"In any disaster, there's always a lot to be learned by analysis of what happened," said senior author Mark Thiemens, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego. "We were able to say how many neutrons were leaking out of that core when it was exposed."
On March 28, 2011, 15 days after operators began pumping seawater into the damaged reactors and pools holding spent fuel, Thiemens' group observed an unprecedented spike in the amount of radioactive sulfur in the air in La Jolla, California. They recognized that the signal came from the crippled power plant.
Neutrons and other products of the nuclear reaction leak from fuel rods when they melt. Seawater pumped into the reactor absorbed those neutrons, which collided with chloride ions in the saltwater. Each collision knocked a proton out of the nucleus of a chloride atom, transforming the atom to a radioactive form of sulfur.
When the water hit the hot reactors, nearly all of it vaporized into steam. To prevent explosions of the accumulating hydrogen, operators vented the steam, along with the radioactive sulfur, into the atmosphere.