Nuclear Panic Rises

As I said yesterday, the danger from the nuclear plant in Japan is minimal compared to the death and destruction that was caused by the tsunami.  There is almost no risk of a Chernobyl-like event.  The Soviet Union sucked, so Soviet nuclear power plants also sucked. Japan doesn’t suck, so Japanese nuclear power plants don’t suck.  This is a pretty simple concept, no?

Of course, no one could have predicted that Japan would get hit with a 8.9 magnitude earthquake.  The Fukushima power plant was not designed to withstand a quake of that magnitude, but it held up pretty well, considering the circumstances.

What is the big problem at Fukushima?  They can’t cool down the reactor.

The radiated steam builds up and needs to be released to prevent a huge explosion.  Some of that steam is released, which puts radiation into the air.

Should we be alarmed by this? Probably a little bit:

“Right now it’s worse than Three Mile Island,” said Donald Olander, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. But it’s nowhere near the levels released during Chernobyl.

The 1986 Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine was a level seven, while the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was a level five.

On Three Mile Island, the radiation leak was held inside the containment shell — thick concrete armor around the reactor. The Chernobyl reactor had no shell and was also operational when the disaster struck. The Japanese reactors automatically shut down when the quake hit and are encased in containment shells.

No one died from the Three Mile Island incident.  Hopefully no one will die here.  But this event is NO REASON to halt the construction of new nuclear power plants around the globe.  What happened in Japan is a very rare event.

People were killed by the tsunami. No one has been killed by the power plant.

Nevertheless, nuclear panic is rising:

Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the reactor fire was in a storage pond and that “radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere.” Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool, where used nuclear fuel is kept cool, might be boiling.

“We cannot deny the possibility of water boiling” in the pool, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official with the economy ministry, which oversees nuclear safety.

If the water boils, it could evaporate, exposing the rods. The fuel rods are encased in safety containers meant to prevent them from resuming nuclear reactions, officials said, downplaying the risk of that happening.But they acknowledged that there could have been damage to the containers. They also confirmed that the walls of the storage pool building were damaged.

Though Kan and other officials urged calm, Tuesday’s developments fueled a growing panic in Japan and around the world amid widespread uncertainty over what would happen next. In the worst-case scenario, one or more of the reactor cores would completely melt down, a disaster that could spew large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

“I worry a lot about fallout,” said Yuta Tadano, a 20-year-old pump technician at the Fukushima plant, who said he was in the complex when the quake hit.

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, along that battered coastline, has been the focus of the worries. Workers there have been desperately trying to use seawater to cool the fuel rods in the complex’s three reactors, all of which lost their cooling ability after Friday’s quake and tsunami.On Tuesday, the complex was hit by its third explosion since Friday, and then a fire in a separate reactor.

Afterward, officials just south of the area reported up to 100 times the normal levels of radiation, Kyodo News agency reported. While those figures are worrying if there is prolonged exposure, they are far from fatal.

Tokyo reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital, about 170 miles away. Closer to the stricken nuclear complex, the streets in the coastal city of Soma were empty as the few residents who remained there heeded the government’s warning to stay indoors.

Kan and other officials warned there is danger of more leaks and told people living within 19 miles of the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure that could make people sick.

“Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone.

“These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that,” he said.

Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 12-mile radius from the Dai-ichi complex. About 140,000 remain in the new warning zone.

Officials said 70 workers were at the complex, struggling with its myriad problems. The workers, all of them wearing protective gear, are being rotated in and out of the danger zone quickly to reduce their radiation exposure.

Another 800 staff were evacuated. The fires and explosions at the reactors have injured 15 workers and military personnel and exposed up to 190 people to elevated radiation.

Temperatures in at least two of the complex’s reactors, units 5 and 6, were also slightly elevated, Edano said.

“The power for cooling is not working well and the temperature is gradually rising, so it is necessary to control it,” he said.

Fourteen pumps have been brought in to get seawater into the other reactors. They are not yet pumping water into Unit 4 but are trying to figure out how to do that.

In Tokyo, slightly higher-than-normal radiation levels were detected Tuesday but officials insisted there are no health dangers.

“The amount is extremely small, and it does not raise health concerns. It will not affect us,” Takayuki Fujiki, a Tokyo government official said.

Kyodo reported that radiation levels nine times higher than normal were briefly detected in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo and that the Tokyo metropolitan government said it had detected a small amount of radioactive materials in the air.

Edano said the radiation readings had fallen significantly by the evening.

Let’s hope the radiation levels continue to fall and the technicians get things under control.  Nuclear power is too good to be ruined by one bad natural disaster.

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