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Nuclear ‘meltdown’ threat after 8.9 magnitude quake hits Japan

March 13, 2011

Following the 8.9 magnitude that hit Japan’s eastern coast on Friday, several tsunamis have swept away houses, boats, vehicles and destroyed massive tracks of land and infrastructure and killed close to 900 people across the east coast. At the moment, the key news is the nuclear ‘meltdown’ that threatens the widespread release of radiation that has been compared to the 1979 Three Mile Island (United States) and 1986 Chernobyl (Ukraine) incidents.

A state of emergency has been declared in Fukushima prefecture after the Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s Unit 1 and Unit 3 both reportedly experienced meltdowns following the quake and tsunami. The explosion of Unit 1 reportedly came as the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), was working desperately to reduce pressure in the damaged reactor’s core after cooling systems failed in the aftermath of the quake. The nuclear reactor core is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction and without adequate cooling, a core meltdown could occur. The next step for workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant will be to flood the reactor containment structure with sea water to bring the reactor’s temperature down to safe levels.

Due to the meltdown threat, a 20km evacuation order has been imposed by the Japan government. This has affected about 180,000 people. But analysts are worried that denser regions, in particular the Sendai area which is located 90km north of Fukushima will be affected if further leakage occurs. Authorities have begun radiation exposure testing around Fukushima prefecture where three people – randomly selected out of a group of 90 – have tested positive for radiation poisoning, according to Japan’s government broadcaster, NHK.

Furthermore, metereologists have come out to say that winds and rain off the coast of Japan will contribute to the way that radiation will be carried. CNN reports that should there be a core breach of the nuclear plant and radiation reaches the jet stream level, it is likely that the radiation could be carried all around the world. However, that will only occur if things turn for the worst.

In Tokyo, 2.5 million people are still left without power but this figure is down from 6 million reported yesterday. From Monday, power rationing set to begin. Power outages have left commuters in and out of Tokyo stranded and people scrambling to buy up supplies of batteries, torchlights and lamps from stores all over the city.

Japan is home to 55 nuclear power plants, the first having been built way back in 1966. Under the Japan Nuclear Program, Japan has over the years built up a total output of 49,467 megawatts (MW) from operating nuclear power plants. Nuclear power accounts for approximately one-third of the country’s total electric power output.

Japan is an island country, which makes it difficult for them to exchange energy with neighboring countries through power transmission lines or pipelines. Japan is also energy-scarce and depends largely on foreign countries for 80% of its energy resources. These conditions are completely different from those of Europe or the U.S.; therefore, the government of Japan concludes that it is rational to continue making the fullest possible use of nuclear power generation as one of the mainstays of the nation’s energy supply. Nuclear power generation contributes to improved energy sufficiency and to stability of the energy supply, in addition to playing an important role in reducing Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, nuclear power represents only one cornerstone in a comprehensive energy policy; one designed to meet the growing energy needs of Japan and based on an ideal mixture that includes thermal power and hydroelectric power. Japan’s electric power companies are prepared to meet this demand in the 21st century, and in the process, ensure that nuclear energy be used solely for peaceful purposes, and under the safest possible conditions.

Unfortunately, 60% of all earthquakes above 6.0 in magnitude occur in Japan and this can lead to serious consequences with regard to safety due to nuclear complications when earthquakes and tsunamis hit.

For more updates on the Japan earthquake and nuclear emergency, visit CNN’s This Just In page.

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