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Japan Syndrome: Tokyo Electric nuclear plant in peril after earthquake and tsunami cripple cooling system

UPDATE2: Explosion rocks plant, officials assume partial meltdown

UPDATE: Japanese officials, “are working under the presumption” that there have been partial meltdowns at two reactors, said Yukio Edano, the Chief Cabinet Secretary.

An explosion rocked one of Japan’s nuclear power plants, causing a portion of a building to crumble, sending white smoke billowing into the air and prompting Japanese officials to warn those in the vicinity to cover their mouths and stay indoors.

In what may become the most serious nuclear power crisis since the Chernobyl disaster, the explosion followed large tremors at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor Saturday afternoon, injuring four workers who were struggling to get the quake-stricken unit under control.

Earlier, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had warned that the reactor, whose cooling system had been crippled by the giant earthquake on Friday, could be nearing a meltdown and that two radioactive substances, cesium and radioactive iodine, had already been detected nearby.

The full extent of the blast remained unclear, but footage on Japanese television showed that the walls of the building housing the reactor crumpled, leaving a skeletal metal frame, according to the Associated Press.

UPDATE: That’s the WashPost at 8:04 AM EST Saturday. It doesn’t appear the siting and fail-safe design of this plant was sufficiently thought out, given that Japan is situated along the Ring of Fire, “where large numbers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.”

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Here’s ABC News, which notes in its sub-hed “Nuclear Scientists Warn of ‘Very Serious’ Radioactive Event if Japanese Reactor Not Cooled”:

Radiation levels inside a Japanese nuclear power plant have surged to 1,000 times their normal levels after today’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake knocked out power to a cooling system, and tsunami floods have hampered efforts to get it restored.

Meanwhile, heat-induced pressure built up inside the crippled reactor, prompting widespread evacuations and stoking fears of a potentially catastrophic radioactive event….

Scientists said that even though the reactor had stopped producing energy, its fuel continues to generate heat and needs steady levels of coolant to prevent it from overheating and triggering a dangerous cascade of events.

“You have to continue to supply water. If you don’t, the fuel will start to overheat and could melt,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington,A meltdown could lead to a breach of the reactor’s steel containment vessel and allow radiation to escape into an outer, concrete containment building, or even into the environment.

“Up to 100 percent of the volatile radioactive Cesium-137 content of the pools could go up in flames and smoke, to blow downwind over large distances,” said Kevin Kamps, a nuclear waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear, which is an advocacy group that opposes nuclear weapons and power.

“Given the large quantity of irradiated nuclear fuel in the pool, the radioactivity release could be worse than the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe of 25 years ago.”

Japanese officials said radiation has not yet leaked from the plant, but ordered 2,800 people living around the facility to evacuate their homes as a precaution.

Let’s all hope the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen.

It must be said that when the worst-case scenario is unmitigated catastrophe, the greatest possible steps must be taken in advance to ensure it does not happen — and that starts with siting and design.

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