Sunday, March 20, 2011

How grave is the Japan nuclear crisis?

Have been following a discussion on a mailing list for leftwing scientists (Scientists for Global Responsibility, of which I'm a member).

According to the Infowars website, "the situation at Fukushima represents the greatest environmental disaster in the history of humanity, far more dangerous that Chernobyl”.

Fukushima nuclear power plant
Pic: International Business Times
The BBC and the Japanese authorities are accused by some of downplaying the unfolding catastrophe - and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is blamed for allowing the Japanese reactor building and accumulations of spent fuel.

El Pais newspaper this week (16th March), stated that in 2007 an earthquake of magnitude 6.8 damaged nuclear reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, run by Tepco, the same company that runs Fukushima, and Tepco acknowledged that the nuclear plant was not designed to withstand earthquakes that strong.

A scientist on the SGR mailing list comments “Given that quakes of over 6 are relatively common in Japan, I wonder what thresholds the other plants in Japan were designed to.”

The Japan Broadcasting Corporation under the headline “High radiation level detected 30km from nuke plant” (updated 19th March) says “Japan's science ministry says radiation levels of up to 0.17 millisieverts per hour have been detected about 30 kilometers northwest of the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Experts say exposure to those levels for 6 hours would result in absorption of the maximum level considered safe for 1 year.”

Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, offers this contribution to the debate on the unfolding events in Japan. He takes a broader look at the issues raised by both the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear emergency.

Latest on Guardian website : "Japan prays for success of Fukushima 50 in fight to save nuclear plant. A fearless band of scientists and workers trying to stop a meltdown have inspired the entire country."

"The end of the Nuclear Era"

A debate has already begun, and will continue for years, as to whether the Japan earthquake and tsunami are a unique event, or does it, in the words of the German magazine Der Spiegel, “mark the end of the Nuclear Era”.

For example, expect to hear more about this: The Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor that exploded on March 12 was a General Electric Mark I reactor, a design criticized by nuclear experts and even by the US’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff for decades, as being susceptible to explosion and containment failure. 

It’s claimed that a top official of the US Atomic Energy Commission first proposed banning this design, which is in common use, nearly 40 years ago. 

See this factsheet from the Nuclear Information & Resource Service.

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