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Japan’s nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant has now been officially upgraded to a “level 5” incident by international standards, a “disaster with broader effects”, much like Three Mile Island. Passengers arriving at the Dallas Airport from Tokyo have reportedly set off radiation alarms. Workers at the site are now being described by news sources and others with terms like “sucide squads” and “death sentence”. There’s even been talk of bringing in retired workers. These workers, now reportedly rotating through 15 minute stays to limit exposure, are now all that stands between Japan and a total meltdown of multiple reactors. Unbelievable heroism, without a doubt, and we can only hope it will be enough.

People are becoming far less resistant to now drawing comparisons with Chernobyl. In many ways, it’s scarier. Fukushima is one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, and has four simultaneous reactors in crisis at the moment. Chernobyl was far smaller, and only one. whether we’ll see a cloud of radioisotopes released that goes on to cut a swath across a continent, we sadly don’t know. In the end, Chernobyl was buried in sand and encased in concrete as an emergency solution. This is now being raised as an option.

The American Government has also continued its work in the last few days undermining the statements of the Japanese Government and IAEA, presenting a much grimmer picture. On the home front, though, they’re still refusing to revisit their vast array of nuclear subsidies in the light of this unfolding disaster. Still hoping to kick-start a “nuclear renaissance”, they expanded their plans in 2009, to include tens of billions in loan guarantees. For next year, there’s $36 billion budgeted for such loans – roughly ten times Wisconsin’s budget deficit. Other subsidies include a tax credit, $853 million to help develop nuclear waste strategies and a further continuation of the industry’s limit on liability for any disasters.

Where will things from here is anyone’s guess. The situation does not look good, and the potential for some very long-term consequences is clearly present. Japan is an incredibly densely populated country – Tokyo’s alone has over a hundred million. That’s three canadas. Even if things miraculously improve from this point onward, and the radiation leaks so far prove to be harmless to most, an incredible amount of damage will have been done in human terms. This is the last thing Japan needs right now, and neither it’s weary populace or shaky stock-market is responding well.

Nuclear disasters have so far typically happened apart from others. An incident like this amidst a quake and tsunami that has devastated a nation is something we’ve long known is possible, but not yet seen. This adds a whole new frightening dimension to the threat of a nuclear “incident” – not simply as an isolated threat but as a way in which a bad situation could get far worse. Not all of the world’s reactors lie on coasts or fault-lines, but many do. Others are in potential war-zones, or simply regions with legendarily corrupt governments and regulators, far worse than Japan’s. Many are ageing, and others no-doubt have design flaws similar to the “Mark 1′ at Fukushima. In the end, we won’t know for sure until it’s too late – but why risk it?

As the world watches in horror, at Japan’s current nuclear wars, we’re all being forced to ask ourselves: could it happen here? In a word, yes. Or perhaps something very much like it.

Today alone, we’ve seen an earthquake in the Ottawa area and leak at the Pickering Reactor (35km from Toronto) which released 72 000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario. That’s just today.

Could a level five nuclear incident happen in Ontario? It already has, in 1952 at Chalk River, 180km up the Ottawa river from our nation’s capitol. A cooling failure and hydrogen explosion led to a containment failure and release of 30kg of isotopes into the surrounding environment. Another incident happened six years later when it underwent a ‘fuel failure’ during core maintenance. And though the nuclear laboratories there sit in a seismically active area, neither was caused by an earthquake, but rather insufficient safeguards and operator error. Since then, both the Chalk River site and have been beset by problems. Shut down in 2007 over safety concerns, the current reactor at Chalk River, was restarted in December on order of Parliament after a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Just shy of a year later, heavy water was found to be leaking from the reactor, and it was shut down again. But unable to find the source after it stopped on its own, they restarted it days later. By May of 2009, it had returned and was leaking much faster, leading to another shutdown which lasted over a year. As of last August, though, it is once again operational due to another shortage of medical isotopes, as most of the world’s other producing reactors were also currently offline at the time.

Continuing East from there, one finds Elliot Lake, former heartland of Canadian uranium mining, and home to roughly 200 million tons of un-remediated tailings from mining sites. As with more active mining sites elsewhere in Canada, we’ve also seen ruptures of tailings dams, like one in 1993 which released an estimated two million litres of radioactive liquids into surrounding environments.

Ontario also houses the Bruce Nuclear plant, the largest in North America, and others closer to us, like the Darlington or Pickering reactors. Hamilton houses our own reactor at McMaster University. At least two more proposed plants have been promoted recently for new development.

And of course, in any discussion of the Canadian nuclear industry, we need to mention the larger global role it played. Since the Manhattan project, we’ve been involved in weapons programs, and still are today. AECL has been a major exporter of nuclear technologies, and therefore a major enabler of foreign nuclear weapons programs. We’ve sold reactors to India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Romania (while a member of the Warsaw Pact) and Argentina. Canadian technologies were found to have played a large role in India’s nuclear weapons program, and we certainly haven’t hindered those of others. Our CANDU reactors and other heavy-water types lend themselves easily to producing weaponized materials. In an age where many are urging the sales of reactors to large numbers of new nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the consequences of these sales need to be considered. Not exporting these technologies in the first place is far easier than invading and occupying nations like Iraq or Iran in order to get them back under our control.

Japan isn’t unique and niether is Ontario. Regions all around the world are now asking themselves these questions, and rediscovering their own ugly histories of nuclear mismanagement. Californians, wary of their reactors like Diablo Canyon, built right atop a fault-line. Germans have already reacted, shutting down seven of it’s seventeen reactors and facing a serious chance of a nationwide moratorium. News like this is rolling in from around the world.

I suspect that from this point onward, it’ll virtually require a cold day in hell to sell a new reactor anywhere that now receives news-feeds. Not that they’ll stop trying, but Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island led to a virtual 30-year freeze on new reactor construction in America and elsewhere. Most of those which exist now are close to or beyond their intended decommissioning date. Another similar freeze, lasting even a decade or two, would see the industry implode over large regions of the globe. And once there’s no reactors to point to as bright, shining examples of the atom’s potential, it’ll be even harder to build new ones. I’m not saying this is the definitive end of nuclear power, but if the industry does crash and burn, this will be the week that historians point to.

No fate is sealed. Those who stand to make fantastic profits off nuclear technologies will continue to downplay the costs and demand new stations, singing songs of progress. But now that we’ve all had a close-up look at what a disaster could look like, we’ve all got a very good reason to question those claims. I’ve seen lots of “direct action” in my day, and it ain’t hard. Show up, sit down, refuse to leave. Lock yourself to something if necessary, climb out of reach, dig in and camp – whatever it takes. If they drag you off, come back. We may not even need to go that far – a believable public statement from a few thousand people that we’re willing to may be enough. The day news of Japan’s crisis hit, 50 000 people showed up to protest at a site in Germany. The collective hopes and fears of the earth’s people may not be able to stop the current crisis in Japan, but we can stop it from ever happening again.

The nightmare which is unfolding in Japan has gotten far worse, at a near-constant rate, since the story broke on Friday. Despite strict attempts to quell fears by the Japanese Government and worldwide media, fresh reports keep coming in of more terrifying developments.

Several power plants now considered at risk in the growing nuclear crisis, and reports are now coming in that it could be a year before the reactors are all fully “shut down”. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 180 000 have been evacuated. While the Japanese Government and mainstream media keep claiming that radiation levels have dropped, a US Military helicopter recently recorded radioactivity 60 miles away. Fresh threats from aftershocks and tsunamis have everyone on edge and another hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima Daichi No. 3 reactor and exposure of fuel rods in the No 2 reactor were briefly totally exposed.

Proponents of nuclear power are now seriously on the defensive. Using terms like “fear-mongering” and “apocalyptic”, they’re blasting anyone who dares suggest that this crisis is a threat. The media is being attacked for daring to raise the specter of Chernobyl or and accused of voyeuristic sensationalism no matter how hard they work to downplay the situation. Based on this downplaying (such as the nearly hourly waves of “crisis averted” stories), they berate anyone who dares suggest otherwise. At the centre of this is argument is the great nuclear straw-man: a “worst-case scenario” where Japan is blown clear into orbit and two thirds of the planet dies immediately of every form of cancer we have. As long as this doesn’t happen, no matter what does will be considered a “victory”, and nuclear naysayers will have been “proven wrong”.

Even if these plants don’t completely melt down, this will still have been one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, and it’s still far from over. It can take years for cancer to develop, official inquiries to come together and medical studies to come to conclusions. We still don’t really know how many people died as a result of Chernobyl – some say fifty, others say two hundred thousand or more. To write off fears in Japan this soon is like writing the conclusion to a true crime novel five minutes after an assault, before anyone knows whether the victim will survive.

Many are now suggesting a freeze on new nuclear development and an incredible backlash is growing against the nuclear industry. The Swiss, Americans and Germans have all began to shy away from their recent expansion plans. With hopes of a global “nuclear renaissance”, the industry may now face a brutal fight to survive at all. This crisis simply raises too many questions to overlook about safety, even in the wealthiest industrialized nations, and they are not likely to soon go away. It took three decades for the industry to begin to shake the terrifying legacy of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – will this be the third and final strike?

In the chaos and turmoil following yesterday’s earthquake, the residents of Japan are now grappling with a second horror: a potential meltdown of the the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Several plants have been shut down, and hundreds of thousands have now power after the quakes and tsunami, which may be the strongest ever measured by the Island nation. The Fukushima reactors, about 150 miles north of Tokyo, became a particular focus after the quake shook fuel rods into the core and the loss of power shut off cooling systems. Fears grew after a large explosion there in the early hours of this morning (our time). Authorities confirmed that fuel had melted and have now evacuated over 50 000 people (with some estimates reaching three times that). With the loss of power, cooling systems have been off since yesterday and gasses have been released from the Fukushima 1 plant in order to release the growing pressure inside – preparations to do the same are underway at Fukushima 2 as well. Radiation levels in the are have been rising and authorities are now stockpiling iodine and beginning to check for signs of radiation sickness.

It’s very difficult to tell what’s going on right now. I’ve been glued to newsfeeds for hours now, and every time the situation seems to calm something else pops up. We can all hope that this may not be as bad as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but the crisis is far from over. We don’t know how much radiation escaped when they released the pressure, nor do we know what kind of shape the reactor itself is in. As surely as we can expect that the media will overplay disaster fears, we can only expect the government and industry authorities to downplay fears in the public eye. We likely won’t totally understand this for weeks or even years.

The most recent news is stating that at least one more plant, the Fukushima 2 plant (with four reactors of its own, about 10 miles away) is also now at crisis point, and evacuations are expanding.. Attempts to vent gasses seem to have hit some snags, and one of the reactor buildings at Fukushima 1 is now missing its roof, though the reactor itself seems to be intact. Authorities are now attempting to use sea water to cool the reactors, and it seems the temperatures and radiation levels may be dropping.

For those of us who’ve long been highly critical of the nuclear industry, this is a pretty clear example of the kind of “worse case scenario” we’ve been warning about. A nuclear reactor is not an appliance that can be turned on and off. It requires a constant input of attention and energy to keep under control. Without extensive cooling systems and pressure management, a nuclear reactor can produce temperatures which quickly make any attempts to keep the reactor under control nearly impossible. A “meltdown” happens when the fuel rods and the reactor itself simply begin to melt under the stress.

The key to any nuclear technology is the fact that radioactive material gets more radioactive in larger amounts. The neutrons released by the splitting atoms split others, speeding up the pace of the reaction for all the atoms around it. With this principle, you can “breed” special isotopes, or regulate power in a nuclear reactor by inserting or withdrawing rods of feul. It also means, though, that once you have a certain amount of pure enough fuel (“critical mass”), it simply explodes. The difference between a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb is that in a reactor, you can control the pace of the reaction. Those lines start to blur when the reactor itself begins to melt.

Are we likely to see an atom-bomb style detonation? Probably not, no. What we’re looking at is a lot more like a cross between a pressure cooker and a dirty bomb. If the reactor cracks open, the high-pressure radioactive gasses will escape into the air. Many parts are in danger of melting or burning – nearly everything does at those temperatures. If the uranium burns, the smoke will carry it for untold distances. It may also simply melt down into the ground until it hits the water table. And any number of new and dangerous isotopes could be created in the process. In short, we don’t need to see a mushroom cloud for this to get really ugly. Chernobyl released a reported 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima bomb and may have killed over 200 000 people.

Thousands of demonstrators have already turned out in Germany to protest a local nuclear plant after hearing of this crisis, and many other questions are now being raised about how “safe” nuclear power can ever be.

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