A local man was driving along a narrow road on the side of a cliff when he drove over a spike strip left there inadvertently by police. The car, a Volvo, went off the side of the cliff, rolling several times and bouncing off the cliff wall repeatedly before coming to rest some two hundred metres below. The driver reported a mild concussion and a broken arm; the car is a write-off. Volvo engineers reported that the car wasn't designed to withstand falls of several hundred metres, has leaked some engine oil, and the radiator may yet spill coolant.If I read the story, I'd be more inclined to buy a Volvo. But these guys would likely start protesting in front of Volvo headquarters for building unsafe cars.
What's going on in Japan is awful. But, relative to expectations about nuclear accidents - it could be worse. There remains strong chance of meltdown. But so long as the containment unit doesn't blow (yes, that's a huge so-long-as), this isn't a nuclear apocalypse.
The reactor had been tested through a 7.9. Nobody had reckoned on a 9.0 earthquake - recall that this is a logarithmic scale so the increment from eight to nine isn't an eighth on top of design spec. And even with that massive quake, followed by a tsunami that wiped out a whole pile of backup systems, we've had thus far only relatively minor releases of radioactive gases. This is about the worst beyond-spec thing you could throw at those reactors. And, three days later, they've still only released worrying rather than apocalyptic levels of radiation.
Yes, this is a terrible tragedy. And I'd be damned scared if I lived anywhere near these plants now too. I'm on the paranoid side about such things - we bought the Iodine pills post 9-11 living outside DC. But think about how far beyond design spec these reactors have been pushed. As far as updating estimates about the safety of nuclear power, we ought be revising upwards, not downwards. You have to beat on them massively hard - well beyond design specs - before bad things happen.
Germany's pretty geologically stable. I don't see what new information is revealed by the Japanese earthquake --> tsunami --> nuclear accident that ought convince any rational German to revise downwards his estimate of the desirability of nuclear power. It's only increased the salience of downside risk, not the estimate of its probability.
And we oughtn't forget that people die in coal mining accidents, that fine particulate matter from coal-fired generation kills people, and that burning coal also releases radiation. If coal's the most likely substitute for reactors in Europe, that's almost certainly a net negative for the environment.
MIT's Nuclear Information Hub is the best source I've found on the ongoing crisis. Two days ago folks there didn't seem too worried, though that may yet change. Here's more on the importance of preparation and strict emergency drills for this kind of thing.