I’m sure the rolling updates here at FDL will continue on the Japanese disaster and in particular the nuclear crisis, but so much has occurred overnight that I thought I’d take a stab at it. Here’s what we know at the moment:

• This New York Times story gave a lot of people nightmares before they went to bed. The explosion and fire at Reactor No. 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which was offline at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, sent a good deal of radioactive material into the air. Readings were highly elevated and above safe levels for humans, according to All Things Nuclear. Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on television and said anyone within 18 miles of the plant needed to stay indoors, and that teams were working to avoid “further radiation leakage.” Prior to the fire at Reactor No. 4, radiation release had been relatively low.

What got everyone so upset from that NYT story was the belief that all workers abandoned the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But they revised the story by morning to say that 50 or so workers remained:

It diminished hopes earlier in the day that engineers at the plant, working at tremendous personal risk, might yet succeed in cooling down the most damaged of the reactors, No. 2, by pumping in sea water. According to government statements, most of the 800 workers at the plant had been withdrawn, leaving 50 or so workers in a desperate effort to keep the cores of three stricken reactors cooled with seawater pumped by firefighting equipment, while the same crews battled to put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor, which they claimed to have done just after noon on Tuesday.

Indeed, reports show that the US military was brought in to help put out the fire at the No. 4 reactor. The hope is that radiation levels will fall now that the fire has been put out. Reactors No. 1 and 3 have exposed roofs due to hydrogen explosions blowing off the top of the building, Reactor No. 2 could have an exposed containment core and could be leaking radioactive water as seawater gets pumped in, and Reactor No. 4′s fire could have exposed spent fuel rods and an elevated level of radiation. Because of the design of the plant, the spent fuel rods may be a bigger problem than the exposed reactors. The Japanese government put a no-fly zone over a 30km radius around the plant.

So while the situation doesn’t appear quite as dire as when Prime Minister Kan appeared on television, the mood of the country reflects, to put it mildly, total panic. Residents are leaving Tokyo in droves and stocking up on survival gear, as radioactive wind headed for the capital and radiation readings were elevated about 9 times above normal. And the Nikkei stock average, which fell 6% yesterday, was down around 11% today, the biggest drop since the 1987 crash. The Bank of Japan put another $98 billion into the banking system today, after nearly twice that yesterday.

Crisis doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on right now. And I don’t want to harp on the impact for the broader nuclear industry, but Germany and Switzerland are suspending their own plans until they get a handle on how this could have happened and tests can be administered. When the President touted Japanese nuclear safety, an eerie corollary to his now-famous remark that offshore drilling was quite safe, he wasn’t entirely wrong. But he was viewing it in the prism of how we look at these things under normal circumstances, not in the event of a catastrophe. The events of the Deepwater Horizon should have ended such a charade, and now Fukushima Daiichi must completely eliminate such a stance.

I have a nuclear reactor relatively close to my home, in San Onofre in Orange County. It sits off the coast in a highly combustible earthquake zone. The plant says they can handle up to a 7.0 earthquake, and seismologists assure that nothing Japan-sized could hit that particular area. It’s hard to feel that comforted by such admonitions. Nor am I particularly relieved by claims that oil and coal cause plenty of human suffering in their own right, as if those are the only three items on the menu. Believe it or not, we can generate energy without radioactive waste, toxic asthma-causing greenhouse gases or global warming-based pollution. The price of that generation is high but gets lower every day. Particularly when you factor in all the external costs borne by dirty energy.