Soon after a massive earthquake hit Japan on Friday, an explosion occurred at a 40-year-old nuclear reactor in the country’s Fukushima prefecture. On Sunday, there were reports of a “partial” meltdown in a second reactor in the same nuclear complex. There are a total of seven nuclear reactors located close by in that area.
The explosion in the first reactor occurred due to a power loss that lead to a breakdown in the cooling system of the reactor. In a desperate bid to keep the core of the reactor from heating to dangerous proportions, authorities began pumping seawater in the container structure that houses the nuclear fuel. It was also reported that briefly the radiation level at the site went up beyond the “normal” level. Data that can enable a reasonable analysis of what has happened is yet to emerge.
Soon enough, comparisons with what happened at Chernobyl began floating. And almost on cue, from Australia to Germany protests erupted: concerned individuals and non-governmental organizations questioned the use of nuclear power. At a protest in south-western Germany on Saturday, an estimated 60,000 persons railed against plans of the German government to extend the life of 17 nuclear plants for an average 12 additional years.
These are early days and more events may or may not happen in Japan. In any case, these must be seen in the light of the massive dislocation due to earthquake on Friday (8.9 on the Richter scale). Fukushima lies in the zone that witnessed severe intensity shocks from the quake. With an earthquake of such high intensity, it is unfair to begin questioning design flaws, operational weaknesses and other factors involved in these reactors.
It is still less reasonable, from a scientific point of view, to question the entire nuclear industry across the world as being danger-prone or beset with ethical problems. That, however, is what the opponents of nuclear power will make it look like.
There is always room for debate on the safety aspects of the subject and it has never ceased even when there have been no earthquakes around. What, however, is not evaluated dispassionately are the costs involved in giving up nuclear power in an age when hydrocarbon supplies are volatile and their prices even more so.
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