Japan’s nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant has now been officially upgraded to a “level 5” incident by international standards, a “disaster with broader effects”, much like Three Mile Island. Passengers arriving at the Dallas Airport from Tokyo have reportedly set off radiation alarms. Workers at the site are now being described by news sources and others with terms like “sucide squads” and “death sentence”. There’s even been talk of bringing in retired workers. These workers, now reportedly rotating through 15 minute stays to limit exposure, are now all that stands between Japan and a total meltdown of multiple reactors. Unbelievable heroism, without a doubt, and we can only hope it will be enough.

People are becoming far less resistant to now drawing comparisons with Chernobyl. In many ways, it’s scarier. Fukushima is one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, and has four simultaneous reactors in crisis at the moment. Chernobyl was far smaller, and only one. whether we’ll see a cloud of radioisotopes released that goes on to cut a swath across a continent, we sadly don’t know. In the end, Chernobyl was buried in sand and encased in concrete as an emergency solution. This is now being raised as an option.

The American Government has also continued its work in the last few days undermining the statements of the Japanese Government and IAEA, presenting a much grimmer picture. On the home front, though, they’re still refusing to revisit their vast array of nuclear subsidies in the light of this unfolding disaster. Still hoping to kick-start a “nuclear renaissance”, they expanded their plans in 2009, to include tens of billions in loan guarantees. For next year, there’s $36 billion budgeted for such loans – roughly ten times Wisconsin’s budget deficit. Other subsidies include a tax credit, $853 million to help develop nuclear waste strategies and a further continuation of the industry’s limit on liability for any disasters.

Where will things from here is anyone’s guess. The situation does not look good, and the potential for some very long-term consequences is clearly present. Japan is an incredibly densely populated country – Tokyo’s alone has over a hundred million. That’s three canadas. Even if things miraculously improve from this point onward, and the radiation leaks so far prove to be harmless to most, an incredible amount of damage will have been done in human terms. This is the last thing Japan needs right now, and neither it’s weary populace or shaky stock-market is responding well.

Nuclear disasters have so far typically happened apart from others. An incident like this amidst a quake and tsunami that has devastated a nation is something we’ve long known is possible, but not yet seen. This adds a whole new frightening dimension to the threat of a nuclear “incident” – not simply as an isolated threat but as a way in which a bad situation could get far worse. Not all of the world’s reactors lie on coasts or fault-lines, but many do. Others are in potential war-zones, or simply regions with legendarily corrupt governments and regulators, far worse than Japan’s. Many are ageing, and others no-doubt have design flaws similar to the “Mark 1′ at Fukushima. In the end, we won’t know for sure until it’s too late – but why risk it?

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