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March 14, 2011
Like everyone else, I spent the weekend following the events in Japan. A great many organic chemists have or have had Japanese colleagues; it's a field with a strong history in that country. I've heard from several people, but one of my former colleagues is still in the "unknown" category: Masanori Yamaura, of Iwaki Meisei University.
Iwaki, unfortunately, was hit pretty hard, and it's not that far away from the Fukushima reactor complex. So things are pretty chaotic up there, to say the least, and I'm sure that a great many people in the area remain unaccounted for.
As far as the reactors go, from what can be figured out at this distance it doesn't look like they're going to do anything Chernobylish - seawater and boric acid should forestall that. But the only reason you'd pump that mix into your reactor cores is if a meltdown is the only alternative; that's surely going to turn them into nothing but massive cleanup sites for many years to come. It's also going to take a mighty amount of generating capacity offline for good, which is another long-term problem. But for the moment, when the good news is that your primary containment vessels are still intact, then you know that you have a pretty full schedule.
I've often thought that if intelligent aliens looked over the planet's population centers, they'd ask us what the heck we thought we were doing when we developed Japan, coastal California, and a number of other areas. But here we are.
Update: many of you may have seen this link already. It's a clear-headed explanation of what seems to be going on (and going wrong) inside the Japanese reactors, with links to other useful sites. By the way, I agree with the comments that one of the other long-lasting bad effects of this crisis is the damage it will do to the idea of using nuclear power.
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