Japan's Nuclear Crisis Could Go On For Months

Imagine what it must be like to be in Japan right now: A massive earthquake, a tsunami, two explosions at nuclear power plants and now, even a volcano. It's going to take a very long time for those poor people to dig out from these disasters, and apparently a

Imagine what it must be like to be in Japan right now: A massive earthquake, a tsunami, two explosions at nuclear power plants and now, even a volcano. It's going to take a very long time for those poor people to dig out from these disasters, and apparently a very long time before they can stop worrying about radiation:

WASHINGTON — As the scale of Japan’s nuclear crisis begins to come to light, experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.

The emergency flooding of two stricken reactors with seawater and the resulting steam releases are a desperate step intended to avoid a much bigger problem: a full meltdown of the nuclear cores in two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. On Monday, an explosion blew the roof off the second reactor, not damaging the core, officials said, but presumably leaking more radiation.

So far, Japanese officials have said the melting of the nuclear cores in the two plants is assumed to be “partial,” and the amount of radioactivity measured outside the plants, though twice the level Japan considers safe, has been relatively modest.

But Pentagon officials reported Sunday that helicopters flying 60 miles from the plant picked up small amounts of radioactive particulates — still being analyzed, but presumed to include cesium-137 and iodine-121 — suggesting widening environmental contamination.

In a country where memories of a nuclear horror of a different sort in the last days of World War II weigh heavily on the national psyche and national politics, the impact of continued venting of long-lasting radioactivity from the plants is hard to overstate.

Japanese reactor operators now have little choice but to periodically release radioactive steam as part of an emergency cooling process for the fuel of the stricken reactors that may continue for a year or more even after fission has stopped. The plant’s operator must constantly try to flood the reactors with seawater, then release the resulting radioactive steam into the atmosphere, several experts familiar with the design of the Daiichi facility said.

That suggests that the tens of thousands of people who have been evacuated may not be able to return to their homes for a considerable period, and that shifts in the wind could blow radioactive materials toward Japanese cities rather than out to sea.

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