Thursday, March 17, 2011

Undercurrents

[image via reuters]

I have tried to distract myself from dwelling on the situation in Japan, but I am finding it difficult to concentrate on other matters. So I am going to go ahead and share some thoughts here, and I thank you in advance for bearing with me.

My thoughts are disorganised and saturated with emotion: a horrible sense of dread that I try to bury or rationalise away without success. The earthquake and the subsequent tsunami experienced by Japan are an indescribable tragedy and I've yet to determine whether any of my acquaintances have been affected. And unless nuclear disaster from the damaged power stations is averted, the situation will become considerably worse. Not only will thousands of unfortunate people trapped as a result of the earthquake be immediately exposed to radiation, but who knows how many thousands (millions?) of others may not be able to evacuate in time. And it is impossible to predict (or even to calculate after the fact) how many of those living further away will suffer long-term health damage.

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, radiation spread over a huge area, encompassing much of Eastern and Northern Europe. As a child living within this greater region at the time, I remember vividly my second grade teacher explaining the effects of radiation to the class. We were told about what happens to the body and what kind of illnesses one could develop. We were warned to stay indoors, to keep the windows closed, and not to eat any fruits and vegetables for the time being. For years afterward, no matter where in the world we lived, my parents carefully read food labels just to make sure they weren't imported from anywhere near "there." When one experiences this type of event at a young age, it gets incorporated into their world-view as part of the psychological development process and stays there. The inherent trust between human and nature is broken.

The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is not Chernobyl. For one thing, as I understand it, graphite is not used in Fukushima's reactors - which is what was responsible for creating such a massive explosion in Chernobyl and carrying the radiation over large distances. Still, it is impossible to accurately predict how events might unfold, should the worst happen this time around. And while many dismissed the Chernobyl disaster as something that could only happen under the Soviet regime, that certainly no longer appears to be the case.

I don't want to venture out of my depth here and express opinions about the pros and cons of nuclear power, government transparency and so on. I only wish to say that this could happen anywhere, in any region, and it can impact the regions around it. It can impact us all - physically and psychologically. As I follow the progress of Japan's containment efforts, all I can do is try to control my anxiety and think positively. With all my might, I hope for the best for the people of Japan. Thank you all for reading this. Lovely Bicycle is not a forum for environmental issues and I recognise that this post is tangentially appropriate at best. I hope that getting this off my chest will help me continue with regular posts.

49 comments:

  1. Velouria, thank you for posting about this. As a daily reader of your blog, I appreciate your attention to this.

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  2. I've also been following the situation closely. This is the best site I've found for info about the nuclear situation:

    http://mitnse.com/

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  3. A lot of good caring people are more than a little concerned about the whole situation in Japan just now.

    We all wonder it Pandora's box has been opened...........

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  4. As someone living in a small mid-western town that was hard hit my a tornado almost 8 years ago, I find it difficult to grasp the enormity of the tragedy in Japan. Disasters, whether natural or synthetic in origin, can lead to a sense of hopelessness yet, often, bring people together towards a common goal to recover. I hope and pray the people of Japan will be able to rally as a nation and the world, as a whole, will rally to their aide.

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  5. In some ways Fukushima could be worse than Chernobyl. When Chernobyl blew, the explosion spread radiation over a wide area, but not too densely. Still, 600,000 people were evacuated. Fukushima has much more nuclear material (counting the spent fuel rods) and if the radiation is spread with less explosive force it will be more concentrated in what is, of course, a densely populated area. And there are plutonium fuel rods at Fukushima, but there were not at Chernobyl.

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  6. I am totally in agreement with you. I am at a loss for words.

    As I understand it the nuclear plant at Chernobyl had no containment structure around the nuclear material. So, when the explosion occurred the fuel rods were totally exposed. The plants in Japan do at least have an interior containment structure which has not been totally destroyed and the fuel rods are not totally exposed.

    My prayers are with the people in Japan.

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  7. This really is horrific situation - not only having the thousands drowned from the tsunami, the damage from that and the earthquake, the families which are now missing pieces, and towns which simply don't exist anymore at all... but the threat of thousands more having to suffer through the long and painful effects of nuclear fallout... (which the Japanese are also unfortunately familiar with, after WWII).

    It's a situation that's difficult to deal with emotionally - I think in some ways, we don't even really know what to do with that kind of tragedy. I know much of Japan is largely uneffected by the whole thing, but so many people *are* effected.

    And there's not much to be done with the current situation except to send out a lot of hope for the best, support people who are helping, and hope those involved know what they're doing.

    We know you're a human, not just a bike blogging machine, so I think it's ok to share your feelings about something that really impacts you deeply, especially because of your past. Sometimes you do just need to get things off your chest, and we (or I, at least) don't mind being the vehicle for that.

    Adding my hopes to yours for the people of Japan.

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  8. Jon - How do plutonium fuel rods behave differently and what can happen? I have not yet read analyses that suggest Fukushima could be worse. What about the theory that the wind pattern will immediately carry the radiation East?

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  9. I heard on the news the plant in Japan was 40 yrs old and was about to be decommissioned. It's so sad and I can't even imagine how they are coping.
    This poor woman escaped the tsunami on her bike! http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2011/03/16/dnt.tuchman.japan.woman.escape.bike.cnn?hpt=C2

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  10. V., plutonium is more dangerous to humans than uranium. So if the fuel rods burn or spread their contents through explosion there will be more risk than there was at Chernobyl in this area.
    Japan is very lucky that the wind is blowing offshore. By the time it reaches the West Coast of the United States the radiation will be spread out and not pose much of a health risk. It is a terrible thing, being at Nature's mercy in this. Winds to the southwest, in the direction of Tokyo, which is only 200 or so miles away, would be a very different story. Let us hope the reactors are brought under control before the wind shifts.

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  11. I understand a bit about the reactors because of my background and training and do not think the Japanese reactors could ever approach the same order of magnitude of the Ukraine reactor radiation release, for a lot of reasons. But this is not a place to argue nuclear engineering.

    In some ways this is a much worst situation than Chernobyl. You have about a million people severely affected by the tsunamis, tousands dead, people trying to locate loss relatives and deal with the loss of their homes and towns. Then you pile on the nuclear power plant problems, which distract resources and personal away from the tsunami recovery efforts, make some areas impossible to do a full relief effort, and add the fear of radiation on top of the earthquake and tsunami tragedy - I think it would be too much for most people to bear.

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  12. While not the same as a nuclear site, I grew up quite close to a highly hazardous toxic waste dump that is still trying to be "fixed" to this day (http://www.beachcalifornia.com/casmalia.html). I grew up hearing constantly to never, ever drink the water from the tap. To this day, I still won't drink water from a sink, even though I'm over a thousand miles away from that spot now. It is amazing how those moments stay with us.

    On a more direct note to your post, I think many people feel helpless right now and have no idea how to help. The pictures we see are absolutely shocking, and what is still possible is frightening. I do remain hopeful that the worst of this is over for the people in Japan, and that the aid needed will arrive swiftly.

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  13. Oh my gosh, GE. I know all about Casmalia. I also have a faucet-water aversion from memories of chemical contamination during childhood. This is quite an age we are living in.

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  14. You know it's bad when the things that sustain your society poison its people...

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  15. http://plainenglishnuclear.blogspot.com/2011/03/yet-another-japan-reactor-post.html

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  16. Jim - The tone is a little sensationalist/biased, but I mostly agree with it based on my own understanding of the situation. The problem as I see it, is that the course of events cannot always be predicted, and there are possible scenarios which could be disastrous.

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  17. I like to spend a little time here on Lovely Bicycle every day or so because it allows me to slip away from some of the dreadful things that sometimes take up so much of our emotions and energy, but I'm glad to read your post too. Thanks for sharing that.

    I'm interested and worried about so much of whats going on in our culture and on our planet but too often the only opportunities to say anything about it are in the spaces where you have to come in armor and prepared to take sides. It's good to be able to just say how sad and worried I am about this without having to carry somebodies flag. I've spent enough time in Haiti and gotten too involved in my Haitians friends lives to be able to look at the pictures coming out of Japan this week.

    Deep breath, head up, onward...

    Spindizzy

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  18. Yes, definitely agree. The author plays down potential dangers, but not sure how justifiably.

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  19. Happy Japanese biking news -- http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/03/17/83-year-old-japanese-woman-escapes-tsunami-%E2%80%94-by-bike/

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  20. an optimistic assessment: http://ukinjapan.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=News&id=566799182

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  21. For another perspective, including the sobering statement that "Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally", see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/mar/16/japan-nuclear-crisis-atomic-energy

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  22. I am surprised by your comment that "The inherent trust between human and nature is broken." We have no reason to "trust" nature: it regularly and unexpectedly kills large numbers of innocent people. (From your writing you seem too well-educated and sensible to believe that there is a God responsible for such deaths).

    The only trust that is broken at a time like this is any trust that exists between citizens and its government or its nuclear-power industry officials.

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  23. JdeP - I would rather not discuss God as I do not wish to offend my readers either way and it's such a sensitive topic. I am not from a conventional background in terms of religion, but the truth is we simply do not know what is out there.

    To clarify my comment about trust between humans and nature. Let's say we see a luscious, beautiful patch of green grass in front of us - like what's depicted on my banner. It smells so fragrant and healthy in the warm sunshine. Our natural instinct is to walk on it with our bare feet, to lie down in the grass, to feel "one with nature"... Unless we were brought up to wonder whether grass is contaminated, in which case, its beauty and fragrance would evoke dread instead. What the grass represents is inherently changed. That's the sort of thing I meant.

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  24. I was in Croatia when Chernobyl exploded. I still sometimes wonder how much radiation I was exposed to and what will happen down the track, but I don't dwell on it.

    I can't quite empathise because I didn't see that kind of care taken to avoid foods imported from areas affected by the nuclear blast, but I can sympathise a little with your worry.

    *hug*

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  25. I've been following the nuclear crisis mostly through discussion fora like Metafilter, and it's both fascinating and heartbreaking. Lots of smart people have been starting with very well reasoned arguments about why Fukushima should be ok, but the daily news just bring in new facts that just cracks whatever hope one may have about things being 'not that bad'.

    I also like reading the MIT blog posted above for summaries. MeFi's threads are great if one can keep up on them in realtime but they can get noisy over time.

    I spent some time in Biloxi a few years ago to help with reconstruction in the wake of Katrina. The pictures that I've been seeing of devastation retrigger a lot of memories of what I saw in those days (especially all of the photos of boats sitting on top of buildings), which is even more poignant when I also think about how I spent the year after that hiking around southern Japan.

    Hi Pauline!

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  26. Coal vs nuclear... I am not really trying to compare them here or to suggest that I am against nuclear power. When functioning normally, it is difficult to deny that coalburning plants are worse. But right now a nuclear event is happening, and it is a notable one. We do not know what the outcome will be yet.

    In the write-up Jim posted above, the 1 aspect where the author leaves a logical gap, is that his outcome scenarios are based on likelihoods. It is highly unlikely that the worst case scenario (compromised containment structure) will happen, and therefore we are panicking for nothing, is one of his points. But that is the same kind of thinking that caused this problem in the first place. An earthquake of this magnitude was so improbable, that the power station was not rated for it, and that is why the potential crisis is unfolding. If an improbable earthquake could happen, so can a hole in the containment structure. So can two holes. So can another powerful earthquake leading to a complete collapse of the containment structure. Reality deviates from probabilities.

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  27. I have a nephew (named after me!) who lives and teaches english in Sendai, Japan. I have been very worried about him (he is OK) but I hope he gets out of there real soon.

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  28. It's funny how Pandora's box keeps changing with the times, every ten years it seems there's a new one. The first nuclear menace was just plain bombs. And it's funny how quickly the world has sort of forgotten them... as if in our wishful thinking none of them would ever go off.

    It's sadly ironic that the Japanese had to endure Hiroshima & Nagasaki and this now looks so similar.

    I also think it's ironic to think the earth is a gigantic white-hot molten core and each day enough solar energy shines on the earth to power civilization for 1,000 years. But somehow we struggle by on fossil fuels and the like.

    Long live bicycles! The one guilt-free form of wheeled transportation.

    :0)

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  29. rollerskates can be used to harness energy
    (rollerskate power plants - consisting basically of giant skating rinks with free admission and nice music)

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  30. ...in which the citizens are made to believe, via hypnosis and/or drugs, that they are going about their regular lives, and they stay there forever, going round and round, generating electricity for the shining lights of the big city.

    :)

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  31. Thank you for this post. I share your feelings.

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  32. I too have been riveted to the news about Japan and I am also worried. I also think it is appropriate that you expressed you anxiety about Japan and the possible nuclear disaster. Velouria, you have created more than just a blog about your passion of biking, you have created a community. This community has come to some what know you and have similar interests. I know I look forward to reading your posts because you put your personality into what topics you choose to write about. I share in your biking passion and your passion for the people of Japan and all the horrible things we feel helpless to control.

    Let's hope and pray that things work out as best as thy can, considering what has already transpired.

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  33. Portlandize: I recall reading some years back that bicycles are the only amplifier of human energy. In other words, it is the only device that can take, for example, the energy a human would use to walk 3mph and propel said human ahead at a greater speed (say, 15mph) without the addition of any other energy source such as gasoline.

    I should think that roller skates would qualify as well. But I can't think of many other devices that would.

    As for the situation in Japan: This post and the comments have all been interesting. Peter said something that made me realize the current situation may well be unprecedented in that Japan was struck with one of the worst natural disasters and one of the worst manmade disasters at the same time.

    I don't want to get into a comparison of the current situation with Chernobyl or Hiroshima, as that would venture into areas far beyond my sphere of knowledge. I can't even pretend to understand how the people feel, as I don't think I have an experience that even remotely resembles what they've endured. The closest experience I have with disasters is to have been living just a couple of miles downwind of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I did not lose anyone I knew, but a few people I know did. So, perhaps, I can only begin to understand the anguish the people of Japan feel. But even that comparison is limited, for it was at least possible, after 9/11, to direct one's rage at someone for causing and executing the attacks, while there's no such object of blame available after an earthquake and tsunami.

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  34. Chernobyl has affected pretty much all of Europe. I was born a couple of months before the accident in Moscow. I don't know how it affected me or any of my relatives since we all moved out around the same time, 89, and nobody has come down with anything yet. They are all well into their late 80s and 90s and healthy. My mom has thyroid problems and I was recently told I have a birth defect in my kidney. No cancer or anything and I hope it will stay that way. Chernobyl is defined by either paranoia or denial and I hope the Japanese don't go through that like we did in Europe.

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  35. Remember back in ’50s and early ’60s, when we set off something like 900 atomic bombs in Nevada? And how we just let the fallout blow wherever and it landed all over the eastern US? And how it wiped out life as we know it and all that was left from Colorado to the Atlantic were six-legged rats battling two-headed cockroaches in the glowing ruins?

    Yeah. Exactly. Calm down with the panic already.

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  36. Tamara K.: While it may not be worth panic, I do actually know some people who were effected by those tests and have died early from crazy complications that were probably from exposure to radiation, or are suffering from them now. That's not to say we need to sensationalize it, but the potential effects of nuclear fallout should not be trivialized either, this really could destroy peoples' lives if it gets out of hand.

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  37. Tamara K. - It's not as simple as saying that those tests had no consequences. The elevated rates of various cancers and disorders in subsequent generations may not be coincidental. No one is panicking, but I think that concern is not unwarranted here.

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  38. Well, also to Tamara's point: we also dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hiroshima today isn't a wasteland. Both cities have recovered remarkably well.

    Of course, there are reasons that we have banned atmospheric nuclear testing, because it is certainly evident that the degree and volume of tests that occurred in the 60s have added to increased rates of cancer around the world, but that isn't the same as saying that one nuclear meltdown will doom an entire nation, or bring airborne death across the ocean.

    I think it's certainly worthwhile to worry about the people of Japan and do what we can to help them. Nuclear fallout aside, the loss of the electrical power from Fukushima will hamper recovery efforts, and the safety measures that will have to be put in place to stem the public's concern over radiation poisoning will stretch a healthcare infrastructure that is already loaded with injuries and maladies stemming from the earthquake and tsunami. But once the nation has recovered, I, for one, look forward to eventually going back to Tokyo and having another sushi breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

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  39. Some of my psych colleagues specialise in disaster research, and although I don't have the studies to cite it is known that people tend to be considerably more disturbed by human-made disasters involving contamination than by natural disasters, and to suffer more psychological and emotional problems as a result of the former. That is why on the one hand, we have spectators being killed by tsunamis, because they were spectating instead of evacuating, and on the other hand people who lived 300 miles from Chernobyl exhibiting PTSD. Man made disasters are horrifying in a different way from natural disasters.

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  40. Hmmm ... that's interesting. I wonder if there's a similar sense of elevated dread that comes with pandemics? (ie. I'm wondering if the fact that the danger is generally invisible but thought of to be widespared, might be a factor in increasing psychological trauma?)

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  41. There are lots of theories. Part of it is probably the uncertainty. Living for years with the idea that one "is likely to" develop thyroid cancer is more psychologically stressful than, say, breaking one's arm, even though the broken arm is more immediately painful. Being tied to a chair while watching an interrogator slowly line up surgical instruments on a table is more stressful than being punched in the face. But also, we just tend to be particularly scared of what's presented as "unnatural" or "synthetic," it's an elaborately developed social construct that induces a particular type of fear.

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  42. My point was that everyone in the US making a big deal about this incident is overly concerned. Historically the country has been exposed to worse without catastrophic consequences. That isn't to say that additional radiation isn't bad, but I'd be more concerned about all the fairly unregulated electromagnetic radiation we are exposed to on a daily basis, before a nuclear incident half a world away.

    I happen to think that more modern nuclear reactor designs with no risk of meltdowns and low risks of radiation, like pebble bed reactors, could be the environmental saviors. No other form of power generator can reasonably meet the needs of modern industrial societies without the normal expenditure of fossil fuels or creation of non-recyclable waste. Nuclear waste can be reprocessed here into useful industrial products or reactor fuel, like every other country in the world with nukes does,if only the government would lift a stupid ban. We should be building new reactors at a rapid pace and shutting down the older designs along with any fossil fuel burning power plants following completion of construction.


    Most people don't realize how much permanent (at least in the scale of human lifetimes) damage the use of coal and oil does to environments. A single, and exceedingly rare, nuclear incident may damage for many centuries, but what do you think mining and burning materials does on a larger scale? The same if not worse environmental damage.

    Remember it took a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami to damage an old reactor design to this level. All the other similar reactors in Japan seemed to fare the disasters just fine. If an old reactor can, in most circumstances, survive two of the most powerful natural disasters, the new designs would definitely be safe by most measures.

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  43. Tamara - I agree with most of what you just wrote, which still doesn't change how I feel when I read about the situation or look at the photos. Sometimes it's like that.

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  44. I don't think we can ever rely on any energy sourse to be without serious risks to human health and the environment. The Gulf disaster wasn't supposed to happen. The Twin Towers were not supposed to come down. A magnitude 9 earthquake was not supposed to occur. I think that we can almost certainly count on the tragic mix of unthinkable circumstances happening eventually that results in this kind of horrific result. Shortly after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant disaster happened I saw a commentary about how the benefits outweigh the costs. I just couldn't read it because all I could think of were the survivors who don't know the whereabouts or the welfare of their friends, neighbors and loved ones.

    I'd like to think that we could eventually rely on solar and wind energy but I understand that production of solar panels, etc requires the use of potentially hazardous materials. Ultimately, I think we can't rely too much on any one sourse of energy and must aggressively recommit to conservation/energy efficiency. Perhaps wind will play a greater role in Texas and the coast of the Northeast than it does in Arizona, where we have over 300 days of sunshine a year.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see your post. It's helpful to me to process my own thoughts and feelings by reading those of others.

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  45. http://faz-community.faz.net/blogs/post_aus_tokio/archive/2011/03/20/tokyo-sky-beautiful-afternoon.aspx

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  46. btw, in case you still fret about radiation, I found this XKCD diagram somewhat helpful for context. Hopefully it doesn't put you off bananas.

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  47. ...and we learn that the containment structure is compromised.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/04/02/japan.nuclear.reactors/index.html

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