March 24, 2011

The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown and Fallout

ENVIRONMENT/HEALTH - On Wednesday March 11th 2011 a 9.0 earthquake took place off the coast of Japan and unleashed a massive tsunami. The recorded death poll at this point is over 7,300 and another 11,000 people missing. But the disaster doesn't stop at the damage from the earthquake and tsunami... Four of Japan's nuclear power plants, including 2 reactors at Fukushima suffered damage and have since released huge amounts of radiation. The Onagawa and Tōkai nuclear power plants suffered comparatively minor damage. A total of 11 nuclear reactors were automatically shut down.

Seismic recordings at the nuclear plants indicate the ground velocity was 6.18–52.62 cm/sec.

However the diesel generator and water pumps at Fukushima I and Fukushima II were damaged by the tsunami, making it impossible to pump cold water into the reactor to cool it down. The reactors began overheating, resulting in a meltdown similar to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. *Cooling is needed to remove nuclear decay heat for several days even when a reactor is shut down. The cooling process is only possible through large emergency disel generators, all of which were destroyed by the tsunami/earthquake.

The meltdown caused two large explosions at Fukushima I and leakage of radiation, resulting in the immediate evacuation of over 200,000 people from the region.

Since then the scope of the disaster has become more clear.

Japanese emergency crews have been pumping seawater into the reactors in an attempt to cool down and stablize the reactors, but to little avail. The machinery they are using aren't up to the task and there is delays getting new diesel generators and pumps into the region because of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Under normal circumstances getting the required machinery into the region would be comparatively easy.

Fires at the reactors have since been put out, but the radiation from the meltdown and the nuclear fallout has since got into the local food supply and even into Tokyo's drinking water. Rumours and speculation about the future of Japan and even ideas of evacuating most of Japan until the crisis is over.

There are also confusing and conflicting reports about the amout of radiation being released. If we use the BP Gulf Oil Spill as a rule of thumb (BP lied about the amount of oil being spilled daily, it later turned out to be over 10 times the daily amount they had claimed.) then we can assume that the worst reports are probably the most accurate.

The INES – International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale – ranks incidents from one to seven, with one described as "anomaly" and seven as "major accident". The disaster in Fukushima has been ranked a 6. (Chernobyl in 1986 was a 7.)

Normally a human is exposed to 2 milliSieverts/year of radiation from the sun and other sources. Airplane staff are exposed to approx. 9 milliSieverts/year. 100 can cause cancer, 1000 can cause fatal cancer in 5% of the people exposed, 5000 kills a person within 4 weeks 50% of the time, 10,000 is fatal within a week or two.

According to several reports the radiation leakage is 400 milliSieverts per hour, enough to cause a fatal dose within 25 hours. People closest to the centre of the disaster will be receiving higher doses. There is also conflicting reports the amount of radiation is going both up and down.

As of last week the radiation levels in Tokyo were 20 times normal levels. The local government was warning people not to panic. (Tokyo is approx. 300 km away from Fukushima.)

The radiation was so bad that Japan ordered a no fly zone in the region around Fukushima.

Indeed the radiation levels are reaching far more distances than mere Japan. Heightened radiation levels are now being recorded as far away as the United States.

A Canadian team sent to help tsunami victims was later recalled because they were not equipped to handle radiation and were asked to leave by Japanese authorities.

On the economic side Japan's economy is in a freefall, and will likely suffer serious blows if Japan's government cannot get the radiation leaks under control (possibly resulting in a large scale evacuation of the region around Fukushima). Even if the reactors are stabilized Japan's future will still be dire, both in terms of health concerns from lingering radiation but also from growing demands to dismantle Japan's other nuclear plants.

For other countries it could also mean a dramatic increase in nuclear refugees from Japan, seeking a safe place to raise their children free of radiation.

Food exports from Japan have been banned in many countries and this spells even more trouble for Japan's future.

Power lines have since been reattached to a number of Japan's nuclear plants and there is high hopes of restarting the turbines and the regular coolant system in an effort to cool down the reactors.

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