Japan Nuclear Blast Could Be More Deadly Than Chernobyl, Experts Fear

Experts in Israel and abroad divided on scope of disaster at Japan's nuclear plants, as Japanese government hasn't provided accurate information regarding threat posed by explosions at Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Since the Japanese government has not provided accurate information regarding the possible threat posed by the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, experts in Israel and abroad are divided on the scope of the disaster and the ramifications for the environment.

It appears that immediately after earthquake warnings were first heard, the Japanese authorities shut down all six reactors located in the affected region, which lies 250 kilometers north of the capital Tokyo, by cutting off the flow of electricity to the reactors. But the emergency generator, whose function is to provide power to the pump responsible for cooling the reactor, did not activate. As a result, the reactor's core began to heat up.

At the same time, radioactive materials and gases were emitted into the air, but measurements taken indicate that the amount was relatively minimal. The most dangerous elements discharged were iodine and cesium, two by-products of the nuclear fission process that takes place in nuclear plants. These are two relatively volatile compounds that can easily spread into the atmosphere.

Professor Uzi Even of Tel Aviv University, who in the past worked for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told Haaretz that these two compounds are extremely dangerous, which is why the Japanese government yesterday began distributing iodine tablets, which neutralize the threat of radioactive poisoning that primarily affects the thyroid gland.

Even recalled that several years ago, Israel had distributed such tablets to residents living in the vicinity of the nuclear reactor in Dimona in the event that dangerous materials leaked into the air. He also noted that another potential source of danger is the possibility that the measuring equipment used to gauge the heat levels in the reactor core could spin out of control as a result of a cut in power. In such a scenario, Japanese experts working to prevent a nuclear disaster would have trouble ascertaining the core's situation.

Hebrew University Professor Menachem Luria, an expert on air quality and poisoning, told Channel 2 on Saturday: "This is very worrying. There is no doubt that we have not seen anything like this in years, perhaps ever since nuclear experiments were conducted in the atmosphere in the 1950s. From what we can gather, this disaster is even more dangerous than Chernobyl, both from the standpoint of the population's exposure to radioactive material and the spread of radioactive contamination in the area."

Luria continued: "Once there is an uncontrollable heating up, the nuclear fuel undergoes a metamorphosis into the gaseous phase. Since we are talking about metals and solid items, they turn into particles that are capable of traveling great distances. They can wander thousands of kilometers."

If these gases are indeed emitted into the atmosphere in large quantities, the wind regime could carry them all the way to China, South Korea, and eastern Russia, or in the other direction, toward Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. The likelihood of this happening, though, is not high.

Experts are now positing two possible scenarios. This first scenario is a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, where the reactor core melted and enormous quantities of radioactive fallout were discharged into the air before being propelled by the wind and harming civilians living at a relatively great distance from the reactor. Because the core melted, the steel and concrete seal, which was meant to protect the core and prevent dangerous material from being emitted into the air, could not withstand the pressure and collapsed. As a result, thousands of people were killed, though the exact number of deaths remains unknown to this day.

Flames engulf buildings in an industrial complex in Sendai, northern Japan, Saturday, March 12, 2011Credit: AP

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