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Japan's nuclear crisis and Chernobyl: key differences

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The Yomiuri Shimbun, Yasushi Kanno/AP

(Read caption) Fukushima I power plant's No. 1 reactor is seen on March 11. The nuclear power plant faced crippling damage from Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake, but officials and scientists have begun assuaging fears that another Chernobyl-style crisis is imminent.

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Uncertainty and fear have been feeding each other over the struggle to cool nuclear reactors in Japanese atomic power plants after a tsunami caused by Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake swept away primary and backup cooling systems.

The words “meltdown” and “Chernobyl” have conjured images of radioactive vapors rising from the coastal Fukushima nuclear facilities and sweeping the Pacific Rim, raining down on crops and people. After all, the containment zone has expanded several times, and a blast at one reactor Saturday indicated a partial core meltdown.

Yet a number of American and European scientists, as well as diplomats familiar with the thinking inside the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are cautiously taking the edge off the worst fears.

Robert Engel, former IAEA inspector and Swiss nuclear engineer, told Reuters Sunday that a partial meltdown of a reactor “is not a disaster” and that he doubted a complete meltdown is possible. And the details of the current Japanese reactor crisis bear little similarity to the Soviet-era meltdown at Chernobyl, which came about through design flaws and human error before it spread a radioactive cloud across much of Europe and Asia 25 years ago.

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