Understanding Japan’s nuclear crisis

By John Timmer

Following the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan has been challenging. At best, even those present at the site have a limited view of what’s going on inside the reactors themselves, and the situation has changed rapidly over the last several days. Meanwhile, the terminology involved is somewhat confusing—some fuel rods have almost certainly melted, but we have not seen a meltdown; radioactive material has been released from the reactors, but the radioactive fuel currently remains contained.

Over time, the situation has become a bit less confused, as cooler heads have explained more about the reactor and the events that have occurred within it.

In the reactor design used in Japan, the fuel is immersed in water, which boils off to generate power, is cooled, and then returns to the reactor. The pressure vessel and primary containment keep radioactivity inside.

Uranium ore

Marcin Wichary

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