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What is the Worst Case Disaster Scenario for Japan and Its Nuclear Power Plants?

Updated on March 18, 2012

Japan's nuclear disaster echoes one decades earlier - Chernobyl.

Following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on Friday, March 11, 2011, many people around the globe are left wondering just how bad the situation might get for Japan. The earthquake, which registered 8.9 on the Richter scale, was the largest ever in Japan since recordkeeping began almost a century-and-a-half ago. This jumbo-sized earthquake was so big, in fact, that it not only triggered a tsunami water wall that was twenty-three feet high and washed inland for six miles, but it also moved the geography of Japan an entire eight feet, shifting the earth’s axis by ten centimeters. This tragedy also left an estimated 10,000 people dead and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant unstable. What is the worst case scenario for Japan in the upcoming days?

Nuclear Meltdown in Japan

At the date of this writing, there have been two explosions at the wounded Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. This has left many folks wondering if another Chernobyl-level event might be looming near. Japanese government officials report that the reactor containment vessel was not breached at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, but there has been a detection of Iodine-131 and Cesium-137 in the area, which both warn of an impending tragedy that is unparalleled in recent decades. With the damage of two or more reactor cores during the ensuing aftermath following the earthquake (when there was no electricity to power the cooling of the reactor), it is clear that at least a partial nuclear meltdown at this plant has already taken place. At this time, a best case scenario is that the melting nuclear reactor cores are drowned with enough water from the surrounding sea to avoid their further meltdown and release of radioactive steam.

What is Nuclear Meltdown?

According to Wikipedia, a nuclear meltdown is an informal term for a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in core damage from overheating. The term is not officially defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A meltdown occurs when a severe failure of a nuclear power plant system prevents proper cooling of the reactor core, to the extent that the nuclear fuel assemblies overheat and melt. A meltdown is considered very serious because of the potential that radioactive materials could be released into the environment. A core meltdown will also render the reactor unstable until it is repaired. The scrapping and disposal of the reactor core will incur substantial costs for the operator”. (Wikipedia).

Location of Fukushima Nuclear Plant

Possible Effects on Food Supply

According to reports from the warship USS Ronald Reagan on March 14, 2011, radiation was sensed more than 100 miles out to sea off the coast of Japan, forcing the ship to retreat. This is a clear indication that the situation in Japan is worsening. If the current scenario plays out, the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant may be rendered unusable for decades or longer into the future. Since Japan is already short on land, it is not prepared to afford such a catastrophe. As compared to the Chernobyl accident, the reactors at the Fukushima plant are at least twice as big. When taken into context with the dense population of the region, this can be a much more disastrous disaster than Chernobyl. Thus, in a worst case scenario, northern Japan and the area around the nuclear power plant may be isolated and rendered useless in upcoming decades. This isolation includes the inability of the region to farm the land. Before this disaster, the arable land that can be used for farming in Japan was scarce at best. In fact, Japan’s fishing industry goes a long way towards feeding its peoples. Wheat and rice production in Japan is very minute when compared to other Asian countries. The area of the Japan that is faced with nuclear disaster is a critical area when it comes to the fishing industry, and thus to the Japanese local food supply. With the immediate release of radiation from the nuclear emergency, ground water and soil will become contaminated, and ultimately, the waters off Japan where fishing takes place.

Worst Case Scenario for Japan

The best case scenario in Japan right now would be for operators at the Fukushima nuclear facility to pump sufficient sea water and coolants into these failing reactor cores to keep them from fatal overheating. That would limit the scope of the disaster to just the dozen or so plant workers that are suffering from radiation sickness due to exposure while trying to avert calamity. A direr scene could lie ahead, however. The countryside surrounding the plant can become uninhabitable, the facility could be lost, and a meltdown of biblical proportions could play out. In a complete nuclear meltdown, a vast, red hot lump of molten radioactive material would burn through its containment. This would destroy the power plant and it would then fall, exposing a plethora of radioactive particles to the wind and weather. The scale of the disaster would then be dependent upon the amount of material that is released and whatever weather Mother Nature has in store. In this instance, one would hope for prevailing winds to blow to the northwest, which would take the emissions from the nuclear plant out to sea. This would minimize the impact that meltdown would have on human life. Winds turning to the south would be devastating to the human life, however, as this would put Honshu, the largest island in Japan, in the way of the radiation dissipation. Honshu and Tokyo, which is situated around 150 miles to the southwest of the Fukushima plant, are home to around 100 million people. For now, the world waits and prays for the best for this region.


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      Dora Campbell 6 years ago

      A very though and comprehensive report. Just wondering what effects this will have on the United States as well.

    • lobonorth profile image

      lobonorth 6 years ago

      The article is well written as well as being well researched. Finding answers you gave to the question in your title were hard to come by for a surprisingly long time and now are often minimized, I suspect. I am no expert but it seems to me you've got it about right from what I've been able to research.

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