Note: Photographs in this post were taken at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque in May 2011.
Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever known occurred at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. The cleanup continues today and will continue for years to come.
That prefecture in Japan remains devastated. One need only look at the photo essay of ghost towns recently published in Bloomberg to see that, while we go about our daily lives, others across the Pacific Ocean live with the results of the nuclear accident every day. One need only hear the story of Atsufumi Yoshizawa published in The Independent early this month; Yoshizawa was a Tepco engineer who went back into the plant with a group of fellow workers to see what they could do to keep the accident from getting worse. One need only think about the fuel rods still in the mess, the debris still being removed. Or one need only think about the baby girls born in the last year who are 70% more likely to develop thyroid cancer; other cancers—breast cancer, leukemia—are expected to have an uptick in years to come for the population most exposed to radioactivity there.
Within a few days of the accident, we wrote about “Measurement and Scale.” Japan’s nuclear accident was the result of a 9.0 earthquake, and we wanted readers to ponder how enormous a shaking of the earth’s crust that was.
Later that month, we wrote about “Radiation vs. Radioactivity.” Radiation describes many physical processes; radios and light bulbs emit radiation. Radioactivity refers to the more specific process of nuclear decay. The danger from the nuclear accident—the danger that remains—is from radioactivity.
After that, as reports were emerging about exactly what substances had escaped into the atmosphere and ground around Fukushima Daiichi, we wrote about “Uranium & Plutonium & Fission.” Not all radioactive substances are equally toxic. Uranium is found in nature, whereas plutonium is manmade. Plutonium is especially toxic and stays around for a long, long time.
But the radioactive substances that were making the news in the weeks after Japan’s nuclear accident weren’t uranium and plutonium, so we wrote “Fission Products and Half Lives.” The products of nuclear fission—iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90—were what had escaped and continued to escape from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Our bodies absorb and metabolize each of these isotopes differently, so that iodine-131 collects in the thyroid, whereas strontium-90 affects the bones. These substances have a much swifter rate of decay than their parent elements uranium and plutonium, but they still stick around for decades.
Within two months of the nuclear accident, we write a two-part series on “Radioactivity and Other Risks” HERE and HERE. We wanted to talk about how we—individually and generally—weigh risk in our lives. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not unknown risks in Japan, but those who planned and built the nuclear power plant calculated that an earthquake of that magnitude and tsunami with waves of the height that occurred in 2011 were unlikely.
In that pair of posts, we also talked about the tricky nature of risk. Radioactivity affects each body differently, and most research we’ve been using to understand exposure risks is from the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently have studes suggested that we’re exposing ourselves to potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity because we treat medical testing as safe and routine.
We’ve written about things nuclear since Japan’s accident two years ago, but the last time we mentioned Fukushima Daiichi specifically was at the end of 2011. We at Lofty Ambitions are interested in nuclear physics, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power, but even we didn’t bother to say anything about Fukushima Daiichi for more than a year. If we put it aside, certainly most people have. Sure, the anniversary will be covered in mainstream news media this coming week. But the nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, changed the world. The world became a little more risky that day.
In the wake of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan shut down all of its 50 nuclear power plants. Leaders talked about phasing out nuclear energy in Japan. But instead, Japan has toughened its standards for nuclear plants, and new leaders promise that some plants will go back online soon.
Meanwhile, debris from Japan’s tsunami is expected to wash onto the shores of British Columbia in Canada this year. The cleanup in Japan will continue for decades to come.