Fukushima: Not Chernobyl, but bad enough

The 1986 Chernobyl accident was far worse than Fukushima has been. But the issues it raises are the same -- quality of industrial design, the potential for human error, the threat of natural disaster, and the disposal of long-term radioactive waste.

AP Photo/Hiro Komae
A police officer in protective suit searches for missing people in Minami Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The city is inside the evacuation zone within 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) radius from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The past doesn't determine the present, but it does influence how we think about it. That's why comparisons with Chernobyl were immediate after Japan raised the crisis level at Fukushima yesterday.

In reality, Chernobyl was much worse. Because there was no containment vessel at Chernobyl, contamination spread hundreds of miles. Soviet authorities also wasted several days denying there was a problem at the nuclear facility, thus exposing thousands of nearby residents to radioactive fallout. A quarter of a century after Chernobyl, the region around the plant remains off-limits to anyone but cleanup workers.

The Fukushima crisis is not over. Scientists think it could take more than a decade to make the facility safe. But unless there is a catastrophic release of radiation, adjacent regions should have only small amounts of contamination to deal with.

In one important sense, however, Fukushima and Chernobyl (and Three Mile Island) are the same: They all raise concerns about how well we've taken account of human error, design flaws, natural disasters, and long-term waste when it comes to nuclear power.

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