Fukushima nuclear disaster

March 10, 2013

Two years ago this week, one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history struck northern Japan. A tsunami followed the earthquake, enabling seawater to enter the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The water caused plant equipment to fail and caused releases of radiation. Three nuclear reactors experienced meltdowns, meaning they suffered severe damage from overheating.

Today in “As It Is” we look back on that terrible day. We talk to VOA correspondent Steve Herman about the meltdowns and clean-up efforts. He flew to Japan from his office in Seoul two years ago, arriving in Fukushima within 24 hours of the tsunami.

Steve was one of the first reporters to arrive, witnessing the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union. He stayed in northern Japan for a week, and has been back several times in the past two years.

A study from the United Nations’ World Health Organization predicts what effects the radiation from the disaster may have on the people who were in the area two years ago. The news is better than some expected. Jeri Watson will have that for us.

The earthquake measured 9.0. It produced a tsunami that killed --or left missing --about 20,000 people. Few can forget the television images of angry ocean waves swallowing people, vehicles and buildings in coastal Japan. About 110,000 people fled the area.

The damaged reactors released high levels of radiation into the air. The radiation spread, polluting communities and farmland, and destroying the way of life for many people. Scientists say it will be many years before people can live and work in the area again.

A few weeks ago, officials led reporters on a visit to a restricted area in Fukushima. Workers in protective clothing were removing radioactive particles from a road. Experts believe cleaning efforts will cut in half the radioactive buildup on soil, plants and other surfaces. But they are still not sure what they will do with the waste once it is collected. And they admit they do not know if decontamination efforts around the plant will ever be strong enough to permit people to return to live and work there.

As soon as VOA’s Steve Herman heard about the earthquake and tsunami, he began making plans to fly from his office in Seoul to northern Japan. He was the first western reporter to reach the entrance of the power center. He talked to us about what he saw when he got to Fukushima.

“There was no life there anymore. The area had been evacuated --people had left their homes very quickly, and there were literally a number of ghost towns where it, it looked normal except for the fact that there were no people around.”

Some experts say it might take 40 years and $15 billion before the area around the power plant is safe for human occupation.

That does not include the cost of doing away with the plant’s radioactive waste. But Steve Herman says the estimates of the time and cost to make the area livable again may not be right.

“I think in the eyes of many nuclear experts, 40 years is probably an optimistic timeline. What they’re trying to do has really never been done before, and it is going to take billions of dollars, state-of-the-art technology, and that timeline is based on, on any new major unexpected problems not happening.”

Japan is one of the world’s most “seismically-active” countries. In other words, it is commonly hit by earthquakes, large and small. Scientists say some reactors in Japan appear to have been built directly above active earthquake faults.

Steve Herman says as bad as the disaster was, it would have been much worse if it had happened in another country.

“We only have to imagine what this would have been like if it had happened in a country that wasn’t as prepared for earthquake and tsunami as Japan has strived to be prepared for over many, many decades because of its history of being in a seismically-active part of the world.”

Not all the news about the Fukushima nuclear disaster is bad.

We turn now to a study by the World Health Organization, a U-N agency. The study found only a small increase in the risk of cancers among people who lived in or near the nuclear reactors that suffered meltdowns, the people who were exposed to the highest levels of radiation during the disaster.

Jeri Watson reports:

International experts carried out the study over the past two years, beginning soon after the meltdowns. They looked at the possible lifetime risk of leukemia, breast cancer and thyroid cancer.

The experts estimated risks in the general population in Fukushima Prefecture, as well as inside and outside Japan. They also looked at the health risks to the emergency workers who were at the plant immediately after the meltdowns.

The experts could find little-to-no risk of increased cancer rates from the accident, either outside Japan or outside the Fukushima area. However, they said near or in Fukushima, the lifetime risk for some cancers may be somewhat higher than might be expected during a person’s lifetime.

In the most-affected areas, the increased risks of cancers like leukemia, breast cancer and thyroid cancer are about four percent in females exposed as babies. Experts expect a six percent increase in breast cancer in females and a seven percent increase in leukemia in males, and an up to 70 percent increase in thyroid cancer cases among females exposed as babies.

But one of the writers of the report told the Associated Press that the increased risks of cancers were so small that they probably will not be measureable.

I’m Jeri Watson.

And that’s “As It Is,” our daily show in VOA Special English. Our special thanks to VOA’s Steve Herman for talking with us, and for his reports on the nuclear accident. We want to report on the issues and ideas of interest to you, so let us know.