Farrell: How Does a Nuclear Plant Melt Down?

What I know about physics or chemistry was left on a high school desk long ago. I did take geology in college and loved it, but who doesn't love rocks? I borrowed all of what follows from Wikipedia and from Stratfor Intelligence Service so we can get a handle of what Japan faces, which is more worrisome than the disaster at Chernobyl 25 years ago.

The key technology in a nuclear reactor is the control rods. Think of these as the fingers in the dike. They control the amount of neutrons (nuclear fuel generates neutrons) that is allowed to heat the water (steam) which then generates electricity. The control rods slide in and out of the fuel mass to regulate neutron emission. In so doing, they regulate the heat created and the electricity generated.

When, because of, say, an earthquake, the control rods fail to contain neutron emissions, heat escapes into the reactor and the fuel itself melts. Temperatures can reach 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. That causes all sorts of unwanted radiation-generating reactions. The pros at Stratfor say this meltdown does not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster. If the reactor core, which is built to withstand high levels of heat, pressure and radiation, stays intact, the melted fuel can most likely be dealt with. It can still be handled, although with much more expense and time, if the reactor core is breached, but the containment facility, built with specialized concrete, remains intact.

A person who is believed to be have been contaminated with radiation, wrapped with a blanket, is carried to ambulance at a radiation treatment centre in Nihonmatsu city in Fukushima prefecture.
JiJi Press | AFP | Getty Images
A person who is believed to be have been contaminated with radiation, wrapped with a blanket, is carried to ambulance at a radiation treatment centre in Nihonmatsu city in Fukushima prefecture.

The incident in Japan has obviously damaged the control rods, and therefore their ability to control heat.

Without the coolant system, it appears the containment facility has been breached.

The white smoke coming from the plant could be, most likely is, burning concrete.

So there is a certain amount of radiation leakage. To this point, it looks similar to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. "The reactor fuel appears to have at least partially melted, and the subsequent explosion has shattered the walls and roof of the containment vessel." Stratfor, March 12, 2011.

Now the issue is, did the explosion crack the floor of the containment vessel? If not, the situation could be salvaged, but I didn't understand anything I read about how. But if the floor cracked, it is likely, not guaranteed, but likely, the melting fuel will enter the ground. This has never happened and was the mythical fear in the movie "The China Syndrome" where if the fuel hit the ground it would burn its way to the other side of the world. The fuel was contained at Chernobyl, but even today there is a 19 mile 'dead zone' radius around the plant. Tokyo, for interest sake, is about 300 miles away from the nuclear plant. If the fuel enters the ground, the questions multiply as to how far it can travel and what, if anything, it could do to the water supply.

And just a few days ago our worries were limited to North Africa, the Middle East, the Euro summit meeting (which looks to be another dud), China's inflation rate and most recent trade deficit, our trade deficit and what hit it will have on Q1 GDP, and what the Obama administration can/will do about Quadaffi. Sarkozy has tried to take the lead on this last issue, but he really is making up ground for the horrible first reaction France had. When Tunisia and Egypt first erupted, France's then-foreign minister was vacationing in Tunisia after being flown there in the private jet of a businessman close to the regime. He offered France's help in suppressing the rebels three days before the Tunisian President took in on the lam. Brilliant! You really need a guy like this in your cabinet.

Sarkozy did what any good politician will do and promised whatever it took to regain face without really committing anything. He called for a no-fly zone, but the only carrier the French have close by is the Charles de Gaulle, which has about 35 planes, which are far too few for enforcing a no-fly zone. And there seems to be precious little support among Europeans for stepping up on this one. France gets about 10% of its oil from Libya, but Italy gets over 20% and has air fields convenient to Libya if they wanted to get involved. No word yet. So Sarkozy can support an aggressive interventionist approach, without having to do it. Not bad politics. It is a lot of other bad things, but not bad politics.

And Princeton did beat Harvard at the buzzer to gain a spot in the NCAA basketball tournament. There always is a silver lining.

Vincent Farrell, Jr. is chief investment officer at Soleil Securities Group and a regular contributor to CNBC.