You may wonder, even though the Fukushima reactors were immediately shut down during the Sendai earthquake, why are they having a possible meltdown several days later? The figure shown above is from the website AllThingsNuclear. This plot shows the gallons per minute of cooling water boiled by a reactor of the Fukushimi type as a function of time since shutdown.
Even after control rods are inserted and a reactor is shut down, neutrons will still be produced for some time in the fuel rods. Over time the reaction will slow down and stop, but it is not instant on/off. Engineers use fairly complicated mathematics called control systems to regulate things like this that have time lags between a control input (“turn off”) and a system response (it actually turning off).
Even a week after shutdown, the reactor needs to boil off 60 gallons of cooling water per minute to stay at a steady temperature. This is all planned for. The problem in Japan is that the fossil fuel generators meant to keep cooling water flowing in an emergency failed.

You may wonder, even though the Fukushima reactors were immediately shut down during the Sendai earthquake, why are they having a possible meltdown several days later? The figure shown above is from the website AllThingsNuclear. This plot shows the gallons per minute of cooling water boiled by a reactor of the Fukushimi type as a function of time since shutdown.

Even after control rods are inserted and a reactor is shut down, neutrons will still be produced for some time in the fuel rods. Over time the reaction will slow down and stop, but it is not instant on/off. Engineers use fairly complicated mathematics called control systems to regulate things like this that have time lags between a control input (“turn off”) and a system response (it actually turning off).

Even a week after shutdown, the reactor needs to boil off 60 gallons of cooling water per minute to stay at a steady temperature. This is all planned for. The problem in Japan is that the fossil fuel generators meant to keep cooling water flowing in an emergency failed.