Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor no. 4 and no. 3.Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor no. 4 and no. 3.

Because of the earthquake disaster in Christchurch, New Zealanders right now are probably feeling more deeply for those affected by Japan’s earthquake disaster than they might otherwise.

That’s human nature – empathy comes from shared experience.

It seems likely that at least 10,000 people in Japan lost their lives on Friday. It’s certain that many more are homeless, as in Christchurch.

But Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster is being overshadowed by its nuclear emergency. That crisis is one that has the potential to become a far worse disaster than either of the first two. It’s also one that can continue to have an impact for decades. There have been explosions or fires in four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. A full meltdown in any one of the reactors, combined with a North-easterly wind, could have consequences that do not bare thinking about for the 11 million citizens of the nearby city of Tokyo.

I greatly admire the courage of the staff at the Fukushima plant, who are exposing themselves to such grave danger, in order to try and bring the plant under control.

The Chernobyl disaster is used as a yardstick for nuclear accidents, being at the top of the scale at level seven. But few people know the enormity of that disaster.

That is probably because the statistics around the number killed are so hotly debated, and because the Soviet administration distorted the numbers in order to downplay the accident. But according to government agencies in the three former Soviet States affected, about 25,000 ‘liquidators’ (members of the clean up crew) have so far died. Estimates provided by the liquidator associations in the three countries are well in excess of the official figures. The Chernobyl Forum's (a multi-agency grouping) report in 2005, on the other hand, attributes a far lower number of liquidator deaths to the reactor disaster. Those figures do not account for those civilians who have died as a result of their exposure to the fallout from Chernobyl. The nuclear industry itself estimated that 40,000 across Europe would eventually die of cancer due to the radiation exposure they received. Independent radiation experts put the likely figures up to ten times higher.

It is with some guilt and relief that I can say that I am thankful that Christchurch, and New Zealand, has not had to deal with a nuclear disaster on top of the devastation caused by the February 22nd quake. Those challenges alone seem so great.

May New Zealand remain nuclear free forever.