Nuclear Catastrophe in Japan

The events unfolding in Japan with their nuclear reactors in the wake of the earthquake demonstrate yet again the fallibility of human engineering.

So far, two reactors have suffered hydrogen explosions, and a third one looks like it too is running away. Authorities, as they always do, state that only small levels of radiation have been released so far. A US navy ship 100 miles off the coast detected an increase in radiation levels and moved as a result of it. 180,000 people have been evacuated, in an area that currently has enormous difficulty handling evacuees. 2000 people have been tested for radiation levels, and some have been sent to hospital. 11 workers were injured in today’s explosion.

You have to feel for the people living in the area of the reactors. Their lives have already been greatly affected by the earthquake and tsunami, with loved ones missing, and family members dead. Now they are sent to a makeshift clinic, where they are lined up by staff in hazard suits to have their family tested for excessive radiation exposure. Imagine if it was your child ahead of you in line. The anxiety felt by these people must be overwhelming.

The owner of the reactors, Tokyo Electric Power, has seen their stock price plunge by 23%. Engineers are pumping seawater into two of the reactors, which destroys them, as it is their only alternative to try to cool the reactors. These reactors are clearly write offs. It is likely that the 23% decline is not enough to accommodate the destruction of value that has been seen. Nuclear plants are essentially uninsurable, except by governments.

The earthquake measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, and was 10-100 times stronger than engineers had anticipated in their nuclear designs. Once again, mother nature is unpredictable. Once again, the drawback of centralized power generation is exposed. California has two plants on the coast designed to accommodate earthquakes of 7.5. The 1906 San Francisco quake was estimated at 8.25.

The nuclear industry in Ontario will claim that we don’t suffer from this type of risk. Japanese engineers didn’t think they did either. Japan is probably the world’s best prepared country to deal with earthquakes, but they were wrong. We also didn’t think we could get hurricanes until hurricane Hazel in 1954. Nuclear plants are designed and operated by humans, and the world’s other two nuclear disasters at 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl were caused by human error. Humans run Ontario’s nuclear fleet. Between the fallibility of humans, and the unpredictability of natural forces, the only thing we can say for sure is that we will have more nuclear disasters. After all, 3 out of roughly 110 nuclear plants operating in the world have had severe problems.

It is the nature of the beast. You can’t control mother nature. You can’t control 100% of human error. And the consequences when you are dealing with material as toxic as nuclear fuel are extreme.

It is time we learned.

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