’ questions are not particularly high on our list of inquiries. We humans tend to do most of our learning by figuring things out as we go along.
Foresight is not our strength either, or so it would appear, from the very long list of disasters that could have been prevented.
A valve indicator that gave ambiguous information caused the Three Mile Island reactor accident in 1979.
In the world’s worst plane crash at Tenerife airport (Spain) in 1977, a pilot took off without clearance. Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico showed that neither machines nor people always behave as expected.
The type of accident that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant is known as a station blackout. It means loss of off-site AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of on-site emergency power —the diesel generators.
The possibility of a station blackout has been one of the great concerns for nuclear scientists for decades. The unimaginable (though plausible) twin impacts of an extremely powerful earthquake followed by a 10 meter high tsunami knocked out the General Electric designed BWR Mark 1 reactor system, one of the first boiling water reactors ever developed for commercial reactors.
In 2009 the OECD carried out a review of Japan’s risk management policies concerning large-scale floods and earthquakes. Among other recommendations, the report states that: “Industries that can trigger special harm in case of flood accidents, such as chemical and nuclear industries, should be required by law to move to safer areas.”
Such recommendations come too late for the nuclear plant workers and their families in Fukushima Prefecture.
At present, radiation leaking from the plants comes primarily from radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer. Elevated traces of iodine 131 have now been found in soil in North America and Europe, and in milk samples in various parts of North America.
Children are considered most vulnerable to this form of radiation exposure, which is usually absorbed by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated milk or water. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, thyroid cancer rates in children in Belarus and the Ukraine increased substantially.
Health Canada issued a statement on 15 March 2011 stating it “does not recommend Canadians take any specific actions to protect themselves from a radiological emergency, including the purchase or consumption of potassium iodide.”What if
the people working in the ministry are overly optimistic about the current level of threat to Canadian public health? The lack of leadership provided by Canada Health in this matter is surely worrying. The Canadian government at this time has other priorities than keeping the public informed about developments in Japan.
On 2 April, 2011 the Canada Health website suggested that “The damaged nuclear power reactors in Japan are not expected to pose a health risk to residents of British Columbia or the rest of Canada. Given the thousands of kilometers between Japan and Canada's west coast, any radioactive material that might be pushed eastward via wind patterns is expected to be dispersed over the ocean long before it reaches Canada. “
But what if
it isn’t? What if
there is simply too much of the radiation to be dispersed effectively? The Public Safety website does not address emergency provisions for people, such as locations of shelters. And why ‘might’? Every elementary student learns that prevailing winds blow to the east, so a good deal of the airborne isotopes are bound to travel that way. Maps of seasonally prevailing air currents confirm this (http://www.weatherimages.org/data/imag192.html)
The severity of a nuclear accident is rated on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). This scale runs from 0, indicating an abnormal situation with no safety consequences, to 7, indicating an accident causing widespread contamination with serious health and environmental effects.
The Chernobyl disaster is the only level 7 accident on record, while the Three Mile Island accident was a level 5 accident.
On 25 March 2011, international experts and state authorities from Russia, Finland, Austria, France and others considered raising the Japanese event to level 6, a "serious accident," one level above the Three Mile Island accident, and second only to Chernobyl. Scientific consultants for Greenpeace put the severity of the accident at level 7.
The current risk could be only the beginning. If it turns out that the fuel rods cannot be cooled sustainably a full-fledged meltdown will occur which is likely to liberate radioactive plutonium 239. The danger from plutonium 239 is much more severe than from iodine 131 because of its much longer half life (24,400 years vs. 8 days) and type of radiation (alpha vs. beta).
The Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) that owns the Fukushima reactors has been criticized for failing to divulge the extent of the accident to the wider public and the media. Tepco President Masataka Shimizu has largely been unavailable, appearing at only one news conference, on March 13.
Tepco is the 4th largest electric utility in the world and could very well face nationalization in the near future or even bankruptcy over this accident.
The Japan Times reported on 29 March 2011 that during press conferences company officials have only been able to repeat words of apology and promised to "check" on the issues brought up.
It has been more than three weeks since the awful earthquake struck Japan and caused widespread devastation and death; it was possibly the most expensive disaster ever – yet it would seem a combination of economic greed, unfounded trust in technology and our own inabilities to assess risks accurately have added to its human loss (or cost?).
The world might now face a worse nuclear disaster than Chernobyl, whose 25th anniversary on April 26 will be a timely reminder that nuclear power comes with a steep price tag – for all of humankind. A positive outcome may be that people who advocate the precautionary principle will no longer be automatically dismissed as ‘environmentalists’.Dr. S. W. Lautensach,
Director, Human Security Institute (Canada)
Dr. A. K. Lautensach, Ass. Prof., UNBC Terrace