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Any kind of major catastrophe, be it human or natural, is likely to induce an emotional response. The sharing of those emotions –it could be argued– reinforce the bounding between individuals. Sometime it happens at the family level, sometime at a global level. This is certainly not a bad thing: it’s who we are and it’s how we are actually living together (or at least trying to).
However, in order to increase the adequacy of our actions, an emotional response could (should?) be paired with an equivalent effort to assess as precisely as possible the nature of the catastrophe we’re facing. What do we know exactly about the condition of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station? At best as of now (March 13, 2001, 1350 EST) the information available through various source is conflicting.
For example, Nikkei.com ran a story on March 13, 2011 (JST) stating:

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said Saturday afternoon the explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could only have been caused by a meltdown of the reactor core.

It was then taken and reblogged by Stratford Global Intelligence under the title: “Japanese Government Confirms Meltdown”. Many more similar statements can be found on the Internet. What exactly is happening? There’s a couple of things to consider.

  1. As of now it not possible to find an official source confirming with certainty that a meltdown has happened or is happening. Associated Press, Reuters and Spiegel all reported that the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters on Sunday:

    “There is that possibility. We cannot confirm this because it is in the reactor. But we are dealing with it under that assumption.”

  2. Actually, “meltdown” and “nuclear meldown” are informal terms: they are not officially defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency nor by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is not simply a semantic problem or a glossary issue: it’s about knowing and understanding as precisely as possible what is happening so we can figure out more clearly what are and what will be the consequences for the Japanese population and for the global community as well.
  3. The International Atomic Energy Agency published a released on March 13, 2011 (2110 CET) stating:

    The Japanese authorities have classified the event at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 as a level 4 ‘Accident with Local Consequences’ on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). The INES scale is used to promptly and consistently communicate to the public the safety significance of events associated with sources of radiation. The scale runs from 0 (deviation) to 7 (major accident).

  4. A Level 4 accident is defined as followed by the IAEA Safety Glossery (PDF):

    Level 4 (accident without significant off-site risk): An accident involving significant damage to the installation (e.g. partial core melt) and/or overexposure of one or more workers resulting in a high probability of death and/or an off-site release such that the critical group dose is of the order of a few millisieverts.

  5. On March 13, 2011, 1335 CET, the IAEA published an update stating, among other things:

    Japanese authorities have informed the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) that venting of the containment of reactor Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant started at 9:20 AM local Japan time of 13 March through a controlled release of vapour. The operation is intended to lower pressure inside the reactor containment.
    Subsequently, following the failure of the high pressure injection system and other attempts of cooling the plant, injection of water first and sea water afterwards started. The authorities have informed the IAEA that accumulation of hydrogen is possible.
    Japanese authorities have also informed the IAEA that the first (i.e., lowest) state of emergency at the Onagawa nuclear power plant has been reported by Tohoku Electric Power Company. The authorities have informed the IAEA that the three reactor units at the Onagawa nuclear power plant are under control.

  6. Other primary sources of information include press releases from the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The TEPCO site is hard to access right now, but it’s still possible to access its cached version. The cached version of the report regarding the “Plant Status of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (as of 0pm March 13th)” can be access online. There are two important things to consider in this report: First, is the level of the coolant being injected into the reactor steady or not? If not, it could mean there’s a leak inside the reactor containment vessel. The report states that level are steady for unit 2 through 6. No word about the level of the coolant liquid in unit 1 (unit 1 is the one that exploded). However, on March 12, 2001 (2110 CET) Japanese authorities:

    have informed the IAEA that the explosion at Unit 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant occurred outside the primary containment vessel (PCV), not inside. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has confirmed that the integrity of the primary containment vessel remains intact.(IAEA)

    Second, how is the pressure inside the containment vessel? According to the TEPCO press release, steps have been taken to lower the pressure level within the reactor containment vessel in unit 2 and 3 of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.

  7. Today, we learned that a state of emergency was also declared at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. However

    The authorities have informed the IAEA that the three reactor units at the Onagawa nuclear power plant are under control. (IAEA)

Over at the The New Yorker, Amy Davidson (senior editor) offers a clear and sensitive portrait of the situation on her blog. Her post offers a rigorous assessment of the confusion surrounding the status of the nuclear plants while, at the same time, showing delicate and empathic concerns for the human tragedy: “Japan: Radiation and Rubble” (The New Yorker, March 13, 2011). Also, as pointed out by Amy, environment correspondent for BBC News Richard Black has a clear technical explanation pertaining to what exactly a “nuclear meltdown” could mean: “Uncertainty surrounds Japan’s nuclear picture” (BBC News, March 12, 2011). Here’s an excerpt from his article:

In fact, the whole incident so far contains more questions than answers. Parallels with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl suggest that while some answers will materialise soon, it may takes months, even years, for the full picture to emerge.

Finally, the Bellum blog (affiliated with The Stanford Review) offers some tips for a more accurate assessment of the situation:

  1. Ignore ambiguous statements from Japanese government officials. Pay attention to specific facts they provide because those will be verifiable in the future and will not be provided lightly.
  2. Presume the headlines are deceptive. Do not trust paraphrasing.
  3. Treat with skepticism any pronouncement from a “nuclear energy expert” if he/she is affiliated with an advocacy or agenda-driven organization.
  4. Most importantly, remember that very little information is actually known. Media organizations get scraps and tidbits, and these are recycled endlessly.

(Bellum: “A Quick Guide to Japanese “Meltdown” Coverage: 4 Lessons” by the Bellum staff, March 12, 2011)

About Bellum:

Bellum is an autonomous project affiliated with The Stanford Review. Our mission is to provide uncommon insight and rigorous analysis of geopolitics and international security affairs. Please see “Why We Blog” for a statement of our philosophy. (About)

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