What’s Left: Radioactive Danger



Andrew Philipson

This past Friday, March 11, a 9.0 earthquake, one of the strongest in recorded history, hit Japan. This triggered a massive tsunami that engulfed most of coastal Japan, causing a reported “8,805 deaths, 2,628 injured, and 12,664 people missing” (Japanese National Police Agency).

Without a doubt, Japan is one of the better-suited countries to deal with earthquakes, tsunamis and the like, but the tsunami hit an unexpected (and unprepared) site: The Fu­kushima Nuclear Plant.

When the earthquake hit, the reactors were automatically turned off, but flooding due to the tsunami knocked out backup generators which power emergency cooling to the plant, meaning that the temperature of the nuclear reactors has been steadily increasing.

The Japanese (with help from other nuclear nations) have been doing everything in their power to cool the reactors, but the uncontained radiation from the plant prevents people from getting too close, so attempts to spray or drop water on the reactors have been futile.

Obviously this catastrophic event brings the hazards of nuclear power to light, but many turn to our own gov­ernment to ask of our own preparedness for a similar incident.

A study published in 2010 in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, a journal of the Ameri­can Medical Associa­tion found that “almost half of the 38 states that took part [in the survey] had no plan for protecting public health in the event of a radiation emergency.”

Similarly, the U.S. government had no strategy for contain­ing the spillage from the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 in Harrisburg, P: cleanup of the failed nuclear re­actor took 14 years and over $1 billion.

So the question re­mains: it is more apt to invest in safer energy on the whole, establishing better emergency plans and designing safer plants, or is the scale truly measured in whether or not their were human casualties?

I don’t deny that Japan wasn’t aptly prepared to handle a large earthquake/tsunami. Earthquakes of 9.0 magnitude are few and far-between, and it would be unreasonable to expect a country to be fully invulnerable to these catastrophes.

Still, is the message that nuclear power is infallible, or that we got lucky?

Many supporters of nuclear power point to automobiles – in the event of a crash, almost the entire car becomes completely wrecked to the point of non-recognition, but the passengers remain safe – meaning that the lack of human casualties due to the nuclear reactor in Japan point to successful design that markets survivability over salvage-ability. The “Fukushima I Nuclear Accidents” are not the same as the total annihilation of a car in an auto wreck.

The partial core meltdowns in three separate reactors are not evidence of survivability over salvage-ability, they are an example of sheer luck: at the moment, we have avoided catastrophic meltdown similar to that of Chernobyl (which resulted in anywhere from 4,000 to a million deaths from toxic radiation, and the complete evacuation of the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat, Ukraine).

We should count our blessings that one of America’s greatest allies has the ability to discuss the future of nuclear power, and wasn’t wiped out because of it. But, we need to assess the value of nuclear power compared to its astronomical risk.

It’s not like this couldn’t happen to us: the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is near a major fault line, and is also close to the ocean, making it equally susceptible to the same type of earthquake/tsunami combination that could cause meltdown.

The Indian Point power plant, only 40 miles away from New York City, also sits on a fault line and is so dangerous to the point that Governor Cuomo has called for the plant’s shut down (Tom Weis, President of Climate Crisis Solutions).

We need to seriously reassess our desire to continue down the path to nu­clear energy when other safer, and even more efficient methods of harnessing energy exist.

“No energy source is without its impacts, but I have never heard of a catastrophic ‘so­lar explosion,’ ‘wind spill,’ or ‘geothermal meltdown'” (Weis). It’s time to stop obsessing over the stigma associated with nuclear power and cut the junk: we simply can’t afford its downsides.