On gamma radiation and beta particles, which can

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On gamma radiation and beta particles, which can

On March 11,
2011, an earthquake led to a major catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear
Power Plant in Okuma Japan. The earthquake triggered a tsunami over 14 meters
tall, which disabled electricity from the power plant. Efforts to return power
to the facility were forestalled by floods that washed away fuel tanks for
emergency diesel generators. Despite strenuous efforts, the emergency cooling
systems could not be operated. This inevitably led to a meltdown, in which hydrogen
explosions heavily damaged the facility, and released large amounts of
radioactive material into the environment. (World Nuclear Orgaization, October
2017) This artificial calamity has been dubbed the Fukushima disaster.  

In all
nuclear power plants, the atoms of a highly radioactive source, (such as
uranium) release energy in a process called radioactive decay. This causes the
original source to break down, transforming the original atoms into isotopes of
another element. It is common for the subsequent isotopes to also undergo
radioactive decay, consequently releasing more radiation into the environment. Following
the Fukushima disaster, several radioactive isotopes were released into the
atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. The most common isotopes released by the
Fukushima disaster were iodine, cesium and xenon. (Ministry of Foreign affairs,
2013). These isotopes are all natural byproducts of the fission reactions within
nuclear power plants.

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Following the
Fukushima disaster, one of the largest environmental concerns was the discharge
of harmful cesium. (Ministry of Foreign affairs, 2011)  The element Cesium has 55 protons and an
atomic mass of about 133 amu.  Within the Fukushima reactor, an isotope of
cesium is produced called Cs-137. The University of Sheffield (1993)
describes Cs-137 as having a half-life of 30 years. As
it decays, the isotope releases gamma radiation and beta particles, which can pass
through organic tissue, causing DNA and cellular damage. The most significant threat
to the environment was the possibility of Cs-137 entering the atmosphere
and falling into the Pacific Ocean. Its enormous half-life presents a danger to
the environment which can last for decades. (Environmental Impact Assessment,
2015) Fortunately, due to the direction of the wind immediately following the
disaster, most of the Cs-137 remained within Japan. At the same time,
however, this meant that regions within twenty miles of the disaster would remain,
even today, uninhabitable due to soil contamination. (Dispersion of Radioactive
Material from the Fukushima, 2013) According to the World Nuclear Organization
(2017), small amounts of atmospheric Cs-137 had traveled as far west as off
the coast of California, but the levels detected were not considered at all
hazardous to the populace.

I-131, a radioactive isotope of Iodine,
was also released into the environment. The element Iodine is water-soluble,
having 53 protons and an atomic mass of about 127 amu. According to the University of Sheffield (1993), I-131 has a half-life of about
eight days and it also emits beta particles. Having such a short half-life
means its long-term impact on the environment is relatively insignificant.

Another radioactive isotope released
into the environment was Xe-133. The element Xenon is a noble gas with 54 protons
and an atomic weight of just over 131 amu. Being a noble gas, Xenon does not
react well with other elements, and is therefore not easily introduced into the
chemical compounds within organic tissue. According to the University of Sheffield (1993), Xe-133 has a half-life of only 5
days. Like I-131 and Cs-137, Xe-133 emits beta particles which can
cause cellular damage, but its short half-life and position of being a noble
gas limits the possibility of causing severe environmental issues.  

Interestingly, there have been zero
deaths and very little radiation-related injuries due to the Fukushima
disaster. Even people associated with the operation of the plant and the first
responders to the disaster have reported to have only minor radiation exposure.
This stands in sharp contrast to the Chernobyl accident, in which many people
had suffered injuries caused by radiation. (Society of Environmental
Toxicology and Chemistry, 2016)

Overall, the radioactivity levels measured
in the aquatic ecosystems near Fukushima were shown to be much lower than what
was initially predicted by studies immediately following the disaster. Exposures
were found to be too low to cause seriously ill-effects in the populations of
various marine organisms. (Off-site Decontamination, Events and highlights,
August, 2017) It is generally agreed that the quick radioactive decay of Xe-133
and iodine-131, as well as the fallout being mostly confined to Japan, were the
greatest contributing factors to the low levels of exposure measured in the
environment. Although there have been some cases where individual fish were
found to have worrying levels of radiation, it has not been in observed to be
on a scale of entire populations, which was the initial fear. (5 years after
Fukushima, 2017)

On land, studies on the plants and
animals in the forests near Fukushima have noted a range of “physiological,
developmental, morphological, and behavioral consequences” due to radiation
exposure. (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2016) Although some minor effects have
been observed in the populations with the greatest exposure to the disaster (such
as monkeys, insects, birds, and trees), samples from the marine environment have
ascertained that radiation exposure to marine birds and macro-algae are far
below the levels initially expected. This is very fortunate, as these marine
organisms have a far more important role in the overall environment, compared
to the terrestrial counterparts. (Impact of the Fukushima accident on marine
life, 2016) Again, in comparison to the accident at Chernobyl, the environmental
impact of the Fukushima disaster seems to be far less severe.

The Fukushima accident in Japan has set
back the public perception on the safety of nuclear energy, and has caused a
noticeable recession in the construction of nuclear power plants. (5 years
after Fukushima, 2017) This stands against the facts that were zero deaths and
no serious exposures of radiation attributed to the disaster.  Despite the fact that the incident caused no
casualties, many members of the public still fear the radiation levels in
Fukushima, even though the levels are considered lower than natural background
levels found in other parts of the world. (World Nuclear Orgaization, October
2017)

Data shows that the nuclear power
plants worldwide produced 2346 TWh in 2012. The incident at Fukushima caused
the biggest one-year decline of Nuclear power in 2012; the generation of
electricity was 7% less than the amount in 2011 (Dr. Jim Green, 2013, par 2).
The effect of the incident caused a full year of suspended operation in Japan,
48 reactors were closed, and the retraction of eight building projects in
Germany. After the incident, the Japanese closed nearly fifty operable. This
was a huge loss in the production of electricity and resulted in the loss of tens
of billions of dollars. Globally, it was the lowest nuclear generation since
1999. Generation of electricity by nuclear power fell in over a dozen
countries, including all of the top five nuclear-generating countries. (Lessons
From Fukushima, 2012)

It is
very unfortunate that the Fukushima disaster occurred. Even more unfortunate
was the world’s hysterical response to it. Many agree, myself included, that
there should be a reduction in the use of fossil fuels; and that they should be
replaced by low-emission sources of energy. The byproduct of nuclear energy is
harmless steam, and a very small amount of radioactive waste which can be
safely stored away. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale substitute for
fossil fuels, and is readily available for creating a continuous and reliable
supply of electricity. 

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