There is no overstating the damage that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami dealt to Japan on March 11.
While many of these facts will be out of date by the time this article goes to print, the official death toll is over 4,000, nearly 2,000 are injured, and at least 8,000 people are missing. The unofficial numbers are far worse. More households than people who live in B.C. went without power, and more than a million households lost water. The financial cost has already been estimated to exceed $14.5 billion.
Video footage showed entire buildings being washed into the ocean, while they were on fire.
Now fears have understandably turned to the most misunderstood technology of the modern world, as the Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants threaten to meltdown; however, barring any major changes between the time I write this and the time you read it, I hope to allay these fears, and emphasize that despite this recent scare, nuclear power remains a safe alternative energy source.
The day after the quake the roof was literally blown off of the Reactor 1 building at Fukushima I. This explosion was likely caused by a build-up of hydrogen gas, which occurred after cooling systems failed, exposing the radioactive fuel rods to air. Another explosion rocked the plant on the March 14, this time at Reactor 3, which allegedly led to the third explosion at Reactor 4 on the March 15. Fires that resulted in Reactor 4 were extinguished and the fuel rods were potentially melted. Surprisingly, several of the spent fuel rods also caught fire, leaking an increased amount of radiation that approached dangerous levels for the workers at the plant, before burning themselves out.
To handle the crisis, Japanese engineers and emergency workers have evacuated a 20-kilometer radius around Fukushima I, advised those up to 30-kilometers out to stay indoors, iodine kits have been prepared to treat radiation exposure, and they have been pumping seawater into the aging reactors to cool them down to safer levels. While several employees have been injured in the explosions, and a few workers died as a result of the tsunami, no one has died yet due to the nuclear crisis.
Fearing this to be the next Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, the world’s reaction has been swift. Germany and Switzerland have already reversed course on nuclear energy, cancelling plans for new reactors. Cries are also coming out from Greenpeace and other environmental organizations that have long-opposed nuclear power to halt future nuclear expansions. Nevertheless, Ontario’s Liberal government remains steadfastly committed to nuclear energy.
However, giving into fear-mongering is the wrong lesson to take from this crisis. Given the 40-year age of the reactors in Japan, it is a true testament to the safety and engineering standards that have been put in place that the reactor even remains standing after a devastating earthquake and tsunami annihilated the region. While the situation remains tense and many remain evacuated from their homes, no fatal doses have been delivered and the situation is slowly coming under control.
Yet, even if a colossal meltdown occurred, nuclear electricity would still have dealt the world far less damage than many of the alternatives. Oil and coal power plants have been spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades, contributing to a well-documented increase in global temperature which is nearly guaranteed at this point to bring about cataclysmic changes to our environment. Furthermore, coal-fired plants produce higher levels of radioactivity than nuclear plants by concentrating the radioactive elements in the coal and then dumping it into the atmosphere. Even hydroelectricity has its own dangers as nearly 200 people died constructing the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams and dam failures have cost thousands of lives, including one in China killing 230,000. The total death toll from nuclear energy is under 60, almost entirely related to the Chernobyl meltdown, which was caused by human error.
With waste containment technologies increasingly able to handle the radioactive products, few environmental concerns remain with nuclear energy; and with humanity increasingly pushing the extremes to extract more oil from the earth, we are engaging in even riskier behaviour by the day. We only need to think back to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill last summer to see the horrible consequences from this increasingly reckless behaviour.
Finally, despite alarmist graphics suggesting nuclear fallout will kill all life along our West Coast, there is little to fear from winds spreading radioactive materials across the Lower Mainland. The size of the Pacific Ocean and incredible distance to Japan ensures that any leaked materials would be thoroughly diluted before reaching us. You receive a greater radiation dose from a routine visit to the dentist or an international flight than anything expected to cross the ocean in even the worst-case scenario. In fact, even the act of eating a banana, rich in radioactive potassium, poses a greater health risk for Vancouverites than any Japanese fallout.
With oil reserves running dry and the global climate in a precarious state, it is imperative that we discuss our options rationally. The record of nuclear power is that of potentially the only industry humanity has ever treated as adults: fully acknowledging and working to account for all of the risks. It is not worth slandering an entire industry based on what can only be seen as isolated events in the greater context.