Social Question

JmacOroni's avatar

Is it true that a Chernobyl type disaster is not possible in Japan?

Asked by JmacOroni (3281 points ) March 12th, 2011

I read that officials and professionals say that a catastrophe similar to Chernobyl is impossible in Japan, so what is the worst possible scenario if there is a meltdown at Fukushima? The same person that made a statement about a Chernobyl repeat not being possible, also said that there may be a “little” radiation leakage and equipment damage – but no explosion. However, latest news stories are reporting that an explosion has already occurred. So what really is the worst case outcome at the nuclear power plants?

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46 Answers

chocolatechip's avatar

The reported explosions are not related to the nuclear power plants.

JmacOroni's avatar

“Japan nuclear plant update: Walls and roof of a building at site destroyed by blast” – NHK via Sky News
” Japanese authorities confirmed Saturday that radiation had leaked from a quake-hit nuclear plant after an explosion rocked the site.” – MSNBC
Not trying to argue with you, but am I misunderstanding, somehow?

shego's avatar

@JmacOroni I’m just as confused as you are. I have spent the last 2 and a half hours reading different reports. They all say another Chernobyl is unlikely.
I guess it also has something to do with the generation of the reactor. The pictures we’re seeing don’t actually show the reactor, because it’s in a huge concrete building, or the containment building. But many of the reports I read said it’s possible to create too much heat, and the uranium can melt through the containment building, causing a massive steam build-up that will blow up the building.
I’m on my phone at the moment, but I’ll grab my sources when I have the chance.

Edit:
Many reports were calling the melting of the containment building ”China Syndrome
The Business Insider has the best up to date information

incendiary_dan's avatar

Whoever said it was impossible was full of shit. It might have been unlikely at one point, because the safety mechanisms in place were a lot better than what the Russians used 25 years ago, but do say it’s impossible is just hubris.

Plus, it has apparently exploded. Even if, as at least one of those articles claims, the blast was not directly related to the nuclear core, it’s not a good situation. There’s still gotta be some fallout.

:(

JmacOroni's avatar

I’m listening to the CNN live feed, it seems to have the most updated information that I’ve found so far. I know that they have expanded the evacuation area and are asking residents to stay indoors, avoid tap water, and to cover their faces with masks or wet towels. From what I am hearing now, Fukushima has officially experienced a meltdown.

flutherother's avatar

According to the BBC though things are serious it looks like the reactor core has not been breached and so a major release of radioactivity is unlikely. A BBC reporter was stopped 60 kilometres from Fukushima so they are certainly not taking any chances.

JmacOroni's avatar

I’m picking up different stories from different sources so far, but the live feed from that CNN link blatantly said that Fukushima appeared to have experienced a melt down. I’m sure we’ll know for sure, soon enough.
However, what is the worst case scenario? What is the absolute worst that could happen at Fukushima?

incendiary_dan's avatar

It’s a plant with the potential to be 100 times as bad as Chernobyl. On top of that, the radioactive fallout from Fukushima could enter easily into the jet stream into the Pacific and cause much of the western US and Canada to become heavily irradiated. I heard upwards of 1500 rads in California, but I haven’t yet found that confirmed in print. I somewhat suspect that it wasn’t a professional projection, but it sounds pretty plausible.

markferg's avatar

@incendiary_dan – Where do you get the figure of 100 times as bad as Chernobyl? Chernobyl reactor 4 had a design thermal power output of 3400 MW, while Fukushima reactor 1 has only 470MW of thermal power. It just doesn’t sound like a plausible figure at all.

fonguu's avatar

hi,i am currently in Aomori,.I know it is like 400km away from the Nuclear plant, but is there cause for concern in the immediate future??

shego's avatar

Welcome @fonguu
Were glad your safe.
Actually, that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

JmacOroni's avatar

@fonguu right now the evacuation area is 20km from the plant, so I don’t think there is any reason to believe you are in immediate danger.

JmacOroni's avatar

Also, the stories coming out now are saying that there has not been a meltdown. I didn’t imagine earlier reports that meltdown had occurred, the guy said it plain as day more than once. I’m still finding conflicting information, so I don’t think that we actually know what is going on at Fukushima, yet.

Coloma's avatar

Harbor no illusions, how many times has all government concealed the truth from it’s populace?

IF there is a danger authorities certainly are not going to panic an already devastated country unless something dreadful is imminent.

The answer is nobody knows, the situation is precarious at best.

the100thmonkey's avatar

I thought the reactors in Fukushima were not of the same type as the Chernobyl reactors. This would explain why a “Chernobyl type” incident is unlikely – if the cooling system fails on the Fukushima plant, the core will overheat, but this will actually help to stop the reaction, as I understand it.

I saw it on the Japanese news, but can’t remember which channel.

EDIT

It wasn’t the Japanese news; it was on The Guardian.

the100thmonkey's avatar

It’s further explained here.

JmacOroni's avatar

@Coloma I try not to jump to conclusions, but it kind of looks that way in this situation. I have two friends who have been following this story closely with me since it began. Both of those friends also heard multiple reports (one of which came from NHK), that clearly stated that there had been a meltdown at Fukushima. In fact, I heard the same clip of the guy saying it more than once. Now everything points to there not being a meltdown – but without a single word explaining why they said that they did, or retracting that statement. Watching it so closely, that whole thing seemed kind of bizarre. I’m not necessarily saying that they are downplaying what is going on, but it wouldn’t surprise me. That struck me as odd.
@the100thmonkey for some reason your first link won’t load for me, but the second one is informative. Thanks very much!

Coloma's avatar

@JmacOroni

I agree. The infamous ‘they’ are doing their best to keep any crisis on a short leash at this time.

JmacOroni's avatar

@Coloma “As with its counterparts in many other countries, Japan’s nuclear industry has not exactly been renowned for openness and transparency. Tepco itself has been implicated in a series of cover-ups down the years.” <—That is a quote directly from the BBC link that @the100thmonkey posted above. Speaks volumes if you ask me. I really thought I was losing my mind this morning, because I know what I heard. Then it was as if that information dissipated into thin air.

Coloma's avatar

@JmacOroni

Yep, brings to mind the saying of ’ who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’
Nothing new under the sun with government crazy making. ;-)

filmfann's avatar

History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of Man. Source

jerv's avatar

TL:DR

It’s a bit complicated, but the gist of it is that Chernobyl was an RMBK-style reactor and thus lacked many of the safeguards and much of the shielding that the reactors in Japan (and pretty much everywhere except Russia) have. There is also the matter of different fuel types.

“This case is quite difficult, it would be closer to what happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island,” Rafael Arutyunyan, first deputy director of Institute for Safety of Nuclear Energy, Russian Academy of Sciences, said on Russian television. “Only a small amount of active particles made it outside and were released into the atmosphere, so there were no consequences for the population. That’s the way we’re heading at the moment.”

In short, the hazards are different, and while it is possible for bad things to happen to that Japanese plant, it won’t be like Chernobyl. Maybe Three Mile Island, but not Chernobyl.

I will say that hysteria will play a role here. If nothing else, very few people really know much about nuclear reactors aside from media hype. Who here knows what the control rods really do? I think that few people here even know the real reason that this Japanese plant is having the problems that it does right now, but it’s something so simple (to me) that I can’t help but facepalm. (It seems to be something that is not their fault, but more of a freak occurrence. We’ll see if it was avoidable :/) Bonus lurve for anyone who figures it out without looking it up.

JmacOroni's avatar

@jerv it’s okay that you didn’t read, because that was basically the answer that I was looking for. :)

liminal's avatar

This article talks about the steps being taken to cool the reactor.

mattbrowne's avatar

Some German nuclear experts have expressed doubts about the seawater cooling attempt underway right now and whether it will be effective. Most likely heat continues to build up inside the metal containment. It seems unclear whether the temperature increase can be slow down or even stopped.

The nuclear situation is very dramatic and there’s still a lot of contradictory information floating around. I just watched a German weather forecast for Japan. Right now the wind is “ideal”. In case of a meltdown and large quantities of radioactivity getting out they will initially be blown out into the Pacific. But wind direction will probably change. And there are 36 million people in Tokyo. An evacuation is impossible.

Who has access to reliable sources on the nuclear situation?

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne Given the number of variables involved and the number of sources that have a dog in this fight (nuclear power is like abortion in that it tends to polarize people; in this case there will be the “Don’t panic.” crowd versus “Nuclear is evil!” people), I am unsure that reliable information is a possibility. Hell, even getting a reliable weather forecast isn’t possible :D

mattbrowne's avatar

@jerv – Today should not be a day of ideological battles. Both pro and cons people have the same interest right now: limit the damage as much as possible. Lessons learnt is a matter to be discussed in a couple of weeks.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Oh no! The infamous “they”!

The conflicting reports have me suspicious, and the photographic evidence of one of the reactors exploding doesn’t sit easily with me. It seemed at first that they were being surprisingly open with the reports, until basically at the point where lots of stories about an explosion at one of the reactors came out. Then the conflicting info started.

@markferg I got that number from a Russia Today broadcast. I’ll link to that (and the photos of the plant before and after explosion) later when I get my laptop charged and online.

Helpful tip: if your region gets cascaded with radioactive fallout, common commercial respirators can be helpful in minimizing your exposure to radioactive particles. The filters are activated carbon, so if you can’t get your hands on some you can make it similar to making char cloth.

JmacOroni's avatar

I agree that the conflicting information is the most troublesome for me, as well. I do suspect the situation is worse than they are letting on, simply based on the news that I heard early this morning. That is a bold claim to make, and then to fail to admit to making a mistake or to acknowledge what was said at all, makes me suspicious. Who wouldn’t find that suspicious? I try not to take conspiracy theories too seriously without sufficient evidence, but this left me with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. Seems very deceptive. I have to admit that it is kind of nice to know that I’m not the only one that got that impression.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Just because it’s a crazy conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it isn’t true. :P

Seriously though, as much as I’m usually one to dislike conspiracy theories, that sort of behavior is right on track for governments, particularly the Japanese.

I imagine that it’s still not the worst case scenario, but still pretty bad.

perspicacious's avatar

I don’t believe that can be a true statement with regard to any nuclear power facility.

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne I wish I shared your optimism, but I am cynical enough to think that there are enough people that care more about fighting than doing the right thing to hamper any damage control operations. You are correct that it should be that way though.

mattbrowne's avatar

@jerv – I didn’t say I’m optimistic about the current situation. It seems to get worse. More nuclear reactors have problems cooling down the rods. I’m actually against nuclear energy, but I don’t want to discuss it right now. That’s all. Japan might face a nuclear holocaust. The worst case scenario is a change of the wind direction and exploding reactors. No one can evacuate 36 million people in Tokyo.

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne I know you are anti-nuke as we have had that discussion at length before. But I thought you and I have settled that long ago, and even if not, you are correct that now is not the time.
One thing I will repeat is that I am thankful that Japan doesn’t use RMBK-type reactors, so it will be more like Three Mile Island than Chernobyl; still bad, but not nearly as bad.

mattbrowne's avatar

@jerv – It depends how we define bad. Increase in mortality rate over the next 30 years? Cooling in the plant in Tokai, only 120 km north of Tokyo seems to be failing too.

jerv's avatar

@mattbrowne
Bad is increased cancer rates over 30 years.
BAD is immediate radiation poisoning that kills millions within weeks.

markferg's avatar

My guess is that there will be minimal radiation leaks overall and nothing like the worst-case scenario will come to pass. Still, only time will tell. Unfortunately, if you are against nuclear fission plants and you feel the need to be completely vindicated, you will be on the look out for mass death and destruction.

jerv's avatar

@markferg Precisely!

mattbrowne's avatar

But we don’t know yet whether the cooling efforts do work getting heat away faster than new heat is building up.

flutherother's avatar

Some nuclear experts I have heard today have been more reassuring than Japanese government spokesmen. Nothing resembling the Chernobyl catastrophe seems at all likely. I think the Japanese Prime Minister needs better PR, they are putting out conflicting messages and using the ‘m’ word too much while actually dealing with the situation in a sensible, calm and realistic way.

In the short term I am confident the Japanese will get a handle on this, but with nuclear power providing 30% of the country’s electricity how are they going to ensure their energy needs in future without public confidence in the safety of nuclear power.

jerv's avatar

There is a reason that much of a nuclear plant is taken up by cooling towers. It all depends on whether they have enough pumps to get enough water through there, and I would wager that it’s a big enough deal that, now that they have decided on a course of action, they will do everything they can to make sure that they have enough.

To put things in perspective, 3MI had a 50% core meltdown and the damage from that accident were relatively minor. Also, I have seen many things like, “Experts noted, however, that even a complete meltdown would probably be far less severe than the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, where a reactor exploded and sent a cloud of radiation over much of Europe. That reactor, unlike the ones in Fukushima, was not housed in a sealed container.” source

mattbrowne's avatar

What are the temperatures inside the reactors? Everyone seems to be throwing around different numbers ranging from 150 C to 2000 C.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Those temps are within the design specifications of the reactors.

This page is very insightful and well worth reading.

mattbrowne's avatar

Thanks @the100thmonkey. Great article.

jerv's avatar

@the100thmonkey Rock on with your bad self!

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