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On The “(‘Non’)-Nuclear Explosion” in Japan

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Since I don’t know anything about nuclear engineering, I assumed when I heard the Fukishima power plant “had exploded” that another Chernobyl was unfolding. But quickly I saw news sources stressing that the explosion was “non-nuclear” and does not imply an impending radiation leak.

That was an hour ago; now this report claims radiation “is leaking” so my initial intuition is to think either the earlier story had downplayed the threat or that the situation had rapidly changed. However a closer read suggests the two stories (communicating very different things by headline) have more or less the same information: the Calgary Herald stresses radiation in the headline, but then explains Japanese officials say levels are low and unaffected by the explosion:

The plant was damaged by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake, which sent a 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami ripping through towns and cities across the northeast coast. Japanese media estimate that at least 1,300 people were killed.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there had been no major change in the level of radiation after the explosion because it did not occur inside the reactor container.

“The nuclear reaction facility is surrounded by a steel storage machine, which is then surrounded by a concrete building. This concrete building collapsed. We learnt that the storage machine inside did not explode,” he told a news conference.

I have no idea how serious the situation is in Fukishima. What I’m saying is, let’s read carefully, monitor closely, and keep in mind how we are psychologically and culturally primed to assume the worst with respect to nuclear disasters, as we interpret what we are told.

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