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The recent news says that

Japanese authorities confirmed Saturday that radiation had leaked from a quake-hit nuclear plant after an explosion destroyed a building at the site.

What will be the influence of the nuclear leakage?

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We all can read the news. And right now the news say: still mostly harmless :=( – Georg Mar 12 '11 at 14:20
Remember Chernobyl? – user346 Mar 12 '11 at 15:58
Yes, I remember, including the big difference in technology of the reactors. I'd recommend to wait what will happen. Panic in advance here in Europe or some other place far away is silly. – Georg Mar 12 '11 at 16:11
Nobody said anything about panicking @Georg. Besides technology has been known to fail before - Challenger, Columbia, Three-Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl and the very latest ... Deepwater Horizon (the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico). Its prudent to be aware of the possible outcomes. – user346 Mar 12 '11 at 16:30
Nice listing, Deepak. One case in India, all others in US, strange! Lets hope the Jepanese get off without big problems. – Georg Mar 12 '11 at 18:00

Edit: I hear on the radio that there has been further damage that may effect the containment structure itself. This has the potential (if a series of additional things go wrong) to be rather worse than my original response implies. I haven't heard enough to even guess what might be involved.

I don't like the word "leak" in this context as it implies a passive failure. Steam---steam that had been slightly activated by proximity to the core---was intentionally vented, under controlled conditions to prevent a larger scale failure.

On the global scale the impact will be trivial: a increase in the extant radiological background that will be difficult or impossible to measure.

On the local scale the increase will presumable be measurably for a time, but will still be small compared to the natural background (see below).

On the political front the incident will be used as an argument against nuclear power plants by people who don't realize the a coal plant releases more radioactive material than that every day it operates (simply by dispersing the naturally occurring radiologicals that used to be safely buried with the coal).

The average resident of a technologically developed nation receives a does of roughly $1\text{ mrem/day}$ day-in and day-out for their entire lives. About half of this is the cosmic ray background. Another big chuck is naturally occurring radioactive materials (K-40, U-238 and daughters, C-13...). There is a measurable background related to above-ground nuclear detonations, a little from medical and dental x-rays. When we had CRTs all over the place they leaked a tiny little bit of x-ray.

In a few places the natural background is many times the average. Long term residents of these places live just as long as everyone else, and get just the same amount of cancer.

The altitude at which you live is usually the single biggest factor in determining your background dose, because the cosmic flux is strongly dependent on it.

Any panic about radiation should always be measured against these basic facts.

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Yes. People tend to overreact to radiation alarms, because it is something not visible, like ghosts. Keep cool and wait for evaluation by the international atomic energy people, not what each random reporter spreads through half knowledge. – anna v Mar 12 '11 at 15:42
@dmckee you make some good observations +1. Just a minor quibble I have - coal plants have not been known to undergo meltdown leading to radiation poisoning in hundreds of thousands of people, birth defects in the generations to come and the destruction of arable land for at least as long as the half-life of whatever contaminant dominates in the fallout. Question is which is better - having the axe fall on your foot all at once, or to have your foot chipped away at with blunt scissors? I'll take the latter any day. – user346 Mar 12 '11 at 16:35
@Deepak: Reactor design has improved since they build a graphite pile in the squash coure. The Three Mile Island meltdown did exactly what it was designed to do: slagged out into a sub-critical mass inside the containment vessel and failed to poison anyone. Chernobyl suffered a chemically driven explosion because (a) the Soviets used a cheap design known to have critical failure modes and (b) the Chief Engineer decided to experiment with fast run-away scenarios. There is no cure for Stupid. In the mean time, coal mines kill people every year, and fly ash pile collapses poison ecosystems. – dmckee Mar 12 '11 at 17:53
@dmckee the Soviets used a cheap design known to have critical failure modes - hindsight is 20/20. Chief Engineer decided to experiment with fast run-away scenarios Yes, there is no cure for stupidity - which makes an honest assessment of the possible consequences of "stupid" even more essential. And yes, coal and fly-ash pose grave environmental challenges. No argument with you there. – user346 Mar 12 '11 at 18:19
"hindsight is 20/20" Foresight was 20/20 on this matter in the US, Europe, and Japan. Designs of that type were not used because of the fire/explosion risk posed by the graphite. It is simply silly to count possible failure modes against nuclear power while failing to count on-going problems against traditional power generation. – dmckee Mar 12 '11 at 18:27

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