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Another Chernobyl?

BU’s Cutler Cleveland appraises Japan’s nuclear disaster


Nuclear workers appear to be losing their fight to contain damage at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Photo by the Associated Press/Tokyo Electric Power Company

The 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan last Friday has already killed 3,000 people, with as many as 15,000 still missing. The natural disaster has also triggered a nuclear crisis after reactors at one nuclear power plant there were stricken. That crisis has resurrected the 1970s debate over nuclear power, given that President Obama has proposed more nuclear power plants in this country. Meanwhile, Germany is temporarily shutting down almost half of its reactors while it reviews nuclear policy.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant leached dangerous radiation Tuesday—spewing in one hour the equivalent of three years’ worth of naturally emitted radiation—after yet another explosion and fire at the four-reactor facility. The greatest fear is of a meltdown, in which the reactor’s radioactive core, the repository of its uranium fuel, would overheat to the point of melting through the reactor’s protective container, belching radiation by-products into the environment.

The world’s worst nuclear disaster to date, at the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl plant in 1986, killed 56 and is ultimately expected to lead to the deaths of approximately 4,000 from radiation exposure, according to the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Chernobyl had no protective reactor containers, leading experts to downplay the chances of a similar catastrophe in Japan. There are 104 nuclear plants in the United States, including two in California built on fault lines and two aging plants in Massachusetts and Vermont that are seeking license extensions.

Just how dire is the Japanese situation, and what is the worst-case scenario for Japan and for us? BU Today asked energy policy and systems expert Cutler Cleveland, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of geography and environment and a research fellow at the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

BU Today: Based on the latest news from Japan, do you think there’ll be a full meltdown?
Cleveland: I think that’s impossible for anyone to say outside of those people on the scene. Certainly, the news was not good in the sense that we know there has been an increase in the amount of radiation released. Some of the radiation is coming from the core itself, which suggests the core has been compromised. The fuel rods themselves have been exposed to the air, and when that happens, they heat up very quickly.

Are the Japanese taking all appropriate steps?
I think they are. They’re using all the resources available, and they’ve also called on the international community for expertise. Unlike Chernobyl, the government is doing everything it can, whereas the Soviet Union tried to downplay the severity of the accident and was not as quick to evacuate people as they could have been.

The primary concern now is the workers themselves at the plant. They’re the ones most at risk. The data suggest the workers were being exposed to fairly significant amounts of radiation.

Some experts have said a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi would release much less radiation than released by Chernobyl.
I think they’re correct. The type of plant we’re talking about is very different than existed in the Soviet Union. Japan’s is a boiling-water reactor. Chernobyl was a graphite-moderated and -cooled reactor. A full breach in this type of reactor core would probably release less radiation. But it would still be a very significant release.

What would the consequences of a full meltdown be? Could radiation reach the United States?

A lot depends on the direction of the winds. If the winds blow from the west, much of the radioactive plume would be carried out over the ocean and dispersed into the atmosphere. If the winds blow from the east, it would spread over the rest of the island. In the former case, I doubt the radiation that would reach the United States would be anything significant to worry about. If the winds were coming out of the east, it could be potentially significant exposure to large populations over hundreds of kilometers.

But the prevailing winds tend to be from the west?
That’s correct.

And if the winds shifted?
Areas in Japan closest to the plant would need to be evacuated to avoid potentially life-threatening levels of radiation.

How badly did Chernobyl affect the environment?

The immediate effects were the release of radiation into the food chain throughout large parts of Europe and Asia. Vegetable, dairy, and meat products had to be destroyed. In the long run, there are very high radiation levels in the soil around Chernobyl that essentially make that area unlivable today.

If a natural disaster in the United States affected a nuclear power plant here, would we be better equipped than the Japanese to contain it?
It’s important to note that the real damage done in Japan was by the tsunami, not the earthquake. From what I read, the quake probably knocked out the primary power, but the tsunami knocked out the backup generators. If we had just had the earthquake, we might not be having this discussion. But the Japanese are a pretty prepared people. They obviously were not prepared for a tsunami.

I think the United States needs to look very seriously at whatever its worst-case scenario is, and imagine something worse than that. We only have to look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to see how lax we were. We did not have the technological know-how and equipment to handle it.

What impact will the Japanese disaster have on the future of nuclear energy?
Nuclear power in the United States was dead in the water a decade ago. We haven’t ordered a new plant since the 1970s. But climate change came along and breathed new life into nuclear power. One of the existing technologies that could significantly decrease carbon dioxide emissions is nuclear power.

We’ve been told by the nuclear industry that the next generation of reactors will be more cost-effective and safer. They’re probably right. But the question is, are they safe enough? We cannot idly stand by and rely on the promises of the nuclear industry. The other big issue is cost. The Obama administration is only one in a line since Eisenhower to provide subsidies. Can the nuclear industry survive on its own in a free market? Nuclear power over the last quarter-century has received more subsidies than oil and gas. The nuclear industry cannot get insurance in the private market. What does that tell you about the technology? The federal government indemnifies them. The taxpayers in essence are insuring the industry.

The cost issue and safety issue need to be examined under a very bright light.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


11 Comments on Another Chernobyl?

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 5:50 am


    I realize that at BU there are likely no nuclear engineers or experts in nuclear energy, but is this man qualified to be assessing the current situation with the reactor in Japan? While I understand his position, it seems that he is more anti-nuclear than not, which may bias his read of the situation. Unfortunately, in our world of 24/7 news, there is a large amount of fear-mongering occurring on the news. If you really want to know what reactions are occurring in a nuclear reactor, research it, don’t rely on someone else to tell you what your opinion should be. Nuclear plants these days are actually very safe. There are a number of safeguards that are required to be put in place at every site. Nuclear power is an important form of alternative energy. It is not a good idea to give up on it before other alternative energy forms are ready to be utilized. Unless, of course, you would prefer that we still with our current energy model, which has proven to be unsustainable in the future and will continue to erode our natural resources as well as our ozone layer.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 7:29 am

    Articles that say something scary then a question mark: always pointless fearmongering?

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 8:16 am


    The Chernobyl plant was located in Ukraine, not Russia. Granted, the disaster occurred in 1986 when it was part of the USSR, but the site is on Ukrainian territory.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 8:24 am

    Also – breach, not breech.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:07 am

    Chernobyl is in fact in Ukraine and NOT in Russia. Professor Cleveland rightfully refers to the facility being within the Soviet Union. I am however surprised that BU Today would make such an error as locating the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia. Check your facts!

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:08 am

    Very interesting, this helped me to further understand the debate around nuclear energy.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:14 am

    a more enlightened view


  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:15 am


    …for clarity

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:40 am

    Great article

    The world and humanity are simply not stable enough to adequately manage the toxicity of nuclear waste, which is toxic for thousands of years. Additionally, is it right for the U.S. government to hold their taxpayers in hock to what may be trillions of dollars in the event of a nuclear catastrophe?
    Moreover, though nuclear energy plants themselves emit less carbon emissions that fossil fuel plants, the mining of uranium ore and nuclear fuel causes huge carbon emissions. If the American people were given all of the facts, nuclear power, and especially nuclear weapons would not exist. The only viable argument for nuclear energy is- for the billions of dollars spent to build the current nuclear arsenal, which is now a source of energy, for this fuel to be adapted for use until it is expended, and than all nuclear waste should be secured as carefully as possible. Nuclear power and greenhouse gas emissions are the two most eminent threats to humanity today, and the American people must force the U.S. government to do the right thing, without the diabolical influence of corporate peddling.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 9:48 am

    It would be interesting to know also how aid of the USA will affect the country politically.

  • Anonymous on 03.16.2011 at 1:06 pm


    I’ll just live in a log cabin with a fire powered with flint and tinder, seeing as that’s the goal of most energy critics.

    Saying no to every form of power is completely illogical, as every form of power will have some sort of negative impact on something, be it the environment or economic well-being of people.

    But I’m just a peasant to the “intellectuals”.

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