Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: answering your questions part 2

by Michelle Frey

March 15, 2011

your questions answered

Our thoughts are with the people of Japan as they face this unprecedented disaster and the aftermath of the earthquake and resulting tsunami.

With any crisis of this magnitude there are a lot questions and a lot of confusion, so we asked our community on Facebook to what questions they have and posed them to our Nuclear Policy Analyst Jim Riccio here at Greenpeace USA.

Here’s the second round:

Question from Paul Adams:

What has Japan been doing to store its nuclear waste? With that many nuclear plants in operation, they must generate a large amount.

Jim’s Answer:

Unfortunately, Japan does generate a large amount of nuclear waste. Although, the United States generates more waste from our 104 nuclear reactors. The Fukushima reactors have twenty years’ worth of nuclear waste stored in spent fuel pools, which are three stories in the air and are not under containment. Spent fuel pools are large pools of water that are needed to keep the radioactive fuel rods cool.

Our concern right now, is that the Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool is boiling. Should that water boil off, the fuel rods would be exposed and can catch fire, spewing the radiation further afield.

The Japanese reprocess some of the nuclear waste, but there is still twenty years worth of fuel in the Fukushima Unit 4 reactor spent fuel pool. President Carter stopped reprocessing here in the United States in the 1970s. The mess has yet to be cleaned up in upstate New York. It will take several more decades and millions more dollars before West Valley is cleaned up.

Question from Jax Monty:

Who and where else in the world is this going to affect?

Jim’s Answer:

Right now our concern is with the people of Japan. We hope that the nuclear accident underway at Fukushima does not exacerbate the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami.  
Thus far, the winds have been blowing the radiation to sea. But should the winds shift, the radiation could blow back over the Japanese homeland.
Question from Hannah Freyr Thomas:

How likely is it that we’re about to see another Chernobyl like disaster happening at Fukushima? I’ve read that they’re having problems with a third reactor now.

Jim’s answer:

The reactors at Fukushima are not the same design as the Chernobyl reactor, but every reactor has the potential to release enormous amounts of radiation into the environment that would be comparable to the Chernobyl accident.

There have already been hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Reactors 1 and 3, and they’ve poured sea water into the reactors in attempts to keep the fuel from melting. The water levels at Reactor 2 have fallen below the top of the fuel itself, exposing the fuel and likely causing it to melt.

Question from Lakshmy Ravindran:

The news media is reporting that even a complete core meltdown at Fukushima, like in the case of Three Mile Island, would have no significant impact on humans. Is this true? And how is that possible?

Jim’s answer:

In the case of Three Mile Island, there was a partial-core meltdown. Half the reactor’s fuel melted and spewed radiation into the environment for days. Unlike the reactor at Three Mile Island, the Fukushima reactors are designed by General Electric (GE).

In the event of a meltdown, the containment of these GE nukes is 90% likely to fail, according to the NRC. In the case of Three Mile Island, there are statistically significant increases in cancer as a result of the partial-core meltdown. Therefore, contrary to industry claims, a full-core meltdown at Fukushima could have significant human impacts.

Question from mulitple Facebook community members:

Several people asked about the likelihood of radiation from Japan affecting the West Coast of the United States. How likely is it?

Jim’s Answer:

First and foremost, this is a disaster for the Japanese people, and our thoughts are with them as they struggle with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami are now faced with this dangerous situation at the Fukushima nuclear reactors. We are not sure of the extent of radioactive release at this point. 

Thus far in Japan, the radiation releases have been blowing out to sea, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is reporting that it wouldn’t reach the United States.  Unlike Chernobyl, there is no graphite fire propelling the radiation high into the atmosphere and around the planet.  

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.