|Splitting more than hairs|
Fukushima I (Fukushima Daiichi in Japanese) is a nuclear power plant in Japan, consisting of six light water boiling water reactors. On 11 March 2011 it was near the epicenter of an 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the accompanying tsunami. The plant suffered massive damage, most notably to the diesel generator, fuel tanks and power lines that supplied emergency cooling to the reactors. The diesel generators were, for some reason, situated only just above sea level; this was the site's fatal flaw. If not for that location, the incident might never have happened.
When flooding from the tsunami shut down the diesel generators, reactors 1-3 began heating up. The only option available for cooling the reactors off was to flood them with some of the sea water that now surrounded the building -- but that much salt water would have permanently destroyed the reactors. Not wanting to lose their investment unless they absolutely had to, the owners of the plant refused to flood the reactors with salt water until the government ordered them to, by which time it was too late.
Of the six reactors, three of them experienced a core meltdown (a technical term not to be confused with the iconic mushroom cloud) and Units 1, 3 and 4 were the sites of hydrogen explosions that destroyed the roofs of the reactor buildings. Units 5 and 6 were not operational at the time of the accident, but their spent fuel pools began to overheat due to the loss of water from the cooling system.
On the International Nuclear Event Scale, the Fukishima incident ranks as a 7, up there with Chernobyl, but the spread of radioactive substances isn't as pronounced. Unlike Chernobyl, there was no gigantic fire pushing particles into the atmosphere, and the wind was blowing towards the sea most of the time. There was no radiological impact outside of Japan (despite hysterical claims of baby deaths on the US west coast derived by cherry-picking random variations to manufacture a trend). Health Canada put the extra radiation in Canada's air due to Fukushima for 18 March at 0.5 nSv, compared to background levels from 20 to 1200 nSv/day depending on the region.
Aftereffects of the meltdown are still ongoing. In mid-2013, a new emergency was declared regarding leakage of radioactive water from storage tanks where it was held after being used to cool reactors, and the resulting nuclear contamination of seawater. There are concerns that Japanese authorities may have downplayed the scale of this crisis.
Reactions (not the nuclear kind)
Whilst this was certainly an important nuclear incident and its local impact was severe (a large area was evacuated), the response from certain areas displays classic knee-jerk reactions. Germany announced plans to shut down its reactors early, closing eight of them built before 1980 immediately, even though the nuclear regulator said this was uncalled for. This did not go well with the utilities, which sued the government for €1.5 billion. The German Supreme Administrative Court later ruled the shutdowns unlawful in January 2014. Other countries are looking to imitate the Germans. Protests occurred worldwide, ironically resulting in more deaths than the original disaster.
Looking at it realistically; the nuclear plant was hit by one of the biggest earthquakes in recent times and a 15-meter-high tsunami. That it didn't explode, that there are no deaths attributed to radiation as of yet (there were two deaths at the plant from the tsunami and one from heart attack) and that the release of radiation was both limited and local is testament to the robustness of even old, '70s-era nuclear reactors and their housing. Instead of asking "Why are we building dangerous nuclear power plants?" the question should be "Why the hell are we putting nuclear power plants in geologically unstable areas without making sure they can withstand the conditions they could experience there?"
The majority of the criticism for the event should be focused on the poor handling of the situation by both the Japanese government and the owner of the nuclear power plant, rather than on the entire concept of using nuclear electricity.
Much remains unknown about the causes of the accident, about what is happening now at the plants, about what might happen next, and about the possible health hazards to the populations living near the plants. Building hypothesis to explain the unknown is not irrational by itself, as building hypothesis is an important step of scientific research. However some of the theories that were proposed, be they emphasizing danger or safety, seemed to be quite fragile.
"Unit 4 is leaning"
In May 2011, the view that the Unit 4 reactor building was leaning in a significant, visible way was expressed by the "news" network RT, using webcam pictures as purported evidence in support of that theory. In the same month, Arnold Gundersen expressed the view that "Unit 4 is leaning." While it is true that the Tokyo Electric Power Company reinforced the spent fuel pool supporting structure in Unit 4, it was not a response to the speculated leaning of the whole building. The "Unit 4 is leaning" theory lost momentum in the subsequent months, and was forgotten after journalists were allowed to have a close look at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in November 2011.
"Radiation doesn't affect people who are smiling"
In a lecture held on 21 March 2011 in Fukushima City, professor Shunichi Yamashita of Nagasaki University said "放射線の影響は、実はニコニコ笑ってる人には来ません," which translates as "To tell you the truth, radiation doesn't affect people who are smiling." This statement sounds very bizarre out of context, but it might have been a reference to the fact that psychological and psychogenic health problems after Chernobyl were far worse than radiation-related health problems. Later, it turned out this may be the case for Fukushima.
- What Happens During a Nuclear Meltdown?, Scientific American
- Are Babies Dying in the Pacific Northwest Due to Fukushima? A Look at the Numbers, Scientific American
- Fukushima leak is 'much worse than we were led to believe, BBC News
- Scrapping nuclear plants to cost billions, Deutsche Welle
- RWE to sue after German nuclear plant shut-down ruled illegal, Reuters
- Indian police kill anti-nuclear protester, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
- You would think they would be prepared for things like this.
- "Very, Very Serious”: Unit No. 4 leaning, in danger of falling — Gov’t confirms stabilization efforts underway"
- "Fukushima - One Step Forward and Four Steps Back as Each Unit Challenged by New Problems"
- Fukushima installation work of supporting structure at the bottom of Spent Fuel Pool (Completion of installation of steel support pillars), TEPCO
- Devastation at Japan Site, Seen Up Close, The New York Times
- Full transcript
- Fukushima: Fallout of fear, Nature