There’s been too much ill-considered media usage of such loaded terms as “meltdown,” “disaster,” and “radiation threat,” with respect to Japan’s troubled nuclear power reactors, including excess coverage of a US opponent of nuclear energy mischaracterizing the seawater cooling effort at Fukushima Unit 1 as a “Hail Mary pass.” The cooling efforts are actually working.
Cavalier comparisons to Chernobyl are completely inaccurate, as the reactor there was fully operating when an explosion occurred in 1986, with no containment mechanisms in place.
The WHO says the public health risk from Japan’s nuclear plants remains “quite low.” The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation says increased radiation levels in plant vicinities “is not a serious public health issue at the moment.”
The troubles with Japan’s nuclear plants are still rated a “4”, on the 1-7 international scale of severity. The 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown was rated a more serious “5”, and caused the release of only very low levels of radiation, which subsequent studies showed had no serious health or environmental consequences.
There remains no confirming evidence of even a partial meltdown in any of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Fears of a complete failure of cooling and containment efforts are just that, fears, without backing from facts on the ground.
To be sure, there are continuing problems at several of Japan’s plants, which will require skillful management by engineers on the scene. And the nuclear industry worldwide has to carefully consider the failure of backup cooling systems there.
But doomsday alarmism about many people possibly facing exposure to life-threatening levels of radiation seems more than farfetched.
To the contrary, ironically, Japan faces hugely-problematic shortages of electrical power, as the partial loss of nuclear generation will lead to scheduled rolling blackouts that will effect industry and major urban areas. There is also limited access to distressed regions.
Shortages of clean water and other necessities likely pose far greater potential health dangers than do increased levels of radiation.