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How bad could it get with Japan nuke reactors?

The detection of the highly radioactive elements cesium-137 and iodine-131 outside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy. The open question is whether it will be limited, serious or catastrophic.

world Updated: Mar 15, 2011 00:50 IST
Brian Vastag

The detection of the highly radioactive elements cesium-137 and iodine-131 outside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy. The open question is whether it will be limited, serious or catastrophic.

The two radioactive isotopes can mean only one thing: Two or more of the reactor cores are badly damaged and at least partially melted down.

In the best case, operators will pump enough seawater and other coolants into the stricken reactor cores to squelch overheating. Such a success would prevent further releases of radiation.

In such a scenario, the only casualties would probably be the handful of plant workers reported Sunday to be suffering from acute radiation sickness. But there’s also the immense anxiety triggered by the incident and the toll of the subsequent evacuation on nearby residents.

The consequences of the most dire scenarios are much harder to estimate. They include the loss of the facility, an expensive local cleanup and a wide-scale disaster that renders the countryside around the plant uninhabitable for decades.

“There is a worst case, and then the question is, ‘Is there a worst case beyond the worst case?’?” said Gilbert Brown, a nuclear engineer at the University of Massachusetts.

If a full meltdown occurs, a huge molten lump of radioactive material would burn through all containment, destroy the building and fall to the ground, exposed. A toxic stew of exotic radioactive particles would then spread on the wind and rain.

On Sunday, the International Atomic Energy Agency offered a spot of good news. The prevailing winds at Daiichi are blowing to the northeast, out to sea, and should continue to do so for the next three days.

But if luck turns south and the winds do, too, radioactive particles could be spread far across Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and beyond.

Edwin Lyman, a scientist said that simulations he has run on possible nuclear disasters in the United States estimate “tens of thousands of cancer deaths” from a total meltdown, although arriving at a figure is fraught with layers of uncertainty.

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