Published online 16 March 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.164

Column

Fukushima incident is out of control

Attention must turn to evacuees in the region.

The headline of this article is not intended to foment panic, but it is my honest assessment of the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

Since the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region on 11 March, a series of explosions, fires and radiation releases have made the environment around the plant extremely difficult to work in. For days, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, has been unable to pump in enough sea water to cover the cores of reactor units 1, 2 and 3, which are suspected to have at least partially melted down. Fires have broken out at another reactor, unit 4, probably as a result of old fuel which is stored on site and became exposed after the crisis began.

At this stage, there may be little that can be done to stop the chain of events slowly destroying the reactors. Peak radiation levels at the site are now solidly in the millisievert (mSv) per hour range — dangerous enough to require minimal crews and frequent shift changes for workers. Water coolant dumped from helicopters may be able to provide some aid, but today at least, radiation levels above the plant were too high for the aircraft to fly.

These reactors are complex machines, each of which has failed in a unique way. Instrumentation has been lost and the extent of the meltdown is unknown, as is the precise condition of the heavy pressure vessels that encase the cores. The status of a good portion of the plant's used nuclear fuel — kept on site in storage pools — is also unknown. Realistically, there is little that TEPCO or the government can do except to pump water and hope for the best.

Safety concerns

nuclear accidentThe damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan, on Tuesday March 15, 2011. White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit.AP/Press Association Images

Today, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK has reported an alarmingly high dose rate of 0.08 mSv per hour 25 kilometres away from the plant. This rate is potentially dangerous if people remain in the open for long periods of time.

The fact that this high radiation level has occurred outside the 20-km exclusion zone is troubling, although residents should be able to protect themselves by minimizing their time outside and by covering up when they do go outdoors.

But the greatest danger now is the panic is spreading throughout the region. About 200,000 people have been evacuated from the area around Fukushima Daiichi. Reports on NHK suggest that shelters housing the evacuees are beginning to run low on food and other essential supplies. Temperatures are dropping to freezing at night, and residents seem unsure about what to do. Should they stay inside? Flee to another prefecture?

A desperate-looking Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima prefecture, appeared on Japanese evening television. He reported that food and gasoline shortages were worsening because people from outside the region do not want to get near the plant. He warned that there is insufficient fuel to evacuate refugees from the exclusion area, a problem that will grow if the government has to widen the evacuation zone around the plant again. "Please give out correct, accurate information quickly," he said in a plea to the national government and TEPCO.

Crisis control

The Japanese government must stem the panic and respond to the crisis now by supplying accurate radiation readings as frequently as possible. Already, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has begun posting regular updates on its website. In addition, the government must tell the people what these numbers actually mean. Clear instructions need to be given to those who are fearful.

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Finally, the Japanese Self Defense Force must shift its full attention to Fukushima. It must supply the shelters with food and water and, if necessary, help to evacuate the residents to safer distances. This is a tall order, given the difficulties facing the entire nation, but other disaster-relief groups may be able to shore up aid to other regions affected by the tsunami. Only the military is equipped to deal with the radiation situation at Fukushima.

This crisis is not going away. In terms of radiation, the worst of the threat may begin to lessen in the coming week or two, as dangerous elements decay away and the fuel cools. But emissions of radioactivity from the plant could persist for longer. Assuming TEPCO cannot swamp these facilities with sea water, then regular reporting and continued crisis management will be the only protection for worried citizens. 

For full coverage of the Fukushima disaster, go to Nature's news special.

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  • #62363

    This is a tall order, given the difficulties facing the entire nation, but other disaster-relief groups may be able to shore up aid to other regions affected by the tsunami Bevel Box

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