Japan has upgraded its nuclear crisis at Fukushima to the same level as the Chernobyl meltdown 25 years ago. Donald Olander, a nuclear engineering professor at Berkeley, tells us that “Fukushima is no Chernobyl, but has the potential to become one”.
The Japanese authorities upgraded the Fukushima nuclear emergency sparked by last month's earthquake and tsunami to a maximum 7 Monday. The new rating puts it on a par with the deadly meltdown at the former Soviet Union plant in Chernobyl in 1986, in which thousands are believed to have died as a result of leaked radiation.
As defined by the UN's International Nuclear Events Scale, a level 7 accident involves "the major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects, requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures."
Donald Olander, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, talked to FRANCE 24 about the new rating.
F24: How can we compare Fukushima with Chernobyl?
Donald Olander: There’s a big difference between Fukushima and Chernobyl. I don’t know why [the level at Fukushima] was raised to a “7” because I doubt the amount of radiation released at Fukushima is even 10% of what was released at Chernobyl.
This level 7 is really just based on potential – that if something really goes very wrong at Fukushima and they can’t control those damaged reactors, then it would turn into a Chernobyl. But we’re not there yet, by a long shot.
It would seem reasonable to place Fukushima between Three Mile Island [a partial core meltdown at a plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, which was rated level 5] and Chernobyl.
F24: Will the Fukushima area turn into a ghost town like Chernobyl?
DO: It’s not going to be a ghost area. The main concerns are drinking the milk from the cows in that area, because they eat the grass where radiation is deposited, or eating leafy vegetables, like spinach and lettuce. The radiation is just on the top of the soil, so as long as the water supply is underground and there hasn’t been extensive leakage into it – which can be checked periodically – then that won’t be affected.
The worst is the iodine, because it’s very volatile. But that decays away in eight days, so that’s not a hazard that can’t be waited out. Caesium, on the other hand, takes 30 years, so the amount of caesium included in the radioactive leaks will determine how long the locals have to stay away from dairy production and vegetable farming.
F24: How long will it take for TEPCO to make the plant safe?
DO: If they get the cooling system running again, and take care of the water that gets contaminated [via that process], then there’s no limit to how long TEPCO can hold this plant.
If we look at Three Mile Island, the fuel was cleared after about 24 years. So we’re not looking at weeks, or months, because the decay of this radioactivity is very slow.
TEPCO is going to be looking after this plant for a long time.