Like Bhopal, Fukushima may haunt future

From The Times of India online: Subodh Varma, TNN | Mar 16, 2011, 02.41am IST

The spectre of lethal radioactive fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan continued to haunt the country as ripples of panic spread to distant shores.

Fifty workers and technicians quarantined inside the power station complex were fighting a deadly battle to cool the three functional reactors even as cooling pools where used fuel is stored started heating up in the other three reactors.

An explosion in No.2 reactor and a fire in No.4 on Tuesday morning led to 822 millirem levels of radiation detected at the gates of the complex. This is nearly equal to the permissible dose for one year. There was panic in Tokyo, 240km away, as radiation levels rose and then fell again.

According to experts, if the cooling pools overheat, the water will evaporate and there could be a very high risk of radioactive radiation leaking as the roofs have already blown away. The reactors are on the brink of meltdown, which may cause a radioactive explosion with disastrous consequences.

The only other time humanity has experienced full blown radiation effects was in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Over 200,000 people died, mainly by the thermal blast, but thousands continue to suffer and die from the radioactive fallout with deformities, cancers, burns, organ failures and susceptibility to infections.

Even more horrifying has been the effect on children born to survivors – the mutilated genes were passed on to them, causing high incidence of cancer and deformities. Third generation children too have suffered such effects.

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was a parallel to the present crisis, though on a much larger scale.

Reactors in this plant in Ukraine suffered almost complete meltdowns leading to two massive explosions of radioactive gases. Such was the force that the 2,000-tonne roof of the enclosure was blown away.

This cloud of death drifted thousands of kilometers across the western Soviet Union up to what is now Belarus. Sweden and Finland detected high radiation levels in the north, while Bavaria, a province in Germany, also detected high radiation.

Only the Iberian peninsula in Europe escaped completely. Wind factors largely determined which region felt how much of a radiation effect. The effect lessens with distance.

The gas tragedy at Bhopal too had seen a toxic cloud of gases explode out of the Carbide chemical factory in 1984 and drift across the sleeping city, killing 5000 people and injuring 5 lakh others ultimately. Twenty eight people, mostly firefighters, died of acute radiation syndrome in the Chernobyl incident, while another 221 succumbed in subsequent years due to radiation exposure.

Nearly 3.7 lakh people were resettled and the neighboring town of Pripyat still remains uninhabited. Four square kilometers of pine forest around the plant turned red and died. The Pripyat river, which feeds into the Dnieper system, was heavily contaminated leading to widespread water poisoning.

Till today, the Chernobyl complex remains sealed off after a cement layer was poured over the blown reactors. However, the lessons learnt from Chernobyl, in terms of design engineering of the containment structures and processes, have changed the way nuclear reactors are built since then.

Fukushima too will have a similar effect. But that is for the future. For the present, the battle to control the Frankenstein of nuclear power continues in a tiny coastal town of northern Japan. And millions of Japanese hope that the breeze remains oceanwards rather than turning south or east.

Image courtesy of Chernobyl International

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.