Look, if you're worried about radiation, stay out of the basement; don't live in a brick house nor take long jet airplane flights. Those behaviors have exposed you to thousands of times more radiation than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island together.
...But don't go on the television and tell me that in an area where the houses and roads have been destroyed, harbors filled with debris and water, gas and electric mains destroyed, that I should mostly be worried about "radiation," especially when the affected area had already been largely evacuated. There are people in Japan still missing meals, without proper sanitation or sufficient water and these are immediate concerns about which something can be done. It is not a matter of luck that Japan, as a nation, as a people, is very good at doing what is needful; but what's needful has very little to do with an atomic reactor in trouble. The same folks handing out meals are passing out iodine tablets...and probably spending more time digging latrines and setting up Port-o-lets, followed by the dull, unexciting record-keeping that will, eventually, reunite families or discover who has been lost.
None of that, of course, is as shiny-scary as going on the air and shouting ATOMIC RADIATION! Chernobyl! Three Mile Island! DOOOOOOM! It's also easier to fly to Washington or Los Alamos in a nice, clean jet (picking up more rads along that way than most Japanese people who don't work at nuke plants) and talk to a nice, clean, non-stressed-out scientist and/or bureaucrat than to actually cover the real story of real people in real trouble a long way away.
(And stop chiding the Japanese power company, too; they knew those plants were old. The oldest one was on it's last bucket of hot stuff, slated for retirement. It seems likely the rest would have followed in due course.)
I guess it keeps (most of) the newsies out of the way of the people doing the real work, but it gets old.
It gets even older when our home-grown freeze-in-the-dark set use the situation as an excuse to tout their no-nukes agenda. The state of the art has moved on since GE cranked out boiling-water reactors in the 1960s. Modern reactors would be shut down by a quake but are generally less trouble when scrammed; backup cooling systems are more rugged. In the U.S., post-9/11 retrofitting beefed up backup systems at existing plants, too, and a couple of the lessons learned in Japan are undoubtedly being checked right now:
1. The "third backup," hooking up big portable gensets to operate cooling systems, was catastrophically slowed due to what is being reported as "incompatible connectors." While I doubt that is the whole story, I suspect a lot of plants are looking at how they'd do if the need arose.
2. It is reasonable to conclude the on-site backup gensets at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station were insufficiently hardened. (To face a 30' tidal wave!) This, too, will have power-plant operators thinking harder about eventualities previously considered improbable.
Last time I checked, the planet's oil supply was largely in the hands of folks who are not our friends; burning oil and coal is increasingly considered gauche. Windmills and solar cells will only take you so far, ditto water running downhill; here in flat, cloudy Indiana, what're we supposed to do? Burn more sulfurous Hoosier coal? Modern nuclear power plants are cleaner and safer. They're not 100% safe; nothing is; but they're a lot safer than the idiots in my TV want me to believe.
YANKEE RADIO TOOL KIT, #106
5 weeks ago