By Tray Wetherell
As recovery efforts continue around the tsunami stricken region in Japan, people within a 14 mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are being ordered to stay indoors and avoid going outside. After a fire at the number two reactor, a reactor that was believed to be in stable condition, government officials went on the air warning residents. Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned that there is “a very high risk” or more radiation leakage. Broadcast advisories warned about exposure issues after radiation levels at the gate of the power plant got as high as 400 milliSieverts per hour, a potentially dangerous level of exposure. Based on information provided by the Food and Drug Administration the 400 milliSieverts is getting between 25 to 30 Abdominal CT scans at once, not a lethal dose if done quickly, but if left exposed for an extended period, can be detrimental or even fatal. To complicate issues further, engineers debate as to the potential consequences to the region if the reactors have a meltdown.
French Upgrade Disaster Level
Officials at France’s nuclear safety agency, ASN, have upgraded the disaster at the nuclear plant to level 6 on a scale of 1 to 7. Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano advised citizens to “please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight.” Advising calm and restraint to the population around the plant, roads are clogged as people head west to get out of the evacuation zone making travel difficult for emergency crews, and staples such as gasoline and food becoming more difficult to find.
Comparisons to the Past
To compare, the Three Mile Island incident in New Jersey back in 1979 was a level 5 incident and there has only been 1 level 7 incident, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, when an explosion destroyed the reactor while a test was being performed shooting tons of radioactive debris up into the atmosphere and surrounding countryside. The Soviet government effectively created a dead zone around the plant and buried the still burning nuclear core with a combination of cement and other materials to house the accident indefinitely, birth defects, increased cancer rates, and other whose effects are still being felt today.
Speaking to NPR, Richard Lester, chairman of the nuclear science and engineering at MIT said that “The chances of a catastrophic release of the kind that occurred in Chernobyl are very very low.”
While comparisons inevitably refer back to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the reactors at the Fukushima plant are different in design and provide different safeguards to keep radiation from escaping. However with the recent fire and radiation leak indicated at reactor two, even these safeguards could not be enough to avoid an environmental disaster similar to Chernobyl is certain ways. Ed Lyman a physicist and expert on nuclear plant design and health effects of radiation of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that “This could lead to very serious melting of the fuel… it could lead to a total melting of the fuel, which is called a meltdown,” and that “Normally the reactor building is intended to act as a secondary … but the reactor buildings for all three reactors have been damaged by explosions and no longer provide this secondary containment. So if the primary containment is leaking, then a core meltdown could lead to a very large release of radioactivity to the environment.” Explaining that with these concerns the reactor core itself may not be containable and “If that occurs, the molten fuel can drop to the bottom of the reactor vessel, burn through … and drop onto the floor of the primary containment.” This would be catastrophic to the environment surrounding the power plant and the region as a whole.