Used nuclear fuel is a redox-sensitive semiconductor consisting of uranium dioxide containing a few percent of fission products and up to about one percent transuranium elements, mainly plutonium. The rapid increase in temperature in the cores of the Fukushima reactors was caused by the loss of coolant in the aftermath of the damage from the tsunami. Temperatures probably well above 2000 °C caused melting of not only the UO2 in the fuel but also the zircaloy cladding and steel, forming a quenched melt, termed corium. Substantial amounts of volatile fission products, such as Cs and I, were released during melting, but the less volatile fission products and the actinides (probably >99.9%) were incorporated into the corium as the melt cooled and was quenched. The corium still contains these radionuclides, which leads to a very large long-term radiotoxicity of the molten reactor core. The challenge for environmental scientists is to assess the long-term interactions between water and the mixture of corium and potentially still-existing unmelted fuel, particularly if the molten reactor core is left in place and covered with a sarcophagus for hundreds of years. Part of the answer to this question can be found in the knowledge that has been gained from research into the disposal of spent nuclear fuel in a geologic repository.

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