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Japan's Chernobyl: Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era

Japan was still reeling from its largest recorded earthquake when an explosion struck the Fukushima nuclear plant on Saturday, followed by a second blast on Monday. Despite government assurances, there are fears of another Chernobyl. The incident has sparked a heated political debate in Germany and looks likely to end the dream of cheap and safe nuclear power. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Photo Gallery: Japan Earthquake Disaster in Pictures Photos
AFP/ NHK

Japanese television brought the catastrophe into millions of living rooms throughout the country, where viewers watched in horror as an explosion struck a nuclear reactor in Fukushima.

The explosion on Saturday blew off the roof of the reactor building, sending a cloud of thick white smoke into the air. When the smoke had dissipated, only three of what had been four white reactor buildings were still visible.

Nothing but a ghostly shell remained of the fourth building.

The outside walls of the reactor 1 building had burst. The steel shell that contains the red-hot fuel rods apparently withstood the explosion, but it was unclear if a major disaster could still be averted. In addition, four other reactors in Fukushima's two power plant complexes were not fully under control.

Second Explosion

Then, on Monday, a second explosion hit the Fukushima Daiichi plant, this time involving the facility's reactor 3. The blast injured 11 workers and sent a huge column of smoke into the air. It was unclear if radiation leaked during that explosion, which was apparently caused by a build up of hydrogen, with the plant's operator saying that radiation levels at the reactor were still below legal limits. The US reacted to Monday's explosion by moving one of its aircraft carriers, which was 100 miles (160 kilometers) offshore, away from the area, following the detection of low-level radiation in its vicinity.

Shortly afterwards, the government announced that the cooling system for the plant's reactor 2 had also failed. The explosions at reactors 1 and 3 had been preceded by similar breakdowns. The Jiji news agency reported on Monday that water levels at reactor 2 had fallen far enough to partially expose fuel rods.

The television images on the weekend left no doubt: The highly advanced island nation had apparently experienced the worst nuclear catastrophe to date in the 21st century, triggered by the worst earthquake in Japanese history.

A short time after Saturday's blast, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano appeared on the main TV channel and spoke about the accident -- in the manner of a teacher telling students during a class trip what they are going to do next. Then a grey-haired expert on nuclear power plants joined Edano and appealed to the population to remain "reisei," to stay calm and cool.

Reisei, reisei: It was as if the government was more concerned about cooling down the heads of Japanese citizens than the partially melted nuclear fuel rods.

Advised to Stay Indoors

When the reactor exploded in Chernobyl a quarter century ago, the Soviet Union immediately brought in thousands of workers to cover the overheated reactor core with sand and lead. Eventually almost a million people would be involved in securing the reactor. But the Soviet Union was not simultaneously faced with the consequences of an earthquake and a tsunami.

The efforts of the Japanese police to evacuate a large area surrounding the reactor seemed more frantic than levelheaded. Thousands of people fled to the south in their cars.

At first, it was difficult to assess how dangerous the radiation in the immediate vicinity of the reactor was. Experts at the site reported that radiation levels of one sievert per hour had been measured near the reactor. This is a high level, but nothing compared with the 200 sievert per hour to which some emergency workers in Chernobyl were exposed.

Various radioactive materials are released in a meltdown, including plutonium and uranium, and the highly dangerous substances iodine 131 and cesium 137, which also contaminated the environment surrounding Chernobyl. It was confirmed that at least small amounts of cesium were also released at Fukushima. On Saturday German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), advised Germans to leave the areas affected by the tsunami and the nuclear accident.

A Japanese government spokesman advised citizens to stay indoors, switch off their air-conditioning systems and, if necessary, hold a moist towel in front of their mouths. These are all indications of how helpless the stricken industrialized nation's reaction was in the hours following the accident.

Arrogant Attitude

The fact that Japan, which was once considered a miracle economy, was on the verge of a nuclear disaster could be far more devastating to the nuclear industry than the Soviet reactor catastrophe in Chernobyl could ever have been a quarter century ago.

Admittedly, Japan is in an earthquake zone, which puts it at greater risk than countries like Germany and France. But Japan also happens to be a leading industrialized nation, a country where well-trained, pedantically precise engineers build the world's most advanced and reliable cars.

When the Chernobyl accident occurred, Germany's nuclear industry managed to convince itself, and German citizens, that aging reactors and incapable, sloppy engineers in Eastern Europe were to blame. Western reactors, or so the industry claimed, were more modern, better maintained and simply safer.

It is now clear how arrogant this self-assured attitude is. If an accident of this magnitude could happen in Japan, it can happen just as easily in Germany. All that's needed is the right chain of fatal circumstances. Fukushima is everywhere.

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BTraven 03/15/2011
Terrible news. I have read American soldiers, surely a special unit, had extinguished the fire. The more international experts are on the site the better. Like BP half a year ago, when the company needed a lot of time to stop leaking oil polluting the sea Tepco is not capable of handling the situation. Presumably, governments trust companies which are in fields where failures could cause a lot of harm too much. That must change.
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