Is Japan in danger of being the next Three Mile Island or Chernobyl? The question is hanging like a mushroom cloud with much speculation and concern. Although Japan has a long and largely successful nuclear power programme, officials have been less than honest about some issues in the past, making it harder to convince everyone that their reassurances are reliable. A ‘meltdown’ (as occurred last in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine) is caused when the fuel in a nuclear reactor overheats and melts the reactor core or shielding. Radioactive chemicals are released into the atmosphere. More than 200,000 people have been forced out of their homes for fear of the worst.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami which hit the East coast of Japan on Friday 11th March wreaked havoc on the notoriously organised country. News channels and the internet have been showing a continual montage of destruction and devastation as cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. However even in Japan’s capital, many people spent the night in their offices as train services were suspended and many cities were brought to a standstill. The tsunami, triggered by the fifth-largest quake in the world since 1900, reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. Outside the city of Sendai in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.
A state of emergency was declared at a nuclear power plant where pressure had exceeded normal levels. Thousands of people living near the Fukushima nuclear power plant were ordered to evacuate. Explosions could be seen from far off as the temperature and pressure at the plant soared.
The estimated death toll climbed past 10,000 on Sunday with tens of thousands more injured or missing. This is Japan’s biggest natural disaster since records began. Authorities are racing to combat the threat of multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns; the prime minister said it was the nation’s worst crisis since World War II.
Nuclear plant operators worked frantically to try to keep temperatures down in several reactors crippled by the earthquake and tsunami, wrecking at least two by dumping sea water into them in last-ditch efforts to avoid meltdowns. Officials warned of a second explosion but said it would not pose a health threat; the same message of ‘reassurance’ was given as they were forced to release some radioactive steam into the atmosphere to relieve pressure.
Japanese nuclear officials have reported pressure inside a boiling water reactor at a plant was running much higher than normal after the cooling system failed. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously announced that the US Air Force had flown emergency coolant to the site, but US officials later said no coolant had been handed over because the Japanese had decided to handle the situation themselves. The UN’s nuclear agency said four nuclear power plants had shut down safely.
The tsunami rolled across the Pacific at 800km/h (500mph) – as fast as a jetliner – before hitting Hawaii and the US West Coast, but there were no reports of major damage from those regions. Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate coastal areas in the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Strong waves hit Japan’s Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, damaging dozens of coastal communities. A 10m wave struck Sendai, deluging farmland and sweeping cars across the airport’s runway. Fires broke out in the centre of the city. The countries nuclear power stations are being closely monitored and action taken to avoid the occurrence of a melt-down and radioactive materials entering the environment. However, the detection of caesium isotopes outside one power station’s buildings could imply that the core had been exposed to the air.
This is unquestionably a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportion which would take even the most advanced countries years to recover from physically not to mention the psychological damage. In time, however, the infrastructure and people’s lives will begin to be rebuilt. Many countries are currently offering their support at this crucial time; relief teams are still searching through rubble to find survivors and missing people.
For now we can only hope there will not be any long-lived damage as a result of the problems at the nuclear power stations. The recovery process is a big job and this will certainly generate a need for experts in the area of nuclear power as already two plants have been ruined by sea-water.
The repairs of the 2 nuclear power stations will undoubtedly generate a need for experts in the field of nuclear technology. To keep informed about nuclear jobs, please register with Nuclear Jobs Hunter