Watching what looked like an endless Hollywood production of carnage in the coastal communities of northeastern Japan as they were inundated by earthquakes and 30-foot-tall, tsunami-driven waves was bad enough. But then the fires of disbelief were stoked anew as panting cable news crews ticked off details of six separate nuclear reactors that had completely or partially melted down or were soon expected to.
Older TV viewers might recall being terrified, along with the rest of the world, as they watched the nuclear-disaster-that-could-never-happen at Three Mile Island unit 2 along the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979. Or the even more disastrous explosion seven years later at Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 in the Ukraine.
These earth-shaking events involved a single reactor, not the six that are now focusing the world's attention on the Fukushima I and Fukushima II nuclear complexes 150 miles north of Tokyo.
Nuclear event and emergency-response experts huddled over the weekend in command centers from the White House to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to state governments in California, Oregon and Washington. They watched the latest news unfold half a world away on big screens and shared information on dedicated, confidential government hot lines.
They saw Japan's multiple-redundant nuclear safeguards work, at first.
- The reactors on all the plants scrammed, shut off immediately as they were designed to do.
- Control rods were properly lowered into the uranium-filled pools to stop the nuclear reaction that generates the heat and steam that move huge turbines that generate the power.
- Enormous, high-volume pumps kicked in to send cooling water through the intricately designed, uranium-235-filled fuel rods, to prevent them from melting.
The power running the pumps died. The locomotive-sized diesel backup generators were destroyed by the flooding from the tsunamis. Neutron-absorbing boron and seawater -- a combination so corrosive that it was a death sentence for the reactors -- was pumped in, in a final effort to avoid a nuclear meltdown.
Then, like scenes from "The China Syndrome" or from the pages of "The Night We Almost Lost Detroit," an explosion ripped off the outer wall and roof of the building holding the 41-year-old General Electric reactor. Late Sunday night, a second building blew into pieces. In both explosions, the reactors were not yet breached.
But several of the reactors were spewing a deadly cocktail of assorted radioisotopes, including iodine-131, cesium-137, xenon and krypton carried aloft with the radioactive steam.
Almost instantly, postings on thousands of websites and blogs pontificated on the importance of every shred of information, real or imagined.
Some presumed experts talked of curies, rads, becquerels, sieverts, mrems and other terms describing the escaping radiation, using measurement terms that haven't been used in years or had absolutely no relevance to a leaking reactor. Rarely did they explain what these numbers meant.
Some postings were criminally absurd and flat-out wrong.
One map that went viral showed color-coded plumes of radiation moving eastward across the Pacific and the prediction that radiation levels measuring 3,000 rads would reach the Aleutian Island chain in three days. Levels of 1,500 rads will hit the northern coast of British Columbia within a week and western North American "from Alaska to the Baja tip in 10 days, with radiation levels of 750 rads,'' the posting warned.
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These numbers, which would kill or sicken quickly, have absolutely no basis in fact at all. And, according to a radiation expert at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they are more typical of the levels that might occur after a nuclear attack.
In fact, Japanese nuclear officials have said repeatedly that they're dealing with "a minimal level of radiation that does not harm human health."
It is good to sometimes be skeptical of government claims. During Three Mile Island, a hydrogen bubble in the damaged reactor was poised to destroy the unit, yet power company and state and federal officials denied the existence of the destructive bubble for days.
Some companies were quick to take advantage of such skepticism about the Japanese reports.
The Web was bristling with links from stories on the disaster taking readers to sites selling "Five Person Deluxe Survival Kits," "life-saving" potassium iodide pills, Swiss Army knifes, tools to turn off leaking gas lines and Geiger counters of all sizes. One site promised, "Your order can be overnighted to you before the lethal cloud arrives."
These are ads that are automatically placed by computers and are not set there by the writers or editors.
Leading the silliness parade were bloggers who were linking to Cold War civil defense ads from the 1950s showing Tommy the Turtle hiding from a nuclear blast and children being taught to "duck and cover" under their school desks.
As real facts flowing from Japan fell to a trickle, the vacuum was filled with speculation.
For example, meteorologists and their websites argued over the prevailing-wind currents and surface currents from Japan. Some said the winds would quickly carry the radioactive debris to the West Coast in days. Other forecasters, using the same charts, said the wind patterns would widely distribute and dilute any plume of radioactive material before it reached the U.S.
Bad information was coming from even trusted sites. The respected Incident and Emergency Center of the International Atomic Energy Agency says it incorrectly reported that four of the damaged reactors were venting.
The U.S. government's watchdog of nuclear power plants isn't doing all it can to keep the public calm.
At a White House briefing this morning, Gregory Jaczko, the head of the NRC, said power plants in the U.S. are designed to handle all " significant phenomena," including tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. He was asked several times what size quakes U.S. plants are designed to withstand. But each time he flipped the question back to the Japanese crisis, avoiding answering what he was asked.
AOL News called the NRC press office and was told that each site is built to a different seismic activity standard. But when we requested a list of the earthquake design limits for each plant under NRC control, that information isn't available, was the official reply.
Asked what the range of protective limits was, he said he didn't think that information was available.
What makes this information important is that the Japanese plants that are in crisis were designed to withstand a 7.9 quake, not the 8.9 monster that hit them. Government officials in the U.S. were doing their best to downplay the imminent danger on this side of the Pacific.
Rumors spread wildly on the availability and shipments of potassium iodide tablets, which is pretty much the only preventive medication to neutralize the effect of radioactive poisoning that targets the thyroid gland and could eventually cause cancer.
When AOL News questioned the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security on Saturday, spokesmen said that none of the medication -- also called KI -- has been shipped anywhere because there is "no apparent need." Officials questioned on the West Coast said the same.
Oregon and Washington state health officials told AOL News that if it were needed, the radiation-blocking agent could quickly be shipped in from strategic stockpiles maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An official in California echoed the comments but added that there were already quantities of KI in the state because there are four operating power stations at two sites.
Oregon and Washington say they continue to use continuous-reading Environmental Protection Agency radiation detectors to monitor levels. This is the same EPA system that first detected radiation from the Chernobyl accident at ground level on the West Coast one week after the meltdown in Ukraine.
State officials said risks to residents of both states are minimal given the current size of the release from the Japanese reactors and the distance from the West Coast. But they will continue to closely watch the radiation detectors until the Japanese reactors are shut down.