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On April 12, 2011 the threat level of the on going nuclear crisis at the Japanese Fukushima plant was moved to 7 out 7, the same threat level that was set by the Chernobyl incident, regarded as the benchmark of nuclear disaster.

The Fukushima plant has only released 10% of the radioactive particles that Chernobyl did but Japanese nuclear technicians haven’t been able to halt the radiation spewing from the plant, although this April 12th Washington Post article says “most radiation readings around Fukushima have been decreasing for several weeks now.”

While those outside the area around the plant will see little consequences to the Fukushima problem, for those that live in the exclusion zone and even some distance to the north west, where the radiation has been drifting, it is looking doubtful that they will be able to move home.

Reporters enter the exclusion zone.

When this crisis unfolded I became more and more a believer in nuclear power. Everything that went wrong did. First there was a huge earthquake, then an immense tsunami that  further damaged the nuclear plant. Yet the reactors safely shut down seemingly providing further proof on how safe nuclear power was. But problems emerged as it was revealed that the nuclear fuel needs to be constantly cooled for months to keep the fuel rods stable. Without the cooling systems explosions rocked the four reactor buildings and exposed the spent fuel rod pools.

While the nuclear reactors have been reasonably contained there appear to be some sort of leak from at least one of the reactors and the spent fuel pools continue to emit irradiated particles.  Hopefully most of the contamination has been dispersed into the ocean where it will be safely diluted.  However, if it is falling on the land and towns surrounding the nuclear plant the area might have the same fate as Pripyat, the city next to Chernobyl, that was permanently evacuated and abandoned.

The fatal flaw of the Fukushima plant design has been the failure of the cooling system.   New reactors that are being built in China and India have already fixed this design weakness by creating “walkaway plants” that can almost be abandoned and they will still shut down safely.  For example the

The new Westinghouse AP1000 (the AP stands for Advanced Passive), for example, has a huge emergency water reservoir above the reactor vessel that’s held back by valves.

If the cooling system fails, the valves open and a highly reliable force takes over: gravity. Water pours down to cool the outside of the containment vessel. Then another highly reliable force, convection, kicks in. As the water turns to steam, it rises. Then it cools under the roof, turns back into a liquid, and pours down again.

Yet even this ingenious solution is only temporary and eventually requires that the backup systems aka generators or primary cooling system be brought back online within days.

Watching the events at the Japanese plants also exposes what an easy target they are to terrorist attack. If a truck, like the one Timothy McVeigh was able to build, were to explode next to a nuclear reactor and the explosion was able to compromise the cooling system the resulting meltdown could surpass the Chernobyl incident.

In the American Midwest crowds protest the building of new reactors using the example of Japan, “what happened in Japan could happen here.” Well I highly doubt an earthquake and then tsunami is going to strike the Midwest anytime soon but some sort of disaster could.

As this crisis continues, nuclear plants have shown that disaster can strike and everything can go wrong. It is this that is the problem with nuclear reactors. When the shit hits the fan it creates what Al Jazeera calls “nuclear sacrifice zones” or areas that have become so contaminated with radiation that they are unlivable. It is this risk that makes the choice to turn to nuclear power questionable.

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