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4/13/2015

FAQ:TheScienceofJapan'sNaturalDisaster&NuclearCrisis|JapanEarthquake&Tsunmai|NuclearReactors&RadiationThreats

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FAQ:TheScienceofJapan'sNaturalDisaster&
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4/13/2015

FAQ:TheScienceofJapan'sNaturalDisaster&NuclearCrisis|JapanEarthquake&Tsunmai|NuclearReactors&RadiationThreats

NuclearCrisis
byLiveScienceStaff|March22,201108:43amET

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Japanisstillreeling
fromthe9.0
magnitudeearthquake
andtsunamithatstruck
onMarch11,with
thousandsmissingand
dead,andnowa
nuclearcrisiscontinues
asofficialsand
workersstruggleto
coolthedamaged
reactors.
Here'swhatisknown
aboutthesituation.
LiveSciencewill
continuetoupdatethis
FAQ.
INFOGRAPHICS:

Oneoftheconsequencesofthemassiveearthquakeandtsunamithatstrucknortheastern
JapanonMarch11wasthewidespreadlossofelectricity.(Yellowlightsworkingin2010
and2011RedpoweroutagesonMarch12BluecloudsMagentalightsobscuredbyclouds.)
Credit:ImagecourtesyNOAANationalGeophysicalDataCenter.CaptionbyMichonScott.
Viewfullsizeimage

InsideJapan'sNuclear
Reactors
FuelatFukushima
DaiichiReactors
Japan'sQuake
DamagedNuclear
PowerPlants
JapanEarthquake&
TsunamiaDeadly
Combination
MapShowsNuclear
ReactorsinQuake
Zones

HowRadiationAffectstheHumanBody
Whatcausedtheearthquakeandtsunami?
JapansitsalongthePacificRingofFire,ageologicallyactivezonewherethetectonicplatesintheEarth's
crustrubagainsteachother.InthePacificOceanoffJapan'seastcoast,thePacificPlateisbeingpushed
downintotheEarth'sinterior,aprocesscalledsubduction.ThePacificPlatemoves3.5inches(8.9
centimeters)ayear,butthatmovementisn'tcontinuous.Instead,pressurebuildsasthetectonicplatesstick
http://www.livescience.com/13350faqjapanearthquaketsunaminuclearreactors.html

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4/13/2015

FAQ:TheScienceofJapan'sNaturalDisaster&NuclearCrisis|JapanEarthquake&Tsunmai|NuclearReactors&RadiationThreats

againsteachother.Whentheplatesfinallygive,theamountofenergyreleasedcanbetremendous.
That'swhathappenedwiththeJapanquake,whichoriginated231miles(373kilometers)northeastofTokyo
and80miles(130km)eastofSendai,Honshu.Thesuddenmovementshiftedtheseafloor,creatingthe
tsunami.Offshore,atsunamiisbarelyaripple,albeitonethatistravelinghundredsofmilesperhour.Asthe
tsunamihitsthecoast,itslowsandgrowsinheight,unleashingawavethatusuallylooksmorelikeamassive
flood.
[InPictures:JapanEarthquake&Tsunami]
Howbigwasthetsunami?
ThehighestofthetsunamiwavestohitJapanarebelievedtohavereached30feet(9.1meters).Within
minutesaftertheearthquake,thewaveshitJapan.Thefirstsurvivorstoreportsaidthey'dseen23foot(7
meter)tallwaves,accordingtotheNationalOceanicandAtmosphericAdministration(NOAA).Thehighest
officialrecordfromasurvivingwavegaugewasawaveheightof6feet(1.83meters)atHanasaki,inthe
HokkaidoprefectureatthenortheasterntipofJapan.Thatnumberistheheightofthepeakabovenormalsea
level,meaningthewave'speaktotroughmeasurementwaslikelyatleast12feet(3.6m).
ThetsunamitooknineandahalfhourstocrossthePacificandarriveattheWestCoastoftheUnitedStates,
accordingtowhereitcausedsomeroughsurfbutlittledamage.Twentytwohoursaftertheinitialquake,the
remnantsofthetsunamihadspreadthroughouttheentirePacificOcean.
[VideoofLoyalDoginJapanRevealsCanines'SocialRoots]
Howdidtheearthquakeandtsunamichangetheglobe?
Theearthquakeandtsunamitookamassivehumanitariantoll.Policeestimatessuggestthatmorethan
18,400peopledied,andnearlyhalfamillionarelivinginshelters.
ThequakewaslargeenoughtoshiftJapan'smainislandabout8feet(2.4m).ItshiftedthemassoftheEarth
towardtheequatorbyaboutsixandahalfinches(17cm),enoughtospeeduptheplanet'srotationand
shortenthedayby1.8millionthsofasecond.
[WillGPSSystemsBeAffectedbyJapan'sEarthquake?]
IsJapanstillexperiencingaftershocks?
Yes,andthey'relikelytocontinueformonths,accordingtoHenryPollack,anemeritusprofessorof
geophysicsattheUniversityofMichigan.Aftershocksarecommonafterlargequakes,Pollacksaid.Japan
experiencednearly100earthquakesofmagnitude5orgreaterinthedayafterthequake.Atleast20ofthose
weremagnitude6orgreater,alevelatwhichbuildings,especiallypoorlybuiltstructures,cansustain
damage,accordingtotheUnitedStatesGeologicalSurvey(USGS).
OnMarch21alone,therewere13quakeswithamagnitudegreaterthan2.5centeredofftheeastcoastof
Honshu,Japan.Thequakeshadmagnitudesbetween4.6and5.3.
Howdidtheearthquakeandtsunamidamagenuclearreactorsinthearea?
Elevenreactorsnearestthequake'sepicenterautomaticallyshutdownuponsensingvibrationsintheearly
hoursofMarch11."Reactorsshutthemselvesdownautomaticallywhensomethingcalled'ground
acceleration'isregisteredatacertainpoint,whichisusuallyquitesmall.Itwillinstantlydropcontrolrods
intothe[nuclear]core,"ProfessorTimAlbram,anuclearfuelengineerattheUniversityofManchesterinthe
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FAQ:TheScienceofJapan'sNaturalDisaster&NuclearCrisis|JapanEarthquake&Tsunmai|NuclearReactors&RadiationThreats

U.K.,toldthemedia.
Eventhoughthatstoppedtheprocesswherebytherodssendneutronsintothereactorcorewherefission
proceedstoproducenuclearenergy,heatfromnucleardecaycontinuestoflowofftherods.Andsincethere
wasn'telectricalpowertopumpwaterthroughthecoolingsystemanddissipatetheextraheat,workershave
struggledtokeeptherodssubmergedinwatertopreventthereactorsfromoverheating.
[TimelineofEventsatJapan'sFukushimaNuclearReactors]
Arethenuclearreactorsstillindangerofacompletemeltdown?
Nothedangerofacompletemeltdownhaspassed.Apartialmeltdownofatleasttworeactorsoccurred
severaldaysago,butseawaterinjectionintothereactorvesselsinrecentdayshasfloodedthenuclearfuel
rodswithwaterandstabilizedtheirtemperatures.AccordingtoaU.S.NuclearRegulatoryCommission
(NRC)official,thesituationattheFukushimaplantis"onthevergeofstabilizing."
Howmuchradiationiscurrentlyleakingfromthereactors?
Betaandgammaradiationbothappeartoberadiatingfromradioactivematerialsthathaveleakedfromthe
plant.AccordingtotheIAEA,thedoseratesmeasuredatdistancesfrom56to200kmfromtheplantrange
from2160microsievertsperhour,whichcomparestoatypicalnaturalbackgroundlevelofaround0.1
microsievertsperhour.Highlevelsofbetagammacontaminationhavebeenmeasuredbetween1658km
fromtheplant.AsofMarch20,nosignificantalpharadiationhadbeendetectedinmeasurementstaken
withintheevacuationzone(20km).
[HeroicFukushimaWorkersFaceStaggeringRisks]
Howarepeoplebeingexposedtoradiation(foodair...)?
Peoplearebeingexposedtoradiationbywayofradioactivematerialsthatescapedfromthereactorvessels
duringpressurerelievingventingprocedures,andfrommaterialsthatenteredtheatmosphereduringfiresin
spentfuelpoolsattheplant.Thesesubstances,suchascesium137andiodine131,floatintheairorsettle
onthegroundandenterthewaterandfoodchain.Theycontinueradiatingfordays,months,oryears,
dependingonhowquicklyeachsubstancedecays.
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Forthesciencegeekineveryone,LiveScienceoffersafascinatingwindowintothenaturaland
technologicalworld,deliveringcomprehensiveandcompellingnewsandanalysisoneverythingfrom
dinosaurdiscoveries,archaeologicalfindsandamazinganimalstohealth,innovationandwearable
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