(CNN) — In Japan’s earthquake-triggered nuclear emergency, at least 200,000 people who live within 21 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station outside Tokyo have been removed from their homes — residents who are already victims of the worst earthquake to hit Japan since records were kept.
Three nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi station are damaged — some core melting is assumed to have happened in two of them. The risk is either that the damaged reactors continue to produce periodic hydrogen explosions and radioactive steam releases for weeks or months, or, worse that the containment shields fail altogether and highly radioactive materials become airborne, creating a toxic plume of gas and particles that could contaminate a wide area downwind from the crippled atomic plant.
The last reactor meltdown, in the Soviet-designed Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine in 1986, shows the potential consequences of a nuclear power accident. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an 18-mile radius exclusion zone around the plant was evacuated and closed off, including the cutting and burying of a one square-mile forest.
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