Science of the Quake: the Dissenters Arrive

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 5:36 PM EDT
Tsunami flooding at Sendai Airport. Credit: Samuel Morse, courtesy USAF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Interesting clues from science, a few reflections, plus one refraction, in the wake of Japan's triple disasters: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear.

A letter in this week's Nature posits a fascinating hypothesis for why the enormous forces that build mountain ranges, trigger earthquakes, and create volcanoes, cause some areas of continental crust to buckle but not others. The culprit seems to be quartz:

Here we show that the abundance of crustal quartz, the weakest mineral in continental rocks, may strongly condition continental temperature and deformation. 

Furthermore, quartz-rich crust may also steer the process of plate tectonics: that shape-shifting of continents and oceans that continually, albeit slowly, rewrites the map of our world. If so, then quartz could be the weak trigger underlying the Japan Trench—epicenter of the 2011 Tōhoku (Sendai) Earthquake.

The work for this study was done with freely-available data from EarthScope—a program of the National Science Foundation that deploys thousands of seismic, GPS, and other geophysical instruments to examine the structure and evolution of North America.

 

EarthScope planning map.EarthScope planning map.

 

Science Insider reports that there are no drugs other for radiation poisoning other than potassium iodide, which only treats for the radioisotopes of iodine. But there are some in development:

A drug called Ex-RAD, developed by Onconova Therapeutics Inc., currently being tested as a prophylactic that could be given to first responders in a nuclear attack or to individuals preparing to enter a radioactive site. It's not the only drug though being tried out—CBLB502 has been shown to be effective in mice and monkeys.

Meanwhile, an interesting article in BBC Science puts Japan's nuclear emissions in a broader perspective, reminding us of the hazards of radiation we choose to accept:

A whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up... can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion. Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

 CT scanner. Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.CT scanner. Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Australian Broadcasting Company reports on collateral damage to internet service from Japan's megaquake:

Two [fiber-optic] cables linking Japan and the United States were damaged following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, causing a 30 percent slowing of [internet] bandwidth. The damage may take a month to repair.

NASA's Earth Observatory posted an illuminating image of the damage to Japan's electrical grid, as seen from orbit (below).

The yellow areas indicate lights that were functioning in 2010 and 2011. Red shows power outages on March 12, 2011. Blue and green show clouds. Magenta shows lights obscured by clouds. The bright green points may indicate lights not observed in 2010 but visible in 2011. When you consider that Japan is roughly the size of California and 3.4 times more populous, that's adds up to a lot of people in the dark.

 Electricity Losses in Northeastern Japan following the Sendai quake. Yellow indicates lights functioning in 2010 and 2011. Red: power outages on March 12, 2011. Blue and green: clouds. Magenta: lights obscured by clouds. Bright green: may be lights not obElectricity Losses in Northeastern Japan following the Sendai quake Credit: NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.

 

Speaking of in the dark, Nature News published an interesting article by  Geoff Brumfiel called The Meltdown That Wasn't. (Not yet, at any rate, and hopefully never.) He describes just how treacherous the early hours and days at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant must have been:

In the moments after the power was lost, the operators "would have literally been blind", says Margaret Harding, a nuclear engineer in Wilmington, North Carolina. Harding worked for two decades with General Electric, which designed Fukushima's boiling-water reactors, and she witnessed a similar outage in 1984 during a safety test at a boiling-water reactor in Switzerland. "Basically the emergency lights came on and all the panels went black," Harding says.

Brumfiel goes on to describe a guesstimated blow-by-blow of events and actions at reactor 1, including a variety of things done right:

At some point, the falling water levels must have left the fuel exposed... As temperatures rose above 1,000 °C, the steam in the pressure vessel began to oxidize the zirconium, probably releasing hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, fuel pellets, liberated from their shell, began to fall to the bottom of the reactor. The meltdown had begun... This was the crucial moment...  Slowly, the pile could build towards a 'critical mass' that would restart the nuclear process normally used to generate electricity... Nobody can be sure about this sequence of events because there has never been a full meltdown in a boiling-water reactor. Harding says that she thinks it's unlikely that the nuclear processes would have reignited. Even if they did, the worst case, in her opinion, is that the fuel would have burned through the steel pressure vessel and splattered onto the 'base mat', a thick concrete slab that would have spread out the fuel, extinguishing any fission reactions... But even that might have been catastrophic. The volatile hydrogen gas generated by the zirconium was safe inside the steel pressure vessel, but it was liable to explode if exposed to air in the outer containment vessel. If the blast were big enough, it might have breached the outer vessel's thick, concrete walls.

Finally, the dissenting views are washing up. Michael Hanlon, science editor of Britain's Daily Mail, writes that what's happened in Japan should be an ENDORSEMENT of nuclear power (his caps):

Think about it: despite being faced with a Magnitude 9 Great Earthquake which knocked the whole island of Honshu several feet to the west, a 35ft tsunami and the complete breakdown of the infrastructure, a handful of rather ancient atomic reactors have remained largely intact and have released only tiny amounts of radiation.

So easy to say from half a world away. Wonder if Hanlon would feel the same way if he was one of the Fukushima 50 trading his health, maybe his life, to try and keep it that way.