How Bad is the Fukushima Disaster?
Beyond all the information that has come out about the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, everyone really wants the answer to one question: Just how bad is it? A scale that was used to measure previous nuclear incidents can provide something of an answer.
The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is a worldwide tool for classifying the danger of nuclear events. INES rates incidents from 0 to 7, with 7 being the most severe.
The crisis at the Fukushima plant currently rates 5 on the scale, with 5 defined as an accident with wider consequences, but Japanese authorities are considering elevating it to 6 ? a serious accident. By comparison, the explosion at Chernobyl was rated 7 ? a major accident.
The release of radioactive steam from the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 ranked 5 on the INES.
As of yesterday, the radioactive iodine and cesium isotopes in the area around the Japanese plant had increased from around 50 percent of what was present at Chernobyl to 73 percent. So far the incident is not as bad as the 1986 blast at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, where the confinement structure was destroyed almost immediately. In Japan, the containment structures have not been significantly breached.
"The fact that radiation releases are approaching the level that they did at Chernobyl is a cause for concern, a sign of the severity of the accident that has already taken place," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists' global security program. "In the case of Fukushima, it's clear there's already been significantly more radiation released than was at Three Mile Island, at least in terms of isotopes like cesium."
The scale was developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and ranks nuclear events on multiple factors. The scale considers the impact the accident will have on people and wildlife in the area, the spread of radioactive materials within the facility, and whether or not the safety measures in place function as they should. The scale was designed so that the severity level of an event is 10 times greater than the level below it. So Chernobyl is currently ranked as 100 times as severe as Fukushima.
Both Three Mile Island and Fukushima experienced partial meltdowns and had uncovered cores. While Fukushima has more similarities with the incident at Three Mile Island than with Chernobyl, the Union of Concerned Scientists say the damage at Fukushima has already passed that of the Pennsylvania incident.
Right now, however, there is no way of knowing exactly how bad the situation is. What people know depends on what information they have access to and to whom they're listening.
Valery N. Bliznyuk, a physicist who lived 60 miles south of Chernobyl at the time of that meltdown, remembers the reaction to the event. "I would say that the government prefers to silence the event as long as possible... We could learn the truth only from foreign sources of information, particularly from those banned by the authorities," he said. "Scientists and engineers prefer to consider the most optimistic scenario. They generally believe that all risks have been included during construction of a power station and that no really bad things may happen. The public's reaction is typically overreaction and exaggeration of the real danger."
In the end, neither the government nor scientists have any idea of what the damage will be in the long run.
Nuclear Power's Next Fuel Is a Blast from the Past
Infographic: Nuclear Power in the United States
Wary Online Users Create Their Own Map of Japan's Radiation Levels