Japan’s deadly earthquake and tsunami disaster on March 11, 2011, which caused nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi to overheat, has revived the debate over whether nuclear power is safe. New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo called for shutting down the Indian Point Energy nuclear power station in Buchanan, N.Y. Over 100,000 people took to the streets in Taiwan on March 20 to protest construction of a fourth nuclear power plant there. Artificially heightening concern over the Fukushima accident are reports of people hurt and displaced by the tsunamis and earthquakes; the death toll is expected to reach 10,000. In reality, the Fukushima reactors handled the earthquake and subsequent tsunami somewhat adequately, a vast improvement over the the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Due to numerous safety improvements made to nuclear plants since Chernobyl, very few people were injured and the fallout has been nominal. A sample of water taken from Tokyo, 150 miles south of the reactor, found only a tiny level of iodine, well below the tolerable level for food and drink.
The biggest difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima is the presence of steel pressure containers protecting the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. They stopped radioactive material from spreading into the environment. When the explosion occurred at the Chernobyl reactor, there was nothing to block radioactive material from spreading over a wide area. It is estimated that anywhere from 30,000 to 1 million people living near Chernobyl came down with cancer as a result, and much of the surrounding area remains uninhabitable to this day.
Unless there is an additional mishap at the Fukushima reactors, a full meltdown is unlikely. The plant houses six nuclear reactors. When the cooling systems failed, the fuel rods in the core of the reactors heated up, causing explosions or fires at three of the reactors. If they are not cooled down, it could result in full nuclear core meltdowns which could crack or melt the containments, allowing radioactive material to escape into the atmosphere. The Japanese are pouring seawater on the reactors to cool them down, regardless of whether it renders them inoperable in the future.