The powerful earthquake which hit Japan on 11th March 2011 caused a tsunami which added to the destruction of millions of people’s homes and livelihoods.  A consequence of this terrible natural disaster was a man-made disaster - a nuclear power plant which supplies electricity to thousands of homes was damaged.

Fukushima Daiichi, Nuclear Power Plant, Japan

The powerful earthquake which hit Japan on 11th March 2011 caused a tsunami which added to the destruction of millions of people’s homes and livelihoods.  A consequence of this terrible natural disaster was a man-made disaster - a nuclear power plant which supplies electricity to thousands of homes was damaged.

Not long after the disaster it was announced that radiation had been found in water in Japan’s capital city Tokyo and that it was unsafe for babies to drink.  Tokyo is 220km (136 miles) away from the radiation leak.

Scales such as the Richter scale which measures earthquakes, or Celsius which measures temperature, provide us with more information to help us understand what is going on.  The same applies to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) which measures how bad a nuclear event is.

The event was considered a Level 7 ‘Major Accident’ and can be compared to the worlds largest nuclear disaster which took place in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986.  

Although both accidents have been classified level 7, the emissions from the Chernobyl disaster far outweigh those from Fukushima.  But we are warned that the radioactivity released in Japan might eventually go beyond that emitted in Chernobyl.  At the time of the incident over 85,000 people were evacuated from their homes around the power plant.

The shutting down and halting of emissions and nuclear leaks from the plant may take as long as a decade.  There are concerns over leaking contaminated water which has leaked into the Pacific Ocean.  Radiation for the Fukushima accident was still being released into the atmosphere at the end of 2014 and it is expected that the clean up will take 30 to 40 years.

Let’s take a look at what radiation is, what it means to life on earth, and why we have nuclear power stations...

What is Radiation

There are different forms of radiation such as light and heat but the most dangerous is nuclear radiation which can affect the cells which make up all livings things.  Radiation has been linked to cancer and can cause significant problems to babies before they’re born and after birth.  There have been many cases of radiation leaks over the years, and although we know that radiation is harmful, it’s effects on humans and animals are difficult to measure.

Nuclear radiation occurs naturally throughout the world and universe, but it comes in many different forms (including man-made forms), some more poisonous than others.  All forms of nuclear radiation travel in invisible rays, some rays are weak and would not pass through a piece of paper, but other rays can pass through metal.  In the same way some rays can pass into our bodies, or be eaten or breathed in - but other rays are too big and cannot.  So, it is this invisible radiation which is causing worry, as it can spread miles and miles in the form of clouds, affecting other countries. The other problem is that there is little we can do to stop radiation from spreading and it can stay in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Alternative Energy

Instead of using coal and  gas to generate electricity for our homes and schools we have begun using nuclear power as it is much better for the environment in that it does not release carbon dioxide, a gas thought to be responsible for climate change into the atmosphere.  But nuclear power does have its share of problems.  

People’s opinions on nuclear power is divided.  Some say that it isn’t renewable and its waste (radiation) is too poisonous and long-lasting to be a sensible option.  And as recent events in Japan have shown us, any problems or leakages can affect millions of people and is unpredictable.  It is the unknown power of possible nuclear explosions and radiation which are the biggest concern.  The biggest benefit of nuclear power is that it produces very little carbon dioxide (Co2) which is the key cause of climate change.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

The effects of the nuclear disaster in Japan will be largely unknown for many years, which makes nuclear power a very unstable option for countries looking to reduce their pollution.  On one hand nuclear power is a very effective and quick way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.  But on the other hand the poisonous nature of nuclear waste and radiation poses a unpredictable threat to life on earth, much like climate change.  The most important lesson that we have learnt from the radiation leak in Japan is that we cannot predict nature, or completely protect ourselves from it.  The future of nuclear power is yet to be determined but it is likely that the threat of climate change is likely to outweigh the possible mishaps brought about by using nuclear power. 

To find out more about nuclear energy visit Energy Kids


Image:Fukushima by Jun Teramoto

Infomation sourced from:

World Nuclear Association (2015), Fukushima Accident [online], Available from: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident/ [accessed 23/06/2015].

Iacursi, Jenna (2014), NatureWorldNews, Fukushima Radiation to Reach Highest Levels By End of 2015 [online], Available from: http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/11547/20141230/fukushima-radiation-to-reach-highest-levels-by-end-of-2015.htm [accessed 25/06/2015].

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