By Kevin Schaefer, Associate Editor. Published April 1, 2011

One of the worst disasters that the world has seen in quite some time hit Japan a few weeks ago. As of March 23, the confirmed death toll was 9,452. In addition to that, almost 15,000 people are still missing, and about 260,000 people are now homeless. The bad news doesn’t stop there. What could have been one of the worst Nuclear power accidents became a little too close to occurring.

However, this disaster, which has been described as the worst since World War Two, could have been much worse.

According to Technology Review, published by MIT, Japan employs the world’s only earthquake warning system. “The earthquake warning system, which has never been triggered before, automatically issued alerts via television and cell phones shortly after the first, less harmful, shock wave was detected, providing time for many people to prepare for the more powerful shock wave that followed.” This is what caused the nuclear reactors in the area to automatically shutdown.

In fact, it is estimated that this early warning system gave residents in Tokyo around 80 seconds of warning before the earthquake hit the city. The system has over one thousand seismographs around the country which detect tremors and help issue warnings. Although 80 seconds seems like very little time, it can be enough time for people to at least take cover, “stop performing surgery in a hospital, exit an elevator, or pull over to the side of the road.” Similar systems will be installed in countries such as Taiwan and Mexico.

This does not lessen the loss of life. As was previously stated, almost 9,500 people have been confirmed dead, and potentially 15,000 more could also be dead. In all, almost 300,000 people have been directly affected by this disaster.

Those two disasters would probably have seemed small had their nuclear power plants undergone a complete meltdown.

So, what is a nuclear meltdown? A meltdown occurs when the fuel inside the reactor begins melting. During normal operation, water is used to keep the reactor stable, and the fuel inside at a safe temperature. The water is heated up by the reaction taking place, and is used to drive a turbine. However, once the water stops circulating, the heat generated by the fuel rods inside can grow rapidly to unsafe levels. If a meltdown does occur, nuclear radiation does not necessarily get released into the atmosphere. This is because all of this is happening inside a containment structure designed to protect the environment from radiation exposure. However, if too much pressure builds up inside the containment vessel, an explosion of some sort could take place. If this happens, radiation can be released into the atmosphere. This radiation can then be carried by wind currents and can spread over vast distances.

Did a nuclear meltdown occur in Japan? Well, it’s hard to answer that with just one word. The nuclear reactors did not experience a full blown meltdown like at Chernobyl, but there has been evidence to suggest that some melting did occur inside the reactors at the power plant. It’s hard to say how much melting, though. Also, the reason that radiation is being detected, is not necessarily because of a melting, but because Japan vented some pressure from the reactors in an attempt to keep them stable.

This is the radiation that has made its way into some of Japan’s drinking water, and which has drifted as far east as Colorado. According to the EPA though, the radiation levels that have been detected in the United States are “far below levels of concern.”

In what has been called the “Hail Mary” attempt at keeping the nuclear reactors from experiencing a full-blown nuclear meltdown, Japan has used sea water to help cool down the highly reactive cores. By doing this, however, Japan has basically decommissioned those reactors from ever being used to generate electricity again, as the contamination or salts and other substances found in sea water will likely make the reactors unfit for operation, assuming that they weren’t damaged beyond repair already.

As the world just starts to understand what really happened, and as Japan tries to maintain hope that they will find surviving people within the massive amounts of debris—hope that slowly diminished with each passing day, the world is responding to one of the worst and costliest natural disasters. Hopefully you will realize just how precious life is and how lucky you are to be alive and well with your family, friends, classmates, peers, and colleagues. So take a moment to give them a hug.

Posted by McK Review

We are the official, student-run newspaper of McKendree University.