After nuclear meltdown, reactor is safe, says Japan
Eight months after a massive tsunami destroyed its key nuclear power plant, Japan is now saying that the site is under control. Why did we rush to predict Armageddon at the time?
Earlier this month Yasuhiro Sonoda drank a glass of water. He was reported to be ‘visibly nervous’ as hundreds of cameras watched his every move.
Sonoda is a Japanese MP and he was drinking decontaminated water from a puddle beneath the Fukushima nuclear plant, the site of this year’s meltdown and the world’s biggest nuclear crisis for 25 years, to show that after only eight months the clean up operation was really working.
This weekend, to clear up any remaining doubt, international journalists were given a tour of the stricken plant – one of the biggest nuclear generators in the world. They saw ‘twisted and overturned trucks, crumbling reactor buildings and piles of rubble virtually untouched since the wave struck.’
But Fukushima’s boss, Masao Yoshida, told them that, though in the first week after the earthquake he thought he was going to die when three of six reactors went into meltdown, he now believed that Fukushima was ‘stabilised’ and locals could live ‘without fear.’
Despite the fact that much of the countryside around the plant is still sealed off due to earlier radioactive leaks and complete decontamination and close-down of the site will probably take 30 years, Japanese experts say they will achieve a ‘cold shutdown’ by the end of the year, the first key step toward removing the reactors’ nuclear fuel and storing it safely.
The death toll from the meltdown is still relatively tiny. Two workers were killed during the earthquake in March but there have been no deaths as yet from radiation exposure. Six workers have exceeded the lifetime safe limit for radiation but are still working normally. A further 300 have received ‘significant’ radiation. Over 160,000 local people have been screened for radiation and none have any health risks.
The most pessimistic forecast is that around 1,000 people will eventually die from cancer as a result of their exposure to radiation from Fukushima – an increase of just 0.1% in cancer deaths in Japan and far fewer than the 20,000 people killed directly by the earthquake and the tsunami.
So was the media completely wrong to allow such a dominant narrative to grow out of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima? By doing so they stole all the headlines and diverted attention from where it should have been directed: at the victims of the tsunami. They exaggerated the risks, influencing the world against nuclear in favour of coal and oil – fuels that cause global warming.
On the other hand, perhaps the panic was wise. The death and destruction of the tsunami was a natural disaster, beyond our control, the like of which will happen only incredibly rarely. A nuclear meltdown is man-made, avoidable and unleashes damage that we can neither fully measure, nor can ever fully control.
- Are you more interested in a small story that might affect you directly or a major event that is happening far away?
- Is it more important to focus on issues that we can do something about, such as global warming, rather than huge natural disasters like an asteroid hitting earth, about which we can do very little?
- Write two newspaper headlines – one about the tsunami that killed 20,000 people in Japan and one about the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima plant. Ask the class to vote on which one they would rather read. When everyone has finished see which story got most votes.
- Do some research on radiation and write down a list of five activities that have about the same radiation risk...
Some People Say...
“The media loves to scare its audience – it is one sure way of making them listen.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How much radiation has escaped?
- Traces from Fukushima have been measured all over the world. The biggest emission was into the Pacific – about 30 times greater than reported, say independent experts. Radiation levels dangerous to babies were discovered in Tokyo drinking water. Spinach, tea leaves, milk, fish and beef have been contaminated up to 200 miles from the plant.
- And how dangerous is radiation?
- One particle of radiation can cause cancer through cell damage. A millirem is equivalent to seven billion particles of radiation. Each of us is hit by about one millirem of radiation every four days from natural sources – about the same as we get from one dental x-ray or a five hour airline flight. Basically all radiation is dangerous but you can't avoid it unless you live inside a lead coffin.
- Water can't be radioactive itself, but it can have radioactive particles floating in it. Removing those particles is actually quite simple – at which point the water becomes quite safe to drink.
- In nuclear meltdown the core of a nuclear reactor accidentally melts. Once the nuclear fuel (such as uranium or plutonium) starts to melt, it usually leaks out through the various protective containers built around the reactor into the environment.
- Cold shutdown
- A reactor is in cold shutdown when temperatures are stable below boiling point. In other words, when the reactor can be safely controlled and monitored indefinitely.
- Lifetime safe limit
- The US safe limit for adults is considered to be 5,000 millirems per year and for children, 500 millirems.