Facts & Details about the Japanese Tsunami Ultimately, the radiation released as a result of Three Mile Island was
not high enough to present detectable health effects in the general population. That accident rated as a level 5 of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, an "accident with wider [than local] consequence." At Chernobyl, a level 7 "major accident," radiation exposure affected thousands of people. Fukushima Daiichi has been elevated to level 4³"accident with local consequences. But it remains to be seen how much higher on the scale this incident will go. In Tokyo, 180 miles away from the plant, peak radiation levels were recorded at 23 times above normal at one point on Tuesday, but they reportedly dropped to about 10 times above normal later in the day. For decades, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have served as shorthand for the nightmare of nuclear power generation gone awry. In the wake of Japan's deadly earthquake and tsunami last week, the still-unfolding disaster of Fukushima Daiichi has come closer than any nuclear crisis in history to making it a fearsome trio. It remains to be seen how much damage will be caused by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power complex, where four of the six reactors have seen a range of woes including three explosions in four days, damage to two containment vessels, possible overheating from spent fuel rods, and mounting peril for the last remaining 50 workers due to dangerous spikes in radiation emissions. Yet it is already possible to outline key differences that set the current Fukushima situation apart from the 1979 Three Mile Island emergency near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, that unfolded seven years later.
Reactor Type Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, which began operating in the 1970s, is made up of six boiling-water reactors, or BWRs³a type of "Light Water Reactor." (Using ordinary water, it is distinguished from "heavy water reactors," which use deuterium oxide, or D20, instead of H20.) Three Mile Island used another type of Light Water Reactor known as a pressurized-water reactor, or PWR. Both of these reactors use water for two purposes. It acts as a coolant, carrying heat away from the nuclear fuel, and as a "moderator," slowing down the release of neutrons during fission reactions, explained Neil Wilmshurst, vice president of the nuclear sector at the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute, the industry's nonprofit research organization.
So while the earthquake had cut the reactors' external
. or 3. This means the temperature can be higher than the boiling point of water without generating a significant amount steam (a less efficient coolant)." where higher temperature begets more power. 1. although Russia does have several RBMK reactors in operation. "could go into positive feedback. said Wilmshurst. an industry trade group based in London. decreasing power. Most nuclear reactors in the United States today use either BWR or PWR technology. the fission reaction slows down. Cooling was not working for reactor Nos. the tsunami appears to be the immediate culprit. no other power reactor in the world combines a graphite moderator and water coolant as Chernobyl did. said Wilmshurst. Chernobyl's reactors were a type called RBMK (for the Russian.In a PWR. it damaged the site infrastructure. and heat can be transferred more efficiently.
Accident Cause At this point in the Fukushima disaster. and so on. 1 and 3 water levels were covering only about half of the fuel. the RMBK used graphite as a moderator.M. But unlike the Light Water Reactors. he said." Both types of reactors have a kind of self-regulation or "negative feedback" loop: As the reactor gets hotter. 1. 3 and 4 were "severely damaged". According to the World Nuclear Association. reactor Nos. with fewer parts. Reactor Nos. 1 and 2. which in turn increases the temperature. The RMBK design. 5 and 6. Wilmshurst said.
As of 10 P. When the tsunami hit an hour later. the JAIF listed the following status of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors: Buildings around reactor Nos. 2 was "slightly damaged". 2. said Wilmshurst. since the plants shut down as they were designed to do following the earthquake. Structural integrity of the spent fuel pools was unknown for reactor Nos. which also used water for the coolant. on the other hand. 3 and 4 had low water levels. the building housing reactor No. and they tend to be simpler. the water is kept under pressure. So the reactor core operates at a higher temperature in these systems.
Water levels were covering more than half of the fuel in reactor No. local time on Thursday 17th March 2011. pool temperature was continuing to rise for reactor Nos. "reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny"). which Wilmshurst and EPRI say are "equally safe. Boiling-water reactors operate at lower temperatures.
badly executed safety test" initiated the disaster. "Overall. much of what we thought we knew on the third day turned out to be incorrect." the commissioners wrote. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time of Three Mile Island. little attention had been paid to the interaction between human beings and machines under the rapidly changing and confusing circumstances of an accident. did not become clear for years. who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Safety Program and has worked at three nuclear plants in the United States similar to the General Electric plants in Japan." he said. Batteries provided power for only up to eight hours. who served on the U. more than 100 alarms went off. Countries Reassess Nuclear Plans" During the first few minutes of the accident at Three Mile Island. said this week. . said Wilmshurst. according to the 1979 Kemeny report.power supply.
. said David Lochbaum. an "ill-conceived.S. we didn't know. "At Three Mile Island." Emergency cooling systems were shut down. (Related Photos: "Japan Tsunami: 20 Indelible Images") Still. . if the plant operators (or those who supervised them) had kept the emergency cooling systems on through the early stages of the accident. This allowed "further violent fuel-steam interactions that destroyed the reactor core and severely damaged the reactor building. "There was all kinds of information . it's too early to know for sure what sequence of events led to what outcome. A sudden surge of power triggered a steam explosion that ruptured the reactor vessel. according to a recent report from the United Nations. Mobile generators were brought in to take over. Three Mile Island would have been a "relatively insignificant incident." the commission found. he said. At the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine."
Understanding the Problem The level of access to information about what is going on inside a reactor has increased in the decades since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. which is needed to keep coolant pumps doing their job. and no system was in place to filter out the important signals from the insignificant ones." The extent of fuel melting. the tsunami killed the diesel backup generators needed to provide power for the cooling system. and even the fact that a hydrogen explosion had occurred in the containment on the first day." but "operator error" was the "fundamental cause of the accident. According to the 1979 Kemeny Commission report on Three Mile Island³the definitive document of that disaster³"equipment failures initiated the event. Related Story: "Eyeing Japan. with dire consequences. As Peter Bradford.
said Wilmshurst. Radiation was released "very." At Chernobyl.
Radiation Containment Like the Three Mile Island plant. So radioactive gases and particles were picked up by wind and carried high in the atmosphere over long distances before raining down on communities far from the source. prevailing winds can influence what areas are affected. very high because of the nature of the reactor and graphite fire." said Lyman. as a graphite fire burned for 10 days." radiation exposure affected thousands of people. That accident rated as a level 5 of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. and the primary containment vessel. but they reportedly dropped to about 10 times above normal later in the day. Ultimately. Fukushima Daiichi has been elevated to level 4³"accident with local consequences. "Further away you don't necessarily get lower doses." Weather changed over a prolonged emission period. including metal cladding surrounding the nuclear fuel. the Fukushima reactors have three barriers designed to prevent radiation leakage. an "accident with wider [than local] consequence. it can contaminate vast areas. he said." said Lochbaum. the radiation released as a result of Three Mile Island was not high enough to present detectable health effects in the general population.
Exposure in Perspective
. Dams at Risk Due to Global Warming") "The Chernobyl pattern was quite erratic. that I'm sure that the situation is every bit as confused. a reactor pressure vessel. But it remains to be seen how much higher on the scale this incident will go. Among other factors. said Bradford.By contrast. a level 7 "major accident." he explained. peak radiation levels were recorded at 23 times above normal at one point on Tuesday. Chernobyl lacked a containment vessel." Bradford said. 180 miles away from the plant. In Tokyo. some areas 100 miles away from the facility had radiation levels higher than areas just 10 or 20 miles away. "Contamination levels are not linear. the level of computerization and information transfer available today could give Japanese officials much more insight to what happens in the four troubled reactors at Fukushima³at least in theory. In the Chernobyl accident. Once radiation is released into the environment. "They've got so much more going on in terms of the earthquake and the tsunami that we didn't have at TMI. (Related: "Nuclear Reactors.
he said. called for Japanese counterparts to facilitate stronger communication.S. must extend beyond industry. The Chernobyl accident caused acute radiation sickness in 134 of the 600 workers who were at the site on the morning of the initial explosion and received high doses of radiation³80. Communication during a nuclear crisis. According to the Kyodo News Agency. information hardly flowed at the speed of Twitter. Prime Minister Naoto Kan admonished Tepco executives in a meeting Tuesday after he learned about an explosion from TV. Chernobyl's greatest impact was an epidemic of thyroid cancer (more than 6. On Tuesday the director general of the International Atomic Agency. There is significantly more communication within the industry now than there was during the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. rather than receiving a call from Tepco. of course. often by drinking contaminated cow's milk. And eventually as many as 4. has "come together" to share information in an effort to help resolve the dangers at Fukushima. said Wilmshurst. In the view of the London-based World Nuclear Association. One millisievert (mSv) is equal to 100 millirems. Two others died due to injuries from the fire and radiation. He reportedly demanded to know. And in Chernobyl. according to the World Health Organization.000 people are expected to die as a result of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl plant.000 cases so far) among children and adolescents exposed to radiation. according to the NRC. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.000 to 1.
Crisis Communication The global nuclear power industry today. "What the hell is going on?" (Related Story: "Japan Quake Not 'The Big One'?") As the Three Mile Island emergency unfolded. is 620 millirems (mrem) per year. Of this group 28 people died within three months. radioactivity at the plant hit a dose rate of 1. The Japanese Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare on Wednesday lifted the maximum allowable exposure for nuclear workers to 250 mSv. and in this area plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) is facing harsh criticism. the average radiation dose from natural background andmanmade sources. the Associated Press reported. according to the UN reportand the U. an
.190 mrem per hour Tuesday evening. From a public health perspective. such as medical procedures and consumer products." even as efforts to cool the reactor and stabilize the plant proved ineffective.6 million mrem. Yukiya Amano.In the United States. officials attempted to reassurethe public that the "danger was over. from 100 mSv. but dropped to 60 mrem per hour six hours later. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
S." As the Wall Street Journal reports. As it is." In fact. a physicist in the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program and former president of the Nuclear Control Institute. he said. Chernobyl "was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.industry group. by the fact that they're still struggling to find out what's going on. The following day. from fatality estimates to speculation about fires in adjoining reactors. "There's a staggering amount of confusion on the ground. commented in a call with reporters Tuesday that Tepco's briefings are becoming "less and less transparent." The U." This would afford the public more confidence in the pronouncements. But this could be explained. Arjun Makhijani. where the discovery of radioactive particles on nuclear plant workers' clothing instigated a search for the source of radioactivity. the earliest evidence for the international community that a major nuclear accident had occurred came from Sweden. "Our concern is that industry in United States and elsewhere doesn't try to whitewash this. Edwin Lyman. president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. the Soviet news agency confirmed the accident at Chernobyl plant but did not offer details. me worry?'" Makhijani is calling for "a frank appraisal of what is known and not known and the potential range of damage and consequences. "verbal reassurances about low radiation levels stand in stark contrast to repeated increases in the radius of evacuations."
." "There's clearly a kind of erratic quality to the information coming out by the Japanese. officials have come under fire for statements that in hindsight seem to underestimate the escalating threat. "The resulting information vacuum fueled rumors of all kinds." added Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear expert Ellen Vancko. 'What. according to the EPA account. he said. Fukushima Daiichi." As the crisis in Japan intensifies. is "one of most serious accidents that has occurred in history of nuclear power. criticized Japanese authorities for "working from a standard nuclear industry playbook whose byline seems to be. he said." said Lyman. "Chernobyl was a secret disaster at first. said." Lyman. Japan's government has complained about the slow release of information from Tepco. Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a 1986 journal article on the accident that.