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UMD expert: Worsening conditions at Fukushima


The situation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has become increasingly serious with the growing possibility of a complete meltdown, says University of Maryland energy policy expert Nathan Hultman.

A fire in a spent fuel storage pool likely released serious levels of radiation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency reports possible damage to one of the containment vessels at Fukushima, he says. Dangerous radiation levels were measured at the plant and officials have advised 140,00 people outside the immediate evacuation area to shelter in place.

“It now appears the fire has been extinguished, but damage to the nuclear fuel containment potentially is a very serious problem that complicates efforts to prevent a total meltdown, says Hultman a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

Hultman’s research focuses on energy technologies, international climate policy, carbon markets, and low-carbon energy technology investments. He is fully conversant with the policy issues surrounding nuclear safety.

Renewed nuclear debate

“The events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion in all countries in coming years,” Hultman says.

“Reducing risks of a severe nuclear accident in times of duress requires, at a minimum, robust technology, layers of redundancy, and a culture of vigilance and safety. There are indelible questions about whether such management techniques are indeed sufficient. Multiple redundancies were in place for the BP oil spill on the blowout preventer, but eight separate failures overcame that strategy. Similarly, there were multiple defenses at Fukushima, but they didn’t plan for a seven meter high tsunami; and they put a substation in an area that is now flooded. In the end, the questions are really political ones – how much risk can we reduce through regulatory procedures and best practices, how much are we willing to live with, and how do we best judge it?” Hultman says.

International impact

“Overall, 55 new reactors are under construction in 12 countries. Hopes in the industry had been high that many more would follow. Research underscores the public’s latent unease with nuclear energy, and suggests it will never be viewed as a ‘normal’ technology. The images and concerns, even if a complete meltdown is avoided, cannot be entirely forgotten in future public debate,” he says.

Japan: “Japanese utilities currently run 54 reactors that provide approximately 29 percent of the country’s electricity. Until recent events, Japan had plans to add another 14 reactors – primarily an advanced design of the type that is currently having problems at Fukushima.

“Unlike the improvements seen in many other countries, the industry in Japan has been plagued with repeated safety breaches and accused of sheltering an inadequately robust safety culture,” Hultman says.

Switzerland: Already decided to suspend plans for replacing two aging reactors.

China: Already said its plans will not be derailed by the events in Japan.

Germany: Temporarily halted plans to extend the life of their existing nuclear plants.

Framing the debate

“For reasons of energy security or climate change, it may still be that nuclear power is the right option for some countries to pursue. But it is equally clear that the events in Japan will require an honest discussion about risks and requirements for redundancies.

“Nuclear power is simply a complex way to boil water to make steam to generate electricity. Some countries may decide that they will prefer to generate electricity with other technologies; some may even be willing to pay more for their electricity to avoid the risks of nuclear power. Other countries may choose to respond by reinvigorating their regulatory procedures.

“Regardless of individual regulatory and investment environments, events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion for the coming years in all countries,” Hultman says.


Airborne radiation from a meltdown at Japanese nuclear plants poses no immediate risk to the continental United States, say University of Maryland public health and atmospheric scientists.
Drawing on research from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, they add that for most Japanese, the long term risk may lie in ingestion of milk, water or food, as well as direct exposure to contaminated soil.

“Radiation from Chernobyl was barely measurable in the mainland United States,” says University of Maryland atmospheric scientist Russell Dickerson. “I struggled to detect any in North Dakota, at the time. How much transport we can expect from ongoing events will depend on many factors, some of which are not knowable right now. But, distance is great and so far, releases have not been of the scale seen in Chernobyl. So, there is no present danger.”

The most significant release of radiation at Chernobyl involved two by-products of uranium fission – Iodine 131 and Cesium 137.

“After Chernobyl, small amounts of nuclear particles and gases were detected in other European countries,” Dickerson adds. “Only about one percent of the release from Chernobyl was deposited onto the United Kingdom. The stuff tends to stay close to where it was released.”

The half-life of Iodine 131 is eight days, and for Cesium 137, 30 years, though both are removed from the atmosphere fairly quickly, he adds. The real danger lies not while the particles are in the air, but once rain carries it to the soil and watershed.

Ingestion risks

“Even in most of the Ukraine and in larger areas of Europe after Chernobyl, the major routes of exposure were not directly from the air, but rather through food, especially milk, produced from contaminated areas, and from fallout deposited on the ground,” says Donald Milton, director of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“It remains highly unlikely that we will see problems with significant crop, dairy, or ground contamination in the United States as a result of the events in Japan,” adds Amir Sapkota, a professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

‘Sheltering in place’ risks

The Japanese government has advised people outside the immediate area of the contaminated nuclear plants to “shelter in place.”

“The basic idea behind sheltering in place is that radiation is carried on particles coming from the fires and steam releases,” explain Milton and Sapkota. “There is a fairly large body of data showing to what extent the indoor exposure to particles is less than outdoors. Particles in the size range that could be transported long distances penetrate houses to widely varying extents.

“If the windows are closed and there is no mechanical ventilation with outside air intake, if the windows and the rest of the house are new and very tight, the exposure could be significantly reduced. Older leaky houses would be less protective,” they add. “Because much ground contamination comes from fallout in rain, the act of simply staying indoors would still provide significant protection from ground contamination, even if it only cut airborne exposure by half.”

Radiation sickness

For workers inside the plant trying to contain the damage and for those working from the air above the plants, the danger is far more immediate. These exposures have already caused at least one case of acute radiation sickness, according to media reports.

“In cases with rapid onset of symptoms, the prognosis is grim at best,” Milton says. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to the courageous workers who are struggling to control the plants.”

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