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Planet Earth

A Cloud and a Silver Lining

InkfishBy Elizabeth PrestonMarch 17, 2011 4:06 AM

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For the past few days, the only science news I've been thinking about is happening in Japan.

There have been a few pleasant diversions: elephants that understand teamwork; whales that seem to address each other by name; office workers who boost their attention spans using houseplants. But the nuclear disaster seems more important to talk about right now.

In case you've missed it, the one-two punch of unprecedented earthquake and massive tsunami overwhelmed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which has six nuclear reactors. Though the reactors automatically shut down in the earthquake, a series of explosions, fires, and leaks has kept workers racing to prevent a large-scale release of radiation. To compensate for failed cooling systems and prevent reactors from melting down, workers have been pumping in seawater, which constantly boils away. Also of concern are pools at the top of each reactor that hold used-up fuel rods to cool for many years. If these pools boil dry, the old fuel could catch fire and release radioactive material.

750 workers were evacuated from the plant on Tuesday because of the high levels of radiation there. A skeleton crew of just 50 workers stayed behind to try to prevent a larger disaster. (In order to keep the skeleton crew at the plant, the Japanese government raised the legal limit on radiation exposure for workers.) That number may have now been increased to 100 people.

Accurate information has been hard to come by. Last night, a Japanese official giving a press conference announced (via a translation that seemed pretty approximate) that all workers had been evacuated from the plant. This seemed to imply, grimly, that they were giving up on containing the radiation--until the Times reported that the small crew of workers was, in fact, still at the plant trying to cool things down.

There is some good news. If large amounts of radiation are released, the Japanese government is prepared with potassium iodide pills. These pills flood the body with iodine so the thyroid gland doesn't absorb any radioactive iodine, leading to thyroid cancer. (An epidemic of thyroid cancer was the legacy of Chernobyl.)

Additionally, radiation is expected to blow east. That means this developing disaster has a greater buffer zone--the entire Pacific--than it would probably anywhere else in the world.

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For answers to all kinds of questions on this subject as they arise, check out ScienceInsider or the New York Times.

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