The huge explosion today at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor No.3 building is a bit worrying, to say the least. It’s worrying because reactor No.3 uses MOX fuel (see here). MOX, which stands for ‘mixed oxide’, is a blend of uranium and plutonium oxides, which come from either reprocessed spent nuclear reactor fuel, or from decommissioned nuclear bombs (which has a certain irony in this instance). Plutonium, of course, is one of the most deadly substances that man has ever produced (it is totally man made, and does not occur in nature, and because of its long half life remains deadly for tens of thousands of years). All nuclear reactors have small amounts of plutonium in them – it forms as part of the fission process. Reactors that use MOX fuel have much greater amounts of plutonium in them.
Since the nuclear crisis began in Japan, which seems like centuries now but was only four days ago, there have been a plethora of ‘nuclear experts’ on the tv news channels, most of whom work for the nuclear industry and say that this won’t be another Chernobyl. Fact is, Chernobyl was a completely different scenario and what we’re dealing with in Japan at the moment is totally uncharted territory: no one really knows what the fuck is going to happen.
The very brave people at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (11 of whom have, apparently, already died from acute radiation sickness) who are battling to keep these reactors stable are in a difficult dilema: the failure of the reactor cooling systems means that huge amounts of heat/pressure are building up, which will inevitably cause the reactors to blow-up. The only way to prevent this is to vent off the reactors into the atmosphere, which of course means releasing large amounts of radiation.
When it comes to Fukushima Daiichi reactor No.3 we are talking about plutonium. Most geiger counters – including, apparently, those used by the Japanese authorities – can only detect beta particles and gamma rays (‘standard’ radiation). Plutonium is a very different entity and emits alpha particles. Alpha particles are not detected by most geiger counters.
When that huge explosion happened today at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor No.3 building, it doesn’t even bear thinking about what was released into the atmosphere.