Every nuclear crisis is grave in its own way: UPDATE – Japan Fukushima Accident Severity Level Raised & Evacuation Zone Expanded

(minor revisions on April 13th, 2011 and April 16th, 2011)

In my last post on this topic, (April 10th) I had commented that one can only hope that the dismal state of things at the Fuskushima Daiichi reactors was a case of  a situation appearing darkest before the dawn.  My view was that keeping the media spotlight on the situation, in spite of world-weariness about it and there being many other urgent human needs to which attention needed to be given , was important to help the overworked and overstressed Japanese in charge of it to resist the temptation to let frustration turn into laxness about releases of radioactivity.   I.e., to say:  “It’s important, we care about what you are doing there . . . and we’re watching you.”

Since posting that sentiment, two major things have occurred indicating that the reality of the nature of the situation is finally being recognized:

—  Japan has now stated that it is appropriate to rank the situation at the highest level of nuclear accidents:  LEVEL 7,  on the INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) which is defined as “Major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures. ” (reported here, and many other places:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703841904576256742249147126.html)

This is a major change, as Japan had initially ranked the Fukushima accident at LEVEL 4, which is defined as “Minor release of radioactive material unlikely to result in implementation of planned countermeasures other than local food controls.”

(For a nostalgic look back at this more sanguine view of the expected consequences, see this Guardian article of less than a month ago (March 14th, 2011), which features a list of the nuclear accidents that have been listed and ranked on this international scale since 1952, and includes the definitions of the rankings:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/mar/14/nuclear-power-plant-accidents-list-rank)

— the Japanese government has decided to extend the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Chief Cabinet Secretary says it plans to issue evacuation orders for some select regions outside the 20 km radius; it won’t require evacuation immediately, but within “about a month.” (http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201104110139.html)

Some have been saying that the new ranking puts this accident “on a par” with Chernobyl. Really, all one can say is that both accidents have been deemed to fit the definition of a LEVEL 7 — but there is really very little sense in saying that they are on a par.  They fit the definition, but the timing, amount, kind, and means of releases are very different.  The differences are explained in the accurately-titled WSJ article (“Japanese Declare Crisis at Level of Chernobyl”) cited above  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703841904576256742249147126.html

Others are claiming that the accident is deemed to fit the definition of a LEVEL 7 accident in virtue of only one criterion:  past releases.  Since past releases of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi are far less than Chernobyl’s releases, they reason that Japan’s disaster has far fewer and/or severe consequences. That is not accurate, either.

Still, Fukushima Daiichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. warned Tuesday that since the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still releasing radioactive materials, the total level of radiation released could eventually exceed that of Chernobyl, a spokesman said.

The new assessment comes as Japan admits that the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident—which has already caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and spread radiation through groundwater and farms over a broad section of eastern Japan—are likely to be long-lasting and grave.

What does “long-lasting and grave” mean? I have not written much about the health effects of radiation, and that is because I don’t know a lot about it.   I know that determining health effects of radiation is not as simple as comparing a certain number of units to a certain number of allowable units.  It matters how young the person is, what kind of radiation it is (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.), how the material has entered the person’s system, and so on.  I also know that there is a lot of controversy about what the available research says.  However, the more I know about it, the less cavalier I am about it.

There is little use in trying to assimilate the Fukushima nuclear accident to to other events.  It is of a unique nature, and it is not anywhere near over.  Nobody knows how this is going to play out.  As for the current status of the plant, there was an excellent piece on the blog firedoglake about the condition of the plant last Thursday, here:  “Japan Nuclear Watch, Thurs:  UCS Briefing on NRC Fukushima Reactor Concerns”  http://my.firedoglake.com/scarecrow/2011/04/07/79337/ Note that the firedoglake post also links to the longer report by the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) that it discusses.  I know David Lochbaum of UCS has a special expertise in the exact model of reactor used at Fukushima Daiichi, so I am confident that it is a very informed account.

There is still much to be learned here, and much to do.   Among all the bad news, news that there has been acknowlegement of the gravity of the situation is welcome news.

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