Journalism in the Public Interest

Six Ways Fukushima is Not Chernobyl

There are key differences between what happened at Chernobyl and the current nuclear crisis in Japan.


A TV news broadcast of an explosion at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 16, 2011 (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

The crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi has already been dubbed the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and the situation there continues to worsen.

But along with references to the "ch-word," as one nonproliferation expert put it, experts have been quick to provide reasons why the Daiichi crisis will not be "the next Chernobyl."

Experts have noted several key differences in the design of the reactors in question, as well as in the government's reaction to the crisis:

1. Chernobyl's reactor had no containment structure.

The RBMK reactor at Chernobyl "was regarded as the workhorse of Soviet atomic energy, thrifty and reliable -- and safe enough to be built without an expensive containment building that would prevent the release of radiation in the event of a serious accident," The Guardian's Adam Higginbotham noted.

As a result, when a reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, the radioactive material inside went straight into the atmosphere.

Fukushima's reactors are surrounded by steel-and-concrete containment structures. However, as the New York Times reported Tuesday, the General Electric Mark 1 reactors at Fukushima have "a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure" that has drawn criticism from American regulators. In a 1972 memo, a safety official suggested that the design presented serious risks and should be discontinued. One primary concern, the Times reported, was that in an incident of cooling failure -- the kind Fukushima's reactors are now undergoing -- the containment structures might burst, releasing the radioactive material they are supposed to keep in check.

At least one of Fukushima's reactors -- No. 2 -- seems to have cracked, and has been releasing radioactive steam. The seriousness of this breach is still unclear, with a Japanese government official maintaining on Wednesday that the damage to the containment structure may not be severe.

2. Chernobyl's reactors had several design flaws that made the crisis harder to control. Most crucially, their cooling system had a "positive void coefficient," which means that as coolant water is lost or turns into steam, the reaction speeds up and becomes more intense, creating a vicious feedback loop.

Shan Nair, a nuclear safety expert who spent 20 years analyzing the consequences of Loss of Coolant Accidents like the one at Fukushima, discussed this factor on TIME's Econcentric blog. Nair was a member of a panel that advised the European Commission on how to respond to Chernobyl. As he explained:

[Fukushima] can't be Chernobyl because the Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) at Fukushima are designed differently than the High Power Channel-type Reactor (RBMK) reactor at Chernobyl. The RBMK was designed so that the hotter the core gets the greater the reactivity -- so you have a situation where you are in a vicious cycle and a race to an explosion. [Fukushima's] BWRs are designed in such a way that the hotter it gets the less radioactive the core gets so there is a self-shutdown type of mechanism. But the problem is that before you can get to a safe level you might have a complete meltdown. I believe that's what they are battling against now in Japan.

3. The carbon in Chernobyl's reactor fueled a fire that spewed radioactive material further into the atmosphere. Fukushima's reactors do not contain carbon, which means that the contamination from an explosion would remain more localized.

Dr. Colin Brown, director of engineering for the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers, described another of the Chernobyl reaction's design flaws in a post on the Institution's website explaining why it was "unlikely" that Fukushima "will turn into the next great Chernobyl with radiation spread over a big area." He wrote:

The reason why radiation was disseminated so widely from Chernobyl with such devastating effects was a carbon [graphite] fire. Some 1,200 tonnes of carbon were in the reactor at Chernobyl and this caused the fire which projected radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere causing it to be carried across most of Europe. There is no carbon in the reactors at Fukushima, and this means that even if a large amount of radioactive material were to leak from the plant, it would only affect the local area.

Britain's Chief Scientific Officer, Sir John Beddington, made a similar point about the localized nature of an explosion in a speech about Fukushima on Tuesday:

In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that's really serious, but it's serious again for the local area. It's not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres...And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet [about 9144 metres]. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation.

One of the most pressing worries about Fukushima is that radiation might be spewed into the atmosphere not from reactors themselves, but from spent fuel rods exposed to the air once the pool of water protecting them boils away. According to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. officials believe one of the spent fuel pools has been breached, potentially exposing 130 tons of uranium.

4. Unlike Chernobyl, however, a meltdown at Daiichi could end up contaminating the water table.

One troubling possibility that has received little attention is that a reactor meltdown could send radioactive material downwards until it reaches the water table, which could contaminate both water supply and crops. Discussing Daiichi on TIME's Ecocentric blog, Nair, the nuclear safety expert, noted:

If the entire fuel has melted the odds are it will go straight through the pressure vessel and therefore through the ground until it gets to the water table. Then it will cool down, but the problem is that the water table will start leaching actinides and fission products from the melted glob of fuel into the environment. So you will end up with some radioactive contamination of water supplies and ultimately crops and other products. That's a major problem because radioactive particles are much more dangerous when digested -- they cause internal irradiation of organs with resulting increased cancer risks...The severity of the water table risk depends on the local topography -- it depends on the depth of the water table, which itself moves up and down. I would imagine the water table is quite close to the surface right now because of all the flooding, which is not good.

At Chernobyl, fears that the radioactive material from the exploded reactor would reach the water table prompted a massive two-part project: first, to use liquid nitrogen to freeze the ground beneath the exploded reactor, and secondly, to build a shielding structure beneath the reactor. Although the effort exposed many miners to intense radiation, it was ultimately unnecessary.

5. Much of the public health impact of Chernobyl was the result of the Soviet government's attempt to cover up the crisis, rather than moving quickly to inform and protect the public.

In Japan, the government evacuated the 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, surrounding the Fukushima plant fairly quickly, and have continued to upgrade the warnings to citizens in the vicinity (although, according to the United States government, not quickly enough).

That didn't happen at Chernobyl. In the sunny April morning after the explosion, the residents of the nearby town of Pripyat were left to go about their business. As the Guardian has noted, children went to school, an outdoor wedding was celebrated, and sunbathers went out to enjoy the good weather, as the plume from the exploded reactor continued to fill the air with radioactive particles.

One of the plant's employees, who had been away on business, returned home to find his wife outside in the garden, where she was paying no attention to the small pieces of graphite that had landed "on the petals of her wild strawberry plants." Before long, the sunbathers began to experience strange cases of nausea and vomiting. The town would not be evacuated until the next day. And it was only after heightened levels of radioactivity set off alarms at a nuclear plant in Sweden that the Soviet government finally admitted publicly that something had gone wrong.

The delay and denial had serious implications, including an epidemic of thyroid cancer among about 6,000 people exposed to radiation as children.

As the New York Times noted, this epidemic "would probably not have happened if people had been told to stop drinking locally produced milk, which was by far the most important source of radiation."

(Russia distributed iodine tablets, as has Japan. But as we reported on Monday, these offer little protection against ingesting contaminating food or milk.)

6. Emergency workers at Chernobyl took few precautions, and may not have been fully informed about the risks they were taking.

The "Fukushima 50" who stayed at the plant on Tuesday and Wednesday to keep containment efforts underway have been facing serious risks. But they have been taking precautions, the Times reported, including breathing through respirators, wearing full-body jumpsuits, and limiting their exposure time.

At Chernobyl, the Guardian wrote:

[The firefighters] had had no protective clothing, or dosimetric equipment to measure radiation levels; the blazing radioactive debris fused with the molten bitumen, and when they had put the fires out with water from their hoses, they picked up chunks of it in their hands and kicked it away with their feet.... This heroic but utterly futile action took them closer to a lethal source of radiation than even the victims of Hiroshima...When they died two weeks later in Hospital No 6, Zakharov heard that the radiation had been so intense the colour of Vladimir Pravik's eyes had turned from brown to blue; Nikolai Titenok sustained such severe internal radiation burns there were blisters on his heart. Their bodies were so radioactive they were buried in coffins made of lead, the lids welded shut.

The Times noted that 28 of Chernobyl's emergency workers died from radiation exposure within three months, and more than 100 developed radiation sickness.

Chernobyl's final toll of deaths and injuries is still a subject of fierce debate. A 2005 Chernobyl Forum report, jointly produced by eight UN agencies and the governments of the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Berlarus, concluded that up to "4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure" from Chernobyl, including 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome, 15 children (as of 2005) who had died of thyroid cancer, and a projected total of "3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia" among emergency workers, evacuees, and residents of the most contaminated areas around Chernobyl. (The report noted that it's impossible to tell which cancer deaths in the region were specifically caused by Chernobyl radiation, only that there is an expected 3 percent increase.)

Lois Beckett writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, the SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express.

The article presupposes that the Japanese authorities, unlike the Soviets back in 1986, are being adequately truthful in regards to this disaster. Constantly changing stories reveal that they aren’t, however.

Barry Schmittou

March 18, 2011, 1:57 p.m.

We already have a Chernobyl here enabled by Obama and Bush !

Many humans lives are in great danger because doctors’ paid by insurance companies are ignoring Multiple Sclerosis, brain Lesions, cardiac conditions of many patients, and a foot that a new mother broke in five places as evidenced by the quoted from numerous U.S. Judges seen at

I’ve also provided evidence that multiple insurance companies are enaged in identical crimes in 5 types of insurance as seen at

**** I apologize to ProPublica for being impatient on getting this story covered. The first website above has quotes from my Psychologist who said a major insurance company caused my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that condition can greatly diminish frustration tolerance especially since I’m still subjected to the crimes everyday.

You’re right, this won’t be like Chernobyl at all. It will be ten times worse or more.

There are almost 2000 TONS of spent fuel stored at the reactors, all six of them… plus a separate storage pool at ground level. These pools needed circulation all along… but TEPCO didn’t tell us. There was 15 reactors worth of nuclear waste stored IN THE REACTOR BUILDINGS, four of which suffered explosions… and TEPCO didn’t tell us. TEPCO told us about the containment of the reactors, the water level of the containment… but not about the the 3000+ spent fuel assemblies stored RIGHT BESIDE THEM!

Face it, they lied through omission!

What aren’t YOU telling us?

Argue all you want, but you backed the wrong horse… big time.

wyle E is correct in that the sheer volume of radioactive material in play is much greater than in the Chernobyl disaster.  I find it odd that some are so willing to come out and try to define the limits of this while the crisis is ongoing and without knowing the extent of the damage.  That seems shortsighted to say the least.

Typo in your column:

“At least one of Fukushima’s reactors—No. 2—seems to have cracked, and has been releasing radioactive stream.”

stream should be steam

Re: “6.  Emergency workers at Chernobyl [...] may not have been fully informed about the risks they were taking.”

I think of that every time I read a pro-nuke supporter (or a member of the right who is concerned that this event might awaken the American public’s environmental conscience after so much effort put into eliminating enough jobs to overwhelm same with economic desperation) scoffing at potential casualties with remarks of the sort “More people die on America’s highways in…”.

Tawanda Kanhema

March 18, 2011, 4:12 p.m.

Much of the expert opinion here sounds speculative at best, removed from the events in Japan. They say Fukushima contamination will remain “local” even as traces of radioactive material reach California? Do they mean local to the entire northern hemisphere?

@Brandon - Thanks for flagging the typo. We fixed it.

below is a snipped of conversation I’ve been having regarding reactor safety and ocean-based power and coolant systems. I haven’t seen this direction being discussed anywhere else. My question is whether it is simply too naive and foolish to be considered, or is their some other reason?

Notes from a dialog on ocean-based reactor safety:

[first note in dialog:]*

*For your file - a question about reactor safety and sea-based
approaches for enhanced fault-tolerance.

I have long wondered why we do not hear more about oceanic wave and
ocean currents power as sources of alternative energy? I know that some work and research is being done in this area. Still, It is one renewable source that does not seem to garner much attention or funding to advance its progress.

I note, in the wake of the Japanese reactor crises and previous reactor
failures, that cooling system integrity is a serious vulnerability of
nuclear plants. I also surmise that those concerns mainly concentrate on a variety of fault-resistant “fail-safe” methods of insuring cooling
system integrity. I speculate if the coupling of the potentials of
tapping ocean-sourced energy as a method of providing fault-resistant
coolant resources (pumping seawater) can’t be combined into a single

Ocean-based solutions would combine an entirely mechanical, ocean-driven pumping capacity along with a relatively local, trauma-resistant supply to deliver filtered or unfiltered seawater to coastal reactor sites.It
seems to me, from a naive perspective, that this would virtually
guarantee coolant system integrity even in a worst-case scenario.
Ocean-based systems have been cited for their relatively limited
distribution to coastal environments. However, considering that it is
coastal regions that are at greater risk to seismic events, and that
they also represent a substantial part of the world’s energy consumption terminus, I wonder if those limitations should disqualify them? (what are the facts, here?) - red*

[Second note:]

*bob - there is, of course, a thinly-veiled hidden agenda in the reactor
safety idea I’ve proposed. Ultimately, it begs the question of why we
would need nuclear plants (energy ‘middlemen’) at all if ocean-based
power were cost-effectively developed. The argument of the wide-field
‘distribution problem’ falls apart when one considers that distribution
from point sources is no more problematic with a source in the ocean
than it is with a land-based, centralized source [e.g. nuclear reactor].
The difference is that linking the power problem to a specific, local need
(reactor cooling) means that small, local and fault-tolerant systems become the first objective in calming safety concerns. Those crisis-driven concerns might elevate ocean-based solutions to a priority, absent any other general market applications. Ironically, the nuclear industry might be maneuvered into a position where they must concede such priorities to allay the more damaging public resistance to the nuclear industry as a whole. In the end, they could be underwriting their own obsolescence.But, strategically, that’s the idea, no? - red


My thought was that the potential to really fail-safe the coastal nuclear industry with an ocean-driven coolant system might put the Republican side of the ledger in favor of doing just that to save the industry from the potentially lethal (to the industry) backlash. That would require investment in small scale development - just enough to cover the needs of coastal nukie facilities. Given that much, a head start on small-scale R&D and working applications, the next step of supplying market energy for coastal communities and cities might be in the offering on a cost effective basis, because the initial startup R&D andmanufacture has already been done for the nukie stations (&  a new
industry has been created which will want to grow). ...

As for me, I finally don’t believe in any centralized system at all. I
think perfectly good distributed solutions exist in small-scale
applications of solar, wind, geo-thermal (perhaps, someday,
cold-fusion). Units that are very small, relatively cheap and can be
installed in one’s own back yard, home/building, or on
community/neighborhood plots or other point-to-point, locally owned
facilities. The end of all large-scale distribution is what I think
should happen (&  I’m not sure where cold-fusion is going with that).
That is intrinsically a non-monopolizable schema - game over.

From what TEPCO is telling us, no, the issues aren’t all that bad.  The concern is whether the information being provided is accurate and whether additional information is being hidden from us.  There are wild variations in the report of radiation that has leaked over this period (anywhere from 20 microsieverts - which is very minor - up to 400 millisieverts - which is in the dangerous range).  When the Ronald Reagan went further away due to its radiation monitors tripping, it tells me that TEPCO is underreporting the amount of radiation leaking.

This may not be as bad as Chernobyl yet but what happens if worst case, the radiation get so bad they have to evacuate all the workers because the radiation will quickly kill them? This will leave six reactors and the spent fuel pools un-repaired .The fuel rods must be continuously covered with water, virtually forever unless they are removed and stored safely. How long would the uranium continue to spew toxins if the Japanese can’t keep the water running?

Well, it seems that Pro Publica has had its just-go-shopping moment.

The spent fuel rods are stored outside of the reactor, so your argument about Chernobyl not having containment just doesn’t hold water, which is the issue here.  The uncovered rods are a ticking time bomb, if the rods in the storage pools get hot enough, there could be a rapid spontaneous combustion of the zirconium cladding.

Rather than just regurgitating official stories, do some original research.  If you don’t possess the technical knowledge, then find someone that does.  I would expect more of Pro Publica.

mcthorogood:  you seem informed. Can you also explain why, in this case,  dumping neutron absorbing materials (cadmium, etc) on the rods in the containment pools would not be an option?  In effect, blanketing the hot cores with ‘control rods’ and quenching the reactions. Don’t know, just asking.

Poor comparisons between these two disasters. For starters this one ain’t over yet. Multiple reactors involved, scope of problems unknown to public and probably not to TEPCO. Government and industry censoring the news are both similar. Enough people have jumped on your case about this,so I won’t go on.  All our hopes and thoughts should be for the safety of those threatened and the quick resolution of this disaster.

red slider:

If they can’t get water into spent fuel pools what makes you think they can get cadmium, or pistachio ice cream or any other substance in there?

I’m with Wyle E.

This site is testimony to the criminally lax planning and poor regulation of a deadly-dangerous, global industry.

To allow a nuclear facility, with just one reactor, to be built in a tectonic plate subduction zone with all the known risks, would be sheer madness. Here, they have a cluster of six reactors, with all of their past radioactive fuel rods just sitting in open pools around them!

This was allowed, inspected, passed, certified, etc, etc… All was fine.

Now they can’t cope with the multiple problems caused in this one place at one time.

So, don’t tell me, in this somewhat confused and confusing article, that this isn’t Chernobyl. I think we can judge for ourselves that this is a folly on an even grander scale than that sorry episode. It is a testiment to the Japanese penchant for seppuku.

I dunno, roadrider. Possibly because heavy metals don’t evaporate for one; and two, are heavier than water and less subject to dispersal (as we have seen in the water drops)?

I’m surprised that this piece of disinformation would even appear at this web site.  Since it does I’m deleting my bookmark and will not be back.  This author has unknowingly or knowingly been co-opted by the nuclear power energy elite.  Please get your socks on straight in the morning.  physicists and nuclear engineers completely negate this article.  On just one point let me show how this article is seriously misleading:the crisis has just begun, there has not yet been a completion of the known or unknown dangers most especially whether or not it will explode.  Given the fact that MOS fuel/thousands of nuclear rods waste was stored ON TOP of these reactors…. Makes for a disaster one cannot contemplate.  The radiation will go all around the world.  That is a known fact. For example over 50% of the particulate iron samples found in California come from Asia.

The six (plus the seventh on the ground) spent fuel pools are not in containments. As they are presently on fire due to water evaporation, the nuclear material is being released into the air.  That is MUCH worse than Chernobyl.

Each pool holds 400,000 gallons or 1,820 tons of water.  All attempts to fill so far have been in the 30 - 50 ton range.  Wouldn’t cover a foot of those pools.  The pools measure 40x35x40 feet each.  That’s 4,800,000 gallons of water required to fill the pools again.  Get real - that’s just not feasible in the current situation.

This is MUCH worse than Chernobyl.

The Rance River Tidal Power Station was to be the French future. Instead, the nuclear option was chosen with the ubiquitous, mythically named, Phoenix & Super Phoenix models. There are quite a number of background entries, including the environmental impacts induced technological changes. One would hope the country that gave us Jules
Verne will again lead the way.

Sadly, in the end, this mess can destroy Japan’s ability to move north-south on the island. Cesium can do this - for a very long time.

The USSR was a sick dictatorship. No wonder.

Japan? Japan, we must ask, put spent fuel where it can do the most harm. Why?

Why does Japan want to punish itself? This is the question to ask.

There is no question what’s happened here. A nation located on an an earthquake fault has experienced 9.0 and it systems have failed.

No surprise, really. No surprise at all.

What do we need to ask about Japan? That is the question.

This is not about the difference between the USSR and Japan, Chernobyl and Fukushima. While they are different, they are essentially the same.

There is no difference, where it matters. ProPublica is toying with useless logic to take up space. Were trees being cut, this would be a travesty.

This information already seems dated, given that the water has all been boiled away at the reactors, according to reports I saw earlier tonight. Some of this is plausible, but I agree that it seems way too soon to be very definitive about the extent of the damage.

Re. boron and cadmium: These materials absorb neutrons and can block a fission chain reaction (a potential problem, but not what’s been happening since the reactors shut down). They do nothing to slow radioactive decay, which is the current source of heating.

This does not seem fit for the usual well-researched and objective reporting of Pro Publica - what happened?

No mention of the lies, delays and contradictions of both the company in charge (well known for cover-ups and severe failures over the years) and the government?

No mention of the already happening serious escape of radioactivity and radioactive material?

No critical review of the numbers of victims of Chernobyl, some agencies claiming 200.000 and more?

No recollection of the explosions that shattered the roofs and no mention of the high risk of further explosions when a complete core melt-down hits ground water or other structures?

This is either limp or knowingly misleading.

Thank you Factifier. I take it then, that the shut-down ends the reactive (fission) process, and what now is occurring is a natural decay process which is unrelated and unaffected by such controls. Unless anyone else provides additional information I will presume your answer is correct and not pursue the matter further - with my appreciation for your taking the time.

Perhaps you would care to look at our other question/proposal regarding the use of ocean-based fault-tolerant approaches to reactor safety (it was posted under my name a few hours ago.  Thank you, again.

If we look forward 100 years: oil, gas, and uranium, will have all been used up. The need for Alternative sources of energy is beyond doubt. A massive investment in re-newables (solar, tidal, wind, geo, bio, etc, etc) could form the renaissance our ailing economies are crying out for.

On our roads a single bad driver can cause multi-car pile-ups, temporary chaos and death. If they don’t die, we take them out of the system.

We’ve been too soft on ‘bad drivers’ in our national and international decision making, i.e. the debt-building, casino-bankers: they should be gone; oil-driven economic thinking is already 100 years out-of-date, and its proponents are the same ‘Climate-Change’ deniers.

The Japanese have been ‘bad drivers’ in the nuclear industry: they have ‘form’, when it comes to poor safety management. The chances of this particular folly being repeated in other countries are low -particularly if the IAEA does its job properly for a change.

In this next century of unavoidable energy-supply revolution, ‘nuclear’ will still have its place in the system, despite the risks involved. Unless there’s a major technological breakthrough in the next decade, I see no alternative to bridge the energy supply gap, as oil & gas ‘pinches-out’.

We need clear policies: not ideology-blinkered blather. We face serious problems, and need serious, clear-thinking to solve them.

Typo: BELARUS, not ‘Berlarus’ !

There are some differences between Fukushima and Chernobyl.

1 - Chernobyl was one reactor in a complex of 3. Fukushima Dai-ishi has six, all shut down. Four are in states of emergency. In addition, six more reactors, three each, at the Fukushima Diani and Onagawa nuclear complexes are in states of emergency.

2 - Chernobyl is in the forests of Ukraine. Fukushima is on the shores of the Pacific. while the cloud from Chernobyl dispersed radIoactive particles over Europe and North America, triggering birth defects at least as far away as Turkey, much of the radioactive pollutants stayed local. Fukushima is flushing radioactive materials into the Pacific. “Local” has one meaning in soils and another meaning in oceans.

3 - The disaster at Chernobyl was unknown outside Pripyat and Moscow for a few days after it happened.  It was discovered by nuclear engineers in at two plants in Sweden who noticed high levels of radioactive particles outside their plants and normal levels inside the plants. They triangulated the cloud to Chernobyl. That was 1986 - before the Internet as we know it. It took 3 days to a week for the world to know what happened. We are watching the disaster at Fukushira Dai-ichi as it happens.

4 - Japan is about 200 - 250 miles wide, east to west, at Fukushima. The U. S. says “stay 50 miles away.” Translation: “This event is rendering uninhabitable an area roughly the shape of semicircle with a 50 mile radius on Japan’s eastern shores 100 to 150 miles north of Tokyo. Half of the semicircle is in the Pacific. How many people lived there? What was the value of the land before the earthquake - tsunami - meltdown?

5 - In 1986 Ukraine was a Soviet Republic. It was not a major component of the global economy. Japan is the number 3 economy in the world. Economic troubles in Japan may adversely effect conditions in the U. S. and Europe.

6 - Chernobyl was human error. Fukushira was an earthquake, an “act of God.” But they both were manifestations of human arrogance. And we still think we can control nature and the universe. We must learn we can not even control ourselves.

And one major thing in common.

We are still, 25 years after the event, witnessing after-effects.

We should, with all deliberate speed, decommission every nuclear power plant. They all leak radiation.

But what to use to generate the power?

Coal? Under normal conditions coal releases more radioactive materials than nuclear power - because coal is a mixture of mostly carbon with impurities including arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc, and thorium and uranium, and the wastes are not regulated or controlled.

Oil? Natural gas? How do we extract oil and natural gas? What are the costs economists call “externalities?” The costs we push onto the government (i.e. the taxpayers) and the costs we push onto our children? 

We MUST move to a sustainable energy paradigm.  Solar, wind, geothermal, and the negawatt virtual turbines of conservation and efficiency!

I agree with him. (LJF)

To me it seems clear we should be pursuing a multitude of green energy programs with the goal of a decentralized system.  One model program going on right now in Germany has proven extremely successful, putting solar on rooftops. One of the keys to its success is in the way they handle the financing making it very affordable.  I don’t know the exact numbers off hand but the number of installations have been impressive, and have eliminated the need for at least 1 reactor and proabably many more.  People here should be demanding a similar program here.

Given what I understand so far I am truly surprised at the article published in Pro Publica at this time. I had been feeling that your reporting and stories stood above the material we generally get from the main stream media. This article serves to plant at least a seed of doubt and that is scary and disheartening. Once a trust is broken it can take a long time to restore it. i am willing to hang in there with you and see what repotage comes next but please PLEASE (as others have noted in the responses) try to do a more thorough and reliable job. We need that, and I for one hope you can reclaim that honorable position of trust.
I too agree with LJF from what I understand. Please don’t let us down Pro Publica.

“Can you also explain why, in this case,  dumping neutron absorbing materials (cadmium, etc) on the rods in the containment pools would not be an option?”

Spent fuel pools contain enough boron to dye them a deep blue colour. I don’t think you will gain much by adding even more boron.

“In effect, blanketing the hot cores with ‘control rods’ and quenching the reactions. Don’t know, just asking.”

There is no chain-reaction going on; for all practical purposes there are no neutrons to absorb. The heat is comming from radioactive decay of shorter-lived isotopes, mostly fission products.

The spent fuel pools generate much less decay power than the fresh fuel elements that were recently used in the reactors.

If any of the pools are uncovered they will no longer have water above them, shielding the intense gamma radiation from the fuel elements. This gamma radiation from the fuel elements is not lingering in the environment; this is like a very big dental x-ray machine that you can’t get close enough to shut off.

All of the spent fuel will if uncovered suffer some amount of damage, even if it’s just warping, cracking and release of some amount of their most volatile fission products. The nastiest fission products have already decayed(e.g. the intensely radioactive iodine-131, with a half-life of 8 days, and a high biological availability is already gone)

The biggest concern is the fuel pool of #4, which has fuel that was discharged as recently as last november. Here there may be enough decay heat to slowly errode away the zirconium in steam or air, have the fuel pellets end up in some geometry that is inefficiently cooled by air and having some of the fuel melt; this would eject a much larger part of the fission product inventory into the surrounding air, potentially making the entire site too radioactive to work in(although, at Chernobyl they continued operating reactor 1, 2 and 3; all located within the same reactor complex, until the last reactor at the site was shut down in 2000.)

The boron is there to prevent a chain-reaction from taking place no matter how you stack the spent fuel elements. If the spent fuel becomes uncovered and the cladding eventually is erroded the fuel pellets may end up in some entirely uncontrolled geometry and you want the neutron poison there to prevent it from going critical, which would not cause a nuclear explosion, but would generate enough power to melt the spent fuel, boils of fission products into the air and possibly cause a steam explosion or other event that disperse even more fission products.

Hi Soylent,

Thanks for your explanation.

Can you speculate on the mechanism causing the radioactive contamination of the local food supply, (milk and vegetables). Is it from the air, and/or the water table?

If a water table is affected…is this already a long-term problem, or can the water source recover from radioactivity IF the water table can be somehow insulated /isolated from the radiation emitter?

I suppose I’m asking if the local water supply is safe now -and, if not, if it can be ever again.

Six ways an ambitious inexperienced Harvard journalist makes a name for herself:

1) jump on a big story and write the counter-narrative…

as long as the counter-narrative reinforces corporate power

Lynn Chamberlain

March 21, 2011, 12:42 p.m.

Article - I’d give it a C-

Comments by readers - A+.

The only redeeming factor for this article was that it generated intelligent comment from the public, which was far more informative.

I would totally agree with you on that one Lynn. There really are some knowledgeable and thoughtful participating in this thread. Scientifically I am in way over my head but I don’t pretend to be one. I hope that some of the people writing here have a “voice at the table” so to speak. We certainly need to hear from you folks in order to help to begin to understand the situation and help to have better informed decisions for our future. It is refreshing to see such civil and smart conversations being held. As to the author of the original article-please do your homework or defer to those who have the deeper knowledge and understanding of these complex issues. It does not make you less respected to say I don’t know or I am not so sure. Better that then to put out something before you have that greater knowledge. As I said in an earlier post I do not want to lose respect for this publication. It serves to great a purpose in this world to let that happen.

i completely agree with the writer’s comparison of chernobyl crisis to the fukushima’s may b a little more awareness among not only the japanese but also the rest of the world can help their terms in numbers….........

Large iron meteorites could at any moment arrive at Fukushima’s spent fuel pools with relative speeds of tens of kilometres per second, and, Chernobyl-style, disperse the spent fuel, plus the unspent fuel in pool 4. But this would not amount to a Chernobyl-scale dealing of death to people and forests nearby, because the dispersed fuel from Chernobyl did most of the radiating in the first hour of its freedom. Being much older, the stuff in the pools has lost about 98 percent of its radioactivity. Mass-to-mass comparisons are therefore misleading.

I am not sure what your point is GRL Cowan. Is it meant to reassure us? Are those few brave people helping to contain this material just wasting their time because (assuming your numbers are correct) because 98% of the radioactivity has already dispersed. Should we pass this information on to their families and to the Japanese government and tell them that these people are just over reacting and they should stop risking their lives for the greater good? Is that remaining 2%(again assuming the info you are providing is accurate) no big deal?

You know, folks, that is is all load of crap. Just preparation for the nuke industry’s coming campaign to save their dangerous ass. You all know that, don’t you?

The other day I’m listening to some “scientist” on NPR saying a Fukishima worst case scenario isn’t at all as bad as Chernobyl and that the worst case would be to shut down nukies and go back to coal-fire (as if that were the only choice), comparing the disaster of climate change with the disaster of nukies.  How’s that for balls and arrogance?  Watch for their reassurance, “It won’t happen again.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the nuke-marketers aren’t reading this and other boards as we type, gauging their campaign and strategy in the months to come on how far they can push the envelope of credibility and get away with it.  It’s all plain old transparent bullshit. Bank on that.

I have to agree, red slider, but add “radioactive” before “bullsh..”

Last week I was over at Rueters and an entry there gave me pause.  Guy said he was a journalist and had covered the long-term effects of
Chernobyl for five years.  Cited facts, figures and then wrote that he himself was now sick.  He made it clear that he believed no-one should be anywhere near Fukushima. 

I’ll probably get blasted for my lack of name/date of blog, and I deserve it, but if you want to know Rueters is easy to find.

So, I predict phases like:  “We used to believe….”  and “Before Fukushima it was thought…”.

Allen Gerhardt

March 29, 2011, 8:13 a.m.

There is too much speculation and rhetoric being tossed about. For updates and background information visit  also see

This was wrong, as per the comments above, and also, based on recent measurements by the same group that measures radiation worldwide to monitor the test ban treaty:

“Japan’s damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.”—New Scientist, March 24

I don’t expect Pro Publica to be doctrinaire in any direction.  I do suspect, however, that this piece is an industry-friendly prop, like so many others, designed to maintain the viability of the nuclear industry.

This is similar to Chernobyl as described and it’s worse in other ways, e.g., ten times the stored nuclear fuel - 1700 tonnes.

@MicaelCollins - I actually think Propublica’s posting did us a service. At least to heighten our vigilance (about our own press, as well), sharpen our critique and share useful information with one another.  Still, I think it perhaps time that Propublica made a statement on the matter of this posting (at least here, among the comments).  How did they come by this article?  What were they thinking and did they notice its promotional cast?  Who are the players here, and where did the impulse to this treatment originate?  At least, an editorial comment on what they think about the Beckett thesis.  Something more than a formulaic - ‘we thought it newsworthy, and decided it had valuable information; we don’t take sides, etc. blah.’  It would be interesting to see what they have to say.

Michael Collins

March 30, 2011, 8:39 p.m.

@ red slider

It would be interesting to ear more.  I like Pro Poblica but this article looked like an industry piece.  The nuclear industry is well embedded in the public dialog.  I don’t think they need any more help. 

Your extended message is very interesting, particularly the point about distributed solutions.  There’s always some just around the corner technology that leads us astray from solar, wind, and geothermal, which are not exactly new.  Hydro power from the ocean is very interesting.  Thanks for the pointer.

Here’s one story that Pro Publica could do that would be a great service.  Answer this question:  what are the levels of damage that might come from Fukushima I (#‘s 1-6)?  There must be a hierarchy of outcomes.  I’d like to know the worst, which people only hint at.  Given the direction of all of this, considering the worst case scenario is important right now.  Cheers

ProPublica has been a breath of fresh air. I agree with Michael Collins.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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