U.S., other nations issue travel warnings for Japan; France and Germany advise citizens to leave Tokyo
By Miriam Raftery
March 13, 2011 (San Diego) – Over 200,000 people have been evacuated from a 20-mile radius around nuclear plants at Fukushima, Japan, where cooling system failures have caused partial core meltdowns at two reactors and a third remains at risk. A fourth nuclear plant at Onagawa has declared a low-level emergency due to radiation detected.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan calls the combined impacts of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis the “worst since World War II.” France and Germany warn citizens to get out of Tokyo, citing radiation fears. Numerous nations include the U.S. advise against non-essential travel to Japan. The International Skating Union has announced it may cancel next week’s Worlds figure skating championships in Tokyo, 140 miles from the Fukushima reactors.
Business Insider is providing frequent updates. Here’s the most recent entry:: “The latest is that all eyes have turned to reactor #3. Originally reactor #1 was the concern, but at least the official word is that it's somewhat under control. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has suggested that there are issues getting adequate water into the reactor to cool the rods. It's possible, however, that there's a problem with the water gauge. This is unclear. A partial meltdown is possible. There have also been warnings of a second explosion, similar to the one on Saturdy afternoon, as pressure builds up inside reactor #3.”
Japanese authorities are using seawater to attempt to cool the reactors, a desperate move that could lead to rust and a need to ultimately replace the reactors. An explosion caused by hydrogen gas at Fukushima’s reactor #1 blew the roof off the facility but did not penetrate the reactor core. Exposed fuel rods at reactors #1 and #2 have occurred, though radiation levels have reportedly dropped at #1, a sign that cooling efforts may be working there. Japanese authorities have confirmed partial meltdown occurred at two reactors.
People close to the Fukushima are undergoing radiation testing and over a dozen have tested high enough to undergo decontamination procedures. Iodine tablets are being passed out to many in an effort to prevent thyroid cancer.
While Japanese authorities deny that major health threats exist, more than 200,000 people had been ordered to evacuate as of late last night.
The Fukushima reactors are built stronger than the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia, site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, where a radioactive cloud spread across much of Europe and cancer rates soared across a vast region for decades. Authorities have indicated that the core containment is far stronger at Japan’s reactors.
However the region continues to be rocked by powerful aftershocks, dozens over 6.0 on the Richter scale. The possibility remains of a wider catastrophe should the core containment be breached at even one reactor.
Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, told Fox News' Chris Wallace that radiation from the reactors could potentially reach the United States.
“One reactor has had half the core exposed already," he said, calling the crisis unprecedented. "This is the one they're flooding with sea water in a desperate effort to prevent it from a complete meltdown. They lost control of a second reactor next to it, a partial meltdown, and there is actually a third reactor at a related site 20-kilometers away they have also lost control over. We have never had a situation like this before." His comments were made before news this morning of two additional reactor emergencies.
"The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fuse together, the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and is exposed to the outside. So they spew radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into the water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States." Crincione noted.
"Really?" a surprised Wallace asked. "I mean, thousands of miles across the Pacific?"
"Oh, absolutely. Chernobyl, which happened about 25 years ago, the radioactivity spread around the entire northern hemisphere. It depends how many of these cores melt down and how successful they are on containing it once this disaster happens," Cirincione replied.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent two experts to Japan.."At present there is no danger to California. However we are monitoring the situation closely in conjunction with our federal partners," Michael Sicilia, spokesman for California Department of Public Health, told AFP, RawStory.com reports.
But physicist Jerrold Bushberg of U.C. Davis told the Los Angeles times that a catastrophic meltdown in Japan would probably not threaten the health of Americans living in Hawaii or on the West Coast. "There would be no cause for any concern," Bushberg stated. Another expert indicated that radiation that escaped from the plant would be diluted by air currents as it traveled over the Pacific Ocean. Should a meltdown occur, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense would likely track the movement of any radiation plume.
In Japan, however, impacts could be more serious. Japan, a nation that suffered two atomic bomb blasts during World War II, the fear of a nuclear disaster is particularly unsettling for residents. The Los Angeles Times has a detailed article on the effects of short- and long-term radiation exposure following the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents, the two worst nuclear disasters prior to the current scenario in Japan: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-sci-japan-quake-nuclear...
The French embassy has warned French citizens to evacuate Tokyo over fears of both aftershocks and a potential nuclear disaster, citing the potential scenario of a reactor exploding and releasing a releasing a radioactive plume of smoke, the BBC reports.
"This plume could reach Tokyo within a few hours, depending on the direction and speed of the wind," the French statement said. "The risk is that of contamination."
The U.S., Britain and Germany have all issued travel advisories warning citizens to avoid travel to Japan, although the U .S. advisory made no mention of the nuclear threat.
A total of 590,000 people have been evacuated in Japan, including over 200,000 due to the nuclear crisis and the rest due to the earthquake, aftershocks, and tsunami that inundated the island nation. A humanitarian crisis looms as many have gone without adequate food, water and shelter as rescue and relief efforts continue.