Issue Date: March 21, 2011
What is it about the word “radioactivity” that drives otherwise rational people to utter panic?
As C&EN goes to press on March 17, Japan continues to reel in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—shaken by the 9.0 earthquake and slammed by the tsunami—remains fluid and precarious. There have been explosions at the station, which has a total of six nuclear reactors. The cores of four reactors appear to have at least partially melted, and one could be on the verge of a major meltdown. Two storage ponds where spent reactor fuel is stored have been breached, and the spent fuel is in danger of catching fire. Desperate measures are being taken to try to prevent catastrophic failure of the reactors and storage ponds.
People living within a 20-km radius of the power plant have been evacuated; people living within a 30-km radius have been advised to remain indoors with their homes sealed and ventilation turned off. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the station, has evacuated all but 50 of the 1,400 people who work at the plant. At one point on March 16, even those 50 brave individuals were withdrawn from the plant because radiation levels had spiked.
Around the world, politicians and commentators are pointing at Fukushima and insisting that the events there prove that nuclear energy can never be safe. In the March 15 Washington Post, the normally level-headed Anne Applebaum had an op-ed piece entitled “Time To Slow the Nuclear Rush.” She concluded that she hopes the Fukushima disaster “prompts people around the world to think twice about the true ‘price’ of nuclear energy, and that it stops the nuclear renaissance dead in its tracks.”
On the same op-ed page, columnist Eugene Robinson wrote: “Nuclear power was beginning to look like a panacea—a way to lessen our dependence on oil, make our energy supply more self-sufficient and significantly mitigate global warming, all at the same time. Now it looks more like a bargain with the devil.”
The March 15 Wall Street Journal included a story entitled “Potassium Iodide Runs Low As Americans Seek It Out” that describes a run on potassium iodide supplies by people worried that radioactive fallout from Fukushima could reach the U.S. Anbex Inc., which manufactures Iosat potassium iodide pills, quickly sold out its stock of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday, the paper reported. Anbex President Alan Morris told the Journal, “Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified.”
In Europe, legislators are calling for a referendum on the future of nuclear power and shutting down reactors. German elections a couple of weeks from now could be affected by the nuclear power issue. President Barack Obama felt the need to reiterate his support for renewed construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Could everyone please get a grip? Thousands of Japanese are dead as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. A vast swath of northeastern Japan has been demolished; it is estimated that rebuilding will cost $35 billion or more. Japan’s economy has been dealt a devastating blow that will take months to years to recover from.
The fate of the Fukushima nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage ponds is important. The situation at the power plant is developing into a disaster that will affect many people’s lives, in Japan and likely around the world. What went wrong at Fukushima will have to be investigated thoroughly and understood to help prevent it from happening again.
But it will not be the end of the world, and it should not be the death knell for nuclear power. We live with risk. The risk of exposure to radiation from any one of a number of sources, including the partial or complete meltdown of the core of a nuclear reactor, is one such risk, quantitatively no different from any other. Nuclear power must be a component of the mix of energy sources for the world in the 21st century, the situation in Japan notwithstanding.
Thanks for reading.
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