Preventable Nuclear Accidents: Could Fukushima & Chernobyl Have Been Prevented?
Map # 1
On March 11th, 2011 a 9.0 earthquake on the Richter scale occurred off of the east coast of Japan [See Map # 1]. The massive tremor created a tsunami that was estimated at 23 feet (7 meters) in height. Between the quake and tsunami they are estimated to have killed more than 7000 people in addition to devastating thousands of businesses and homes (Fox News; Associate Press). To add insult to injury, the natural disaster caused extensive damage to a critical nuclear power plant. The earthquake triggered the shutdown sequence of the Fukushima nuclear power plant which is 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo [See Map # 4]. While shutdown was successful, the resulting damage from the earthquake and tsunami prevented critical systems from working which would have otherwise kept the semi-dormant reactor from overheating and preventing a meltdown (Brook). Since the events of March 11th the people of the world have been watching with bated breath to see how this nuclear disaster, which is the largest since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl Ukraine in 1986 [see map # 3], will play out. While there are major differences between the two, the political implications of both events have had major negative impacts on the geo-political relations of the nations where these disasters took place as well as the nations surrounding them, and such negative impacts could have been prevented if redundant safety measures were required and enforced by international law to be planned into all nuclear power plants. To give clarity to this point, the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters will be examined for preventative measures taken and total impact on surrounding populations & environments.
First, it must be clarified that the Fukushima disaster is a very different animal from Chernobyl disaster in that the latter was recorded to have released 10 times the amount of radiation for the former, as of the writing of this paper (BBC). Additionally, the Fukushima power plant had many safety measures that did work, whereas the Chernobyl incident was an unmitigated disaster in relation to preparation, safety, containment and control (Brook). This point being clarified, the radiation from the Fukushima disaster is still a threat to the Japanese people and to a lesser extent to the people of North America. Additionally, this disaster is a lesson on the need for redundant system after redundant system to prevent such issues from occurring again.
The Fukushima Boiling Water Reactor
In the case of Fukushima, inquiries on the part of the Japanese National Academy of Sciences have shown that the initial meltdown of one of the six boiling water reactors took place within 11 hours of the earthquake (Vastag). While the reactors were able to achieve what is considered shut down, the problem is that residual heat from the reaction process must be dealt with by cooling the reactor to prevent meltdown. Meltdown is a general term that applies to several aspects of a reactor failure, but in this case it is first referring to the fuel rods melting though a steel containment vessel and thus making cooling problematic. What is infinitely worse is meltdowns where the fuel rods themselves melt because of extreme heat. The melting point of the fuel rods is 1200 °C. Fortunately the latter is not the case (Brook). Still, the cooling process is complicated since the primary containment vessel is compromised by the fuel rods melting through the reinforced steel pressure chamber (Brook). This made the process of cooling a major issue since all the coolant systems in place went directly to the compromised containment vessel which was where the fuel rods were not. The Japanese utility firm and government solved the cooling problem by flooding the reactor rooms affected with a mixture of sea and fresh water. They are attempting to contain the water but contaminated water and steam is escaping into the atmosphere. Then there is the issue of the contaminated water that is still there. Since the water is irradiated, it is dangerous and must be stored in sealed containers in nuclear waste faculties along with other contaminated materials (Biello). Scientists estimate that this disaster has released roughly 15% of the radiation of Chernobyl (Biello). The areas around the power plant have been evacuated, but trace amounts of radiation have been found in groundwater which means that this disaster will affect the Japanese people for years to come with diseases caused by radiation exposure (Fox News; BBC). According to the Director General Yukiya Amano ofInternational Atomic Energy Agency as of July 22nd of 2011, the cleanup of the Fukishima desaster is ahead of schedule and the plan of for a “cold shutdown” of the reactor to be completed by mid-2012 is well on its way (IAEA 2). Furthermore, the result of this disaster is a large number of meetings and closer looks at safety standards for nuclear energy practices around the world (IAEA 1).
Map # 2
Of great concern to the people of North America in general and the Western US in particular is the radiation spreading to their shores. L.A. Times’ Rong-Gong Lin II reported that “A minuscule amount of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan was detected in Sacramento but at such a low level that it posed no threat to human health,” and yet the fear of radiation exposure caused fervor in the region. A debate on whether nuclear energy is worth the risk was highlighted by several points. First the Swiss government decided to phase out nuclear energy. Second, additional trace amounts of radiation were found in milk, strawberries, leafy greens such as spinach and other foods grown in California (Hoffman). The spread of the radiation is through the irradiated steam and gasses that have escaped the reactor and spread through the Jet Stream to North America as shown by Map # 2 (Waller).
Map # 3
Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster was triggered not by natural disaster, but rather by a combination of poor training, a lack of safety measures & planning and the pressure from a tyrannical government to achieve results. On April 26, 1986, the Number Four reactor at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine was being tested to see if the residual heat the reactor shutdown would be enough to provide enough power to cool the reactor in case of external power failure (such as what was seen at Fukushima). While the desire to create a system such as this is admirable, the way that it was approach created a large number of problems. Essentially what happened was that the operators pushed the plant’s reaction to a point where it almost died. When they realized what was happening they quickly pulled back the control rods to prevent the reaction from fizzling. By doing this they unintentionally slammed their proverbial foot down on the gas causing the reaction to go out of control and operate over the capacity it was designed for. While they attempted to “hit the brakes” the control rods were not fast enough, and the resulting explosion and fire spewed radioactive debris into the atmosphere and surrounding countryside (Edwards, Pines). A safety measure that could have minimized the damage but was not implemented by the former U.S.S.R. in the construction of the nuclear plant (but was common practice for other plants around the world at the time and now) was the lack of a containment structure (IAEA 3). The reason for the ignoring of proper safety procedures is explained as “a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture” (World Nuclear Association).
The impact of Chernobyl was massive. Unfortunately, due to the lack of reliable public health information before 1986 it is difficult to get exact number (World Nuclear Association). Despite these limitations there is significant evidence to indicate that Chernobyl has had a massive negative impact on the areas surrounding the disaster. In the time immediately after the disaster until the end of July 1986, 26 people were direct casualties of the explosion or radiation exposure. The populated areas immediately around Chernobyl were estimated at about five million people, four hundred thousand of which live in areas of strict control by Soviet authorities. The initial radiation exposure risk was due to the short-lived iodine-131 with a half life of 8 days, while the long term risk was caesium-137, with a half life of 30 years (World Nuclear Association). Soviet authorities evacuated a large portion of the population in those controlled areas and sent in about 800,000 'liquidators' from all over the Soviet Union to clean-up between 1986 and 1987. They received high doses of radiation. One of these liquidators, Natalia Manzurova, shared how the majority of her collogues had died from diseases relating to radiation exposure. Manzurova did not escape the effects of this exposure since she has had thyroid cancer and other illnesses (Kennedy). The first reports of radiation came from Finland because the U.S.S.R. was silent about the accident until after it had been detected by neighboring countries. With time, detectable radiation spread throughout Europe and the world [See Map # 3] (Edwards). Research since 1989, under direction of the World Health Organization, showed that there is significant increase of diseases related to radiation exposure. By 2000, about four thousand cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in exposed children. Further research showed that the contamination of food and water supplies was at a level that is thought to have increased the cases of disease (World Nuclear Association). All of this information goes to show that we can expect much worse news when considering the after effects of Fukushima and add to the case for the nessesity to have multiple redundent systems in all nuclear power plants.
Map # 4
Do you think nuclear energy is worth the risk?
CNN's Video Explanation of the Fukushima Plant
Fortunately, with the most recent nuclear disaster, the US and other nations have been providing aid to Japan long before the true effects of the reactor failure became known. But still, this issue is sure to cause international strain because of the cost of cleanup efforts, just as in the case of Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters since. Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said "You can clean up almost anything if you're prepared to spend enough money on it" (Biello). But cleaning up any nuclear accident will not remove the leukemia or thyroid cancer that an adult or child contracted because of excessive radiation exposure. It will not resurrect the animals painfully slain by radiation burns and cancer. It cannot take back the birth defects that result from radiation in the food and water supply. Some nations such as Switzerland have deemed the risk of nuclear failure to high, as previously mentioned, while others such as the USA have and are reviewing safety measures and regulations (Mufson). Could stronger regulations and safety measures be the answer to the potential problem of nuclear accidents? The reality of the matter is the only real solution that would allow for continued operation of nuclear power is multiple backup systems and redundancies to prevent such catastrophic failures similar to those of Fukushima and Chernobyl; anything less than this should be greeted with opposition. In the case of Fukushima, while safety measures were taken they were not enough. Director-General Yukiya Amano said that the accident in Japan was “not an accident by design or by human error” as in the case of Chernobyl but rather “an accident caused by natural disaster that is unprecedented” (Sacirbey, Sacirbey & Osborne). This could not be more wrong. The human error in the case of Fukushima was the assumption that the safety measures were adequate. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Fukushima was a perfect demonstration of that. The solution to this problem is the application of Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor says that “If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest.” In this situation the instillation of redundant safety systems would be the simplest solution if we want to continue using nuclear energy for the generation of electricity while minimizing the potential disastrous effects of an accident. The phrase “minimum safety requirements” means nothing to the dead. The environmental and health risk of another catastrophic reactor failure is a thing of nightmares. If safety regulations and steps are not taken to a much higher level than the risks of nuclear power are far higher than the benefits gained from its use.
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