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Japan's Nuclear Crisis: A Global Problem?

Addressing the safety of nuclear power in the wake of catastrophe

Japan's Nuclear Crisis: A Global Problem?

Even the peaceful application of nuclear power carries significant risks. In the wake of what Prime Minister Naoto Kan called “the worst crisis since WWII” that Japan has faced, three reactors at the power plant in Fukushima have been severely damaged. While experts have been scrambling to contain them, an explosion on Monday has triggered new fears of a meltdown that could leak dangerous levels of radiation into the region.

Back-up systems at the plant were built to last 8 hours. Safety systems were designed to withstand an earthquake or a tsunami, but both at the same time at such a massive scale, overwhelmed the system. In the US, reactor safety studies conclude that fire can be a dominant risk for reactor core damage by disabling primary and back-up emergency systems. However, dozens of nuclear power plants have operated for years in violation of federal fire protection regulations, and there are currently no plans to address those violations. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of plans to build new nuclear power plants as a means to get away from carbon-based power generation.

What will happen in the event of a meltdown in Fukushima? How do we decide what an acceptable level of risk is for the use of nuclear power? Should we be expanding the US’s nuclear grid in light of the disaster in Japan? How much greater is the risk of disaster in an unprepared nuclear country such as Iran?