In the days after a massive earthquake battered Japan – triggering a deadly tsunami, shifting the earth several inches off its axis, and most frighteningly, damaging one of the most powerful nuclear power plants in the world – many nuclear engineers sought to reassure the American public that while the crisis was a serious one for Japan, there was no cause for Americans to be alarmed. But experts interviewed by AlterNet cautioned that the events taking place in the Fukushima No. 1 power plant are simply unprecedented, and noted that the situation appears to be deteriorating.
On March 13, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a statement confidently assuring the American public that because of “the thousands of miles” separating us from the site of several crippled reactors at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant, “Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”
The announcement was widely reported, but seems to have been premature. “NRC’s statement was so absurd,” Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist, told AlterNet. “They made that statement when we certainly didn’t know how bad it would get, and it has gotten much worse in the past days.”
That uncertainty lies at the heart of the matter. “We’re facing six reactors that can have the worst accident possible in those types of designs,” Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Green Action, a Japanese environmental group, told AlterNet. “And if the chances are fifty-fifty in six reactors, we know what the math is – that means three will go. So if we have six that look really serious, that’s something we’ve never seen before. And it’s just playing out right now – it seems there’s no way of stopping it, although there’s an attempt to.” On Wednesday, white smoke appeared streaming from Unit 3, and officials said that a breach had likely occurred in the reactor’s containment vessel — the second at the plant in two days.
Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, told AlterNet that so far, as dire as the situation looks for Japan, there’s little cause for concern in the U.S. “There a lot of other assumptions you have to build into that, like the winds blowing the fallout towards the United States; they could also blow it over Russia. I think Hawaii would be the first place I’d be concerned about, and the plumes would have traveled a significant distance, so they’d be pretty dilute.”
But, he said the crisis is “not getting better, and it’s actually getting worse.” He wouldn’t speculate how bad a worst-case scenario might get on the distant shores of the U.S., because he was still “trying to get my head around how much [radioactivity] would be released in terms of multiple reactor meltdowns.”
Kamps agreed that a number of factors would have to play out in order for the catastrophe 5,000 miles away to pose a threat to public health in the U.S. It would “depend on the direction of the wind, the nature of the radioactive clouds, and if they were able to maintain their concentration and not disperse.” But that “has happened,” he warned. “It happened at Chernobyl, with fallout of a very high level of concentration falling hundreds of miles from the disaster.”
There is quite a lot of debate about just how serious Chernobyl’s impact on human health was. The World Health Organization says that only a handful of deaths can be attributed to what is widely considered to be the worst nuclear accident in human history. But last year, Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow, and Vassily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety, Belarus, published the findings of an extensive literature review and concluded that almost a million people may have died as a result of the disaster. “For the past 23 years, it has been clear that there is a danger greater than nuclear weapons concealed within nuclear power,” the authors said. “No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe… Chernobyl fallout covers the entire Northern Hemisphere.”
Arnie Gunderson, an engineer and former nuclear industry insider, told Democracy Now! that those desperate attempts to avert disaster at Fukushima No. 1 are likely to be hampered by the March 14 evacuation of hundreds of workers who were trying to contain the disaster. “These 750 people that are being evacuated were doing critical work. They weren’t sweeping floors and washing windows,” he said, calling the decision to pull the crews, “an indication that management at the site has thrown in the towel and is going to let this thing run its course without any more human intervention.”