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I’ve been trying to write this blog post for two days, because I wanted to get it right. The events at Fukushima No1 Nuclear Power Plant are frighening and, understandably, they have attracted the attention of the world’s media. The words “meltdown” and “Chernobyl” have been bandied around, and every time I wrote something, the situation moved on, making each of my pronouncements out of date. So forgive me if that has happened again.
Are we looking at a meltdown? Possibly, in that the fuel rods that run the reactor have lost coolant and may be melting. Will that lead to a Chernobyl-style disaster? Almost certainly not, for two reasons: one, at Chernobyl there was a “criticality accident”, when an uncontrolled nuclear reaction took place, which is essentially impossible at any well-designed reactor; and two, because there was no dedicated containment vessel at Chernobyl, unlike the 20cm-thick concrete-and-steel structures at Fukushima, solely designed to contain a full meltdown.
That’s not to say it’s not alarming – apparently the containment vessels have been breached, so radioactive steam (although not fuel) is leaking out, which is part of the reason for the high radiation levels. Also, a spent fuel pool has been damaged, which is less well protected than the reactors themselves, and could also end up leaking. But it seems (from the confused information that is coming out) that coolant systems should be put back in place today. Further, while radiation levels spiked at more than 11 milliSieverts per hour outside the main gate of Fukushima, that is still only about the equivalent of having a CT scan every hour. Obviously you wouldn’t want to do that, but working in those conditions for short periods probably won’t do any lasting damage, and the usual levels have been significantly lower.
It could all get worse, and I don’t want to belittle it. But here is the thing: the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history struck Japan on Friday. 10,000 people may be dead, and more than 3,000 certainly are. This is in a country more used to earthquakes than any in the world. Of those 10,000 possible dead, so far it appears that not one was due to the problems at Fukushima. Even in a worst-case scenario, if the team of fantastically brave nuclear workers who are there trying to fix it are killed, then it is still something of a triumph for Japanese engineering, which – 40 years ago, remember – created a nuclear reactor so solid that, faced with a cataclysm 8,000 times as powerful as the one which devastated Christchurch last month, it is still largely intact.
So by all means build future nuclear power stations in Japan to withstand greater earthquakes. But don’t think this means that nuclear power is unsafe. And, most importantly, don’t let the very human fear of the words “radiation”, “nuclear”, “meltdown” and “Chernobyl” distract us from the real tragedy, which is an unfolding humanitarian disaster of entirely natural and familiar causes. The real problem over the next few days is not going to be radiation sickness. It’s going to be hypothermia. Fukushima is a high-profile diversion. Snow is the silent killer.
• For more, here are some excellent blogs and sources of information. If you have any more suggestions, please leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.
And, of course, our own live blog.