Fukushima: A Rush to Nuclear Energy Judgment?
At the start of this piece, let me nail my colours to the mast: I am a proponent of nuclear energy and I have worked on the periphery of the nuclear industry. What has slowly emerged since a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami hit north east Japan on the 11th of March has served to show how ignorant the world is about radioactivity and risk.
It has been calculated that the energy released when the Pacific and North American tectonic plates moved passed each other was the equivalent of 6.7 trillion tons of TNT or 1000 times the total explosive power of every nuclear weapon ever detonated. I have no way of knowing if these figures are correct, but it is certain that nature released a colossal amount of energy that day.
The nuclear power plant at Fukushima survived the incident largely intact and withstood a magnitude 6 aftershock where the plant was near the epicentre. The systems worked stunningly well. The reactors all shutdown such that no further nuclear fission reactions were taking place eliminating any risk of a nuclear explosion - this was achieved by dropping control rods into the reactor which mop up the thermal neutron flux essential for sustaining the nuclear reaction.
The explosions which have taken place since the quake seem only to have spread volatile nuclides into the environment which have quickly been dispersed by the wind - there is no ''fallout'' as such. No information has emerged on whether any of the fission products associated with the burning of the nuclear fuel have been released.
In order to make any meaningful assessment of the risks posed by this catastrophe, information is urgently needed on the inventory of the radionuclides that may have escaped from the reactor buildings. This will tell us the nature of the radioactivity (alpha, beta or gamma emitters), the half-lives involved and enable a proper evaluation of risk to be made.
So far, the nuclear incident has yet to claim a single life so - let's spare a thought to the tens of thousands of souls who perished in an instant, not as the result of some nuclear Armageddon, but at the hands of nature.