All the credible news accounts we’ve seen of the Japanese earthquake’s damage to the Kashiwazaki-Kawari nuclear plant report that any leakage was small and the levels of radioactivity minor. But the damage to the plant is being taken seriously, as it certainly should be.
U.S. nuclear power plants are built with a defense-in-depth philosophy that uses multiple safety barriers and redundant, physically separated safety systems to assure that public health and safety is assured even in severe circumstances like hurricanes and earthquakes.
The three main protective barriers are the zirconium cladding on the ceramic pellets of uranium fuel; the reactor vessel and cooling system; and the containment structure that surrounds the reactor and other major components. Examples of the robust design elements include: several feet of steel reinforced-concrete in the containment structures; stainless steel liners within the containment structure and within the many feet of concrete in the used fuel pools, below-grade foundations for the reactor core structure; and reinforced pipe and tank supports.
In addition, nuclear plants are designed to withstand — shut down safely after — earthquakes at least as powerful as the largest known one in its region.
The Independent reports on the reactions of Japanese environmentalists and anti-nuke activists here. Nuclear power supplies about a third of Japan’s energy, produced by 55 plants; another 11 are planned.
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