Monday, March 19, 2012

Fukushima Daiichi was no Chernobyl

Don Higson, a fellow of the Australasian Radiation Protection Society, pens an enlightening article in Sunday’s edition of Slate (a reprint from New Scientist) that everyone concerned about radiation exposure and the nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukishima Daiichi power plant should read.

Higson sums up in one paragraph the telling difference between what happened in Japan in 2011 and Ukraine in 1986:

Chernobyl was the worst that could happen. Safety and protection systems failed and there was a full core meltdown in a reactor that had no containment. In the "defense in depth" of nuclear power plants outside the former USSR, containment is an essential engineered safety feature.

His discussion of casualty figures of both the general public and plant workers from each accident is equally enlightening.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of human behavior that the equation of Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl, however, will never be erased in the public’s mind, no matter how many helpful articles like this are published. Higson himself laments that the disaster scale used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (which pegs both accidents at the same level of severity) does not fully tell the tale of the vast difference in scale of the accidents:

The INES was intended to aid public understanding of nuclear safety. In fact, it has caused more confusion. It has also probably added to the mental anguish of the Japanese people.

The accident at Fukushima Daiichi was moved to the top of the scale a month after the tsunami for technical reasons, when the estimate of radioactive material released exceeded the International Atomic Energy Agency's criterion for level 7. However, the amount of iodine-131 escaping from all the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi was less than 10 percent of the amount released at Chernobyl, and the release of caesium [sic]-137, the next most important fission product, was less than 15 percent of the Chernobyl total.

Neither accident was a negligible occurrence, and neither accident – given the lack of future planning in each scenario – should have happened. But comparing one to the other in quantifiable health impacts and to use either as a club to stop the development of nuclear power is as short-sighted as the lack of planning that led to each accident.

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