Fukushima reactor fallout. It is now a Chernobyl-level nuclear incident
A few weeks ago I was advocating a calm, measured approach to the damage inflicted to Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Dia-ichi nuclear power plant by the massive earthquake and tsunami. My plea was simply to let scientific evidence, rather than instinctive fear and speculation, shape the story of what had happened.
Now, a month later, the scientific evidence is in and it is pretty grim. Thanks to the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Japanese scientists in taking and analyzing readings from various locations up to 50 miles from the site of the disaster, it appears that far more radioactive material leaked into the air and sea than was first reported. Some 370,000 terabecquerels of radioactive iodine and cesium have been released at Fukushima, mostly in the early days of the disaster.
It is because of these scientific findings that this week the Japanese government raised the rating of the crisis and the plant to level 7, the highest possible level on the internationally accepted scale used to measure the seriousness of nuclear accidents (Three Mile Island was a Level 5 incident).
The spike in the rating is not because the situation has suddenly become more dire. (On the contrary the radiation levels have been generally declining.) It is because the Japanese authorities did not have accurate readings of the extent of the disaster in the early days, and now they do. The only other Level 7 nuclear incident in history is Chernobyl, where in 1986 a nuclear plant (with no containment building for its reactor core) exploded, dispersing radioactive material over a vast area.
But that is where the comparison ends. Fukushima has released only 10% of the radiation released at Chernobyl, and unlike the case with the landlocked Ukrainian plant, most of the dangerous radiation has been carried out to sea and dispersed by the prevailing winds. The World Health Organization believes that there is little public health risk outside of the 18-mile evacuation zone surrounding the plant.
But the risk to the health of the global nuclear power industry is another story. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has already temporarily shut down seven of the nation’s 17 reactors pending an extensive review. In the US, the Obama Administration has called for an independent review of the safety of the country’s more than 100 nuclear reactors. Even China, with 27 nuclear plants under construction, has hit the pause button, pending a full report on the Fukushima incident.
Market reaction has been brutal. In a market that has seen most values rise solidly in the past month, companies on the Standard & Poor’s Global Nuclear Energy Index have seen their stocks fall about 9% since the disaster began.
The US nuclear power industry is hoping that (as with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster) the graphic images will fade in a few months, and the country’s need for up to $2 trillion in new electric generating capacity and infrastructure by 2030 will revive the industry’s flagging fortunes.
However, given the high risk of nuclear power that the Fukushima accident has exposed, the smart money is moving (at least in the short term) to investing more strongly in wind, solar, and other renewables as the safer, cleaner path to new generating capacity.
Picture by Marc Belzunces, used under a CC-Share Alike license.