Has Japan lost the race to save its Fukushima nuclear reactor? Highly radioactive water is now being detected in the ocean near the reactor because the radioactive core seems to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and onto the concrete floor below–the same sort of thing that happened at Chernobyl.

The Guardian newspaper quotes US nuclear power expert Richard Lahey as saying, "The reason we are concerned is that they are detecting water outside the containment area that is highly radioactive and it can only have come from the reactor core. It’s not going to be anything like Chernobyl, where it went up with a big fire and steam explosion, but it’s not going to be good news for the environment." He says that the nuclear material "won’t come out as one big glob–it’ll come out like lava, and that is good because it’s easier to cool." However, all this is an educated guess for now, since workers and firefighters still can’t get close to the reactor. Lahey is quoted as saying, "I hope I am wrong, but that is certainly what the evidence is pointing towards."

UPDATE: Radioactivity from Japan is arriving in Seattle, but at levels far lower than is considered harmful to human. University of Washington physicist Michael Miller says, "It’s a faint signal. You have to filter a lot of air to see it. We’ve definitely seen it fluctuate up and down, and we are correlating those peaks and drops with any changes in normal background radiation levels."

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