Panic time has arrived for the potential meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It is not yet clear that any reactor has experienced a partial core meltdown: Some say yea, some say nay. The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Clayton reports on efforts "to avert Chernobyl- or Three Mile Island-like core meltdowns."
Lethal releases of political grandstanding and elevated levels of op-eds are among the terrible results of any large-scale disaster, so it's not surprising that Republicans have turned out to be responsible not only for the meltdown but for the earthquake itself. But we should keep in mind how broadly phrased the easy "Three Mile Island or Chernobyl" reference really is.
The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island resulted in no deaths and small releases of dangerous radiation into the environment. (One of the things I appreciate about nuclear emergencies is the way they force us all to brush up on the relative dangers posed by cesium-134, iodine-131, noble gases and other subdivisions of the periodic table.) The 14-year cleanup cost just under $1 billion and the most generous estimate of compensation payouts (many related to retail business losses and evacuation expenses rather than health claims) is that they totaled $82 million. Monitoring of local farms and communities by the EPA found radiation "far below the protective action level."
The Chernobyl accident in 1986 killed 70 people directly, and the radiation the plant emitted may have contributed to another 4,000 deaths. More than 300,000 people had to be evacuated permanently, and the town of Chernobyl remains abandoned.
This may be too nice a distinction to make in this savage nightmare world where "meltown" can mean anything from a fall in the price of real estate to Charlie Sheen's brief kidnapping of the American mind. But it's worth remembering. The damage that has already been inflicted on Japan includes refinery fires and broad destruction of both human and natural areas. None of those are good for your health either.