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Pia Garcia, Contributor
 
March 22, 2011

5 Things You Should Know about the Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Explosion

FN shares why we don't need to worry about radiation reaching the Philippines and other facts related to the blasts at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. By Pia Garcia
fukushima_plant_inside.jpg

The Fukushima nuclear plant prior to the explosions

Barely recovering from the recent magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent deadly tsunami that rocked its shores, Japan faces another unprecedented disaster, this time with the explosions at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. According to BBC News, the plant’s location is 250 km north of Tokyo.

Sadly, a lot of us have may have been more aware of the news due to the text message hoaxes, reportedly from international news giants BBC and CNN, warning everyone about supposed radiation-laced acid rain headed our way. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has since informed the public that the said message is bogus and that the nuclear incident in Japan poses “no immediate danger to the Philippines.”

Still, it pays to be informed. Being in the know not only quells panic, but it also opens our eyes to the current situation of those in Japan. Here some things you need to know about Fukushima nuclear plant incident:


1. WHAT CAUSED THE EXPLOSION?

BBC News
recounts that, on March 12, a day after the record-breaking earthquake struck, an explosion occurred at the Fukushima power plant’s Reactor 1. The plant was damaged when the earthquake and the tsunami struck, and because of this, “Japanese authorities said that the explosion at the plant was a mixture of hydrogen, from steam escaping the core, and oxygen from the surrounding air.” Another explosion occurred on the 14th, this time in Reactor 3. The following day, a blast hit Reactor 2. A fire or a possible explosion was reported on the 15th, this time in Reactor 4. Another fire occurred in Reactor 4 the following day.

However, this is no nuclear explosion. BBC News reports that “there is no indication yet that the uranium fuel itself has melted” and that the explosions were caused by hydrogen that escaped from overheated reactors. High temperature causes oxygen and hydrogen atoms to split and with the presence of zirconium, can be “highly explosive.” The incident is recognized as a 5 on a 7-point scale for nuclear accidents, based on international standards.


2. COMPARISONS WITH THE CHERNOBYL INCIDENT.

With the report of the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant, comparisons to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster began to surface. The Chernobyl power station was located in what is now the Ukraine. In 1986, scientists attempted a poorly designed experiment that raised the plant’s reactor to dangerous temperatures. The temperatures rose to such levels that the reactor’s dome-shaped roof blew off “and the contents [of the reactor] to erupt outwards.” Unfortunately, the fuel in the Chernobyl reactors wasn’t protected by steel, and explosions sent massive amounts of radiation in the area.

According to Bloomberg, “radiation outside the blast area was about 50 times greater than the peak inside Fukushima.” However, radiation is also seeping out of the Fukushima plant “to a pool near Reactors No. 3 and No. 4,” which has already evaporated due to the high temperature. BBC News also states that “even if a reactor at Fukushima were to explode--according to the UK government's chief scientific adviser--it would send radioactive material only 500 meters into the air (rather than 9,000 meters) and the fallout would be concentrated within 20 kilometers or 30 kilometers of the site.”


3. SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED ABOUT RADIATION?

BBC News reports that radiation levels within the plant have reached to 400 millisieverts per hour, which can cause radiation sickness after a couple of hours’ exposure. However, the site is quick to add that “for long periods since the crisis began, the level has been at 10 millisieverts per hour or lower.” The BBC compares this level to that of a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis, which results in 15 millisieverts of radiation, while a spinal X-ray brings about around a millisievert.

The BBC reports in a separate article that the government of Japan "has imposed a 20-km (12-mile) exclusion zone around Fukushima and has urged people living up to 30km away to stay indoors." The Philippines is safe from any far-reaching effects of radiation. The DOST has issued an announcement on their website saying, “The Philippines, being 3,300 kilometers away from the site of incident, is safe and shall not be affected by any radioactive plume.”


4. WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THE SITUATION?

The top priority right now is to cool down the reactors to prevent further explosions. As a preventive measure, members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have been dousing the reactors with water to bring temperature levels in the plant down. A group of people collectively referred to as the Fukushima 50 have remained at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, working to repair the damaged reactors and restore power to the complex. People who are living near the power plant are being checked for radiation exposure before being evacuated.


5. ARE THERE ANY IMMEDIATE THREATS TO THE PHILIPPINES?

We mentioned DOST’s firm stance that the Fukushima incident does not pose any threat to Philippine shores, and the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. Reuters reports that the international body assures everyone that “there is no evidence of a significant spread of radiation from Japan's crippled nuclear plants” and urges people not to panic or cause mass hysteria. However, our government (along with other Asian countries) has proceeded to check for possible signs of radiation in food imported from Japan. ABS-CBN reports that the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute is at the helm of the food tests and quotes Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang: “Just as a precaution, imports from Japan, mostly foodstuffs, will be checked for levels of radiation.”


Read these articles for more information on earthquake safety and how you can donate to the victims in Japan:

(Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)
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