Where the Worst Threat to the People in Japan Comes From

Japan sits in a unique area where 3 fault lines meet (see illustration here), making this island nation susceptible to bearing the consequences of 10% of the world’s most active volcanoes   When quakes on land occur, are high on the Richter scale and near populated areas, they can have devastating consequences for the families that occupy the region.  Such were the cases following “the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, in which 130,000 people died; and the Great Hanshin earthquake of January 17th, 1995, in which 6,434 people died.”  When the quakes happen off shore as this last one did, the threat of a tsunami is added to the mix and more lives are at risk as a result.

But the greatest threat to human life for the Japanese is not the one’s that nature created in the combined earthquake and tsunami destruction on March 11th this year.  The worst threat is coming from and will continue to come from an object of man’s design – nuclear power sources.  Long after the damage from the natural disasters have been cleaned up, the dead buried and the survivors who suffered physical and emotional trauma have healed, the radiation that is currently leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant along with the likely results of a meltdown from as many as three nuclear reactors, will manifest itself in serious illnesses and cancer deaths for decades to come.

Radiation levels outside the Fukushima complex at one stage stood at 11,930 microsieverts per hour – 400 times the level to which people can safely be exposed in an entire year.  And worse than the radiation threat from these reactors if they do melt down is the radiation that could be emitted from the spent fuel rods that sit next to each reactor above ground and not securely contained like the reactors themselves. Christian Pareti of The Nation magazine explains:

the spent fuel rod pools that sit right next door to the reactors … are packed with radioactive uranium, rise several stories above ground and are always close to the reactor, thus facilitating easy transfer of the fuel rods.  [S]pent fuel rod pools are … highly radioactive, very unstable, extremely dangerous and, compared with reactors, not well supported, contained or looked over.

The spent rods give off considerable amounts of “decay heat” and thus must be submerged in constantly circulating water. Expose them to air for a day or two, and they begin to combust, giving off large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of thirty years. When cesium-137 it enters the environment, it essentially acts like potassium and is taken up by plants and animals that use potassium. (For the record, that includes you.)

The explosions at reactors No. 1 and No. 3 blew apart the respective containment buildings but left the vessels intact. Or so we think. But what did the blasts do to the nearby spent fuel rod pools? On Monday night the news in Japan confirmed that the pool next to reactor No. 3 lost its roof.  If the spent rods start to burn, huge amounts of radioactive material would be released into the atmosphere and would disperse across the Northern Hemisphere.”(Fukushima’s Spent Fuel Rods Pose Grave Danger by Christian Pareti, The Nation, 3/15/11)

We continue to get wake up calls that our sources of energy from toxic chemicals has consequences.  But the heavily invested industries and their supporters in government assure us that they are more safe than not.  Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee tried to analogize the situation in Japan to automobile fatalities from poor road construction or airplane crashes to poorly designed aircraft.

We don’t abandon highway systems because bridges and overpasses collapse during earthquakes. The 1.6 million of us who fly daily would not stop flying after a tragic airplane crash.”

But unlike plane crashes and car deaths from collapsing bridges and overpasses, the death toll and economic damage to a region from nuclear reactor melt downs would be astronomical and long-term, effecting the next two to three generations at least.  To provide for and build reactors that would cover every tragic scenario, man-made and natural, would have crippling cost factors that would and should raise legitimate complaints from the public who are ultimately responsible for any and all costs.

Because nuclear power is highly dangerous, insurance companies will not insure them and banks will not loan to them without guarantees from the government to cover their loans should the private sector company building the reactor default on their loan.  Thus building-in all of the safeguards to cover all hazardous scenarios is not likely to happen.  With people in government like Lamar Alexander continuing to push for their construction this means that some safeguards will be nixed to keep costs down; safeguards that will prevent damages to reactors from the least likely scenarios as we saw in Japan last week.

In the U.S. the worst of these power plants sits in New York state at the Indian Point power plant, positioned 24 miles above New York City and less than 2 miles from an earthquake fault line, where some 17 million people could be affected if things go terribly wrong there.  Two older southern California nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre sit dangerously close to earthquake fault lines where a serious meltdown at either one of these could affect 7.4 million people.

We cannot let our need for a reliable energy base load source like oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy dominate the discussion about how to deal with the catastrophic effects to humans and their living environment AFTER such consequences result.  Tough choices must be made now to prevent these ugly scenarios so we are not looking back after the fact, as the Japanese are today, shaking our heads in disbelief that we didn’t consider such contingencies when we had the opportunity.


Pacific Ring of Fire

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2 responses to “Where the Worst Threat to the People in Japan Comes From

  1. I guess in Japan, there is no choice of where to put the nuclear plants because the entire country is a fault line. I’m not sure if I would want nuclear energy in Japan, but I also don’t know if I would want an end to nuclear energy here. It is a lot cleaner than fossil fuels. I remember Three mile Island but again, that was so long ago, I would think more safeguards have been put into place. I think I trust engineers because I’m married to one (computer)and I do see the care they put into designs. But a tricky topic. And unfortunately, for the people of Japan, another radiation disaster they have to weather. Great post. You always make me think about my views and if they are legitimate or not.

  2. We cannot let our need for a reliable energy base load source like oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy dominate the discussion about how to deal with the catastrophic effects to humans and their living environment AFTER such consequences result.

    Sadly, that’s one of the few times when people are open to it.

    That picture is so sad. It won’t surprise me if we see a spike in cancer around that area in the future. 😦

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