Updates have been rolling in for the last few days about the potential reactor meltdown in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While some sources have been quick to run doomsday headlines, others are rolling their eyes at what they’ve deemed a “media meltdown.”
Either way, here’s today’s news roundup on the situation:
- Plant fires were extinguished early this morning, which means radiation levels are dropping.
- Radiation levels are low in general (the highest risk is for those working in the plant).
- Electricity was restored to the plant.
- Helicopters have been attempting to cool an overheated reactor by dumping over 30 tons of water into its holding pool.
- The remaining plant workers, dubbed the Fukushima 50, have emerged as heroes.
For continuous updates, we suggest these links:
- Rolling news updates consolidated here (from various media sources).
- The New York Times put together this fantastic Q & A for concerned readers.
- Brave New Climate has an unusually detailed breakdown of the science behind the situation.
- NPR has realtime updates on each reactor.
Overall, with multiple failures—fires and radiation leaks from four separate reactors—it’s become clear that this nuclear crisis will go down in history as one of the most dangerous nuclear scares to date (hopefully with a happy ending). And as The New York Times put it, “While damage from the earthquake and tsunami was instantly visible, the nuclear impact, we suspected, would take days to unfold, and could affect far larger swaths of Japan and neighboring countries.”
So how does Fukushima compare against history’s other nuclear events? Let’s take a look.
The most famous nuclear meltdown in history, the Chernobyl incident happened 25 years ago next month (April 1986). Fukishima may be the most severe situation since the Ukranian disaster, but it still (thankfully) doesn’t match up.
Chernobyl was caused by design flaws and a series of operator errors which destroyed a reactor, spewing radioactive graphite and clouds over Ukraine and Belarus, with fallout reaching as far as Sweden.
Comparing Chernobyl to Fukushima, Rafael Arutyunyan of the Russian Institute of Nuclear Energy Development Security told Russian NTV News:
There is no question of a Chernobyl situation or of anything like the same threat to human health and safety. An accident like Chernobyl cannot happen again—this is a reactor of a different generation. Even in the worst-case scenario of a total coolant failure, the radiation released will be hundreds of times less than from Chernobyl.
For some context, the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale rates nuclear incidents from 1 to 7. Fukushima was recently updated from a 4 to a 5. Chernobyl still stands as the only 7 class nuclear disaster. (Read the full analysis at the New York Times here.)
Three-Mile Island (1979)
Considered the worst nuclear accident in the United States, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island meltdown caused no immediate injuries or deaths (although the cleanup cost $975 million and took over 14 years to complete.). There appear to be more similarities between Fukushima and Three Mile Island than between Fukushima and Chernobyl.
According to Forbes:
TMI was a pressurized water reactor; Fukushima was a boiling water reactor. There’s little difference between the two insofar as both used water to cool and regulate the reactors, except that TMI had a pressurizer. Like Fukushima, Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) was vented into the air to reduce pressure in the core, releasing some fissile products.
However it’s still too soon to tell whether Fukushima will exceed the damage of Three Mile Island.
This incident was not nearly as dramatic as what’s happening in Fukushima, but as the only other nuclear accident to occur in Japan—and until now considered the most severe accident after Three Mile Island— it’s worth mentioning.
Classified as a level 5 incident, the Tokaimura accident was initiated at a nuclear fuel facility by three workers who improperly poured uranium by hand (ignoring a slew of safety regulations). A chain reaction occurred, exposing the workers to high rates of radiation and forcing nearby citizens to evacuate for a day while the situation was contained. Though recorded as a irradiation accident, not a contamination accident, two of the three workers died form radiation poisoning and 207 local residents were exposed to elevated levels of radiation.
The accident prompted the Japanese government to regulate and rethink its nuclear safety protocol. Implementation of new protocols may be helping in Fukushima.
This Swedish accident wasn’t highly publicized. An electrical outage swept through the city, taking out two of the plant’s backup generators and throwing the automated control room into chaos. It was rated a 2 on the nuclear event scale.
Image robin-root/Wikimedia Commons
Main image maslow25/Photobucket