Does Japan Nuclear Reactor Explosion Mean Catastrophe Is Imminent?

Kim Conte

japan nuclear plant explosion

A huge explosion rocked a Japanese nuclear power plant that had been damaged in Friday's earthquake and tsunami. Officials have confirmed that the blast did not damage the container housing the nuclear reactor, which means that a core meltdown at the plant may be avoided -- at least for now anyway. 

In the meantime, Japan's government is trying desperately to allay fears of a possible nuclear meltdown. In light of such panic, you can't help but be reminded of two devastating nuclear accidents in recent history -- Three Mile Island, in the United States, in 1979, and Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986.

Is Japan headed for a similar catastrophe?

Many safety experts, government officials, and analysts don't think this is the case. Even though the cooling systems in several of the reactors at the two nuclear plants were knocked out by the earthquake, they believe a massive disaster is unlikely.

For one thing, the reactors are "light-water reactors," which experts, including Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, say would not explode even if they overheated:

No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction ... Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean some radioactive leakage and equipment damage, but not an explosion. If venting is done carefully, there will be little leakage.

Moreover, experts believe that even if there is a complete core meltdown, the release of radiation at the Japanese plants would be much smaller that at Chernobyl because of significant design differences. Is anyone feeling less anxious yet?

In the meantime, authorities are evacuating tens of thousands of residents living within a 12 mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant and those within 6 miles of a second plant in Futuba, 150 miles north of Tokyo. They are also preparing to distribute iodine -- a treatment to prevent radiation poisoning -- to nearby residents.

Are you scared for the people of Japan?

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