Is Japan’s nuclear crisis really as severe as Chernobyl?

Japan's government has assigned the emergency the highest possible severity rating. How bad could it get?

Topics: Nuclear Power, Big Question, Japan, Japan Earthquake,

Is Japan's nuclear crisis really as severe as Chernobyl?

Japanese authorities increased the “severity rating“of the emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan today, raising it from a level-five to a level-seven accident. Historically, the only other nuclear incident to garner that distinction has been the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. 

This has prompted a barrage of questions about the possible consequences of the continuing crisis. We turned to  Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit organization focused on nuclear security issues, to understand the severity of the current situation, and potential end-game scenarios in Japan.

I think it alarmed a lot of people that now suddenly the Japanese government is saying the nuclear crisis is on par with Chernobyl. Is that characterization accurate?

I think the Japanese authorities finally were forced to publicly recognize the severity of this disaster. They were trying to keep the public calm, to preserve some credibility for the nuclear power industry, so they tried to use reassuring language in their statements, and were hesitant to compare what was going on at Fukushima to Chernobyl. And, of course, it’s not Chernobyl. It’s different.

Chernobyl was an explosion that launched about a third of the reactor core thousands of feet into the air, injecting a hot plume of radioactivity into the upper atmosphere and contaminating large parts of Europe. That is not what’s going on at Fukushima. But as an official said at the Tuesday press conference, Fukushima could ultimately release as much or more radiation than Chernobyl. It was that realization, I think, that was behind the re-categorization.

Is the situation deteriorating at the plant?

The situation is deteriorating. I think that’s the only fair way to describe it. You can forget words like “stable,” or “under control.” It’s not. Every day brings a new risk of disaster, whether it’s an aftershock that threatens to open up a crack in the containment vessels; or it’s the water that’s being streamed in, that could distort the fuel rods; or it’s the leakage of this now-radioactive water into the ocean; or the fire that breaks out at the plant. Every day brings a new mini-crisis that could tip one or more of these reactors into meltdown. That’s where we’re at.



You have to understand that these reactors have been subjected to far more stress than they were ever designed to handle. And the stress continues. There have been hundreds of aftershocks. Just this week, there was a 6.6 quake. There are new predictions that the aftershocks could go on for some time, and be as powerful as a major earthquake. And, what [emergency workers] are doing is not in any safety manual. There isn’t any Plan B that says, “Bring fire trucks to the beach and pump salt-water into the reactors,” or “Rent giant concrete pumps and use them to spray water into the reactor.”

Would you say, right now, there’s as big a risk of meltdown as there has been during this entire ordeal?

Yes. They’ve been struggling to keep the fuel rods covered with water. And they partially succeeded. Still, it’s likely that all three reactors have suffered at least partial meltdowns. But we don’t know for sure what’s going on. You can’t open the door and look in. It doesn’t work that way.

At this point, what do you think is the most likely scenario for how this situation will resolve itself?

I believe the most likely scenario is one or more meltdowns. I hope I’m wrong. But I think this is just beyond the capability of anyone to control.

What would the implications be of a major meltdown for Japan?

If one of the fuel rod assemblies melted, it would likely breach the concrete containment vessel and spew radioactivity to the ground, air and water at a much higher level than we’ve seen so far. You would be looking at hundreds or thousands of square kilometers contaminated for decades or centuries. You’d be looking at a dead zone similar to the zone that’s around Chernobyl. It’s hard to predict the radius, but it could be 10 or 20 kilometers. The dead zone around Chernobyl is about 3,000 square kilometers.

What’s the best-case scenario? What will it take to get the plant stable and decommissioned, so it no longer poses a threat?

The best case scenario is you keep the rods covered with water for months, and that, sometime next year, you’re able to do stabilization work. Then you could begin to bury the reactors. One way or the other, this ends with those reactors entombed under tons of sand and concrete, a permanent monument on the shoreline of Japan to this nuclear disaster.

And once it’s buried, the concrete would contain the radiation?

Yeah, for decades. The problem is the concrete would wear out before the radiation stops. You kick the can a century down the road.

Peter Finocchiaro is a senior editor at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @PLFino.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>