Did a Meltdown Occur at Fukushima I?

NOTE 12:51am PST: The above is an UNVERIFIED image floating around Twitter around midnight Saturday Pacific Time of the Fukushima I explosion reported about 3:36pm Japan Time (2.5 hours ago). I got it from Wikipedia.

NOTE 1:33AM PST: See updates and video at the end.

In the wake of the tragedies in Japan, information is sketchy at this point about the Fukushima I light water reactor, which appears almost certain to have experienced at least a partial meltdown. It’s difficult to get good information, and all the authorities will confirm as of now (12:56am Saturday) is that they are investigating whether a meltdown occurred. The following picture, purportedly of the Fukushima I plant is said to be going around Twitter; it was time-tagged as going up on Wikipedia about 10 minutes ago but has not been verified.

At this point, news stories even 10 minutes old seem to be out of date. The most current development I can find is the report via  ABC News Australia of an explosion at 3:36pm local time (about 2.5 hours ago), which does not necessarily signal a meltdown. However, this paragraph from the ABC story is pretty terrifying:

According to public broadcaster NHK, the plant’s exterior walls are gone and only the skeleton structure remains.

Any given news report may not be accurate; in any disaster situation it’s critical to stay calm and listen to the authorities.

The following may be obvious to many of you; it may be plenty of stuff you already know; maybe everyone knows it. I’m sure the news will cover this, but I’m going to say it in case anyone out there is worried:

Multiple safety systems seem to have failed, here, which naturally makes people skeptical of authority and the nuclear industry specifically. But there are a couple things about Fukushima I that are important. One thing people may not know is that a light water reactor like this absolutely cannot cause a nuclear explosion. It also absolutely cannot experience a Chernobyl-style meltdown. Chernobyl was a different type of reactor. Light-water plants like Fukushima may blow up from steam explosions or extreme heat from a meltdown, which is some pretty bad shit. But they don’t ever detonate the way weapons do.

While the safety systems that failed can be cited as a good example of things “not being what they seem” in the nuclear industry, it is not just that the two nightmare scenarios of Chernobyl and Hiroshima are “protected against”; it is physically impossible for the Fukushima I plant to either become a nuclear bomb or a Chernobyl style disaster. My understanding is that it is not even possible for the entire core at Fukushima to melt down.

If there was (or is) a meltdown at Fukushima, things will be bad enough. But for what it’s worth, those two scenarios, at least, are ruled out by the laws of nature.

UPDATE 1:30am Pacific Time: The ABC News Australia story now says:

An explosion has blown the roof off an unstable reactor north of Tokyo, raising fears of a disastrous meltdown at a nuclear plant damaged in the massive earthquake that hit Japan on Friday.


They link to footage from Japanese TV uploaded by YouTube user grokthena:

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4 comments on “Did a Meltdown Occur at Fukushima I?
  1. i’m not worried about the nuclear power plant ‘detonating’ like a weapon (how ridiculous)

    but deadly fallout from radioactive gases/materials escaping into the atmosphere and surrounding region – that concerns me.

  2. Thomas I gather you are an American. I am an Australian. Your reliance on ABC Australia as a source of reliable reporting of facts is touching BUT VERY MISPLACED, especially in regards anything to do with nuclear energy.
    Apart from that excellent article, keep up the good work!

  3. Robert — Thanks, will keep that in mind; I ended up there by pure chance, possibly because it was very late and I was very tired. The BBC coverage is vastly better.

  4. Gerard — It seems obvious to me, too, but I’ve still heard some people expressing the mistaken belief that nuclear plants can blow up like a nuclear bomb. I think more people are under the impression that this plant is similar to Chernobyl, too.

    Your contamination concern is very real, and it’s is already happening. The question is how bad will it be, and how far will it reach. Even if it remains only the third worst nuclear power accident, that’s pretty damned bad. And it sure seems like this event will surpass Three Mile Island.

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