Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Disaster, But Not Another Chernobyl

If you were going by the headlines, you might think the nuclear disaster in Japan was winding down by now — that the situation was starting to get better.

The best information we have, though, is that the reactors are no closer to being under control than they were a week ago. Outside attempts to measure the radioactive material being leaked into the atmosphere by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station suggest that it is already similar to the total from the Chernobyl disaster, and that the rate of radioactive leaks is not slowing and may be increasing. Measures of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Japan suggest that very large new leaks of radioactive material in water have occurred within the last few days. The highest level of radiation recorded at the power station itself happened just yesterday.

The radiation leaks of the last two days may be the price of progress. As workers attempt to wash out the accumulated sea salt from the reactors, they are also drawing out large amounts of nuclear materials embedded in the salt. Or, the new radiation reports could be telling us that more things in the reactors are breaking.

As with the Chernobyl disaster, measurable amounts of radioactive iodine will be circulating around the northern hemisphere for at least the next two weeks. The radioactive iodine has been measured in both North America and Europe, which means it has circled the globe already. The situation is not another Chernobyl, though, in that most of the radioactive material is falling into the Pacific Ocean. The radiation will do some harm there, we are not sure exactly what, but that will not create the same kind of alarm that we had with Chernobyl where much of the radioactive material was deposited in the city of Chernobyl, with significant amounts spreading across the densely populated areas of Europe.