Meltdown alert for Japan's nuclear reactors

As the Japanese are told to brace themselves for their most brutal ordeal since the Second World War, nuclear danger heads the long list of crises.

Japan's eastern nuclear plants are in crisis. Yesterday, as aftershocks continued, there was a second explosion in Fukushima, affecting Reactor 3, while a further reactor suffered a cooling failure. Engineers raced to stop a meltdown.

Suddenly, Chernobyl is much talked of in Japan - the worst nuclear accident in history.

In 1986, the Russian nuclear plant at Chernobyl suffered a series of explosions and the resultant fire sent a plume of radioactive material into the atmosphere, spreading over much of Europe.

Large areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia had to be evacuated with 336,000 being resettled elsewhere. 50 died on site but radiation-related illness has since blighted the lives of thousands.

It's the only nuclear accident classified as Level 7 in a scale of 1 – 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Presently the Japanese reactor crisis is rated as Level 4. But will that rise?

'This is not a serious public health issue at the moment,' said UN scientist Michael Crick. 'It won't be anything like Chernobyl. There the reactor was operating at full power when it exploded and had no containment.'

Nevertheless, 140,000 have been ordered to leave the Fukushima area as a precaution; public anxiety levels are high and the French embassy is evacuating its staff from Tokyo because of radiation risk.

Experts say as long as engineers can keep uranium fuel rods covered with water, they should be able to avoid a major disaster. But Mr Edano, the government spokesman, has admitted the tops of the rods have briefly been exposed.

And it gets worse. Fukushima's damaged Reactor 3 uses plutonium rather than uranium. Plutonium is roughly a 1000 times more radioactive than uranium, and once outside the facility, is hard to detect.

Radiation in the form of alpha particles may not be picked up by geiger counters.

All bets off
This is an awkward issue for the Japanese government. There's long been concern about the wisdom of building nuclear power stations in a country so prone to earthquakes.

Some say the critical moment has passed. But experts were wrong in the financial crisis, and maybe they're wrong here as well. It's not insignificant that the US 7th fleet has withdrawn 100 miles off the coast having picked up high levels of radiation.

And Dr Patterson of Chatham House is wary. The pumping of seawater into the system indicates panic, and the pressure vessels at Fukushima are old. If one of them ruptures as it did at Chernobyl, 'all bets are off', he says.

You Decide

  1. Should we trust 'experts'?
  2. 'If it keeps people calm, it's best to tell a lie – even about nuclear risk.' Do you think this is true for governments?

Activities

  1. Imagine a character in Japan today. Perhaps it's an office worker, a mother, a scientist, a school child, a politician, a nuclear worker. Write their diary for the day, describing how it went.
  2. Research nuclear fission. And then write a short piece entitled 'What is nuclear fission?'

Some People Say...

“Nuclear power is past its sell-by date.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Nuclear power seems important in Japan.
Yes, they're the world's third largest nuclear power user, with 53 reactors, providing 34.5% of their electricity. And there are plans to increase provision to 50% by 2030.
Is that wise ?
The Fukushima plant is 100 times more powerful than Chernobyl, so the risks are high.
And haven't people lied about the safety of the plants?
Yes, in 2002, the president of the country's largest power utility had to resign after he and other senior officials were suspected of falsifying safety records.
So why build them on the east coast which is most vulnerable to earthquakes?
Japan began building its atomic energy system 40 years ago, when seismic activity in the country was comparatively low. This meant designs weren't robust enough for the more serious quakes since then.

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