The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

by Ryan Hay

EHS Home

The nuclear incident that occurred on March 11, 2011 at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Naraha, Japan has created an everlasting toll on the surrounding towns, communities, and citizens for years to come and potentially the world. The events that led to the meltdown occurred after two large waves approximately 35 feet tall created by a tsunami, slammed into the reactor facility, causing the power to cease, making the plant unable to cool the reactor. The days following the tsunami and earthquake, teams of physicists and workers at the plant attempted to prevent a nuclear disaster by trying to cool the reactor down as quickly as possible trying all feasibly possible solutions of cooling the reactor. Events that transpired have left future generations of the area to deal with the contamination to the environment, from the soil to the ocean.  Now, over two years later the disaster is one of the most serious threats in the Asia-Pacific region to public health and in regards to nuclear contamination, it is the worst case the world has ever experienced.  The damaged nuclear site continues to leak contaminated water threatening the entire Pacific Ocean and cleanup will almost certainly require a global effort.
The reason for a nuclear meltdown is when the core of the reactors has not been cooled down and/or has not had its uranium decay washed away. The products of uranium and radiation decay can cause a number of negative things happen such as explosions, and meltdowns as seen at the Fukushima power plant. When a nuclear meltdown occurs, various chemicals and gases are released that can cause harm to people. This is combined with the fact that the chemicals can cause instant combustion, causing explosions, which leads to even more bodily harm. At the Fukushima power plant, eleven members of the team at the power plant were injured after the combustion of the chemicals after the nuclear meltdown began. In short, nuclear meltdowns can cause long term damage to the environment surrounding the area of the meltdown, along with possibly deadly consequences to humans.
Ryan RayText Box: Fukushima Nuclear ExplosionAfter the accident, many measurements have been taken that indicates several radioactive materials are leaking into the Pacific Ocean and are being absorbed in the ground water. The materials are cesium-134 and 137 and also iodine-131.  Cesium-137 which has a half-life of 30 years and can be very easily absorbed into bodily tissues and means that it will be a threat for many decades to come to humans.  Recently, officials have taken measurements indicating that escaping water from the plant has an increased level of strontium-90 which is a more serious and dangerous radioactive material than cesium because it is easily absorbed in the bones of humans and animals because it acts like calcium. To stop the leakage, the owner of the nuclear plant TEPCO has proposed erecting a subterranean barrier and freezing the ground, but this has never been attempted before in regards to massive amounts of radiation leakage. Erecting additional walls around the nuclear site has also been proposed, but both of these solutions are only temporary because ultimately the radioactive material still has to be dealt with properly. The most immediate problem at the site is the hundreds of tons of water poured over the damaged reactor every day to keep the molten fuel cool.  If the fuel is not kept cool then this would almost certainly lead to another disaster. TEPCO made a statement last summer reporting that every day as much as 300 tons of toxic groundwater was seeping into the Pacific Ocean which sparked fears about the potential contamination of fish which is one of the world’s major food sources.
Now the Fukushima disaster radioactive cleanup is entering a very critical stage with TEPCO beginning the removal of nearly 1500 spent fuel assemblies from reactor No. 4 which is the first step in a long decommissioning process that is expected to last three decades.  Since the disaster over the last 32 months, workers have upgraded and reinforced the reactor building and covered the building with a huge steel canopy.  The risks are significant for the removal of the fuel particularly if the fuel assemblies collide or are exposed from the water.  Even if the plan goes well, officials concede that securing the problems with reactor No. 4 is just the first step with work to remove molten fuel from three other damaged reactors that suffered meltdown will not begin for at least another six years.  Radiation levels from the other three reactors are still very high and too high for humans to enter.  Robots have been used in an attempt to determine the exact location of the molten fuel thus far has failed.  Officials are assuming that gravity has hazardous material deep in the reactor basements.  Handling spent fuel rods could prove that least of Japan’s nuclear worries with the many potential dangers ahead.
Text Box: Fukushima Nuclear Fallout Map future generations of the Japanese people that will live in the surrounding region of the Fukushima plant will definitely deal with the various things especially the declination of their surrounding environment. Not to mention the various effects of it spreading in the air towards the United States and other countries. A recent report suggests that at least 180 cases of various cancers will arise in the next decade and a half in the region due to the effects of radiation and the chemicals and gases released by the meltdown. Also, the Japanese government has currently established a radius of 12 miles around the radiated plant and is said not to be deemed habitable for twenty-five years until the cleanup is completed. Due to the top layers of soil being contaminated, the Japanese government has decided to have workers dig up the top layers of radioactive soil. In a money saving sense, it is understandable that they are attempting to save money, on already what was projected to be a multibillion dollar cleanup.
The whole world has questioned since the devastating disaster in March of 2011 if everything was up to code and the latest standards, and if it could have been avoided. What measures can be implemented on existing and future nuclear reactors to avoid such a disaster? Reports state that the Fukushima power plant was not up to certain international standards. In 2008, a report written about an inspection on the facility said that holes in the walls made for wires would allow water into the rooms that are needed to run the facility adequately, which led to the facilities ultimate demise. With that being said, the buildings that house the reactor and associated equipment needed to manage the facility were not fully watertight. Also, springs that are fit on the reactor to withstand an earthquake or catastrophic event did not meet the required standards. A small local news agency spoke with someone who worked inside of the plant and said that workers believed that they were well prepared for any natural disaster or emergency.
In conclusion, this disaster has most surely damaged the Asia-Pacific region for many decades to come, but there are potentially much greater dangers to face during the cleanup process for the entire world.  TEPCO is only days from beginning the removal of 1,500 irradiated spent fuel rods from reactor No. 4 to a safer location.  Because of a hydrogen blast after the initial meltdown, the building was damaged.  Removing fuel rods from a damaged pool has never been attempted.  Because of the instability of the building and the debris left from the blast many critics feel the process is volatile and any mistake could create a new nuclear disaster that might be our worst ever. The radiation levels in reactors 1, 2, and 3 are so high that the area is not accessible to human beings.  No one knows for certain where the molten core within the basements of the buildings are resting and just how far it has penetrated through their floors.  At present, the technology does not exist to effectively remove this molten fuel. If nuclear reactors are to be used as a power source for our growing industrial and mechanized world, then the facilities must be designed to be self-sustainable, if needed detachable complexes with multiple redundant backups that ultimately will not fail under the most severe conditions.  Decisions involving nuclear safety cannot be about budgets and money, but always about safety.  But, unfortunately this is not the world we live in and no matter how many probabilistic risk assessments (PRAs) are performed by the most gifted professors at the most renowned universities, the world will always have disasters when involving nature and atomic energy.  On an encouraging note, after the disaster Japan did shut down ALL of its nuclear reactors to do a round of check-up maintenance, showing Japan’s concern to divert another disaster from happening ever again. Hopefully Japan has learned from the tens of serious injuries, the enormous cost of this accident and of its long term cleanup process over the next thirty years that this can never happen again.  Most importantly avoiding accidents can be done by the handling of radioactive material in the most respected and controlled manner to ensure that we do not damage the fragile world we live in for our present generation and more importantly for the many generations to follow more than we already have through our sometimes irresponsible and foolish actions.


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