“This is going to get worse": Nuclear meltdown a real possibility for Fukushima Daiichi

What happens when a nuclear power plant loses power? Answer: Nothing good.

In Japan, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has gone from bad to worse. After Friday's 9.0 earthquake knocked out the region's power grids, the plant's backup deisel engines cut in -- and then died an hour later.The plant's workers used eight-hour batteries just to power the controls, while others tried to hook up portable generators -- a task made harder by the fact that the electrical hookups they needed were underwater in the plant's tsunami-flooded basement.

The reactors had shut down automatically when the quake occurred. But even so, the fuel rods generate heat on their own, and have to be cooled by a constant stream of water. Otherwise, they'll melt down.This is Very Bad News. At Fukushima Daiichi, workers resorted to pumping in seawater, but it wasn't enough; the water got low enough to expose some fuel rods, which reacted with the steam to create hydrogen gas.

The gas exploded on March 12, blowing the top off one of the reactor buildings.

More explosions followed. Today, another apparent hydrogen explosion and two fires have been reported. Meanwhile, radiation levels at the plant have gotten so high that it's unsafe for workers to even bring the hoses anywhere near the reactors. Kyodo News quotes a plant operator working for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company who runs Fukushima Daiichi, as now saying the events could develop into a critical meltdown. 

"This is going to get worse. This is so much worse than Three Mile Island. It gives me shivers," nuclear consultant Lake Barrett (a former Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer) told the Phoenix earlier today, regarding the explosions.

As if to underscore his words, the French ASN nuclear safety authority announced that the situation had reached "level six."

There is one only higher level on the group's scale of nuclear disaster, and that level has only been used once -- 25 years ago, for Chernobyl.

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