As INSAF Bulletin goes to distribution, the nuclear plant crisis at Fukushima in Japan, precipitated by the massive earthquake followed by a huge tsunami, is still unfolding; reactor cores at two units in the six-unit facility and some of the pools in which the spent fuel rods are held, have not completely stabilized to a point where the emergency can be declared at an end.


What is of concern is the contamination of surrounding land by the longer-lived radioactive materials that may be transported out of the plant buildings by leaking contaminated water and air.  However, despite the headlines in the media, it should be recalled that in the midst of the many thousands dead and missing due to the natural disaster itself, not a single fatality so far can be attributed to the accident at the plant. 


The general population was efficiently evacuated from the neighboring area and while it is undoubtedly an inconvenience for them to leave their homes, there have been no reports of their having suffered any ill-effects.  The only known casualties are two workers whose legs and feet were exposed to excessive radiation and who had to undergo a temporary hospitalization.  Of course, it is known that exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation may induce cancer that can occur after a considerable lag time, sometimes lasting as much as 20 years, between exposure and incidence.  It is possible hence that some of the workers who have been working in high radiation environments may incur a long-term risk of cancer induction.  As far as the general public is concerned, however, there is little risk as long as effective public health measures, currently in place, of discarding food locally produced in the area and relocating people away from contaminated land, continue to be employed. 


Fukushima is certainly a grave accident caused by a natural disaster, but it is, and very likely to continue to be, a far cry indeed from the kind of chemical disaster that occurred in Bhopal and killed several thousands of the general public who had nothing to do with the Union Carbide plant.  The reactors at Fukushima that are currently in a crisis are over 40 years old and were designed almost half a century ago; the nuclear industry in the last few decades has developed many safer designs capable of withstanding severe challenges, including seismic events and tsunamis.  Certainly there are many lessons that will be learnt from Fukushima as there were from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. While science and technology can often create social and health problems, the solution to them frequently lies in the careful development and application of a better science and technology, not in their abandonment.  Automobiles, railroads, and airplanes cause deaths when they are involved in accidents; any deaths of course are highly regrettable, but the response to such accidents will hardly be to give up on modern methods of transport and return to bullock carts. The article below focuses partly on the risks and benefits of nuclear power versus its main current alternative for large-scale electric generation, which is coal-fired generation; the arguments it makes are not likely to be significantly affected by the events at Fukushima – the Editors].

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