Revisited– originally posted 5/8/2009
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident of 1986 was caused by a power output glitch during a systems test. The current Japan nuclear power plant crisis was presumably caused by a failure of the cooling systems and a subsequent explosion of Reactor 1, a potential meltdown of Reactor 2, and the spewing of radioactive material from Reactor 4. The full effect on human lives is still unclear.
Some are equating the current radiation crisis in Japan to the Chernobyl disaster. However, experts claim the Japanese power plant could not produce an explosion comparable to that of the Chernobyl plant. Even so, Japanese officials announced that the current level of leached radiation poses a threat to human health and advised people within the areas of highest exposure levels to stay inside, make their homes airtight and hang laundry indoors.
So, what is the health risk exactly? The answer isn’t clear-cut. The health effects of exposure to radiation can be stochastic, meaning they depend on the level and length of exposure time. Cancer is the most common result from chronic exposure to low levels of radiation.
The effects can also be non-stochastic, which are caused by acute exposure to high levels of radiation. Non-stochastic health effects include burns and radiation sickness. Symptoms of radiation sickness or “poisoning” can include hair loss, nausea, weakness, burns and loss of organ function. If the dose of radiation is fatal, death can result within two months.
The media keep mentioning “Chernobyl” and comparing it to the current situation in Japan. But what exactly happened in Chernobyl and why are people so worried that this could be another event of its kind? What happened at Chernobyl is the worst strain of nightmare—the kind you can’t wake up from. The damage to human health from Chernobyl included more cases of non-stochastic effects. I can almost guarantee that after you watch the above photo essay, you will gain a more grave understanding of what exactly the “Chernobyl” reference means.
After watching footage from the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the radiation crisis in Japan, I began comparing the structure of human life to the structure of an egg. First, I imagine the egg is whole; the shell is intact. But then, in just one sudden action, the shell can be broken, shattered, and the contents spill out. And we are left with a mess.
“Everything breaks,” says photographer Paul Fusco during his incredibly moving photo essay of the devastating effects of Chernobyl. The workers of Chernobyl didn’t intend for the disaster to happen. But it did. The system broke. The workers of the Fukushima plant didn’t intend for this crisis to happen. But it’s happening. Japanese officials boast that Japan is one of the most prepared countries in the world to withstand the effects of an earthquake. And yet, the country is a disaster zone. Even as more information pours in about the frightening radiation levels leaking from the Japanese power plant, U.S. energy officials are assuring the American public that our nuclear power plants are strong enough to withstand any emergency or systems glitch. Who will remind them that, at some point—no matter how well we plan—everything breaks?
As footage of the devastation in Japan continues to stream in, it’s hard not to send our prayers to the victims and their families. The damage done is truly a testament to the fact that everything breaks. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose that degree of stability and infrastructure in the world around me. But as devastating as losing my possessions would be, if my life starts falling apart, I would count myself lucky if the things that collapse, crash, rupture or break are my house, car, plumbing, and dishes rather than the people who I care most about.