by Catherine McBreen
As the world watches the catastrophe in Japan and discusses the potential for a nuclear meltdown, I finally became brave enough to ask my husband “So what exactly is a nuclear meltdown?” After fumbling around with some big words , he finally acknowledged, “I don’t really know”.
There are probably lots of us who don’t really know. I have visions of watching bad movies when I was younger (or maybe even not so bad movies) where the threat was a “nuclear meltdown”. When “it” happened, I have memories of people in the streets becoming immobile, falling to the ground and their bodies quickly becoming deformed. But it doesn’t seem like this is what we are waiting for in Japan.
I decided to do some of my own research and to listen to individuals on the television who really seemed to know what they were talking about. So what did I find out?
Simply put, a nuclear meltdown is when the “core” of the nuclear plant that generates electricity cannot cool itself down. Eventually it begins to deteriorate or melt because of the extreme heat. So why is this bad?
It’s bad because it releases a significant amount of radiation into the air. When the radiation is released into the air, it causes significant damage to the people and living organisms living near the nuclear reactor. The danger is not always immediate. Sometimes it does not become apparent until years later.
There have apparently been three nuclear meltdowns in the past. The first was in Lucens, Switzerland. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever hearing about that one. It occurred, however, in 1969 so many of us may have been very young or non-existent. The second one was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that occurred in 1979. The most recent was Chernobyl that occurred in Russia in 1986. Of course, those names are more familiar.
Basically the radioactive air increases the chances for individuals to develop fatal cancers and thyroid disease. It even increases the chances for the next generation to be born with Downs Syndrome or other genetic issues.
The radioactive air also can impact the water and food supply in the area for a very long time. Sometimes the geography impacted can extend much farther than anticipated. After the Chernobyl disaster, Sweden reported contamination in some of its food sources.
While the immediate results aren’t as dramatic as the movies of my youth may have portrayed it, clearly the nuclear power plants have the potential to cause significant harm. But as we all know, the next question is….do we shut them down? What is the cost/benefit of the risk?
Living in Illinois, we are fairly surrounded by nuclear power plants, yet it is something I have never worried about very much. Clearly the events in Japan will make me think differently about these power sources. A gentleman was on one of the news channels over the weekend, however, that made me feel somewhat better. He explained that after 9-11 the U.S. did a comprehensive analysis of its nuclear power plants and designed plans that protected the plants in cases of attack by terrorists. In most cases, the plants would be able to shut themselves down should some kind of attack occur.
There are many risks we live with in the modern world. Who would ever have thought that a bridge could collapse as you drove over it as happened in Minnesota? Who would have thought that an oil well could catch on fire and pollute the whole Gulf of Mexico? There are lots of cases where we will find that there are dangers in things we take for granted or do not spend time thinking about.
But we have to be cautious in our desire to stop everything that is not safe. After all, if after Orville Wright had created the airplane, we decided not to make it because it might crash….where would we be today?
The tragic situation in Japan provides an important learning opportunity to apply to all of the existing power plants. While we pray for all of the people impacted by this horrible situation, let’s not over-regulate or over-react to events that we cannot control.