The situation in Japan is deteriorating further. In the early hours of this morning, the last workers are said to have left the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as the danger of a nuclear meltdown grew. There have been explosions in three of the plant's reactors and a fourth one is on fire. Everyone within a 30 kilometre radius has been told to stay indoors, and the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, stationed more than 100 miles away to help earthquake victims, sailed farther away from the stricken plant after detecting unusual levels of radioactivity in the air.
The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has confirmed that, "substantial amounts of radiation are leaking in the area". And Tokyo Electric reported that a reading of 8,217 microsieverts per hour of radiation was taken at the plant's gates after the latest explosion: a fourfold increase from 40 minutes earlier, and three times more than a person absorbs all year.
How does the situation compare to past accidents? So far, it seems to compare favourably to Chernobyl — where the reactor had no containment, and where there was no secondary barrier outside the reactor vessel. That is not the case at the Fukushima Plant. The thick walls around the radioactive cores of the damaged reactors appeared to be intact. And the secondary and tertiary barriers have apparently played an important role in limiting a large part of the radioactivity to inside the reactor system — as opposed to Chernobyl, where large amounts of radiation were released from the reactor vessel and had no place to go other than into the atmosphere.
Besides, in Chernobyl, the explosion took place because the nuclear reaction was not stopped. In Fukushima, the reactor was automatically shut down when the earthquake happened.
But the situation could certainly get worse. The danger is, of course, greatest to people living in the immediate area. Following the Chernobyl incident, radioactive smoke spread contamination across hundreds of kilometres — after 25 years, an enormous radius around the Ukrainian plant is still an uninhabitable area. It may not turn out so bad in Japan, but such a disaster cannot be ruled out, and needs to be seen in conjunction with the already terrible consequences of the earthquake and tsunami.
There are also wider repercussions. About 30 to 35 per cent of Japan's electricity comes from the nuclear plants — the output of which will obviously be reduced in the period to come. This will have an impact not only on the Japanese economy, but on the world economy too. What's more, the ongoing crisis is eroding confidence in nuclear energy elsewhere. Angela Merkel has already curtailed her government's pro-nuclear policies. Others are likely to follow. Where that puts oil prices, amid the convulsions of the Middle East, only the markets can determine.