenges with this plan:

-Size. 100 megawatts may sound big, but its less than 1/300th of the average power demand of California ( using several year old numbers ). Building large tanks is one thing, but would there be supply problems in manufacturing enough molten salt material for hundreds of such plants? I don't know, but it'd need to be answered, whether you do a few large or many smaller plants.

-Pumping. How much energy does it take to pump 150,000 cubic feet of molten salt up to the top of the tower, and down to the storage tank? The article you linked talks about efficiency of storage, but not, AFACT, efficiency of pumping. That pumping will cost energy, meaning the net production of the plant is reduced. Presumably its not a *total* loss, or else this model wouldn't even be suggested by Sandia. However, given your effective output is already being cut in half to cover the need to store energy, if pumping costs mean the 100 megawatt plant is effectively only a 50 megawatt plant, you have problems.

-The overall challenges related to solar power: energy density of sunlight meaning you need a large geographic footprint for useful generation; weather limiting good sites; the need for mirrors to track the sun, thus mechanical complexity and increased construction and maintenance costs ( both in money and energy ). These aren't specific to molten salt storage, but they'll apply to any solar energy plan.

Now, if those first two challenges are surmountable, this is actually a good thing. It won't make solar a panacea; the stuff will still only really be useful for the American Southwest, by and large. What it could do, however, is make solar legitimately competitive and viable in those places that *are* geographically favorable, bumping it to a position similar to hydroelectric.

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