Science, Tech & Environment

Japan's battle to prevent a nuclear meltdown

By Mary Kay Magistad

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The Japanese government said today that workers are close to reconnecting electricity to at least one of its damaged reactors at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Restarting power at the at the plant would be a key step toward gaining control of a crisis that has raged largely out of control for nearly a week.

It's believed that at least three of the plant's six reactors have experienced partial meltdowns, and cooling systems for at least two of the plant's spent fuel storage sites have also failed.

Officials have said there's still no danger to anyone outside the 12-mile evacuation zone

But many Japanese and others aren't convinced.

Hiroshi Taka is one of them. As the co-chairman of the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, Taka also is keeping an eye on the civilian nuclear industry, and he sees the crisis unfolding this week as a long-overdue wakeup call.
The danger of plutonium

He's especially concerned about the use of plutonium fuel at some of Japan's 55 power plants

"If it explodes, the danger of plutonium is evident," Taka said.

Plutonium can be deadly to humans in even tiny doses, and at least one of the reactors now at risk at the Fukushima-Daiichi complex #3, uses plutonium in its fuel.

The four minor explosions so far at the plant are not know to have involved any plutonium or uranium fuel, and experts say the chances of such an explosion are extremely low. But there have been significant radiation releases, and there could be more as the crisis unfolds.

Thursday, crews were working desperately to try to cover exposed spent fuel rods with seawater dumped from helicopters.

The 180 emergency workers at the reactors are rotating in and out to minimize their exposure to radiation, but they're already getting doses way above what anyone should.

Some have praised them as selfless, possibly sacrificing their health to stop a much bigger disaster. One is Dr. Kikame Hajime, a radiation specialist with the Japanese Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions.

Kikame said since this is the first time Japan has experienced a nuclear power accident, the country was not prepared.

"We don't know how to act," Kikame said.

He added that some people think they shouldn't even stay in Tokyo, more than 140 miles away.

"I'm still here, but we have to think about what's the priority," Kikame said. "The priority is to evacuate women and children from near areas."
Thyroid cancer

Hajime said pregnant women and children are most at risk of developing thyroid cancer from radiation exposure, and levels of radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant have been high. The chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday told Congress he thought they were "extremely high," and has advised a 50-mile evacuation zone.

But the Japanese government is sticking to its original 12-mile evacuation zone, and telling people a little further out to stay in their homes and keep them sealed.

Neither the government nor the plant's owners have provided many details on exactly what radioactive isotopes have been released at the plant. And that frustrates Dr. Kikame. His organization sent a letter to the government asking for more transparency on the radiation leaks, and the possible health risks.

Meanwhile, the world watches and reassesses nuclear power. Germany has announced it's decommissioning its older reactors. China, which has 30 reactors and was planning to quickly build another 27, has suspended construction and ordered new safety checks.
Underinvestment in renewables

Others say this crisis is yet another reminder of the need to invest in less risky energy sources. Tim Noonan, Campaigns Director of the International Trade Unions Confederation in Brussels, said governments around the world should reverse what he calls the decades of underinvestment in renewables or green energy sources.

"A really new, determined and rapid deployment of capital and expertise into that sector has to be one of the lessons taken out of this disaster," Noonan said.

Wednesday in Hiroshima, a small group of demonstrators protested against two new nuclear power plants planned for the area, which, they feel, has had quite enough radiation already.

For a growing number of people in Japan and beyond, the era of thinking of nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels may be coming to an end.