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A technician shows with a pen the Fukushima nuclear power plant on a screen displaying a satellite image of Japan after the earthquake. - 

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The situation appears to be getting worse at Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex. Helicopters are dumping water on overheating reactors. Emergency workers have been trying to restore power to the water pumps. With little success. Radiation around the plant is spiking to dangerous levels.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman is with us live on how bad it could get for the people and the economy of northern Japan. Hi Mitchell.


CHIOTAKIS: How great is the radiation danger at this point?

HARTMAN: Not very great, unless you're right near the nuclear plant. The wind's blowing out to sea, and radiation outside the immediate area -- in Tokyo, for instance -- is only slightly elevated. Now in terms of worker safety this isn't good. They're likely getting dangerous doses as they try to ward off a worse catastrophe.

CHIOTAKIS: How much worse could it get?

HARTMAN: Well, the nuclear fuel -- there's both uranium and plutonium there -- some of it has probably already melted together. But it hasn't heated up enough to fully melt. And it's still inside these very tough steel containment vessels. I asked Neil Sheehan of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to explain.

NEIL SHEEHAN: If it got to the point where all the fuel within a vessel were to melt, it could then actually escape, and that would be a much more serious situation.

A full meltdown -- where fuel actually breaches the containment vessel -- that can contaminate the soil and air -- years. Still, Fukushima's not Chernobyl which had no containment and a huge fireball that lofted radiation hundreds of miles away.

SHEEHAN: If there were to be a significant release of radioactivity, the greatest impact would be in the immediate vicinity of the reactor. We're not expecting to see any impact on the United States or any of the territories, other than probably trace amounts.

And it's that danger of radiation spreading on Japan's northeast coast that induced Sheehan's boss to tell Americans to get themselves 50 miles from Fukushima just in case.

CHIOTAKIS: Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman, thanks.


Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy