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New nuclear plants may have withstood the Japan earthquake

The 9.0 Japan earthquake was dire but the current meltdown might have been avoided by new advances in nuclear plant technology.

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A man holds his baby as they are scanned for levels of radiation in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Sunday, March 13. Friday's quake and tsunami damaged two nuclear reactors at a power plant in the prefecture, and at least one of them appeared to be going through a partial meltdown, raising fears of a radiation leak.

Mark Baker/AP

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The latest nuclear reactor designs could help avoid the overheating and explosions that have occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following the powerful earthquake and tsunami that struck on Friday. Newer reactor designs propose the use of passive cooling systems that would not fail after a power outage, as happened in Japan, as well as other novel approaches to managing reactor heat.

As of Monday, power plant operators in Japan continued to struggle to cool reactors at the Daiichi plant. Two explosions had occurred in parts of the plant but the reactor core and primary containment structures were apparently not damaged. (There have been reports of an third "explosive sound.") So far relatively little radiation has been released (although there have been transient, and dangerous, spikes of radiation). Some experts say that a complete meltdown, in which large amounts of radioactive material would be released into the environment, is unlikely, and that within a few days, the reactor core will have cooled to the point that it will be easier to manage.

The Daiichi power plant shut down automatically after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit (recently updated from 8.9), but the cores of its four reactors still require cooling to prevent a meltdown. The cooling is normally provided by water that is pumped into the core using electricity. The earthquake cut off electricity needed to drive water pumps, and then backup diesel generators failed, likely as the result of the tsunami triggered by the earthquake. Although details are difficult to confirm, it appears that another cooling system that uses batteries and steam-driven pumps also failed, and a heat exchange system that removes heat from the water coolant around the reactor seemed to be damaged, says Andrew Kadak, a research affiliate at MIT.

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