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Preventable Nuclear Accidents: Could Fukushima & Chernobyl Have Been Prevented?

Brian Middleton has an M.Ed. from Southern Utah University with Administrative Endorsement. He works with & advocates for at-risk students.

Map #1: The approximate location of the 9.0 earthquake and where the tsunami spread from(Khare).

Map #1: The approximate location of the 9.0 earthquake and where the tsunami spread from(Khare).

Two Nuclear Catastrophes

On March 11th, 2011 a 9.0 earthquake occurred off the east coast of Japan [See Map #1]. The massive tremor created a tsunami that was estimated at 23 feet (seven 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 the 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 geopolitical 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 the total impact on surrounding populations and environments.

First, it must be clarified that the Fukushima disaster is a very different animal from Chernobyl disaster in that the latter released 10 times the amount of radiation as 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 the preparation, safety, containment, and control (Brook). These facts notwithstanding, 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 systems to prevent such issues from occurring again.

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 shutdown, the problem is that residual heat from the reaction process must be dealt with by cooling the reactor to prevent a 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 through 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 freshwater. They are attempting to contain the water but contaminated water and steam are 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 of the International Atomic Energy Agency as of July 22nd of 2011, the cleanup of the Fukushima disaster is ahead of schedule and the plan 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).

Impact on North America

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 reporter Rong-Gong Lin II wrote 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: A map of areas affected by radiation from the Chernobyl disaster (Waller).

Map #3: A map of areas affected by radiation from the Chernobyl disaster (Waller).


Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster was triggered not by a natural disaster, but rather by a combination of poor training, a lack of safety measures and 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 approached created a large number of problems.

Essentially, 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).

Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster

The impact of Chernobyl was massive. Unfortunately, due to the lack of reliable public health information before 1986, it is difficult to get precise data (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.

From 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 under strict control by Soviet authorities. The initial radiation exposure risk was due to the short-lived iodine-131 with a half-life of eight days, while the long-term risk was cesium-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 the direction of the World Health Organization, showed that there is a significant increase in diseases related to radiation exposure. By 2000, about 4,000 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 necessity to have multiple redundant systems in all nuclear power plants.

Map #4: The approximate location of Fukushima to the earthquake epicenter (

Map #4: The approximate location of Fukushima to the earthquake epicenter (

Lessons From Fukushima and Chernobyl

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 cure 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 be 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 the 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: “If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest.”

In this situation, the installation 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 potentially 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, then the risks of nuclear power are far higher than the benefits gained from its use.

Works Cited

Associate Press. Huffington Post News. 13 March 2011. 29 July2011<>.

World Nuclear Association. Chernobyl Accident 1986. April 2011. 6 August 2011 <>.

BBC News. BBC Asia-Pacific News. 12 April 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

Biello, David. Scientific American. 24 June 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

Brook, Barry. Brave New Climate. 13 March 2011. 29 July 2011 <>. 18 March 2011. 5 August 2011 <>.

Edwards, Kress. Chernobyl. 6 August 2011 <>.

Fox News. Fox News. 11 March 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

Hoffman, Steven. Red Green & Blue. 1 June 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

IAEA 1. IAEA Chief Surveys Progress at Fukushima Accident Site. 25 July 2011. 5 August 2011 <>.

IAEA 2. IAEA Welcomes Progress Towards Fukushima Power Plant Stabilization. 22 July 2011. 4 August 2011 <>.

IAEA 3. Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions. 6 August 2011 <>.

Kennedy, Dana. Chernobyl Cleanup Survivor's Message for Japan: 'Run Away as Quickly as Possible'. 22 March 2011. 6 August 2011 <>.

Khare, Priyanka. 17th March 2011. 2011 29 2011 <>.

Lin II, Rong-Gong. L.A. Times News. 18 March 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

Pines, Michael. What Happened at Chernobyl? 6 August 2011 <>.

Sacirbey, Susan, Mo Sacirbey and Tom Osborne. Japan Nuclear Emergency-Int. Atomic Energy Agency. 2011. 6 August 2011 <>.

Vastag, Brian and Steve Mufson. Washington Post News. 26 May 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

Waller, Moby. 15 March 2011. 29 July 2011 <>.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2011 Brian Middleton