The disaster in northeastern Japan brought about by the earthquake and tsunami is threatening to get a lot worse as a nuclear reactor at Fukushima may be in the process of a meltdown that would release radiation into the containment building.
Such a disaster would be similar to the accident that happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Experts suggest there is little possibility of a major release of radiation into the surrounding environment. But thousands of people are being evacuated in a 12-mile radius of the nuclear power plant as a precaution. Radiation levels inside the control room are a 1,000 times normal and eight times normal just outside the reactor building.
An unexplained explosion and a small but significant release of radiation are compounding the problem as Japanese experts are struggling to contain the problem and cool down the reactor before a meltdown occurs. So far the Japanese have managed to release some pressure, along with some radiation, into the outside atmosphere, thus mitigating against a crack in the containment dome which would make a serious problem catastrophic in the event of a meltdown.
The latest news as of this writing is that pressure and radiation at the Fukushima reactor have started to decrease, creating hope that a Three Mile Island style catastrophe may be avoided.
The nuclear accident at the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, which did not have a proper containment dome, rendered a wide area around it uninhabitable for many years.
Even if the Japanese can get the matter under control without further damage, the effects are going to be felt for years, if not decades. First, the electric power that was provided by the reactor would have to come from somewhere else. Repairing and restoring the reactor to functioning use would take a long time, should such an endeavor be undertaken.
Furthermore the nuclear accident at Fukushima is likely to spark renewed anti-nuclear sentiment among environmentalists in Japan and around the world, just as it did after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The nuclear power industry in the United States had just begun to recover, with the permitting process of new plants finally being undertaken after decades. Nuclear power, in the middle of concern about greenhouse gasses, was actually starting to become appealing.
It will likely do no good to suggest, as is likely the case, that the accident at Fukushima was unique to that facility and the circumstances surrounding it. Look for a renewed push to stop nuclear power, both in Japan and in the United States as a result of the worst nuclear accident in twenty five years.
Source: Fukushima nuclear plant blast puts Japan on high alert, Ian Sample and Tania Branigan, The UK Guardian, March 12th, 2011