Nuclear and Rumour: 2 powerful forces

Image taken from Flickr
Even on the tour bus at Fukushima, protective clothing is needed (Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commision)

s&tBy Stuart Proctor – Reporter


Over 4 years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan is once again producing nuclear power.

Amidst strong public uncertainty about the technology, Japan has given the go-ahead to Kyushu Electric Power to restart the plant at Sendai, despite the somewhat inevitable controversy this might spark.

On 11th March 2011, after a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake just off the coast of the country (and subsequent tsunami), a number of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant overheated and suffered meltdowns, in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, some 25 years earlier. With radioactive material being released into the air, a 20 kilometre exclusion zone was set up around the plant in an attempt to limit the damage.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), responsible for maintaining the plant, have ever since been embroiled in investigations and pointed fingers, and have been partly blamed for the meltdowns and resultant release of radioactive material both into the air and the Pacific ocean.

Ultimately, though, the root cause of the disaster could be said to be bad design as much as anything.

Fukushima, built in an area of the world not exactly unknown for earthquakes and tsunamis, in a country situated on numerous tectonic plate boundaries, should probably have been expected to suffer an earthquake a few times in its lifetime.

In all fairness it was, to a certain extent, as the plant was home to a 10 metre-high seawall; but fatally, as specified in the plans provided by General Electric and followed by TEPCO, the backup generators for the coolant were housed in the basements of the buildings containing the turbines. This made them vulnerable to flooding, a point proven to devastating effect.

Image taken from Flickr
Even on the tour bus at Fukushima, protective clothing is needed (Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commision)

So why, with all the negativity surrounding Japanese nuclear energy at the moment, has Japan decided to restart the Sendai plant? Do the public get a choice?

In fact they do, and did. After the Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down the majority of its reactors. But this came at a cost. Japan has few natural resources, certainly those used for producing energy, so had to buy in coal, gas and oil. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this is hugely expensive for an economy that has been in decline for years, and alternative ‘renewables’ were not plentiful nor reliable enough to cover the needs of the populace. Nuclear power had to return.

The cost of not having the reactors online has been 3.6 trillion yen, or 18.5 billion pounds, every year, costs covered by the energy companies but ultimately passed to the consumer (electricity prices have risen by around 30%). So ultimately, the decision may be a very pragmatic one; the nuclear shutdown is costing people a lot of money, so the plants may be started up again. Though there are 25 other plants awaiting permission to restart, thus far Sendai is the only one to gain approval; this is at least partly down to public opposition.

In the years following Fukushima, the Japanese government has taken responsibility for new safety measures, including making sure that the plants can withstand earthquakes and any meltdowns that may arise from them. The back-up power has been improved, and remote shutdown systems have been introduced. Hopefully this will help to alleviate the concerns of those living in Japan, and those elsewhere who worry about the dangers of going nuclear.

But nuclear is not the only type of powerful force in the world; rumour and superstition can also have a great effect on people. In this vein, there were suggestions coming out in recent days that a comet, 2.5 miles wide, was due to hit the Earth. Some claimed that it would strike near Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean, and wipe out the US. Fortunately, as

Image taken from Flickr
Barringer, an example of the damage large space rocks can do (Credit: Mike Beauregard)

Professor Umbridge would say, “This. Is. A. Lie.” There is (according to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program), no comet due to strike during mid-to-late September, certainly not one as large as 2.5 miles. There will be the usual small rocks, but these burn up in the atmosphere and pose no danger to life on the ground.

The NEOOP (or ‘Spaceguard’) uses telescopes to track large comets and asteroids that come as near as 30 million miles, or closer, to Earth, and deny that there is any such object on its way at the moment. So rest easy; we won’t be seeing a ‘Deep Impact’ scenario any time soon.

In other news:

The Earth has once again passed through the debris of comet Swift-Tuttle, producing the annual Perseid meteor shower.

The shower, one of the most famous of its kind, occurs every summer, and can mainly be seen from the northern hemisphere; this is because the meteors appear to come from the constellation of Perseus, which itself can be seen in Northern skies.

We were especially fortunate this year, as the peak of the shower coincided with a new moon, resulting in darker nights during that period. Although light pollution plays its part anywhere other than the middle of a field, some level of viewing is still possible (assuming there is good weather) – I myself have been out to view the shower, and it’s safe to say that it is spectacular, and well worth a watch if you get the chance. Just be sure to wear something warm, as it gets very cold at 2 in the morning!

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