News Bulletin March 11, 2016: At the site of the 3/11/2011 earthquake, stress had been building up in the Earth’s crust for decades. When it released, that stress caused one of the most damaging quakes on record. The earth moved more than 20 meters over a 500-mile zone and the resulting earthquake released as much energy as a 45-megaton hydrogen bomb (to put this in perspective, this is 30,000 times more powerful as the bomb that leveled Hiroshima). It was the fourth-strongest earthquake recorded since 1900 and the strongest earthquake to strike Japan in recorded history. The quake shifted the Earth’s axis by somewhere between 4 and 10 inches, altering the length of a day by nearly 2 microseconds.
Then came the water. The moving rocks shoved a wall of water across the Pacific Ocean. The seafloor began rising towards the surface, and as the water ran into the shallower depths it piled up to a height of more than 40 meters (140 feet) before it swept over the land. The tsunami slammed into the coast of Japan, killing more than 15,000 people and destroying or damaging more than a million buildings. This was among the worst natural disasters to hit a nation known for natural disasters, and that was only the start.
Near the city of Fukushima was a complex of six nuclear reactors. The quake itself caused the operating reactors to scram (shut down) as they were designed to do. With the electrical grid busted by the earthquake, Fukushima’s emergency diesel generators kicked on and powered the site including cooling water pumps—again, as they were designed to do. But then the tsunami hit. Seawater climbed over the seawall and inundated the diesel generators, shutting them down. Lacking cooling water, the fuel—including the radioactive fission products—heated up and began to melt.
Wow! If the earthquake wasn’t enough and the tsunami wasn’t enough, surely the nuclear power plant meltdown and exposed radiation piled on top of those other two events would have been the ultimate world disaster. But it wasn’t. No one has died from exposure from any radiation released by the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown. And there were no radiation leaks from the other 50 nuclear power reactors on the islands of Japan from the earthquake and after shocks. But Japan shut them all down for political (not technical) reasons and has paid an extreme economic price for it.
“Radioactivity escaping into the environment” sounds scary no matter how small the levels, which probably explains why there was so much bad information put out about the environmental impact of Fukushima’s radioactive releases. The question to ask is not “Is there any radioactivity present?” but rather, “How much, and is it enough to be harmful?”
The highest radiation dose rates measured were clearly elevated, but were also too low to cause short-term or long-term health risks. Two of those elements were plutonium and americium. Side Note: Why do those two elements sound familiar? They are the same elements that were release at the 2/14/2014 radiation leak at WIPP. Again, the amount released at WIPP was minuscule compared to what is harmful to the human body. WIPP will be re-opening in 2016 after a few safety upgrades learned from the accident.
We heard a lot in the last five years about the impact of the this radioactivity on fish and other sea life in the Pacific too; reports (and photos) of bloody tumors, starfish with abnormal numbers of limbs, even stories about vast swathes of seafloor covered with dead or dying sea creatures. Guess what? These stories have been pretty much debunked by oceanographers and marine biologists, as well as myth-busting sites and some well-informed bloggers like me. The scientific consensus seems to be that this radioactivity has not (and likely will not) cause long-lasting devastation on land or in the sea.
Fear of the unknown is always difficult to overcome. The best and only way is to dig into the details and learn what you can. The worst thing you could do is accept the sound bites of the anti-movements without understanding both sides of the issue. This applies to almost everything in our lives, especially climate change and politics.
As for Japan, the country is restarting about 40 of the original reactors after making a few additional safety upgrades, again lessons learned from what happen at Fukushima. Most times, accidents are the best learning tools. While nuclear reactor accidents have always been thought to be so devastating and world-changing we do know them by just one name: Three Mile Island (1979 and no one died), Chernobyl (1986 and 47 firemen died), and Fukushima (2011 and no one died). Over 60 years and 437+ reactors in daily use, I would say that is a pretty good safety record.
The next generation reactors are even safer and solved the major concerns about any nuclear power plant: waste and meltdown radiation exposure. Now, if we can just get over all this risk aversion to radiation and build them.