Japan: Explosion at Fukushima nuclear plant (video)


Photos: Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama, March 13, 2011. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano confirmed on Saturday there has been an explosion and radiation leakage at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The biggest earthquake to hit Japan on record struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-meter (33-foot) high tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings on fire. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

[Video Link]
[Video Link]

The videos above (one from Japanese TV, one from the Russian network RT) show a plume of smoke emerging from the damaged reactor at Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan on Saturday: an explosion blew the roof off of a building and destroyed the outer walls of a reactor. Officials have expanded the evacuation radius around the plant to a 12 mile radius, and are distributing iodine to populations nearby, to help offset possible radiation poisoning. Below, a shot from NHK TV of the damaged building (thanks, Yamara, via BB Flickr Pool).


New York Times article by Matthew Wald and Michael Wines:

Officials said late Saturday that leaks of radioactive material from the plant, which began before the explosion, were receding and that a major meltdown was not imminent. But severe problems at two nuclear plants close to the epicenter of the quake forced evacuations of tens of thousands of people from surrounding areas, hampering efforts to search for survivors and forcing Japan's leadership to grapple with two major crises as the same time.
The NYT's Lede blog has been updating, and there's a Reuters live blog here. CNN item, and AP item via NPR.

Early reports are that radiation levels receded after the explosion, and that a worse disaster may have been averted. Still, the incident is being described as the most significant nuclear disaster since Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, in global impact. The Fukushima disaster now has its own Wikipedia page.



  1. It is worth noting that Three Mile Island released as much radioactivity for one bad day as a coal plant releases per day, every day.
    Chernobyl on the other hand released something equivalent to a limited nuclear war.

    Anyone have their Geiger counter out in Tokyo to let us know which extreme end of nuclear emergency we are facing?

  2. Also, worth noting is that TMI acted exactly as designed i.e. emergency systems kicked in and shut everything down safely.

    Comparing modern nuclear power plants to chernobyl is like comparing modern flight to hydrogen filled zeppelins.

  3. Reports from on the ground are still confusing. Hard to know what’s really going on. Doesn’t seem like the worst case, but is definitely a “very very bad” case scenario.

    Favorite quote of the day: “Presumably, an explosion like that is something you want to avoid”, classic British understatement on the BBC.

    My thoughts are with the folks in Japan right now.

  4. If they can not control the temps at the reactors there could be an exothermic fire that would eject a large amount of radioactive dust into the air. I have heard that the wind is blowing off shore so that would help the people near the plants. But what worries me are two things. The jet stream that goes over Japan and blows towards North America. The explosions would need to be very powerful to get them that high though. As a side note to this Google WW2 Japan Balloons. The other worry is something called the North Pacific Gyre. It’s a current that runs along the Japanese coast then crosses the pacific where it splits with half going south along the California coast and the other half going north towards Alaska. As per Wikipedia it is the worlds largest ecosystem. Fishing could be devastated.

  5. The videos above show a plume of smoke emerging from the damaged reactor *building* at Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan on Saturday: an explosion blew the roof off of a building and destroyed the outer walls of a reactor *building*. The reactor pressure vessel seems to be not leaking right now.

    The explosion seems to be from Hydogen used for cooling of the generator and not from nuclear material.

    Acutally it is listed as on International Nuclear Event Scale as level 4 “Accident With Local Consequences” means minor release of radioactive material. Three Miles Islans was 5 “Accident With Wider Consequences”, Chernobyl was level 7 “Major accident” – the highest level on the scale.

    A big difference is that the Fukushima power plant îs siwtched of since the earth quake. The radiation inside the reactor goes back with every hour. In Chernobyl exploded more or less “in service” what released a real huge amount of radioactive staff.

    (Source: Information from Swiss atomic energy specialists)

  6. “I’d give it a 4!”

    They’ve moved on to borating the core which means…
    Massive, Epic WIN for TEPCO, especially given the hand they were dealt!!! Kudos and BZ!

    1. hellz yeah!
      i’m really quite amazed and thankful for the diligence of the TEPCO workers. Those folks are heroes.

      And hey, the worst-case scenario HAPPENED. The BWR reactor design really pulled its weight. That’s American engineering, folks. With some Japanese operating experience.


  7. You’re welcome for the ‘after’ shot, Xeni. Thanks also to Time Warner for allowing Japan TV free to subscribers– it used to be $40 or $50 a month all by itself.

    On another thread boingers were talking about containment, just before I posted the screenshot. I understand the issues with needing energy for civilization. But my experiences with the Three Mile Island accident in the ’70s made it very clear that this path is inherently unwise.

    If a classmate turns to you in class when you’re listening to the news on the radio, looks you in the eye, and asks you, “Are we going to die?” it’s a good indicator that this is not a choice for energy production that should be pursued.

      1. Oh, everyone knows the answer to that one, Fett101.

        Here’s a question I’d like answered, though.

        How many of carriem’s heroes will be needed to rescue us in the wind and solar power industries?

        1. Look at the comparative numbers for deaths per TWh for solar and wind Yamara. Nuclear is close to wind – essentially near zero. For solar, things are a lot worse due to deaths of workers falling from heights installing solar panels.

          Different forms of solar will have different risk factors certainly – as will different nuclear reactor designs.

          It’s best to answer these questions by doing risk assessment then by assuming that our emotional responses are useful indicators.

          The other problem with comparing to wind and solar is that these are not base load. We need reliable base load energy supplies. If you want to do this without burning coal/oil/gas it’s going to be geothermal or nuclear. Geothermal is currently limited by geology. Nuclear is not.

      2. > And just how many people died because of Three Mile Island?

        Thankfully nobody died. But considering how much of the reactor core melted and how many mistakes were made in handling the accident, it was a hell of a good fortune that the reactor containment did not breach. You shouldn’t tempt fate too often :-)

        1. Imagining how many would have died in a worst case scenario without comparing it to the number that currently die from our current technologies, or the other alternative replacements is not helpful. Living is tempting fate. The question is which approach to power generation tempts fate least. It’s clear that nuclear tempts it less than what we currently use.

    1. I’ve never had a problem with nuclear power myself, but my father built plants for a living, not that I know anything about nuclear power, I’m just used to the idea.

      The Skeptoid podcast is not with out it’s biases and mistakes (but he does admit when he is wrong on occasion) his episode on nuclear power was very enlightening: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4092

      My understanding of the Three Mile Island incident (based on cursory Wiki reading and the podcast mentioned above)is that a piece of equipment malfunctioned, and after that everything went exactly as they had planned for such a failure and as well as it possibly could, given the circumstances. No loss of life, and very little damage or illness otherwise.

      Chernobyl on the other hand was the result of half a dozen or so blindingly obvious human errors in a plant that was obsolete before it was finished and inherently dangerous to run.

      Modern plants, apparently, are much safer, as seen by the fact that only 2(?) of japans reactors are having problems after one of the largest quakes in a century .

      and no offense but I hardly think that the uninformed fear of a teenager is a solid basis for energy policy.

  8. CNN Nuclear scientist: This is a measure of desperation, using the seawater. Looks bad.
    Need more cooling water. May be the only (last) option, at this point.

    This guy says that the evacuation should have been wider to begin with. Ah.

    The child with her hands up, being measured for radioactivity, tugs at my heart (photo). I hope she doesn’t suffer from radiation sickness in the future. That is beyond awful.

    My thoughts are with you, Japan.

  9. Can anyone give me a translation or link to a translation of what’s being said in the Japanese videos?

  10. I should add that hydro is another base-load power source. However, if we want to play the game of generating our expectations based on worse case scenarios, hydro is by far the most apocalyptic. The Banqiao Dam failure resulted in ~26,000 direct deaths, with potentially an additional 100,000 indirect.

    In Europe it’s been amazingly safe. We should not measure everything based on worse case scenarios. Instead we should look carefully at our best guesses of actual risk.

    None of this can be decided in a vacuum, every year we put off creating nuclear power plants is a year that we burn more coal and gas, which BTW have vastly higher numbers of deaths per TWh.

  11. All things considered, the situation doesn’t seem that bad so far. The building is damaged and they had to release some irradiated water (as I understand it), but the nuclear material isn’t leaking and the amount of radiation released seems to be pretty limited. Considering the nuclear plant was hit by a 8.9 earthquake and a tsunami, that’s pretty good.

    If they can keep the situation under control without any more damage, I think that’s a testament to the safety of nuclear power, not against it. That was pretty much the worst case scenario, and damage is limited to the immediate periphery of the reactor. The security measures seem to be working, and under some of the harshest conditions possible.

    It’s not reasonable to expect that nothing will ever fail, and there will be chaos when things fail, but if deaths are avoided, then that seems safe to me.

  12. Certainly I would like to believe that the situation is not dire at Fukushima, but I never know whether to believe officials or not.

    1. One of the most important lessons learned by the nuclear industry came after 3 Mile Island: communication.
      3 Mile Island was characterized not by the danger present, but by the danger imagined. It became obvious to the nuclear industry that incomplete and vague statements white-washing any risk to the public did way more harm than good. It’s one of the main lessons taught in nuclear today.

      Japan has legislated into law the communication strategy during a nuclear emergency. For this reason, and based on the 3 Mile Island lesson, I choose to believe the statements coming from the Japanese government and TEPCO.

      If you think about it, it’s the best strategy to come clean since any lies will be directly exposed pretty much immediately and there are global consequences for cover-ups. Nuclear regulation is global.

  13. > It’s clear that nuclear tempts it less than what we currently use.

    Thats not clear at all. Comparing only the 100000 lethal cancer cases that Chernobyl caused with all the deaths attributable to coal power plants is naive. You still have to safeguard the radioactive waste for the next couple of ice ages without deriving any benefit from it. Yes its true that some people die while falling from a windmill, but after the windmill’s useful life span its 100% safe.

    1. According to the podcast I linked to above, the amount of waste in new reactor designs is diminishing, with some designs on that way that negligible amounts, or no waste at all to worry about

      1. > or no waste at all to worry about

        As a physicist I can assure you that there is no way of working with fission that doesn’t end up with a certain amount of radioactive waste that you’ll need to bury for a long time. Its true that not every reactor type produces the same amount of radioactive waste but partially recycling the fuel adds complexity which will invariably lead to accidents.

        That is not to say that, perhaps, nuclear fission might be the lesser evil. But anybody telling you that its fine an nothing to worry about is lying straight into your face.

        1. “As a physicist I can assure you that there is no way of working with fission that doesn’t end up with a certain amount of radioactive waste that you’ll need to bury for a long time.”

          As a physicist I assure you that you should stick to whatever part of the physics discipline you actually work in, because it’s clearly not nuclear physics.

          1. Just to be clear, your statement was strictly correct, but highly misleading. How long is “a long time” and how much is “certain amount”?

          2. As a creative director at a giftware company I can assure you that I’m mostly thinking about the technicians, engineers, and others who are doing their jobs on-site grappling with this disaster. Godspeed.

      2. It’s true, some of the newer designs reuse the old waste as fuel. And the leftovers from that are supposed to be relatively less harmful. That’s pretty cool.

        Nuclear waste is a real challenge. It’s probably what bothers people the most. I’m excited with the new reactor designs – the amount of solid waste approaches zero and the harmful effects of that waste are diminishing as well.

        The actual amount of waste in terms of tonnage is surprisingly low, but it differs between designs. Here in Canada we use CANDU. Pickering Nuclear has been operating for 30+ years and the amount of waste it has generated for all 8 units can be held in a barn (which it is, sort of). It’d be best if we could get it down to nothing!

        …I’m sure we can.

    2. “Thats not clear at all. Comparing only the 100000 lethal cancer cases that Chernobyl caused with all the deaths attributable to coal power plants is naive.”

      I’d like a citation for that 100,000 number. The usual number is 4000 total excess deaths due to cancer. If you want to use the 100k number it seems to me that you have to go to some pretty wild speculation. In any case, your ultra-pessimistic number is still lower than the widely accepted number of deaths from a single hydro event. Does that mean we should immediately cease using hydro? Why the vast difference in the treatment of these two technologies?

      “You still have to safeguard the radioactive waste for the next couple of ice ages without deriving any benefit from it.”

      First this is only true if its not reprocessed and not transmuted. If stuff is still highly radioactive then it is still fuel. The more we use nuclear power and shift towards a nuclear economy the better we will become at burning it. Currently we’re only doing between 1% and 2% burnup. We have experimental reactors that can get much higher than that. Eventually we need to be close to 99% burn-up. At that point we’ll hardly be storing any waste, and most of it will be only for a couple of hundred years.

      1. > Eventually we need to be close to 99% burn-up.

        Well if you are a physicist then you’ll know that not every radioactive isotope will give you a net energy gain if you bombard it with neutrons, and only very few give you the opportunity of a self-sustained chain reaction.

        Yes you could theoretically transmute everything to Fe-56 but thats not anything that you can realize on an industrial scale with any forseeable technology and still derive a net energy output.

        A comparatively much better deal would be fusion. Even though we still don’t know if its technically feasible and keep finding new plasma instabilities that we haven’t though of before. And we would still have to deal with dangerous radioactive byproducts. There is no free lunch. Really, there isn’t.

  14. Why does everyone center so much on the actual operation of the plant? Nuclear incidents/accidents at a nuclear plant are probably the least of our worries when considering nuclear power as a viable alternative energy supply.

    Looking upstream, nuclear power causes many similar problems to coal during the mining and milling processes. (see http://www.ourbigearth.com/2010/04/30/shift-news-uranium-mining-in-canada-part-2/ for more on ‘yellowcake’ waste)

    And just like there is ‘peak oil’, ‘peak coal’, etc., there will also be peak uranium. It is also true that wind and solar cannot keep up to provide the power that our growth economy will need in the future.

    The world’s energy crisis isn’t a problem of ‘techno-fixes’ or replacing one power source with another. It’s an entirely human problem of using what energy sources we have wisely.

    1. “And just like there is ‘peak oil’, ‘peak coal’, etc., there will also be peak uranium.”

      Peak granite?

      The uranium and thorium in a ton of granite has the energy of fifty tons of coal. That’s more than the energy needed to extract the uranium and thorium.

  15. Two random notes:

    The explosion videos are pretty damn remarkable, because they show how this wasn’t just some fuzzy “boom” but a real “bang” – you can clearly see the shockwave of the detonation rip upwards. There must have been some really significant pressure inside that building. Maybe they tried to slowly vent (radioactive) steam out of the reactor to take the core pressure away, and contain the steam it inside the building for the time being, which can’t work for long. Or the reactor had been unintentionally venting steam and they couldn’t fix that.

    This is a different scale than Chernobyl for a number of reasons, even if the reactor would blow up (which would still be awfully bad, of course). First, Chernobyl was up and running when it blew up, this one’s down. Secondly, unlike this reactor, Chernobyl had control rods made of graphite, and that graphite happily kept burning on and on for a long time, putting significant amounts of radioactive material high up into the atmosphere that way.

  16. If it helps to understand what you’re seeing, a boiling water reactor recirculates the (gradually more radioactive) cooling water around the reactor core, creating ‘low’ pressure steam to drive power turbines. There is a metal shell around the reactor that holds in the cooling fluid and steam, such as you might use with a pressure cooker to cook your string beans, for example.

    VFX Trading Places, Youtube.com/watch?v=emvySA1-3t8

    There is a built-in ‘blow off’ or ‘rupture disc’ valve on the shield dome, the same as the rocker on your pressure cooker would blow off if it really ‘cooked off’. If you look closely, at 0:06-0:07 you can see a high-power jet shoot up at 11-oclock, before the cladding blows off. The building cladding is designed to blow off in a typhoon, so no big deal there.

    The big deal is that ‘rupture disc’ has ruptured, and can’t be reset, so until the reactor cooling system finally goes back into operation and the reactor goes cold, a steady stream of radioactive steam is escaping, but at ‘low’ rate if the reactor was scrammed, meaning, automatically dialed back with graphite rods to kill neutron flux feeding the fission reaction, the same way you might dial back the heater on your car, for example.

    That’s the beginning and the end of it as long as the wind keeps blowing offshore, …which it generally does this time of year. Yupp:
    Wind Speed / Dir
    13 mph from WSW
    Wind Gust 26 mph

  17. Is the US the only place in the world where the containment vessel doesn’t have some obvious weak point that can’t stand up to an actual emergency situation?

    Everywhere I look at images of BWC reactors elsewhere in the world, they pretty much all look like chernobyl… concrete walls reminiscent of retail stores, and a sheet metal roof.

    If the idea of a structure is containing emergencies, shouldn’t it be capable of surviving the forces of the emergency it’s containing?

    Just… a thought, you know. Sometimes dangerous stuff explodes.

  18. Nuclear radiation is the bees knees.

    We should build more plants Everywhere its all cool dawg because when earthquakes happen it will be fun to die because NUCLEAR RADIATION its obviously the best way to go.

    Although some people may not agree with it. It’s not like you can stop them from using/building them and endangering Thousands of lives. Hey if you don’t like it move away. Oh thats right Nuclear Radiation can travel via airborn Vast distances.

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