The Fukushima Disaster

Ben Greep

By Benjamin Greep

EHS Home

            The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan was a preventable disaster because of the many early warning signs. These early warning signs include seismographs, tidal wave probes and chronological data. More than two years after the disaster the impact of nuclear meltdown is still coming to light. The massive environmental and health impacts will be felt for decades.

            In March, 2011, a deadly earthquake shook the main island of Honshu in Japan. Following this earthquake was an incredibly large tsunami. Despite the fact that Mother Nature is still an uncontrollable force, there were early warning signs. Japan is known for its frequent earthquakes, considering its location on a major fault line. Seismographs did show signs of a substantial earthquake, but not a devastating as this. Predictions had been made of a major tsunami, through sediment samples taken from farther inland on the island. An earthquake/tsunami of the same proportions hit Japan nearly 1,200 years ago (869 A.D.)

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Fukushima building following the hydrogen explosions. Buildings 1 through 4 from right to left.

            When the tsunami hit Honshu, the Fukushima Daiichi plant was located in the path of the wave. The tidal wave was a massive 13 meters, easily overcoming the plants flood walls and entering the facility. Preceding this, the facilities were being prepared for shutdown. The main power was cut, allowing only backup generators to power the pumps. The floodwater then entered, flooding the generator rooms. This allowed for the uranium to go supercritical, resulting in a nuclear meltdown. Through excessive heat, the reactor began to produce hydrogen in lethal amounts, causing explosions in Buildings 1, 3, and 4. Spent fuel has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean and the air ever since the event. Traces of radioactive particles have been all over the Northern Hemisphere.

The health impacts from this calamity are constantly worsening. Though there have been no deaths, there are health risks. Within a 200 mile radius of the facilities, there is a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer for girls exposed as infants, a 7% increased risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants, a 6% increased risk of breast cancer in females exposed as infants and a 4% higher risk, overall, of developing solid cancers for females.

In addition to major health concerns, the impact on the environment is quite serious. Animals require both potassium and calcium to further develop and grow. Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 emulate these elements, yet are highly radioactive and extremely dangerous to the environment. Strontium-90, for example, mimics the properties of calcium, the main element in bone production. Being radioactive, it undergoes beta decay and can cause cancer in bone marrow cells. It is also not excreted quickly, so it can last in the body for years. Cesium, though quicker to be excreted, has a substantial half-life compared to the age of an organism. Cesium mimics potassium, which is present in the Sodium-Potassium Pump of almost all cells.

Nuclear energy made up approximately 30% of Japan’s primary electricity production in early 2011; that percentage has now dropped to about 10%. Some scientists believe that nuclear power is an efficient, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels; while other scientists believe it is risky. Currently, there are 50 nuclear reactors in Japan. Since the shutdown of these facilities, Japan has been almost primarily dependent on coal and fossil fuels. Future restarting of Japan’s nuclear program awaits regulatory clearance and will take several years for full support.

Following the earthquake, scientists have been rushing to create a better method of predicting future seismic events. America itself has taken this event to heart, deciding to improve regulations for nuclear reactor throughout the USA. The proposals include requiring plant operators to verify that their plans to prevent flood and earthquake damage would perform as advertised. Plants would also be required to install instruments allowing control room operators to monitor the conditions of the spent fuel pools; operators at the Daiichi facility didn’t have a clue what went on the in their pools. Of course, with all these inclusions, the price would sharply rise to build nuclear plants.

Japan should be an example that even though we can’t control our Earth, we can prevent further damage. Early warnings can aid in preventing complete and utter disaster. More than two years after the disaster the impact of nuclear meltdown is still coming to light. The massive environmental and health impacts will be felt for decades. Yet, through chaos comes a better understanding, more security for the years to come.


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