Why Fukushima isn't Chernobyl, despite rise in crisis level
Japan's prime minister is urging the public not to panic after the government boosted the severity level of the crisis at Fukushima to the highest rating, the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
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Professor Oka says he believes the idea that Fukushima is as bad as the world’s worst nuclear disaster is “completely wrong” and that according to his estimates the leak of radiation, so far, from the Japanese plant is about “1/100th of that of Chernobyl."Skip to next paragraph
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Differences with Chernobyl
There is a key difference, he says, in the type of explosions at Fukushima and Chernobyl. At the Ukrainian plant 25 years ago, he explains, a series of operating errors and misjudgments resulted in an explosion and fire releasing toxic smoke that contained parts of the fuel rods and graphite particles into the atmosphere. At Fukushima, however, there have only been steam explosions.
Also, there have been no reported deaths so far due specifically to radiation at Fukushima, where at least five workers have died from other operational mistakes. The initial explosion at Chernobyl killed two workers, and then 28 of the firemen and emergency clean-up workers died in the first three months after the explosion because of radiation exposure.
Still, Oka concedes that it is very difficult to tell exactly what percent of the fuel rods have melted at Fukushima, and therefore how much radiation has actually leaked.
"Fukushima has its own unique risks, but comparing it to Chernobyl is going too far. Fukushima is unlikely to have the kind of impact on the health of people in neighboring countries, the way Chernobyl did," nuclear specialist Kenji Sumita at Osaka University told Reuters.
Geography exacerbated the Chernobyl incident. While that radiation spread to the Ukrainian countryside and blew over Europe, much of the Fukushima radiation has dispersed over the Pacific Ocean. Greenpeace’s Mr. Myllyvirta says the Fukushima crisis would be much worse if Japan was a landlocked country.
But Japan must contend with its earthquake-prone geology. Two major aftershocks, a magnitude 7.1 quake on Thursday evening and a magnitude 6.6 quake on Monday, were both centered in Fukushima Prefecture, near the unstable nuclear plant. With the Japan Meteorological Agency predicting more large aftershocks, there is concern that a large tremor could further damage the facility.
"After Monday’s earthquake TEPCO said it took 50 minutes to restore power for the cooling system to the reactors," says Myllyvirta, pointing to the already weakened concrete reactor containment vessels, in particular. “And 90 percent of the radioactivity is still inside the plant, so there is still the possibility of far higher releases."