Fukushima and Chernobyl: lessons learnt?

By Emma Brooks

On March 11, Japan was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude of 8.9, triggering a massive tsunami that hit most of the coast line closest to the epicentre. This precipitated the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant when one of the cooling reactors stopped working, provoking widespread worry over the stability of the nuclear reactors.

Though at first the Japanese authorities assured us the situation was under control, it soon became apparent that this was far from the case. It became a daily battle for workers at the nuclear plant, struggling to cool down the reactor and ensuring that radiation levels didn’t escalate.

Twenty five years ago in Ukraine, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released high levels of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which spread across Western Russia and Europe.

The Chernobyl accident is considered the worst nuclear plant accident in history (until Fukushima), and caused many deaths directly, and by contamination. Today, a 30km radius still exists around Chernobyl commonly known as “the zone of alienation”, an abandoned area, a ghost town marking where the radiation hit worst.

Though Chernobyl is the most well known, it is not the only nuclear disaster to have happened. Other accidents include the Mayak or Kyshtym complex in the Soviet Union in 1957, the Windscale nuclear reactor in the UK in 1957, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in the US in 1961 and many more.

Considering the gravity of the situation in Chernobyl at the time, other nuclear plant accidents and the well known dangers associated with nuclear energy, one wonders how a disaster like Fukushima can still happen.

Although Fukushima was triggered by a natural disaster, one that cannot be controlled, the main argument is that this type of scenario should not have been possible under any circumstances. The Japanese authorities know full well that Japan is prone to major seismic activity, a factor that should have been taken into account when building nuclear power stations. Just as regular buildings are built to withstand most of the tremors that are felt from an earthquake, so too should the buildings surrounding the nuclear plants.

Furthermore, should the lessons from the past not have brought with them a hoard of new safety rules and regulations so as to ensure another Chernobyl would not be possible? The figures concerning deaths and illnesses related to Chernobyl are worrisome and clearly speak for themselves in terms of the potential dangers resulting from exposure to radioactivity. Though many regulations already exist concerning nuclear power worldwide , the Fukushima disaster poses the question: are they stringent enough and are they actually enforced?

In the present case, it appears that Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima plant, can be held partly responsible for the accident as for years it had been criticised for improper inspections and accidents, including falsification of data, not reporting problems, and previous indications that there were problems at the Fukushima plant that remained ignored.

The fact that Tepco ignored these problems and failed to solve them is very concerning. Considering the combined facts that Japan lies on a major fault line, and the well-known dangers of using nuclear energy, it seems fair to say that rules, regulations and follow-up should have been much stricter, reducing the risk of a nuclear disaster in the event of a natural catastrophe to the absolute minimum.

It also makes one wonder whether other countries around the world who use nuclear energy are making sure their nuclear plants are up to date with regulations. In a country such as France, where all people are no further than 300 km away from a nuclear plant wherever they live, the prospect of a disaster such as Fukushima or Chernobyl becomes seriously worrying.

Even though the post Chernobyl era brought with it a slow down in building of nuclear power plants, it nonetheless resumed later due to the high demand in energy, mainly in the countries with the largest populations and therefore the largest needs. However, it seems fair to say that the time to “duck and cover” is well and truly over, so what are the solutions?

The Chernobyl accident should already have created a much larger debate on the validity of using nuclear energy, and made people ask themselves the questions that are unfortunately only being asked today. How safe is it to use nuclear energy? Can we be sure that we will not ourselves be the victims of another Fukushima or Chernobyl?

The lesson Fukushima should teach us is that no one is safe from another nuclear disaster. But on the other hand, if we continue to use and depend on nuclear energy then we should be fully prepared for the circumstances. Arguing that we do not live on any fault lines so we are safe (as some politicians have done) is not an excuse. Not making 100% sure that regulations are in place and being enforced is not an option.

Countries should make sure that from this day on all nuclear power plants are up to date with current rules and regulations, and meet the highest standards in terms of safety and security. Fukushima should teach us that in under no circumstances, not even that of an unforeseen natural catastrophe, should we be forced to face another large scale nuclear disaster. Let’s hope that the debate following the events in Fukushima will yield better results than that which took place after Chernobyl.

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