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Scientists Plan a Controlled Nuclear Meltdown

Japanese nuclear scientists say they plan to create a controlled nuclear meltdown to look for clues about how to deal with possible future disasters.

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday it will use a scaled-down nuclear reactor to deliberately create conditions of a serious malfunction. The experiment will start later this year at a research facility in Ibaraki, north of Tokyo.

Meltdowns occur when the nuclear fuel in a reactor's core, normally very hot in order to create steam for turbines that create electricity, overheats beyond its melting point.

This can cause an explosion and the release of radioactive material, as happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami.

But Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at The Union of Concerned Scientists, says Japanese researchers are going to take only a small sample of the fuel that was in the Fukushima reactor and will subject it to conditions that will cause it to melt, so they can actually study how this process occurs.

"This type of experiment is usually under very carefully controlled conditions. The amount of material involved is very small and the facility is going to be secured and filtered. So I think there's very little risk associated with this experiment to the public."

Lyman says for many decades similar experiments have been carried out in many different facilities on a very limited basis.

"They are, however, very expensive and preparations are extremely difficult, so there's relatively little data available from this type of experiment, and this is one of the reasons why the Japanese are doing this one now."

Since the accident at Fukushima plant, the Japanese public has become much more interested in the prevention of future accidents.

Similar tests have been conducted by all major nations with nuclear power plants, including the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China, but never by Japan.

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