(EnergyAsia, March 14 2011, Monday) — Several US nuclear experts have commented on the rapidly evolving reactor crisis in Japan following last Friday’s (March 11) deadly earthquake which struck off the northern island of Honshu.

More than 1,600 people have been confirmed dead, and at least another 10,000 are reported missing after the 8.9-richter quake struck in the waters 130 km off Sendai city and 373 km northeast of Tokyo. Many in Sendai and nearby villages were killed by the tsunami triggered by the quake, the worst to hit Japan in 140 years.

Peter Bradford, former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said:

“An early tipoff that Japanese authorities felt that events at Fukushima prefecture were very serious was the ordering of an evacuation within a couple of hours of the earthquake.

“Though the area was small and the evacuation was called precautionary, the fact is that ordering several thousand more people into motion during the immediate aftermath of a major earthquake and tsunami is something that no government would do if it could possibly help it.

“Neither Three Mile Island nor Chernobyl were accompanied by natural disasters. Even then, authorities were loathe to evacuate, in part because evacuations are themselves dangerous and in part because they are admissions of a major failure.

“But with natural disasters you have many people moving about in panic anyway. They have no place to go. Traffic lights aren’t working. Roads are closed. Transport is disrupted. Police have other responsibilities. Many are seeing to their own families. Only gravest danger would justify an evacuation at such a moment.

“The viability of US emergency plans at densely populated reactor sites may have to be reexamined to determine whether they can be implemented in the context of a nuclear accident precipitated by a natural disaster. This was always a theoretical possibility. Now it’s real.”

Ira Helfand, MD, board member for Physicians for Social Responsibility, said:

“It is not known how much radiation has been or will ultimately be released from the damaged Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan, but as found by the National Academy Sciences, any exposure to radiation increases a person’s risk of cancer. No one, including the plants operators, can say what is going to happen, and potentially millions of people are in harm’s way.

“The Japanese government should be preparing for the worst-case scenario. After one year of operation, a commercial nuclear reactor contains 1000 times as much radioactivity as was released by the Hiroshima bomb.

“From a public health perspective, the most important isotopes are short-lived isotopes of iodine (like Iodine-131), Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and possibly Plutonium-239. Radioactive iodine caused thousands of cases of thyroid cancer in children after the Chernobyl accident. Cesium and strontium cause a number of different kinds of cancer and remain dangerous for hundreds of years; plutonium causes lung cancer as well as other types of cancer and remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said:

“The Japanese authorities seem to be working from a standard nuclear industry playbook whose byline seems to be ‘What me worry?’ A frank appraisal of what is known and not known and the potential range of damage and consequences would be much more reassuring in that the public could at least have some confidence in the pronouncements of the authorities.

“That range could run from moderate to serious to catastrophic – at present it is just too difficult to tell, not least because official verbal reassurances about low radiation levels stand in stark contrast to repeated increases in the radius of evacuations.”