On Sunday, nuclear expert Joe Cirincione told Chris Wallace of Fox News:
“This is an unprecedented crisis. It is extremely serious. One of the reactors has had half the core exposed already. This is the one they're flooding with sea water in a desperate effort to prevent it from a complete meltdown.They also have lost control of a second reactor next to it. It is a partial meltdown. And there is actually a third reactor at a related site, about 20 kilometers away, that they have also lost control over. So, you have multiple reactor crises at the same time. We've never had a situation like this before.
Wallace: And what does it mean if you have a meltdown of the nuclear core?
Cirincione: The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fused together -- the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and is exposed to the outside. So, it spews radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States.
Wallace: Really? I mean, thousands of miles across the Pacific?
Cirincione: Oh, absolutely. In Chernobyl, which happened 25 years ago, the radioactivity spread around the entire northern hemisphere. It depends how many of these cores melt down and how successful they are on containing it once the disaster happens. We're in a key period now. So, the next 12 to 24 hours will tell us whether the Japanese officials will able to get control back over these reactors, or it's gone, it's lost.
The exchange did not seem to faze Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who then told Wallace:
"This discussion reminds me somewhat of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year. I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy."
Wallace: "But -- I mean, just as a human reaction, isn't this going to make it harder for nuclear power plants to be located... Aren't just American citizens going to look at it and say, "Not in my backyard"?
McConnell’s response: "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."
McConnell should read have read the polls more closely. An ABC survey in January, 2010 found that while slightly more than half of Americans support building nuclear plants in general, only 35 percent say they’d support construction of a nuclear plant within 50 miles of their own home. And while Japan’s ongoing nuclear-reactor accident undoubtedly raises those fears, nuclear power’s prohibitive cost remains a huge impediment to a nuclear resurgence.
For a primer on nuclear power, go here. For the Sierra Club's take on safe energy, go here.
(As of 3:24pm EST today, Reuters was reporting that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said that fuel rods at one of the reactors were fully exposed, which could lead them to melt down. Japanese engineers were racing to prevent that outcome. Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said it is "unlikely that the accident would develop" like 1986’s Chernobyl accident. The Ukrainian nuke plant had no containment structure, which allowed escaped radiation to spread as far as Europe. Nevertheless, Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants and Germany said it was scrapping a plan to extend the life of its nuclear power stations.)