Post-quake threat: Radiation leak fuels nuclear scare in Japan

Published: March 13, 2011
Officials in protective gear check for traces of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama. PHOTO: REUTERS

Officials in protective gear check for traces of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama. PHOTO: REUTERS

Officials in protective gear check for traces of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama. PHOTO: REUTERS
Smoke rises from Fukushima Daiichi 1 nuclear reactor after an explosion March 12, 2011 in this still image from a video footage. PHOTO: REUTERS Smoke rises over the earthquake and tsunami-devastated town of Sendai March 12, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS

An explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant triggered fears of a meltdown on Saturday, after a massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,700 dead and at least 10,000 missing in the port town of Minamisanriku in quake-hit Miyagi prefecture.

As workers doused the stricken reactor with sea water to try to avert catastrophe, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the chaos unleashed by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude quake was an “unprecedented national disaster”.

Radiation leaked from the plant, but the government moved to calm fears of a meltdown, saying that the blast did not rupture the container surrounding the reactor and that radiation levels had fallen afterwards.

At least three residents evacuated from a town near the nuclear plant have been exposed to radiation, media reports said. The three were randomly chosen for examination out of some 90 bed-ridden patients moved from a hospital in the town of Futaba-machi, public broadcaster NHK reported. More cases are expected.

Thousands of people were scanned for radiation exposure as officials struggled to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency rated the accident at the nuclear plant at four on the international scale from 0 to 7, an official said. On the International Nuclear Event Scale, a level four incident means a nuclear reactor accident “with local consequences”. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States was rated five while the  1986 Chernobyl disaster was a seven.

An explosion sent plumes of smoke spewing from the ageing Fukushima No 1 plant in northern Japan, raising fears of a possible meltdown a day after the facility’s cooling system was damaged in a massive quake. “Right now we are considering the accident should be rated four,” said the agency official. “The rating may be changed in accordance with the development of the condition”.

The operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) pumped water into the plant and released steam to depressurise the hut containers, an action that experts say will release a certain amount of radioactive vapour.

Tepco said that, at its highest level, the hourly radiation inside the plant reached 1,015 micro sievert before the blast – equivalent to the permissible exposure for people over one year.

Kyodo and Jiji reported before the explosion that the plant “may be experiencing nuclear meltdown”, while NHK quoted the safety agency as saying metal tubes that contain uranium fuel may have melted.

Japanese authorities have told the UN’s atomic watchdog they are making preparations to distribute iodine to people living near nuclear power plants affected by Friday’s earthquake, the Vienna-based agency said.

Iodine can be used to help protect against thyroid cancer in the case of radioactive exposure in a nuclear accident. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, thousands of cases of thyroid cancer were reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident.

In Paris, the French Nuclear Safety Authority said favourable winds will likely blow possible radioactive pollution from a blast at a Japanese nuclear power plant out over the Pacific Ocean.

“The wind direction for the time being seems to point the (nuclear) pollution towards the Pacific,” Andre-Claude Lacoste told journalists.

Kyodo News said about 300,000 people were evacuated nationwide. As many as 3,400 buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged, Kyodo reported.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • vasan
    Mar 12, 2011 - 3:32PM

    A lesson to India and Pakistan. Without the clockwork precision of Japan, are we ready to handle nuclear disasters??? But then human life is so cheap in the subcontinent, no one needs to worry about that, I guessRecommend

  • Tilsim
    Mar 12, 2011 - 3:57PM

    This is so unfortunate. Given our history of strong earthquakes, this could happen here. I want to know that Pakistan is doing it’s utmost to learn from this. I hope there is some pressure from the media to press the authorities to come clean with the public on what steps they are taking.Recommend

  • Abdul Ali
    Mar 12, 2011 - 7:28PM

    Pretty scary to consider how vulnerable the nuclear powerplants are, and how there’s no good back up safety system.
    The government needs to ensure that there are fall back safety features in our nuclear plants.I am sure our experts must have ensured this.Recommend

  • Mar 13, 2011 - 12:10AM

    Ohh sorry Japan =(
    We pray from the God for strength you would have to build your nation again, and we are pretty sure you’ll. Recommend

  • Neeru Khattar
    Mar 13, 2011 - 2:49AM

    I think we must learn a lesson from Japan. We must have our nuclear reactors safe and there must always be a standby solution for the calamities if things go wrong and we must be transparent in our approach. People must know each and every detail of security measures that the Govt. is going to provide. But in a land where corruption is rampant can we expect our leaders to learn any thing but how to make money from any & every clamity? Recommend

  • Kazmis
    Mar 13, 2011 - 11:57AM

    The Nuclear Plant in Fukushima Japan was quite old (42 yrs), neither building was modern earthquake proof nor it was on fully safe site. What happens that an earth quake of 9 magnitude was struck. Japanese were enjoying a good life with abundance electric energy. Now they have to pay, like Indian and Pakistanis are paying living with insufficient electric power.Recommend

  • Wajeeh Uddin Tariq
    Mar 13, 2011 - 1:20PM

    Just another reminder that we are but fleas on the back of this planet. We think we make such a big difference, that it’s all about us. We’re one asteroid, solar flare during magnetic pole flip, super-volcano or viral plague away from seeing this whole house of cards collapse.Recommend

  • Peer
    Mar 14, 2011 - 9:35AM

    More people spouting nonsense without any research.

    First of all, it WAS earthquake proof; a previous earthquake a few years back shut down the reactor without any incident.

    It only failed due to the backup generators failing. The reaction stopped, but since the reactor was running at full power for many months, there was a lot of residual heat from nuclear decay that needed to be cooled down to avoid melting the fuel pellets. Boiling Water Reactors, like the Japanese reactor, are relatively simple in their core design and emergency cooling methods. But they need electrical power to work and the earthquake and tsunami disabled their diesel generators used for emergency power.

    Nuclear reactors are designed to be self-contained in the event of a disaster. If a meltdown occurs and the reactor is lost, its NOT going to create a ghost town of radiological quarantine. The reactor sits within a containment vessel that, unless breached by explosion or environmental damage, will hold all the fun stuff inside. (note that the explosion is a hydrogen explosion outside the reactor building.) Venting steam might have some of the core products in it, but once the water runs out and everything turns to magma, they just seal it and walk away. Three Mile Island, also a light water reactor still has a working reactor today (TMI-1) and there’s no exclusion zone.

    Nuclear energy is the safest form of producing electricity. It’s safer than any other power source we’ve invented. That’s right. Per unit of energy produced, nuclear is safer than coal, gas, hydro, wind, and even solar. All of them have killed more people per GWh of energy generated than nuclear (

    Ultimately, the Fukushima disaster illustrates the need to progress to modern reactor designs such as the German pebble bed AVR, the Chinese HTR-10 or Thorium reactors, as examples. None of these types require emergency cooling. There have been many other tested designs in the past fifty years. Thorium reactor technology, in particular, has been around for almost as long as nuclear power. The CANDU designs (like KANUPP) would have simply returned to an inert state once the heavy water moderator was removed and that all of the backup and safety systems are powered by gravity and back-pressure. Remove the back-pressure and gravity will drain the moderator and stop the reaction.

    Light water reactors such as Fukushima are inherently dangerous as the fuel rods have to be brought down from a higher energy state to achieve a sustainable chain reaction. This is dangerous. All of the designs mentioned require some sort of ‘trick’ to provide the environment necessary for a sustainable chain reaction to continue. Remove the moderator and suddenly everything stops. Additionally, most of them are built around safety systems that don’t even require external power in order to function, such as gravity powered evacuation and cooling mechanisms. Some can even be “poisoned out” by pouring neutron inhibitors through the fuel rods themselves, stopping even the most runaway reaction dead in it’s tracks. Recommend

  • Kazmis
    Mar 14, 2011 - 2:03PM

    Good explanation with lot of anger. There are few questions unanswered for; The plant is 42 years old and if it did not damaged in last earthquake it does not mean it can withstand history’s biggest earthquake say 9.0.
    1. Why diesel generators went out of order. in all precaution they had the most severe priority to with stand all jerks etc of any earthquake.
    2. The generators are perhaps under water and they can not be repaired at this time letting to meltdown the fuel.
    3. Sea water cooling will put the plant totally unserviceable requiring capping of the reactor.
    4. Sea water cooling is the desperate action supposed and discharge of radioactive water may spoil whole ecology.Recommend

  • ba
    Mar 14, 2011 - 10:44PM
  • Ashley
    Mar 15, 2011 - 2:18AM

    Japan, my family is praying for a swift recovery from the states. I doubt that the rest of the world will allow another Chernobyl to happen. Japan has far to many people to recolonize. God speed, Japan!!Recommend

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