Japan: A Different Variety of Nuclear Fallout

The Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which placed its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in jeopardy, are continuing to send shock waves throughout the world.  First, of course, are the rampant reports of plutonium leaks from the crippled plant.  Plutonium is a sensitive subject, as it was at the heart of a bomb devastating Nagasaki in 1945.  The trace amounts of plutonium reported thus far fail to alarm certain health experts, according to a recent statement made by an official of the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency in Tokyo.  Yet, inhaling plutonium-tainted dust is a serious health hazard.  Once in the bloodstream, plutonium generally remains in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to cancer-causing radiation.

The catastrophe is generating after-effects almost as damaging as the tsunami itself.  A review of the plant’s records show warnings and dangers pursuant to an engineering study that was downplayed by senior engineers after being presented at a nuclear conference in Miami, July 2007.  This study concludes that there is a 10% chance a tsunami could test or overrun the defenses of the plant within a 50-year span, based on the most conservative assumptions.  Tokyo Electric did nothing to change its safety planning based on that study.  Meanwhile, Japanese regulators clung to a model which left crucial safety decisions in the hands of the utility that ran the plant, according to records, officials, and outside experts.

During the 1990s, records show how officials urged, but did not require, Tokyo Electric and other utilities to shore up plant monitoring in the event of crisis.  Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, (NISA) one of three government bodies charged with nuclear safety, cataloged the damage to nuclear plant vent systems from an earlier earthquake, it did not require those to be protected against future disasters or hardened against explosions.  Once the March 11 disaster began, the only line of defense rested with Tokyo Electric’s line workers to carry out disaster plans.  “Our preparedness was not sufficient,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the top government spokesman, told reporters.  “When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review [safety standards].”

On an equally somber note, we mourn almost 12,000 dead (to date), keep vigil for the 16,290 listed as missing, pray for countless injured, and endeavor to help some of the 250,000 people living in temporary shelters.  Conversely, I wish to congratulate the courageous souls throughout Japan for the swift reaction to contain this crisis, from plant workers to health workers to good Samaritans.

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