Hydrogen, Zirconium, Flashbulbs – and Nuclear Craziness

By Karl Grossman

The explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is being described as caused by a “hydrogen build-up” The situation harks back to the “hydrogen bubble” that was feared would explode when the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 underwent a partial meltdown.

Karl Grossman

The hydrogen explosion problem at nuclear power plants involves a story as crazy as can be. As nuts as using nuclear fission to boil water to generate electricity is, the hydrogen problem and its cause cap the lunacy.

Eruption of hydrogen gas as a first reaction in a loss-of-coolant accident has been discussed with great worry in U.S. government and nuclear industry literature for decades.

That is because a highly volatile substance called zirconium was chosen back in the 1940’s and 50’s, when plans were first developed to build nuclear power plants, as the material to be used to make the rods into which radioactive fuel would be loaded.

There are 30,000 to 40,000 rods—composed of twenty tons of zirconium—in an average nuclear power plant. Many other substances were tried, particularly stainless steel, but only zirconium worked well. That’s because zirconium, it was found, allows neutrons from the fuel pellets in the rods to pass freely between the rods and thus a nuclear chain reaction to be sustained.

But there’s a huge problem with zirconium—it is highly volatile and when hot will explode spontaneously upon contact with air, water or steam.

The only other major commercial use of zirconium through the years has been in flashbulbs used in photography. A speck of it, on a flashbulb, ignites to provide a flash of light.

But in a nuclear plant, we’re not talking about specks—but tons and tons of zirconium, put together as a compound called “zircaloy” that clads tens of thousands of fuel rods.

Heat, a great deal of heat, builds up in a very short time with any interruption of coolant flow in a nuclear power plant—the problem at Fukushima after the earthquake that struck Japan.

Zirconium, with the explosive power, pound for pound, of nitroglycerine, will catch fire and explode at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the 5,000 degree temperature of a meltdown.

Before then, however, zirconium reacts to the heat by drawing oxygen from water and steam and letting off hydrogen, which itself can explode—and is said to have done so at Fukushima.

As a result of such a hydrogen explosion, there is additional heat—bringing the zirconium itself closer and closer to its explosive level.

Whether in addition to being a hydrogen explosion, zirconium also exploded at Fukushima remains to be known.

But what has happened regarding hydrogen at Fukushima, like the “hydrogen bubble” when the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania underwent its near partial meltdown, is no mystery—but precisely what is expected in a loss-of-coolant accident.

It is described in U.S. government and nuclear industry accident studies as a “metal-water” reaction. It’s a reaction, the research has long stated, that can easily trigger a meltdown.

Using tons of a material otherwise used as the speck that explodes in a flashbulb in nuclear power plants —yes, absolutely crazy.

Moreover, in the spent fuel pools usually situated next to nuclear power plants, there are large numbers of additional fuel rods, used ones, disposed of as waste. There must be constant water circulation in the spent fuel pools. In what is labeled a “loss-of-water’ accident in a spent fuel pool, the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods is projected as exploding—sending into the environment the lethal nuclear poisons in a spent fuel pool.

9 thoughts on “Hydrogen, Zirconium, Flashbulbs – and Nuclear Craziness”

  1. hey Charles,

    first of all, let me say I am sorry for your loss(es). I too have friends in Sendai city, two of which I believe are dead, and one who is a Critical Care doctor, whom I hope is busy helping others.

    this is certainly a time for me where world events have become very, very personal. events that are hard to pry apart sometimes from the political. in other words, I hear you. and I appreciate the additional view. it helps me be better informed.

    that said, I’ve spent awhile on here scrolling & reading and I myself will say that I’m amazed at the direct relationship I see with what is going on in the heavens astrologically and how that does play out in this present day reality. There is an excitement to it, there are “aha” moments going on in my head, and really, an unbelievable sense of “man, this stuff really works! astrology is and can be an incredible tool”, esp. when you are looking at those charts and learning new things that are being pointed out.

    Perhaps some of this “glee” you are speaking of seeing here today could be the simple fact that some of us are very excited, and perhaps validated in a sense that yes, our beloved “science” is showing us information.. showing us a lot of information, continually.

    more than a couple of times I thought to myself, is it totally morbid for me to be on the one hand, deeply grieving for my friends and feeling for everyone in Japan, and at the same time being activated, inspired even, by the astrology..??? personally, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

    no doom and gloom for me, or for the majority of people who want to change the world. I believe everyone on here deeply respects the sanctity of life. first and foremost, before anything else, I would hope. But it’s nearly impossible not to be fixated and excited about the astrology, which despite the terrible disaster, is fascinating. this site is, after all, called Planet Waves.

    I wish you peace.

  2. Eric, we shall see, NEXT week, who is in the right. But in the meantime, you will surely continue being a fearmonger. The world is a slightly worse, more evil place, when people like you spread fear.

    I’m not going to get into further irrational arguments with you. You have trolled me into an “appeal to authority” fallacy, and I will not play your game. But I will just let you know, I live about 20 miles from a General Electric Mark I boiling water reactor, identical to the ones in Japan, I’ve toured the facility, so I’ve actually seen what we are talking about, I live with these “risks” every day. These are not abstract issues to me, they directly impact my life a hell of a lot more than they affect yours.

    It is futile to argue with you with appeals to reason, when you clearly want to use this tragedy for your own political purposes. So I will merely appeal to you one last time, I will appeal to your sense of morality, which from your current behavior, is a slim, infinitesimal hope: LEAVE THE POOR JAPANESE PEOPLE ALONE! They do not deserve to have you standing on their dead corpses waving an antinuclear flag. Your behavior is despicable and your attempts to justify it are even worse. Even if your worst fears came true, it would not justify your behavior.

  3. Charles, we all rely on sources at times – in fact, whenever we cannot get access first hand to the data, observational scope etc.

    This is why trust will never lose currency in the human situation – we are none of us omniscient. Plus, we don’t always see the agenda – take climate change for instance.. which has become incredibly convoluted as a scientific battlefield.

    When Jesus said “Do not judge that you be not judged. For in the measure you mete it out, it shall be meted out unto you.” He was nailing the problem of human finiteness.

    Methinks the man doth protest too much!

    We can all be guilty of fighting other battles.. But there are limits.. Surely?

  4. Ah, I see, a degree in Journalism qualifies you as a nuclear expert. Forget all that actual learning about physics and chemistry and stuff, it’s unnecessary.

    I guess that trumps my college level studies in nuclear physics and chemistry, I even used to get advanced tutoring in quantum physics from the grad students, it was kind of cool sitting inside the 15Mev nuclear accelerator and studying physics while they were babysitting their experiments.

    In all seriousness, it is obvious from looking at Mr. Grossman’s bibliography as well as the articles I could find, that he is an anti-nuclear propagandist and incapable of making a level-headed argument about anything nuclear. He has, so far, displayed obvious lack of knowledge of basic physics and chemistry. With this combination of ignorance and willful misstatement of facts in the service of his political views, his reports are totally without merit. He is the classical model of bad science, he creates a conclusion and seeks data to support it. Unfortunately he is unable to interpret the data correctly, so everything looks like gloom and doom.

    Look, the accident at Fukushima scares the hell out of me too, but at least I’m able to see all sides of the story. And yet nothing I read on this site (or Mr. Grossman’s) admits anything is possible except doom and gloom. It’s your site and you can use it for political propaganda if you like, but don’t be too surprised when people tell you that you’re full of shit.

  5. The author is Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York and one of the most renowned nuclear journalists in the US and the author of several book on the subject.

  6. Your article is factually incorrect. Zircalloy is not explosive. It does not explode on contact with air, it actually corrodes and a light layer of oxidization forms on the surface. There are not “tons” of zircalloy present, it is merely a thin coating on the fuel rods.

    What you are basically saying, is like saying that since there was hydrogen outgassing from the containment building, the explosion that happened was a Hydrogen Bomb. Your argument is reductio ad absurdum.

    No, containment of waste rods does not require circulating water. It merely requires immersion in tons of water. The neutron flux is quenched by the massive amounts of water separating each rod from the next.

    For the record, could you please state your qualifications to make these statements? Because it doesn’t look like you’ve got a clear grasp of even High-School level chemistry and physics.

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