A worrying situation

21 Mar

Unless you have been living on the moon for the past week or so, you will not have escaped the news of the nuclear disaster in Japan following a devastating earthquake and tsunami on Friday 11 March.

The April issue of Safety Management magazine – which should be landing on desks next week – includes an article on the nuclear disaster, and this was a particularly hard article to write, not least because it is a constantly developing situation, even though it is more than a week since the earthquake first hit.

Although we may not know the full impact of the situation or the harm that the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has caused for some time yet, it is clear that this is a huge event which has had a devastating impact and has shocked people around the globe.

Using the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES), which runs from zero to seven, Japan’s nuclear safety agency has increased the rating of the Fukushima power station incident from a level four – and accident with local consequences – to a level five – an accident with wider consequences.

Experts say it is the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. So far, Chernobyl is the only seven-rated incident in nuclear history.

The main worry now is the threat of widespread radiation contamination, which can cause fatal health effects. Workers have been risking their lives to restore power to the reactors and have been battling to cool the reactors down to avoid a large-scale release of radiation.

Villagers living near the plant have been told not to drink tap water because of high levels of radioactive iodine, while spinach and milk produced near the nuclear plant has been found to contain levels of radioactive iodine far higher than the legal limits.

Higher than normal levels of radiation have even been registered in the capital Tokyo, 140 miles away.

Energy secretary Chris Huhne has called on HSE’s chief nuclear inspector Dr Mike Weightman for a thorough report on the implications of the situation and the lessons to be learned. There will be an interim report by mid May 2011 and a final report within six months.

Huhne said, in a statement: “It is essential that we understand the full facts and their implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, as safety is always our number one concern.”

According to experts, a similar disaster in the UK would be very unlikely. The British Safety Council’s Dr Keith Whitehead explains: “We are not in the same seismic or earthquake zones as Japan, so it is unlikely a similar quake could happen here. However, there are many earthquake zones around the world where nuclear power plants do exist so the lessons learned from Japan should be applied on global basis to prevent a similar disaster occurring.”

It is not possible or sensible to speculate on the outcome of this nuclear disaster while the Japanese government works to control the situation. It is too early to ascertain the impacts and it may take months or years, depending on the final outcome.

Safety Management will, of course, report on any developments regarding the situation in Japan as and when they arise. Look out for the full article in the April issue of the magazine.

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