After the recent quake off the coast of Japan, I have watched with considerable concern the problem of two nuclear plants that are near the epicenter of the quake. Over the course of the day the news coming from these two plants has gotten worse. At first, it was said that the two plants suffered little damage. Then estimates came in that radiation levels were eight times normal inside one of the reactors but that the other reactor was fine. Then came news that Japan had asked people to evacuate from within 10 kilometers of one of the two facilities, and within 3 kilometers of the other.
At this point there was concern, but the concern has grown even higher now that both facilities appear to be failing, radiation levels are at 1000 times higher than normal, and there are plans to release slightly radioactive gas (!) into the air to relieve pressure (which is so far at one and a half times normal) and avoid a nuclear meltdown . Clearly, the level of concern for the areas near these reactors is very high.
There are a few interrelated concerns here. One concern is that building nuclear plants in seismically active areas (like Japan, or the west coast of the United States) may be putting one’s self in harm’s way. Given the catastrophic and long-term effects of nuclear fallout from a meltdown (see: Chernobyl), and given that Japan ought to know better than most nations the lasting effects of nuclear radiation, it seems odd that nuclear reactors would be so close to the coast in a known seismic zone in a land that created the term tsunami to refer to the “harbor waves” that follow landslides and earthquakes.
A nuclear disaster in Japan would merely add to what is already a very bad situation. According to CNN, 10% of Japan is without power right now, there are fires at a gas refinery near Tokyo, the infrastructure of the area around the earthquake’s epicenters, its airports and roads and harbors, have been seriously damaged, and estimates of the dead are around 1,000 at this point, besides the destruction of several towns due to tsunamis that reached up to six miles inland. Clearly dealing with nuclear fallout in addition to the already disastrous effects of one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history as well as a dangerous tsunami would be even more horrible than anyone wants to imagine.
Nonetheless, the fact that this is even a possibility suggests that maybe we ought to be wiser in the future not to build nuclear power plants in areas with known major seismic activity, given the horrific costs of failure. Some risks are not worth taking, and surely there are far better ways of finding power than in building reactors with a risk of failing catastrophically due to earthquake damage. In our desire to ensure sufficient electricity for our civilization, surely we can do a lot better than a nuclear plant built right next to a subduction zone on the ring of fire, right?
Unfortunately, as Japanese officials have now admitted that a “partial meltdown” is in the process of occurring at one of the nuclear plants in question, it appears that the worst case scenario is in the process of occurring . This confirmation means that fears of nuclear contamination of Japanese citizens and others may now be considered to be an indirect result of this horrible earthquake, that Japan now appears to add another horrible nuclear tragedy to its existing legacy, and that there is going to be a lot of blame to be provided for the building of a nuclear power plant on one of the most active faultlines in the entire world. Such blame and liability is sure to be heavy in the months and years that is to come.