Melting Fuel Rods in Three Reactors Raise Fear of Nuclear Disaster in Japan

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A person who is believed to be have been contaminated with radiation, wrapped with a blanket, is carried to ambulance at a radiation treatment centre in Nihonmatsu city in Fukushima prefecture on March 13, 2011. Japan battled a feared meltdown of two reactors at a quake-hit nuclear plant, as the full horror of the disaster emerged on the ravaged northeast coast where more than 10,000 were feared dead. An explosion at the ageing Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant blew apart the building housing one of its reactors on March 12, a day after the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan unleashed a monster 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami. AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS (Photo credit should read JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: JIJI PRESS/2011 AFP

Japanese officials said nuclear fuel rods appear to be melting inside all three of the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano: "Although we cannot directly check it, it's highly likely happening." The plant suffered its second reactor explosion in three days on Monday as technicians frantically tried to jury-rig a new cooling system. Operators have resumed pumping seawater into reactor 2, but fuel rods may have been exposed for more than two hours after the pump's fuel ran out. Full meltdowns, in which molten nuclear fuel melts its way through containment vessels, could release catastrophic amounts of radiation, putting first responders and those attempting to fix the problem in even more danger. However, according to the BBC, experts say a Chernobyl-scale disaster is unlikely "because the reactors are built to a higher standard and have much more rigorous safety measures." What happens when those safety measures fail? We may be about to find out.

The scary developments in Japan have prompted some excellent explanations of nuclear power and the dangers posed by the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors — especially useful for those of us whose knowledge is limited, as Boing Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker noted, to what we've seen on The Simpsons.

The Boing Boing post gets extra-credit points for using a helpful Jenga analogy to describe nuclear fission. Alby Reid, a physics teacher at MrReid.org, also has a clear-headed breakdown of what's going on, and argues that "Fukushima will not be 'another Chernobyl.'"

*Stay tuned for updates.
Situation at Fukushima nuclear power station [MrReid.org]
Nuclear energy 101: Inside the "black box" of power plants [Boing Boing]
All about nuclear meltdowns[kottke]
Second Explosion at Reactor as Technicians Try to Contain Damage
[NYT]
Meltdown alert at Japan reactor [BBC]
Official: Rods likely melting in Japanese reactors [AP via Dallas Morning News]