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Japan Disaster Gets Worse: Meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant UPDATE: Meltdown or Not? Also: Cooling Failure Reported at 2nd Plant UPDATE: Now 3rd Reactor in Trouble?

Posted on | March 12, 2011 | 49 Comments

BUMPED FOR UPDATE 5 p.m. ET: Just when I was thinking about eating lunch and taking a nap, I decided to check Drudge and saw this:

The link is to a Reuters story:

A quake-hit Japanese nuclear plant reeling from an explosion at one of its reactors has also lost its emergency cooling system at another reactor, Japan’s nuclear power safety agency said on Sunday.
The emergency cooling system is no longer functioning at the No. 3 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, requiring the facility to urgently secure a means to supply water to the reactor, an official of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency told a news conference.

So the earlier “everything-under-control” claims from Japanese officials now seem to be unraveling. And there goes my Saturday nap. Please, somebody hit the tip jar for a few bucks, just so I can plausibly explain to my wife that this constant updating is worth the effort.

UPDATE 6:30 p.m. ET: Allahpundit started aggregating the Fukushima nuclear crisis nearly 18 hours ago and finally confesses that he is “now completely confused” by “a perfect storm of journalistic confusion” in which the “facts on the ground are changing rapidly” — and this really isn’t surprising, given the nature of the story.

Look: All of this is taking place on the other side of the world, where people speak another language. It involves highly complex technical issues. Obviously, safety concerns prevent reporters from going directly to the reactor sites and providing us with eyewitness accounts. You have multiple news organizations, each competing to have the latest information or to get the next exclusive scoop. And you have Japanese officials with a clear interest in minimizing the perception that this is a total unmitigated clusterfark.

Ergo: We must recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know, and must avoid the temptation to believe that we know stuff we actually don’t.

I don’t speak Japanese and I’m not an expert on nuclear power. However, based on my gut-instinct from 25 years in the news business, based on the way official no-need-to-panic statements keep getting contradicted by developing events, and based on the principle that it’s better to be safe than sorry, my current best estimate of the situation is either (a) catastrophic apocalypse or (b) apocalyptic catastrophe.

(Your mileage my vary.)

My advice: Get some sleep. And when you wake up Sunday morning, go to Denny’s and have their Grand Slam breakfast while reading the local newspaper. Then go back home and drink a couple brews while watching a basketball game on TV. At that point, you can then safely log back onto the Internet and try to figure out what actually happened Saturday.

Trust me, you’ll thank me for this advice. If Charlie Sheen had listened to my advice, he never would have lost his CBS show (and he wouldn’t be shagging skanks, because Denise Richards would be begging him for a second chance to make their marriage work out).

Now, hit the tip jar.

Linked by Bob Belvedere: Japan Goes Nuclear — The Nippon Syndrome?

BUMPED FOR UPDATE 3 p.m. ET: Officials in Japan say that they have so far averted a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — site of a Saturday explosion — but the most recent report from CNN indicates increasing cause for concern:

Reactors at two Japanese power plants can no longer cool radioactive substances, a government official said Saturday, adding that a small leak had been detected at one of the facilities.
Atomic material has seeped out of one of the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s five nuclear reactors, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Tokyo, said Kazuo Kodama, a spokesman for Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency.
Potentially dangerous problems in cooling radioactive material appear to have cropped up there, as well as at another of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear plants, Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, confirmed to CNN. . . .
The Fukushima Daini and Fukushima Daiichi power plants are separate facilities located in different towns in northeastern Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. . . .
Kodama said the cooling system had failed at three of the four such units of the Daini plant.
Temperatures of the coolant water in that plant’s reactors soared to above 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reported, an indication that the cooling system wasn’t working.
Authorities subsequently ordered residents within 3 kilometers of that facility to evacuate as “a precaution,” Fujisaki said. That plant was also added to the Japanese nuclear agency’s emergency list, along with the Daiichi plant.

So there are indications of cooling-system failure at Daini as well as at Daiichi. If this CNN report is both (a) accurate and (b) based on the latest information, then the problems may actually be growing worse. Japanese officials have ordered evacuations around the endangered plants, involving throusands of people.

Please see the massively updated aggregation at Hot Air, which has a lot of useful background.

UPDATE 3:15 p.m. ET: Both reprehensible and incomprehensible: Idiots using Facebook to vent sadistic revenge-for-Pearl-Harbor sentiments. No decent American could possibly harbor ill will toward the Japanese people more than six decades after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Japan’s unconditional surrender. From a quick glance, I’d guess about 95% of the Facebookers saying this stuff are adolescents or college-age and — no need to guess about this — 100% of them are stupid assholes.

UPDATE 4:15 p.m. ET: In the comments below, longtime commenter and loyal tip-jar hitter Jeff S. from Walla Walla describes the cable-news chatter:

[W]e are seeing yet another aspect of Rumor Control during a disaster: “There’s not enough real news, so let’s get some experts to speculate and offer their opinions. Because, y’know, we need C. O. N. T. E. N. T., regardless of the source.”
Next: survivors of Three Miles Island and Chernyobl are interviewed for their perspective.

This business of TV networks covering a breaking news event by filling the time with whatever comes to hand — “And now, a child psychologist tells parents how to cope with children’s questions about the nuclear meltdown …” — is one of the great evils of modern journalism.

When I worked as a national news editor at The Washington Times, sometimes one of the bosses would come over and say, “Hey, CNN just said so-and-so — make sure that’s mentioned in Ralph’s story.” Sometimes this latest item from TV would be true, important and clearly relevant. But sometimes it would be dubious, trivial or a mere sideshow to the main subject of the story.

There were times when I’d get one of these “CNN-just-said” items thrown at me, right on the verge of deadline to send the story to the copy desk, so I’d just jam it in somewhere and hit the “send” button. And then the reporter whose byline was on the story would look in the copy queue — checking to see what the edited version looks like, as every smart reporter always should — and come storming over to my desk: “What the hell? That CNN item is a piece of thinly-sourced rumor that I already checked out and my sources say it’s crap. Get it the hell out of my story, and if you ever do that again without checking with me first, so help me God, I’ll strangle you!” (That rant is a near-verbatim quote of longtime crime-and-justice reporter Jerry Seper chewing me out at the top of his lungs, a traumatic experience that tends to imbed itself deep in the neural pathways, and one which I would not recommend for sensitive souls.)

See, print journalism creates a permanent record. It’s not just Pretty People running their yaps to fill time between commercials. But sometimes newspaper editors forget that, and start trying to match their coverage to what the Pretty People are saying on TV, and bad results ensue. Here on the Internet, the blogospheric medium is kind of like TV in that, when a big story is breaking, you can update-update-update to keep pace with developments. But it is also a matter of the written word, which has the permanent-record quality we associate with print journalism. If the medium is the message, as McLuhan said, then being a good messenger requires us to study and understand the nature of the medium.

PREVIOUSLY (11:57 a.m. ET)

What horrible news to wake up to:

Japanese officials said on Saturday there had been an explosion at a nuclear power plant following Friday’s huge earthquake, blowing off the roof of the structure, bringing down walls and causing a radiation leak of unspecified proportions.

Stratfor is calling this a meltdown, and so my plan to spend Saturday afternoon mocking David Brooks — who deserves to be mocked, and often, and by someone who knows how — kinda got bumped off the schedule.

UPDATE: Lots of ominous stuff in that Stratfor report, including this sentence: “At this point, events in Japan bear many similarities to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.”

Here’s a video report about the explosion at the plant:

?

Japanese officials are evidently in denial:

Japanese officials battling to prevent a meltdown at a nuclear power station after Friday’s record earthquake are using seawater to try and cool a reactor and prevent damage to the chamber holding its radioactive core.
An explosion at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai- Ichi nuclear power station yesterday destroyed the walls of its No. 1 reactor building and injured four people. A hydrogen leak caused the blast, which didn’t damage the steel chamber, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said at a briefing yesterday.
Asia’s biggest utility “has decided to fill the containment with seawater,” Edano said. Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency couldn’t confirm a meltdown at the plant and monitoring around the reactor is showing that radiation is falling, spokesman Shinji Kinjyo said today.

Trying to spin a nuclear reactor meltdown? Charlie Sheen should hire those guys to do his P.R.

UPDATE II: There is an apocalyptic quality to the sequence described in this Economist report:

First came a violent earthquake. Then a devastating tsunami followed. Now an explosion at a nuclear power plant — and the release of radioactive material — has added to Japan’s woes.

And still, the spin:

There was a momentary sense of relief on Saturday evening when the government assured the public that the explosion had not been caused by the meltdown of the reactor.

Let’s presume — as is always the safe presumption in such scenarios — that the situation is actually worse than officials say it is. As Bill Clinton might say, “It depends on what your definition of ‘meltdown’ is.”

On the one hand, there is a specific, technical, scientific meaning for the word “meltdown” and, if officials are to be believed, has not happened at Fukushima Daiichi. On the other hand, there is the ordinary layman’s understanding of “meltdown,” which is less precise: Something very, very bad has happened, resulting in a significant release of radiation and OMIGOD RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!

Whether or not this situation meets the first definition, it certainly meets the second and — unless and until we see Fukushima Daiichi erupt in a fireball mushroom cloud — I doubt any Japanese officials will ever publicly call this a “meltdown.”

UPDATE III: NewsMax got an expert, Mark Hibbs, to analyze the danger:

The Japanese situation appears to be roughly analogous to the Three Mile Island incident in the United States, where authorities struggled for days to contain an improperly cooled reactor core but were able to avert a widespread release of nuclear material.
“We were in a situation as I recall then very similar to where we are now, where we were told by news media in 1979 that there was a core melt accident unfolding, we didn’t know how serious it would become, and what would happen,” Hibbs tells Newsmax.
At least one of the reactors in Japan, and perhaps more, “are on the path of a core-melt accident. It’s called a loss of coolant accident. . . . And it’s up to the Japanese authorities, together with the industries in that country, to find a way to stem this problem,” he said.

Dava Castillo notes that “meltdown” is a colloquial term — a catastrophic event resulting in the release of radioactive material — and in the colloquial sense, I think Fukushima Daiichi has already passed the point of being a “meltdown.”

UPDATE IV: Linked by The Lonely Conservative who has more video:

In the comments below, Richard McEnroe asked about this Christian Science Monitor report:

Fears of a nuclear meltdown in Japan have subsided after a reactor that was damaged in Friday’s devastating earthquake reportedly emerged intact from an explosion.
A day after the country was thrown into chaos by a fierce tsunami triggered by the largest earthquake in Japan’s history, the country was, for a few terrifying hours, bracing itself for a possible nuclear catastrophe. . . .
After a few nerve-wracking hours, however, the government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, said the damage had been confined to the walls and roof surrounding the reactor, sparing its metal casing.
The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told a televised press conference that radiation around the plant had, in fact, started to decrease.
A “tiny” amount of radiation had leaked earlier in the day when officials attempted to relieve pressure inside the reactor.

So, Richard asks, which are we to believe, the Stratfor report that calls the incident a “meltdown” or this report with its Chip Dillard “all is well” tone of reassurance?

THE FUCKING ROOF BLEW OFF!

OK? I mean, sure, “officials say” everything’s just hunky-dory with the reactor itself, but when there’s a massive explosion that destroys the building that houses the reactor, excuse me for suspecting that the “officials say” version of the story might be a bit too sunny-side-up.

A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor is professionally obligated to accept what officials say at a press conference as legit, unless there is some specific information that contradicts the “officials say” version. But I’m not doing a dateline-Tokyo straight-news report here. I’ve got no inside sources or special expertise in nuclear-power operations. Right now, I’m just a guy aggregating stuff I’ve found on the Web and trying to determine whether the panic-induced stains in our pants should be yellow or brown.

Also: Commenters have noted a surprising absence of Godzilla jokes. Obviously, it has been an intense struggle to resist my natural instinct to treat the news as an endless series of straight-man set-ups for which I am expected to deliver the punchline. But given that the death toll from the Japanese earthquake-tsunami disaster is feared to be in the thousands, I think it’s best to continue to resist.

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