Amidst Tragedy in Japan, Green News Looks at the Nation’s Nuclear Crisis
Bad things come in threes, the proverb goes, and it has certainly been the case in Japan. First, there was the powerful earthquake. Second, a desolating tsunami. Third, an explosion at a nuclear power plant.
On March 11, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake set off the automatic shut-down systems in 10 of the country’s 55 nuclear power plants—which give Japan a third of its electricity. As a result, the cooling systems in numerous reactors at the Fukushima plant malfunctioned and as the temperatures mounted, so did the pressure inside two reactors. On March 12, radioactive vapor was released into the air to ease the pressure, as the control room reported radiation levels 1,000 times above normal.
Following reported tremors, the Fukushima Dai-ichi (number one) building exploded at 3:36pm. Citing the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the government’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that the reactor’s nuclear containment vessel didn’t suffer a meltdown or explode. Edano claimed the explosion was caused by hydrogen buildup in the steam piping that mingled with oxygen, adding that there was no damage to the container with the nuclear fuel.
The explosion injured four workers and one person was reported dead. The hourly radiation subsequent to the blast was 1,015 microsieverts (an acceptable yearly level of exposure per person) and at the time TEPCO reported that it was falling steadily, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming green news, and for good reason. People within a 20km radius of Fukushima Dai-ichi and a 10km radius of a second reactor nearby were ordered to evacuate.
On Wednesday (March 16), authorities were forced to withdraw workers from the site of Japan’s swelling nuclear catastrophe after the radiation levels surrounding the reactors at the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant at Fukushima experienced a surge. The number of workers dropped from 750 to a skeleton crew of 50 left to shut down the still-operating reactors (before their cores submit to deterioration).
Some part or parts of the plant were emitting 10 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation per hour – which means any given worker would have exceeded the yearly maximum American workers are allowed to be exposed to at nuclear plants (no more than 50mSv in a year) within a single shift. Somewhat mysteriously, the level decreased dramatically by 11:30am to about 6mSv per hour and workers returned.
The threat of a meltdown at Fukushima may be at the forefront of green news across the globe, but it is heightened for the thousands (perhaps even millions) living in Honshu island’s northern extent, Tohoku. Communities in the north are stranded without access to food due to disruptions to Japan’s petrol supplies and no one is feeling the effects more than those in Fukushima’s “exclusion zone.” According to today’s official estimates, the effects of the initial catastrophic day (March 11) claimed at least 3,771 lives and left another 7,843 people missing.