3. Fukushima Daiichi Meltdown

Nuclear disaster reframes the nuclear debate

Dec 20, 2011
Outside Magazine
Plant workers attempt to measure radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Plant workers attempt to measure radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.    Photo: IAEA Imagebank/flickr

It's hard to overstate the tragedy brought by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Northern Japan on March 11. Beyond the 20,000 fatalities, the event led to the worst nuclear accident in 25 years, the long-lasting impacts of which we're only beginning to understand. But the fact that the Fukushima Prefecture government launched 30-year program to monitor the health of those exposed to radiation is a good symbol of just how severe a toll it may take on human life. While it released much less radiation than the Chernobyl accident, the fallout spread out over an area about the size of Chicago, and as winds changed direction, the radiation did, too. Snow and rain pulled the airborne radiation into the ecosystem, which scientists are now trying to measure by outfitting monkeys with dosimeter collars and releasing them into evacuation zones.

As the plant officials tried desperately to get control over the reactors during the weeks and months after the tsunami hit, they generated thousands of tons of radioactively contaminated water, which ended up in the ocean. Radioactivity has been detected as far as 25 miles offshore and it will surely be concentrated in fish as it climbs up the marine food chain.

And then there's the political fallout. Germany resolved to phase out its nuclear energy by 2020 and the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission found a number of chinks in the emergency preparedness armor of this country's more than 100 commercial reactors. These weaknesses became more glaring after the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Virginia. The quake called the safety of the North Anna nuclear plant—which wasn't built with large earthquakes in mind—into question.

Read more at the New Yorker and e360

Filed To: Politics, Science, Japan