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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.

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. …..

(-> read original article at SPIEGEL ONLINE international)

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