The Fukushima Fallout: No Cause for Concern

by Kaitlyn Dally on March 27, 2014

        In 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the coast of Japan and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Following the natural disasters, three of the six nuclear reactors in the plant suffered meltdowns, and in total released more than 30% of the radiation released from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. The reactors were correctly shut down during the initial earthquake, but subsequent power outages and generator failures prevented successful cooling and there were eventually explosions in the reactors.

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Functioning in almost the same way as coal-burning power plants, nuclear power plants produce energy by heating water into highly pressurized steam, which in turn drives turbine generators. What differentiates nuclear plants from fossil fuel plants, however, is the method by which water is heated. The plants use enriched elements – typically uranium – and induce nuclear fission to break the atom and release high amounts of energy, thereby heating the water and producing steam. The water also serves as a coolant, ensuring that the uranium does not overheat and melt. Nuclear power plants also have other methods to ensure safety, including control rods, concrete liners, radiation shields, and steel containment vessels. These containment structures ensure that radiation and/or radioactive steam does not escape in the event of an accident. It should be noted that the nuclear plant in Chernobyl did not contain the secondary containment structures, and that is one of the reasons the accident was so disastrous. In fact, if properly functioning, a “nuclear power plant actually releases less radioactivity into the atmosphere than a coal-fired power plant” (howstuffworks.com).

The words “nuclear power” and “radioactive” stir up a lot of fear in the people’s minds, as high doses of radiation can be extremely harmful to the human body and to the environment, sometimes even fatal. Radiation can cause harm by directly killing cells, or by causing mutations in DNA, leading to long-term problems like cancer and birth defects. If exposed to high levels of radiation, a person can suffer from radiation sickness, also known as radiation poisoning: an often deadly assemblage of symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to internal bleeding and neurological effects.

The absolute terror caused by discussing radiation is however, highly unfounded. While there is no true minimum level of radiation exposure that is safe for humans, people are already constantly exposed to various forms of radiation, most often cosmic and UV radiation that is present in the outside environment. Just from walking outside under the sun, from eating a banana, or from receiving an x-ray, people are exposed to minimal amounts of radiation every day. It takes very high levels of radiation to cause serious damage, and even somewhat high levels of radiation have negligible effects on the body. For example, a dose of 10rem – equivalent to about 5 CT scans – would only increase lifetime cancer risk by about half of one percent. It is completely impossible to prevent exposure to radiation.

When the reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant exploded, breaching the steel containment vessels, radioactive waste, mainly radioactive steam and water, was able to escape containment and spill into the surrounding area. While this disaster and continued radioactive leaks from the plant has the potential to cause harm to the people and the environment of the Fukushima region, there have recently been concerns about a disastrous patch of radioactive material travelling across the Pacific Ocean, coming to devastate the West Coast by April of this year. These concerns, however, have been proven to be exaggerated, as reports from the UN and WHO have determined that the radiation will be so diluted by the time that is reaches the United States and Canada that it will not pose any harm to sea life or to people using the water for recreational purposes.

The meltdown is multiple reactors in the Fukushima power plant in 2011 of course were an immediate cause for concern, particularly due to the precedence for nuclear disasters set by Chernobyl almost thirty years ago. Despite mechanical failures and mismanagement at the plant, very little of the highly radioactive water actually reached sources outside the plant, and therefore harm to humans has proven to be minimal. In fact, residents near the plant were only exposed to levels of radiation ranging from below to slightly above the average amount of radiation that people in Japan are exposed to yearly. Though the radiation is detectable as it crosses the ocean, it is not any more hazardous than any other forms of background or human-caused radiation already present in the ocean and the environment.

The water still contained within the Fukushima plant remains highly toxic and highly radioactive. However, the fear of a nuclear holocaust devastating the West Coast of North America remains unsubstantiated, as the radioactive water still remains contained within the Japanese power plant and has not reached the Pacific Ocean, and the spike in detected radiation has been steadily decreasing since the initial disaster three years ago.

Sources:

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/25/fukushimas_radiation_is_approaching_the_west_coast_heres_why_theres_no_need_to_panic/

http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-power3.htm

http://www.livescience.com/13250-radiation-health-effects-japan-nuclear-reactor-cancer.html

 

 

 


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