The devastating earthquake in Japan has raised fears of a nuclear disaster after dangerous levels of radiation escaped Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi), a plant 150 miles north of Tokyo. One reactor’s steel containment structure was breached by an explosion, and another reactor in the same plant caught fire. In addition to the Daiichi plant, cooling ability in three of four reactors at a second plant, Fukushima Daini, has also been compromised.
Japanese officials have already evacuated residents within a 12 mile radius, and warned that people within 20 miles of the Daiichi leak should stay indoors to avoid being sickened by the radiation. Slightly elevated radiation levels were detected in Tokyo, but not at levels that pose any risk to human health.
The most recent explosion at Fukushima followed announcements that fuel rods in the Unit 2 reactor were exposed to air for two hours the previous evening due to human error. Furthermore, a “suppression pool” at the bottom of Unit 2 was believed breached, escalating the danger that high levels of radiation could escape the plant. However, the lack of cooling capacity is the most pressing issue. Fuel rods that become too hot react with water and create hydrogen gas that collects in the containment building. When hydrogen gas collects in sufficient quantities, it explodes. Hydrogen gas was the cause of earlier explosions at two other reactors at the Fukushima complex on Friday and Monday.
As Japan works furiously to contain the leak and stabilize the plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that dose rates of up to 400 millisiervert per hour (mSv/hr) have been reported at the site. According to the World Health Organization, an average person is exposed to 3mSv in a year. Until the plant is stabilized and the full scope of radiation leakage is known, it remains to be seen what the short and long term effects on health will be.
The aftermath of the Japanese nuclear crisis could have lasting political effects by derailing or postponing nuclear development in the U.S. The Obama administration had previously proposed expanding the domestic nuclear program through $36 billion in loan guarantees for 20 new nuclear plants in order to meet future energy needs. The events in Japan have already prompted several politicians to call for a moratorium on new nuclear plant construction in areas susceptible to earthquakes. Others, such as Senate Energy Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D), believe the US can learn from the events in Japan but that a moratorium on is unnecessary. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the Japanese nuclear crisis promises to fuel debate on the sagacity of utilizing nuclear energy to meet our future needs.
Written by: Scott Taylor, GIELR Staff