While the government of Japan does their best to assuage our fears, the situation at TEPCO’s Daiichi nuclear power plant seems nothing short of dire. Nuclear energy has a polarizing effect on scientists; they either love it or hate it, often in equal measure.
The facts: the reactor designs of all of the reactors at Daiichi are fundamentally different from the one that suffered a catastrophic meltdown in Chernobyl; five of the reactors were of a design that caused three GE engineers to quit in disgust; there are twenty years of spent fuel rods sitting in containment pools on top of the reactors; reactors 5 and 6 were shut down at the time of the quake and tsunami but still contain spent fuel and are still at risk.
Tokyo has seen a number of radiation spikes, within acceptable limits officials say. How long the levels remain acceptable is anyone’s guess – the government has revised the safe level, so the level now needs to shoot up twenty times background to warrant a report. I live approximately 120 km south of Tokyo with a significant mountain range in between. We may be safe from radiation, we may not. If the radiation remains at its present level there is little to worry about.
Back to Fukushima – there are fundamental design differences in the design of the TEPCO reactors to the one that melted down in the Ukraine. These reactors are probably not going to shoot their fuel rods high into the air to allow for maximum dispersal; but we are dealing with six reactors, not just one. Catastrophic failure at any one of the six reactors could result in the plant technicians being able to stabilize the other five. If one goes, they could very well all go – Three Mile Island multiplied by six.
As nervous as the present situation makes people in Tokyo, and indeed around here, it is worth pointing out that while people speculate as to whether the radiation levels in Tokyo and beyond might become a problem – they most definitely are a problem for the core team of technicians and engineers who are doing their best to keep things from getting unimaginably worse.
That is on the backs of everybody’s minds at the moment and it is beginning to have an impact on day-to-day life. It is getting harder to find milk and bread, it is impossible to find flashlights, batteries or portable gas canisters. Amazon Japan is sold out of both, although some morally flexible Amazon sellers have started to offer rechargeable D-cells at around $25 for a pair. Gas stations are rationing fuel and we are experiencing rolling blackouts on a daily basis.
Yesterday, we had fresh quakes. They left people in the next prefecture injured but left the reactors alone – lucky in a way, but magnitude 5 earthquakes do little to soothe increasingly frayed nerves.