Amy Gehrt: Japan’s nuclear crisis a powerful reminder

Amy Gehrt

After a gigantic 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, causing a devastating Pacific tsunami, the situation seems to be getting worse.

On Sunday, the expected death toll rose dramatically to at least 10,000 people, and millions of those who did survive the island nation’s strongest earthquake in recorded history have had to endure days without water, food, electricity or heat in near-freezing temperatures.

To compound their woes, an unseen threat is also lurking: radiation poisoning. Four Japanese nuclear complexes were damaged in the twin disasters Friday, setting a potential nuclear crisis into motion.

Two hydrogen explosions at the Dai-ichi complex were reported on March 14. Later that night, Nuclear and Industrial Agency official Ryohei Shiomi revealed that the fuel rods in all three of the most troubled nuclear reactors appeared to be melting — meaning a reactor meltdown is possible. If that were to happen, the results could be catastrophic — akin to the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Japanese officials have asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to send in experts, but IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano told reporters in Vienna that the current nuclear crisis is unlikely to reach the same level as Chernobyl.

In fact, one of the people responsible for helping contain the nuclear blast fallout at Chernobyl said what happened nearly two decades ago may have provided valuable insight for lessening tragedy this time around.

“Chernobyl taught the world of nuclear reactor designers that they have to be ready for the most unforeseen failures, the most extreme situations,” nuclear engineer Ilgiz Iskhatov told The Daily Beast.

Still, even if the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen this time, the incident serves as a powerful reminder about the risks that come with nuclear programs. Already, Germany has temporarily suspended plans to extend the life of its nuclear power plants, while Switzerland has shelved its own plans to build and replace nuclear plants.

The European Union nuclear safety authorities and operators have already convened in a specially called meeting in order to assess Europe’s own preparedness in case of an emergency.

The United States has yet to announce what effect, if any, the nuclear crisis in Japan will have on our own nuclear program, but I hope it will prompt more leaders to realize we need to focus on shifting to more renewable energy sources in the near future.

President Barack Obama has long touted the need for clean energy, but his pledge to pass “a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America” in his 2010 State of the Union Address didn’t go over well with many lawmakers, and the measure floundered amid weak Senate support.

I understand why some Americans may be reluctant to pour billions into clean energy development each year, especially with an economy that is still struggling to fully recover. However, the jobs created by such a program would actually be a boon to the economy, and the investment in a brighter, safer future would pay even higher long-term dividends.

City editor Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekin? The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Pekin Daily Times.