Windscale, Three Mile Island, Tokaimura – earlier nuclear incidents

Sellafield <em>Picture: Steven Duhig</em>
Sellafield Picture: Steven Duhig

A week on from the devastating earthquake, there is no shortage of Japan-related news and analysis – but a few less high-profile pieces are worth flagging up as of particular interest.

The documentary film-maker Adam Curtis – best known for his BBC series The Power of Nightmaresblogged on the Japan nuclear crisis on Wednesday. Curtis’s post includes the film A is for Atom, which he made in 1992 and which looks at the history of nuclear power development in the UK, the USA and the former Soviet Union.

“It shows how the way the technologies were developed was shaped by the political and business forces of the time,” writes Curtis. “And how that led directly to inherent dangers in the design of the containment of many of the early plants.

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“Those early plants in America were the Boiling Water Reactors. And that is the very model that was used to build the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”

Curtis goes on to discuss how various safety concerns were overlooked or disregarded, and his film also features at-the-time recordings relating to the 1979 disaster at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania.

Also mentioning Three Mile Island is this report, from 2007, produced by the World Nuclear Association (WNA). It focuses on the “Tokaimura Criticality Accident”, an earlier Japanese incident, starting in September 1999 and involving mismanagement of enriched uranium such that a “criticality”, or limited uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, occurred and continued for 20 hours.

Tokaimura was a uranium reprocessing facility – much smaller than the Fukushima Daiichi complex – located between Fukushima and Tokyo. There were health concerns in the surrounding area, with 119 people receiving a radiation dose over 1 millisievert during the period of the leak. Two of the three workers in closest proximity to the incident died (after three and seven months).

The International Atomic Energy Agency later concluded that the accident “seems to have resulted primarily from human error and serious breaches of safety principles, which together led to a criticality event”.

The WNA report includes the international nuclear event scale, on which the 1986 Chernobyl explosion is Category 7 – “Major Release: Widespread health and environmental effects.” It remains to be seen what rating Fukushima Daiichi eventually receives, but already there is informed talk of it being at least Category 6 – “Significant Release: Full implementation of local emergency plans.”

The international nuclear event scale is also a reminder that not only was the Three Mile Island incident rated as Category 5 (“Limited Release: Partial implementation of local emergency plans”), so was the 1957 reactor fire at Windscale. The accident at the Cumbrian coastal plant – now known as Sellafield – remains the worst nuclear accident in the UK.

Returning to the current terrible events in Japan, ABC News provided two sequences – published 13 March and 15 March – of before-and-after satellite images showing the area affected by the tsunami. In each case, the pre-tsunami pictures are the ones shown, and the later ones can be seen by sliding the computer’s pointing device over the picture.

The software is impressive – but nowhere near as striking as the knowledge that it’s people’s lives that are being shown down there amid the wreckage.

Also on the World Nuclear Association site mentioned above, here is some background information (dated 18 March 2011) about earthquake provision and also some detail on the current Fukushima Daiichi crisis.

Here, too, is a collection of links from the Citizens’ Nuclear Advice Center in Japan.

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