Monday, March 14, 2011

Explanation of nuclear power plant problems...

I have a friend from church who is a nuclear physicist and has explained the issues going on in Japan right now in dumby terms for me. Here is it...

Regarding the tsunami: there wasn't really any tsunami here in Tokai-mura. The bad tsunami pictures that you have been seeing on the news are from a lot farther north, over 100 miles away. So, no problems here, except for the inconveniences of no water yet in many places. But most places have electricity and gas services restored.
Regarding the Fukushima nuclear power plant problems: Yes, there are problems. No, it is not at all dangerous for me or other people here in Ibaraki Prefecture. Tokai-mura is over 100 km (60 miles) away from the Fukushima II power plant. The evacuation zone is only 20 km around the power plant. The reason it is only 20 km is because people who live farther away than 20 km are not in danger
Actually, 20 km is probably overkill, but the authorities want to be cautious and plan ahead for contingencies that may never happen. Yes, this morning, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that the people between 20 and 30 km should stay indoors today, because of some increased emissions of radioactive particles from the reactors. OK, but even they don't need to evacuate. And I'm over 100 km away. So, no problem for me.
Now it's time for fun facts about nuclear reactors and radiological safety: (1) The reactors are now shut down, and they have been since immediately after the earthquake. There is no nuclear chain reaction going on. What's happening now is the residual heat caused by the natural radioactive decay of the radioactive elements that have been produced inside the reactor while it was running.
This amount is about 7% of full power at the time of shutdown, and then it decreases quickly (like only about 1% of full power after about an hour). {These values are from "Introduction to Nuclear Engineering", 3rd ed., by John Lamarsh and Anthony Baratta.} But even though it is relatively small, you still have to get rid of this heat. If you let it build up, then the temperature inside the reactor slowly climbs up.
At the limit, the temperature will get so hot that it will cause some of the metal inside the reactor to melt. This is what is called a "melt down." But it doesn't necessarily mean a large release of radioactive particles. For example, at the Three Mile Island #2 reactor accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, part of the nuclear fuel did melt. So, to this day, the utility company cannot run that nuclear reactor. But it still runs the #1 reactor next door.
‎(2) When a nuclear reactor shuts down, normally some diesel generators next to the plant turn on and provide electricity to run pumps to pump cooling water through the nuclear reactor to remove the heat from the radioactive decay. This can take place for awhile. I forget how long, and I can't find it quickly in my book, but I want to say it is about 2 or 3 days or so.
At Fukushima, the tsunami damaged these diesel generators, so that they couldn't pump in the water. That is what has caused the problems now. So, they couldn't use the diesel generators to pump the water into the shut-down nuclear reactors. Eventually, though, they did figure out a way to get water into the reactors; I haven't yet heard how, but they did.
There are a couple of problems now (A) high pressure and (B) buildup of hydrogen gas.
‎(A) High pressure is easy to understand. The reactor is acting like a tea kettle. If you boil water in a tea kettle, it whistles, because the pressure inside has increased. The same thing is going on in the reactor, except that the utility company doesn't want it to whistle at all, because the steam is slightly radioactive.
It's not very radioactive; it's not enough to cause big problems for people. But they try to limit the amount of radiation to the public as much as possible. That's one of the reasons why they evacuated up to 20 km away. They eventually decided that the pressure was too high, and they'd rather let it "whistle" than blow up. But since nobody was around, it wasn't such a big deal.
B) The hydrogen gas is a little more complicated. Basically, the problem is that the insides of the nuclear reactors were already really hot by the time that they got the water inside. When the water hit the hot metal inside the reactor, it not only made steam, but some of the water molecules actually split into hydrogen and oxygen. (Remember, the chemical formula for water is H2O?) The radioactivity inside the nuclear reactor also facilitated this splitting of the water molecules. Then, the hydrogen gas--because it is a light gas--bubbled to the top of the nuclear reactor and then seeped out. (This is not so hard for hydrogen. The molecules of hydrogen are super small, so they can diffuse out through flanged pipe joints and stuff like that.)
Now, around the entire nuclear reactor is another thick, concrete shell. This concrete building is called the containment vessel. Its purpose is described by its name--it contains anything that might leak out of the nuclear reactor, such as in this case. So, the hydrogen that leaked out of the reactor built up in the top of the containment vessel. Well, inside the containment vessel is air, of course. When enough hydrogen had built up, it ignited and exploded with the oxygen from that air. This is what has happened at two or three (I can't remember now) of the Fukushima reactors.So, when you saw the video of a big puff of dust from the reactor, that was probably the lid of the containment vessel popping off. The dust was probably concrete. So, that's not so good, because now the containment vessel has a hole in the top. On the plus side, now no more hydrogen can build up in it, right? Also, remember--the nuclear reactor itself (which is inside the containment vessel) is still intact. So, the guts are all still inside, holding together. I heard this morning that there was another explosion at the Fukushima #2 reactor that damaged the suppression pool at the bottom of the reactor. I'm not sure what caused that (neither is anyone else), so we'll have to keep an eye on the news and see what's going on. On the other hand, the utility company has been able to get cooling water into the nuclear reactors--sometimes more, sometimes less, but now always at least some cooling water. And, remember that the heat in the nuclear reactors now is just the heat from the radioactive decay. So, the point is that this crisis is short-lived. There is only a limited amount of heat that needs to be cooled away, and it gets cooler and cooler with each passing hour. I would guess that yesterday or today was/is the worst of it, and probably everything will be fine by the end of the week. As long as they keep putting some cooling water in there, it's more a matter of how messed up the equipment is after this is all over than about any catastrophe.
In other words, does the insurance agency "total" this car, or can it go to the autobody shop?
The numbers that I heard this AM were 3 to 5 microsieverts (per hour) of radiation in the air around here. That's higher than normal, but it's not anything to get up in arms about. When you smoke, you get 80000 microsieverts per year. If you fly a lot (like airplane pilots and flight attendants), you get 1600 microsieverts per year. So, if you decide to fly back to the US to wait this out and then fly again to return to Japan, you might get about the same amount of radiation as if you just sit cool here. And it's a lot less expensive to just chill here. ‎(This radiation is from the cosmic radiation from outer space, which is more when you are up at 30000 feet than when you are safely at sea level here in Japan.)
Another unreasonable response: Staying inside and not going to the store to buy stuff for dinner tonight.
A reasonable response: Postpone your soccer or golf game until Saturday. Play video games today. Besides, it's cloudy, windy, and cold today--not good soccer or golf weather.

It's super long I realize but really helpful in understanding!!!

Back to school...

Today was back to school again. The kids are out for Monday and Tuesday but teachers went today to start cleaning up the affects of Friday's earthquake. In the morning, teachers worked on report cards. I don't have any of those so I had nothing to do. I cleaned up the English room which took about 10 mins luckily and then I was out of things so I went and asked for a job. They lead me up to the home ec room.

As I walked in it was almost haunting. The 6th graders were working on cooking their favorite things for the teachers as a thank you for everything this year. The first table I came across was pancakes and there were 2 already made with whip cream, sprinkles, chocolate and a cherry on it. There was bowls of fruit set out ready for distribution. As I moved my way around the classroom I found dumblings in every stage of assembly, floor everywhere, cookie cutters next to bowls of icing, freshly made loaves of bread, butter, eggs and milk sitting out and fully assembled mini pizzas waiting to be cooked. Granted all of these things were now 3 days old but it looked as if everyone had just stepped out of the room for a minute. My first job was to get rid of the food. (What I shouldn't tell is that I ate some of the food that was safe like the canned fruit still in its juice because of the lack of food that I have at this time.) My teacher had instructed me not to wash the dishes because the rest of the teachers would come and pitch in after lunch. I followed those instructions for about 10 mins and then realized I really have nothing else to do so I started on the 4 day old dishes that have had sugar and butter and who knows what else sitting in them all with freezing cold water!

The teachers were very grateful that I had finished about 3/4 of the dishes by the time they made their way up to start work. I felt a sense of relief knowing that I had actually done something to help with the clean up because during the crisis I had felt useless. I feel that I am good in high stress, crisis situations but in this case I was useless because there is so much that needs to be done and so many things the teachers have to get accomplished but in order to ask me to do it they would have to explain the task in English making it more difficult then for them to do all of it themselves causing me to just stand around looking like a dumby. As I followed this group of women from room to room fixing things here and there I just admired their worker bee attitudes. It was a bit overwhelming as we would enter a room as they each tackled a section of the damaged areas. If you didn't know exactly what you wanted to work on as soon as you entered the room it would be too late because they would already have it done.

Today was a great way, I felt, to help out with something that is easy for me to do without any language barriers to get in the way. These dishes need cleaning is something anyone could figure out and get started on. I often feel useless like I said so I was thankful for today to be able to contribute. This earthquake as been devastating for some and alarming for others but I am thankful that I am able to continue to grow with the people around me through all of this!

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It has been a crazy few days here in Mito, Japan.

Friday was practice for graduation day so all of my classes were switched around. So in the afternoon when I wouldn't have had class, 6th period I had my favorite 4th grade class. We were playing Jeopardy to review what they had learned though out 4th grade when an earthquake started. Now earthquakes happen frequently here so I thought nothing of it and started to continue the game but it picked up intensity to where things were falling off my shelves in my room. Thankfully, my classroom is on the 1st floor so we ushered all the kids out the back door bypassing shoes and everything. (My classroom is carpeted so they take off their shoes) We crowded outside and as I looked around I realized by coming out the back door we had placed ourselves in the corner of the fenced in around of the school grounds with a shaking concrete building behind us. With a quick glance, my teacher and I decided to grab the kid's shoes and take off for the playground. During all of this time, the ground is shaking!

We spend about 4 hours in the playground as kids parents come to pick them up. No one was prepared so no one had grabbed coats and it was probably about 40 degrees outside. Everyone was very cold and very anxious. Intermittently there would be both big and small earthquakes and I was so intrigued and thankful for being in Japan as I watched the windows of the gym shake violently but never did break. Despite the tough circumstances it could have been much worse had it been somewhere else. Japan builds their buildings for these things.

When one child was left and it was 6:30 (normally I leave school around 4:40) they released me but were to sure to tell me several times to be careful. I didn't realize at this time that things were so serious for some people. When I got back to my apartment, other AETs were waiting for me to take me with them so I wouldn't have to spend the night by myself in the dark with no water, power or gas. Simon was able to get a call through around 9pm my time to make sure I was okay but other then that phones were shut down as well. Mom informed us that there had been a tsunami and that there was devastation about 2 hours north of us. We are very thankful for the minimal damage done in Mito.

Saturday consisted of waiting in line after line for food at convenient stores as well as cleaning up friends apartments that had been ransacked by the earthquake. Anything not bolted down came flying down. At the same time, everyone is trying to acquire water and food since everything is shut down. The people of Japan gained my respect once again as I watched them handle this crisis with generosity and class. There could have really been a threat of panic but these people waited patiently in lines and shared with everyone around them. Saturday night we were able to sleep with power, gas and water. We were also able to get on the internet to see the damage that had happened in northern parts of Japan and we were all thankful for the minimal damage done here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The beginning of the end...

The goodbyes have started. I realize I havent made an entry for quite some time but Im thinking this is a good time to start again. Things have been crazy as the news of my departure has been leaked. I have kept it from the kids as long as I can but now its a free for all. Last Thursday and just now were my last trips to the nursery schools I visit twice a month. I realize that teaching 4 and 5 year olds English doesnt get you very far but I have been able to become friends with these kids and play around with them. Saying goodbye was hard because I couldnt explain my reasons. One because I dont speak Japanese well enough but two because well they are 4 and 5 year olds so my reasons really dont make sense to them. (secretly, sometimes they dont make sense to me either)

I am excited to go home and see everyone but saying goodbye is tough. These next few weeks I will basically have one foot in America and one foot here and that will be awful. Looking forward to the future but saying goodbye to people I may never see again.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hitches in the trip...

The amount of travel time in buses, taxis, tuk tuks, and catamarans. Evidently I get sea sick and supposedly its ok to shove 15 grown adults in a tiny bus for 6 hours.

My debt card got eaten by an ATM

The places we stayed weren’t awesome.

Emily got sick several times.

I lost my scuba mask on my last dive (the night dive) and no I hadn’t even paid for it yet.

When I got home I found that my scooter had been stolen. AWESOME!

Though all of these things happened…I wouldn’t trade this trip for the world. I loved it and can’t wait to go back to Thailand and get my “Dive Master Training” which should take about 2 to 3 months. Whose with me???

...then Thailand!

We took a bus from Bangkok to the mainland of Thailand and then catamaran to the island of Koh Tao. I didn’t do so well on the catamaran with seasick meds. Yikes! Koh Tao is the cheapest place in the world to get your scuba license and I’ve wanted to do that since I got a taste at the Great Barrier Reef on Pac Rim. The resort we stayed at was right on the ocean and had an amazing view. The Thai people ran the restaurant but for the most part, the dive shop and instructors were English speakers. Many were from England and Australia. Our instructors name was Sonia who is from England. We were able to start classes the day we arrived and from there set off for the sea. I was so excited! The open water course consists of 4 dives. We did mostly morning dives, which start around 6:30am. It’s not exactly what you think of for vacation but I was loving it.

The most exciting thing that happened during our open water training was our last day out. The nice thing about the open water is that they make a video of you on your last day so we were preparing to be on camera all day. We go down on the first dive site and all of sudden there is a SHARK!!! Now normally I would have been a bit freaked but no fear it was a WHALE SHARK! These sharks don’t have teeth and only eat plankton. So I was resting easy and soaking it in that I was seeing a whale shark swim right past me! It was about 6 meters and I could have reached out and touched it. It was amazing! Needless to say my video is awesome with me swimming with a whale shark!!!!!!

During this dive, Emily was sick so neither her nor Luke was able to finish their open water with me. They finished the next say and I went on to get my advanced license. This would consist of a deep water dive (30m), navigation, computer training, and a NIGHT DIVE!!! Everything was awesome and they saved the night dive for last. I was super excited but pretty nervous. In my dive group I had met another couple from England. Polly and Nick were so much fun. We spent a lot of time together diving and hanging out. Of course I continued to be the 3rd wheel as per usual. (Lots of cute guys at the resort but none worth mentioning) Anyway, the night dive was awesome!! So interesting and beautiful what the ocean is like at night.

We were able to spend Christmas and New Years abroad this year and luckily we had so much fun that we handled it quite nicely. Of course no one likes to be away from their family during the holidays but thankfully we had a great trip.


Ankor Wat?? What is that?? I had no idea and knew nothing about Cambodia. Mito church supports our missionary, Joel, to go and do some mission work with the street kids but that’s all I knew. We set off for Cambodia on December 23rd. After volunteering to get booted from our flight for a $600 voucher, taking the red eye to Bangkok, bus to the Cambodian boarder, trying to get a visa, then a taxi to Siem Reap we finally made it to our final destination after about 30 hours of travel.

Ankor Wat is why we went for the most part. They are ancient ruins of temples delicately sculpted with designs done thousands of years ago. We were able to see it was sunrise, sunset and in the middle of the day. I for one got my share of temples for a loooong time but Luke loved it! The history of it was fascinating to him.

Our mode of transportation was a tuk tuk. It is basically a scooter with a carriage on the back. Our driver’s name was Venna and we were able to get to know him throughout the week. It was a fantastic time. A highlight for me was sticking my feet in a tank of fish would proceeded to eat the dead skin from my feet and legs. Yes it sounds gross but it was awesome after I got over being soooo ticklish. After 5 nights we made the trek back to Bangkok preparing for the relaxing week at the beach!