Karl Grossman: ignorant journalism professor displays ignorance

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.

Err, no.

Zirconium does not explode at 2,000 oF. given that it melts at 3,400 o F ish, that would make it really rather difficult to make.

You know, let\’s stoke up the furnace, get some zirconium nice and hot and liquid so that we can pour it out into ingots and tubes n\’stuff and Ooops! no furnace left. Or building, people or plant.

It is zirconium powder which is explosive. The technical term being pyrophoric. That is, that as a fine powder it can go bang when shocked, knocked or banged.

You know, like flour can: but we don\’t then say that bread can explode.

Would it be too much to hope that a journalism professor might check the occasional source? You know, maybe even just Wikipedia?

Lordy, what a twat.

12 comments on “Karl Grossman: ignorant journalism professor displays ignorance

  1. Oh I should imagine he did look in Wiki, struggled as far as the second entry section, encountered the words ‘highly flammable…………’, breathed a sigh of relief that he didn’t have to cope with any more of this boring techie stuff & scurried off to write his article.
    Let’s do him a similar honour & wish him all the best with his cookery programs.

  2. She’s confused Zirconium with Sodium, I think. Do any of those reactors use liquid sodium as a coolant?

  3. This is a media situation known as a “Panic Panic”, characterised by journalists desperate for a panic, panicking because they can’t quite get one together.

  4. “Do any of those reactors use liquid sodium as a coolant?” The fast breeder at Dounreay did. But ordinary commercial jobbies in most of the world use water.

  5. Zirconium is used to make the walls for blast furnaces – that’s an interesting use for something flammable at a relatively low temperature.

    Tim adds: Not quite. Zirconia is. The oxide and the metal can really have quite different characteristics you know. Coal burns quite merrily, CO2 is a right bugger to get alight…..

  6. @ Tim – sorry, being lazy as I didn’t think anyone wanted to read one of my essays on the use of zirconia as a refractory material and Karl Grossman is talking about zirconium metal when it is actually a Hafnium-free alloy used in nuclear plants, not the pure metal and alloys like bronze or pewter have properties that differ from their constituent elements

  7. This reminds me of that wonderful Yes, Minister scene (watched it yesterday) with Sir Humphrey taking on the role of chemical expert and confidently explaining that ‘compound interest is a jolly good thing to enjoy. Well, that’s what a compound is: a jolly good thing to enjoy.’

    And like Sir Humphrey, most of our journalists didn’t bother with ‘all that science nonsense’. Fine if you want to cover the government; less fine if you want to write about nuclear power.

  8. Pingback: Does Zirconium Explode at 2,000 Degrees? | techyum ::

  9. dearieme – “The fast breeder at Dounreay did. But ordinary commercial jobbies in most of the world use water.”

    I don’t disagree with you, but there were three FBRs at Dounreay. I forget what the first used. The second, the Dounreay Fast Reactor, used a mixture of sodium and potassium. The third, the Prototype Fast Reactor, used just sodium.

    We use powdered aluminium in rocket fuel and other assorted bang-ables. As any idiot ought to know powders sometimes do unusual things. A coke can won’t explode. On the other hand, mix powdered aluminium with the right sort of nitrate, add some diesel fuel, and you have a nice bomb. As the PIRA could tell you.

  10. Re: Sodium coolant, my understanding is there’s no connection at all between a sodium-cooled reactor and the kind of reactors at the Fukushira I site. There’s no way that particular error could be inferred from Grossman’s article. Though…I have no idea where he got the idea that zirconium explodes at 2,000 degrees. He is excruciatingly clear that he is talking about zircaloy, the zirconium alloy used for fuel cladding, and he’s talking about it in its solid state, BEFORE it melts. It’s not so much that I don’t think he’s full of it, as I would like to know where the hell he even got that information, as part of a sort of pathology of misinformation. Especially since this claim is getting repeated all over the web.

  11. If we accept that there is some truth in the old adage that those who can do, those who can’t tech and we also accept that journalists rarely check facts and sources, why on earth should we expect a teacher of journalism to be meticulous in his fact checking?

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