Reassuring news from Japan! Our panel of experts has assured us that the current levels of radiation are not a huge threat to those outside a 50k radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, at least not right at this moment based on the admittedly limited information we're being given, and based on the assumption that no further radioactive material will be released into the atmosphere—which is, in fact, happening at this very minute.
Fortunately, most of our experts agree that a full meltdown of the nuclear fuel at any of the reactors is "wildly unlikely"—although they're not sure what can be done, if anything, to prevent the aforementioned wildly unlikely full meltdown.
Update, 9:30 A.M. EDT: After listening to the latest statements by Japanese officials, some of our experts are changing their assessments of the potential of a full meltdown from "wildly unlikely" to "pretty unlikely" or "sort of unlikely," while others are now using terms like "somewhat likely" and "kind of likely, actually" and "awfully bloody likely."
In the case of a full meltdown, some experts say that it would be "rather improbable" for molten fuel to burn through the walls of the reactor vessel, which are made of thick, thick steel. Others say the steel "really isn't that thick at all" and that burning through the walls seemed "entirely possible" if not "quite probable." (At Three Mile Island, in 1979, molten fuel made its way through some of the thick steel, but not all of it, but experts point out that this Japanese crisis is "nothing whatsoever" like Three Mile Island, one characterizing it as "way, way worse than that, in every dimension.")
Update, 10:30 A.M. EDT: After a new wave of dire news from Japan, many of our experts have begun to pace and cough nervously, and some are volubly mulling various worst-case scenarios. Many of these experts tell us that the molten fuel will now "most definitely" burn through the steel, and fall to the floor of the containment structure. But these experts feel "pretty certain" that the fuel will not progress "all that far" before it starts to cool. Others predict, however, that it will "almost certainly" reach the walls of the containment structure, which are made of thick concrete, and will "absolutely" damage it, perhaps through cracking or crumbling. Some are growing concerned that steam explosions will totally annihilate the containment structure, allowing uncontrolled release of radioactivity. Others are starting to characterize themselves not as "concerned" but "extremely worried" and "deathly afraid" of this possibility, while still others have requested a nice, cool glass of water and a place to sit down for a minute before offering any further opinions.
Update, 10:49 A.M. EDT: Upon hearing that a new plume of radioactive material is heading out over the Pacific, one expert covered his ears and said, "Nah nah nah nah nah, I can't hear you!" But many of our experts said that this should be no cause for concern to residents of the West Coast of the United States as the traces of radiation from the plume would be "miniscule." But then other experts interrupted these experts, and said that the radiation would not be "miniscule," but would "hopefully not be significant" or anyway, would at least only be "pretty likely" to cause major, life-threatening health problems in the populace.
When asked about the size of the radiation cloud that could, theoretically, drift across the Pacific and elsewhere if, hypothetically, one or more of the Fukushima reactors encountered a full core meltdown, four of our experts took deep, cleansing breaths, then reassured us that even with such a cloud, residents of the West Coast could simply "stay inside" and "take lots of showers." Two experts stepped outside for a quick cigarette, then returned and told us that under such conditions, residents could just "remain indoors for a few months" and "refrain from drinking any milk for the next decade or so." And one expert developed a rapid pulse and shallow breathing and had to be wheeled out of our conference room by EMS personnel.
Upon inquiring about a core meltdown of Reactor 3, which uses uranium and plutonium and therefore produces more toxic radioactivity, two of our five remaining experts asked if maybe they could leave and go to the bar down the block for an hour or two before resuming. One expert asked to be reminded exactly how much he would be compensated for his time, and another expert retreated to the corner of the room and began rocking back and forth, quietly mumbling, "It's all over. We're toast."
The last remaining expert, though, assured us that everything would be absolutely fine, at least in the existentialist cycle-of-life sense, and that the Japanese government and the global community would do everything in their power to continue monitoring the situation—which, admittedly, equates more or less to standing by, helplessly wringing their hands—until either the situation resolves itself or several catastrophic meltdowns occur and a giant cloud of radiation descends on the earth, blocking out the sun and snuffing out life as we know it. A faint smile drifted onto our last remaining expert's face as he described this, and that's when we searched his briefcase and found a large quantity of potassium iodide, along with several grams of heroin and a few sterile syringes.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of Disaster Preparedness, a memoir published by Riverhead Books in January 2011. She was Salon.com's TV critic for 7 years and cocreated Suck.com's Filler before that. She has dispensed misguided advice at the rabbit blog since 2001.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates, via Wikimedia Commons.