No simple way to deal with a nuclear meltdown

Nearly 25 years ago — April 26, 1986 — reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded at 1.23AM. It took more than 24  hours for officials to announce on radio that there had been an accident. The city of Pripyat, two miles from the power plant, was finally evacuated by 5PM. By then, the local fallout plume of 3,400 feet with 400 times the radioactivity of Hiroshima had spread over the region. The original 30-kilometre evacuation zone today extends much further north into Belarus.

It makes sense to some degree that people are comparing Chernobyl with the series of explosions at the Fukushima nuclear facility. But there is some difference between the two, the most obvious being that human error was a major factor in Chernobyl whereas the radioactive leaks from Fukushima have been caused by an earthquake-induced tsunami. Chernobyl involved one reactor, while Fukushima workers are potentially dealing with three.

There are now concerns that the Japanese government have been seriously inadequate in handling this crisis. For instance, the evacuation radius is a mere 20 kilometres — considered 60 kilometres short of the recommended exclusion zone. Experts are also noting that the crew that have been deployed and their methods for cooling the overheating fuel rods are not commensurate to the scale of the emergency (as the Guardian reports). (Days after Chernobyl, 3,400 “liquidators” were brought in to contain the core).

Let’s be clear, though. The Fukushima 50, as the Japanese crew are now dubbed, are undoubtedly heroic. They are making the ultimate sacrifice. I think this is precisely why the Japanese government has been restrained in sending human beings into the reactor. The Japanese government are comprised of human beings, too. And in the face of so many deaths, so many disrupted lives caused by the tsunami and earthquake, who could decide to send more to their demise when life in the rawest sense has been made precious?

It is an unenviable position. It demands the sort of gritty decision-making that sends men into the war. It is worsened by the complication that sending them might be a futile exercise. At what point are leaders supposed to say, ‘No, this can’t be fixed no matter how many men we send’? What algorithms do you calculate to arrive at the numbers required to contain the damage? When your resources are already severely depleted by twin disasters, how do you approach this third crisis? What kind of help should you be seeking from other governments, when the only way to address the radioactive problem is to be in it?

The hardest thing about trying to answer these questions is that you absolutely have no time. There are reports of the wind drifting towards Tokyo. When the wind swept radioactive particles north toward Belarus from Chernobyl, it contaminated areas approximately 400km from the site. Tokyo is around 290km away from Fukushima with a population of over 13 million people and a far greater density than Ukraine and Belarus in 1986.

As the EU’s energy chief Guenther Oettinger states bluntly, “There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen.”

However, there is some hope, no matter minuscule. We are far more connected, far more technologically advanced, far wealthier than we were in 1986. As actor George Takei points out, “In this crisis, we are all Japanese”. Let us brace ourselves.

Postscript: I should have made this citation earlier. The information on Chernobyl was mostly from the April 2006 edition of National Geographic, which revisited the legacy of this nuclear disaster on its 20th anniversary.

Categories: Politics and Governance

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