Unit 4, one of the reactors at Fukushima, is in critical danger.
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"Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's recent daylong field trip from Tokyo to the zone of Japan's nuclear devastation is worth at least a week in the telling. Bunny-suited with a breathing device for protection against radiation exposure, Wyden walked through the ruined Fukushima Dai-ichi complex and saw what few from the West have seen: another bomb waiting to go off."
According to the article, Senator Wyden sent letters expressing alarm to Secretaries Clinton and Chu which "paint a picture of extreme nuclear vulnerability, especially in Reactor No. 4."
The length of the cleanup--more than 10 years--as well as the risks of building a new superstructure around the failed reactor--have caused alarm on both sides of the Pacific.
The problem, as best as I can describe it, is that a seismic event (earthquake or a tsunami created by one offshore) could damage the already damaged structures--what remains of Reactor Building 4, housing the fourth reactor.
Especially problemsome are the thousands of spent fuel rods which are suspended in pools above the reactor. The design is common to dozens of reactors, despite the obvious danger of storing radioactive waste not only next to the reactor, but above it.
Rumors have spread since the 3/11/11 disaster that fissile materials at Fukushima include MOX fuel, which is a highly radioactive form of nuclear energy--made from nuclear weapons--notorious for its high plutonium content.
Plutonium, unlike Cesium and Iodine, is a heavy metal which will continue to irradiate all surrounding skin and organ tissue for a matter of thousands of years. To ingest even the smallest speck is a death sentence, executed in slow motion.
The Cesium isn't much better, which a half-life of thirty years or more. Iodine doesn't last as long, but can still do major damage and like all radioactivity is particularly dangerous to newborns, children, and pregnant women.
The problem with radioactive contamination is the unknown effects upon the human body and the ecosystem. The more potent the radioactive gases and vapor that escape from the plant, the bigger the potential risk.
Now if everything goes according to plan and no major seismic event occurs, the radiation leaking out of Fukushima can be stopped. In ten or twenty years time. Yes, you read me right: it will take decades.
Senator Wyden certainly learned during his fact-finding mission that such a prolonged mission increases the chance that a new seismic event occurs.
Unlike the Japanese, the Russians didn't have as serious a worry about repairing Chernobyl due to the lack of seismic activity there. Stuck square on the volcanically active Ring of Fire, the Fukushima site is at far greater risk of suffering a seismic event.
The Russians attacked the problem while the Japanese are content to save face and delay a resolution. The Russians sent in battalions of soldiers who volunteered to protect their Motherland; the most Japan seems capable of mustering are some sub-contractors on a timeline that would put the laziest construction schedule to shame.
In the absence of assuming responsibility, the people of the world are left to face the consequences. Just like Chernobyl, a certain amount of leakage has escaped; the only remaining variables are how much more radiation will escape, and how far it will spread.
We saw from Chernobyl in 1987 that radiation could be dispersed over a vast area without any immediate health impacts. Conveniently for the proponents of this dirty and dangerous source of energy, disease caused by radioactive contaminates can be blamed on sources other than Fukushima, particularly if the disease it causes--leukemia, cancer, etc.--take years to develop.
In this respect, the leak at Fukushima represents a ongoing genocidal threat, even if new leaks are prevented. Its toll will come in the form of premature deaths, and few people will be able to attribute their illness to the radionuclides which are still falling over North America, and places wherever they may land downwind.
During my youth we were told to fear all the fallout that would come from nuclear war, specifically Russian missiles detonating to the West. The Fukushima problem is perhaps far worse because fallout from Fukushima will travel greater distances. Unlike nuclear weapons, whose surface detonation throws nuclear-contaminated soil only so far into the air, radioactive gases and vapors are free to travel far higher.
Depending on how high up in the atmosphere the fallout gets, no one in the world is safe. One scenario in particular is scary: the China Syndrome. In that, radioactive fuel burns through the earth's crust, then combines with superheated magma below, catapulting a vast cloud of radioactive steam and gaseous vapor high into the atmosphere.
Thrown into the fire, the radioactive debris superheats whatever water it contacts. Radioactive particles will blast upward like red-hot magma in a volcano. Being much lighter though, and combined with steam, they'll obviously go far into the reaches of the upper atmosphere and spread for thousands of miles.
As these particles land, they represent a direct risk of ingestion in the air. Worse, they'll land on food particles. Unless you're actively monitoring the radioactivity in your food and water, ingestion is just a function of luck and distance of your air and food sources from Fukushima.
Geographically, more particles will land closer to the source than farther away. That said, there are no guarantees that just because you are farther away, or not directly downwind, that you'll absorb less radiation. Unforeseen impacts on the food chain will persist for decades.
Fallout patterns are quite random, meaning predicting where they'll fall may or may not ever be possible. And even if no radiation can be found in the air, watt or food, no one can assume that previously radioactive free-areas will remain safe.
Travelling to the East and South, farther away from Fukushima, might reduce the risk of eating or drinking contaminated food or water but not eliminate it altogether. If there's enough radiation blowing around in the upper atmosphere, it will land somewhere. Obviously the more radiation that escapes, the wider the geographical impact zone. If the radiation is bad enough, after a certain point, it won't matter where on the planet you go.
Chernobyl gives us a casualty estimate: about 1 million premature deaths. I don't know how much radiation escaped from Fukushima compared to Chernobyl, but estimates are from ten times that up to a hundred times more.
Since I'm not qualified as a resource to determine the effects of radiation, I won't hazard a guess. I do know that the last thing anyone wants is a preventable release.
Right now, the Japanese are incinerating radioactive waste, which simply puts more into the atmosphere. Also, they've dumped large quantities of radioactive water into the Pacific, where it will contaminate fish hatcheries up the food chain, manifesting in the apex predators in the Eastern Pacific: tuna, as well as other fish.
If the waste from Fukushima can be disposed of safely, it must. It's not for the Japanese government to worsen this colossal tragedy even further.
Extreme measures were taken by the Russians and the Japanese need to take a similar proactive response to stem the ongoing threat posed by Fukushima. As bad as the event has been, it makes no sense to try and exert damage control for political or public relations purposes especially if further contamination can be prevented by acknowledging the full scope of the problem and recognizing the urgent need to resolve it.