WHAT does Japan have to do to earn a little grace from the universe? Was there some curse placed upon those poor people that they will be exposed to more radiation than any other nation in the world? And more importantly: Do we know enough about nuclear power? It seems, watching footage of Japanese officials speaking on the subject, that they’re as uncertain about the consequences of a nuclear meltdown as we are. So, for education’s sake, here are eight things you might not know about nuclear power (but probably should)
1. On the home front: Here in California, both of our nuclear power plants (at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre) are the same model as Japan’s. While they are designed to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0/7.5, the occurrence of a devastating quake such as the one in Japan might present unforeseen problems. Each of these plants, after all, was built right on a fault line.
2. While Germany is closing down seven of its nuclear power plants in response to the disaster in Japan, America has not flinched. In fact, quite the opposite. The latest federal budget proposal includes 36 billion dollars in subsidies to nuclear power plants across America.
3. If you happen to live in this paradise we call the Central Coast, you should know that Potassium Iodide (KI) tablets are available from the County Health Department, to be taken in the event of a nuclear mishap at Diablo power plant, specifically for the protection of your thyroid gland. While officials have stated that there is no reason for taking the pills now in response to the Japanese catastrophe, the county does offer them “in the unlikely event of a radiation release from a nuclear power plant emergency.” For specific instructions, check with the SLO County Health Dept.
4. The Japanese people were not careless about the construction of the Fukushima plant. In the event of an earthquake, they had installed not one, not two, but three backup power systems. Unfortunately, two of those were destroyed in the following tsunami. The third was a battery-powered generator designed to last for twelve hours.
5. There has been a lot of talk about Chernobyl and three mile Island. Those being the only nuclear disasters we have to compare this event to. Many have said it isn’t as disastrous as the tragedy in Russia, and are comparing it more to Three Mile Island. Others have reason to believe that the the Japanese government either doesn’t know the extent of the damage the disaster will bring, or may be unable or unwilling to release all facts publicly; meaning that we might not have a full scope of the severity of the situation until it unfolds. In the case of Chernobyl, however, the defining differences lie in not only the lack of a containment wall, but the Soviet government’s denial and irresponsibility in responding to the crisis. Quite the opposite, the Japanese government is evacuating withing 20 miles of the site of the plant, and is doing everything it can to contain the radiation and protect its citizens.
6. One of the biggest dangers that can affect us globally is the environmental aftershock of a disaster of this magnitude. While the radioactive particles are not expected to reach any farther than the immediate surrounding areas, the lasting effect in our food and water supply is a hidden danger. Milk and meat in particular are the most silent threats after a nuclear disaster. (Now might be a good time to reconsider that vegan thing.)
7. Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of this crisis is the potential for a full on meltdown. Reactor no 3. contains plutonium and uranium. If they fail to keep the reactor cool, an explosion would release both of those substances in to the air; a terrifying prospect, when you consider that both (but plutonium in particular) are HIGHLY carcinogenic in very small doses.
8. In the case of Three Mile Island, the incident was contained very quickly, there were no explosions, and the aftermath was arguably minimal. Currently, Japan has 48 hours to cool the reactors in order to avoid a full meltdown at the plant’s core.
9. Today there are over 440 operational nuclear power plants in the world. In Japan, there are 55. A large number for a small island. In America there are over 100. Germany has 17. France has 58 (and is the only country to rely SOLELY upon nuclear energy.) Russia has 14, and China – who has suspended further construction until a re-evaluation of safety standards has been conducted – has 11.
10. While former president Ronald Regan took the opportunity to point out the fact that, “All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk,” he chose not to highlight the amount of environmental destruction possible, or the threat to human existence that results from dependence on nuclear energy. There has to be another way.