On March 11, 2011, the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was hit by a 130 ft tsunami, caused by a 9.0 earthquake. This disaster caused the plant to lose power, preventing the means necessary to cool the nuclear reactors on site. The following days and weeks triggered some panic along the west coast of the United States.
As part of our Learning in Retirement series, we invited Al Conklin, Senior Health Physicist and Outreach Program Manager from the Washington State Department of Health, Office of Radiation Protection to speak on the events of this incident and the impact on Washington State. Being on the front line of public communication for this event, Al presented a fascinating account of the local public reaction and the realities of the situation.
Although the plant had numerous backup power sources, they were not equipped to withstand a tsunami of this size which flooded the emergency diesel generators. Pressure began to build up in each of three reactors at the site. In order to prevent explosion, small amounts of radioactive gas were released over periods of time within the first couple days. However, the combination of hydrogen within the reactors and oxygen in the atmosphere created a series of explosions anyway, causing the release of high levels of radiation into the atmosphere.
These events naturally caused heavy concern across the western coast of the United States. Although the situation never became a radiological emergency for the U.S., there was a “public communication emergency” in Washington state.
Initial concerns within the public were provoked into fear, and in some cases panic by inaccurate media reports. Sensational headlines like “Deadly Radioactive Cloud Heading to the U.S.”, “Cancer Risk Could Go Way Up”, and “This could be worse than Chernobyl, which killed thousands” permeated news outlets, raising alarm. As reported by the Office of Radiation Protection, the perceived danger was not the reality.
The 1,400 calls and e-mails received by Al Conklin’s department in the succeeding months were answered with reassuring facts and data.
Most of the material was contained and would not reach the west coast in high concentrations. Iodide 131, the primary substance of concern, has a rate of radioactive decay that would not allow it to last long enough in the atmosphere in order to travel the distance between Japan and the U.S. Nonetheless, the department collected samples and gathered data to ensure Washington was not being exposed to harmful amounts of radioactive material. The data showed minute traces of material that would have no effect.
The audience had many questions for Al that he answered graciously and thoroughly.
-When will the Japanese who had to evacuate be able to return to their homes?
“Those evacuated have started to go back home but it will be a while until everyone can return. It will be years before agriculture can recover.”
– What’s happening now with the site?
“Plans are developing to stabilize the reactor cores until total shut down can be accomplished”
– What is being done to prevent another incident?
“The back up diesel generators have been moved up higher to prevent future damage.”
– What about the future use of nuclear power?
“Advanced technology and safety precautions encourage more use of nuclear reactors as there are no green house gases involved and minimal waste.”
At the end of the presentation, Al was thanked with a round of applause and a personal thank you from residents. “Thank you for a data-driven, straight forward discussion.”