No. 511 . 23 March 2011 
ArchitectureWeek

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Three shattered reactor containment buildings demark deeper problems as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station continues to release radioactive material, two weeks after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Digital Globe, March 16, 2011

Chernobyl by the Sea

by Kevin Matthews

The best data and analysis available suggests that the total emissions of radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137 from the compound disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011 have reached a level comparable to the total emissions of those isotopes from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

These scientific estimates have been published by ZAMG, the national weather agency of Austria, based on detailed weather modeling (English) since the start of the Fukushima accident 14 days ago.

Architects can do a lot to protect building occupants through a major earthquake by building strong and seismically resilient buildings. Architects, and planners, can protect building occupants from tsunami waves and other flooding disasters by not building in the most dangerous areas, and by designing with special care for buildings in areas of secondary danger.

But there's not much architects can do to protect building occupants and owners from wide dispersion of radioactive material during a major nuclear accident — except perhaps to insist that the technical infrastructure of modern society not create such high levels of unnatural risk.

At this time when the need for effective systems thinking is so critical — and when effective systems thinking is exemplified by leading architects in some of their best works — the Fukushima disaster represents a systematic failure.

Partial reactor core meltdowns occurred at the three struggling nuclear reactors in Japan, north of Tokyo, within the first three days of the accident (NYT).

In addition, two different reactor units at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant (Fukushima Number One Power Plant) experienced major hydrogen explosions, on Saturday, March 12 (reactor #1) and on Monday, March 14 (reactor #3), which destroyed the reactor containment buildings, but not the reactor containment vessels. At the same time, an extremely dangerous level of cooling problems was reported for reactor #2, which subsequently had its own explosion and fire.

Above-normal releases of radiation and radioactive material are continuing from all three permanently damaged reactors, #1, #2, and #3, at Fukushima Daiichi, as they apparently have for most of the last two weeks.

On Monday, March 28 in Japan, TEPCO announced a radiation level of 1000 mSv/hr (millisieverts per hour) for accumulated water in tunnels of the reactor unit #2 buildings, as measured where the water has reached an overflow outlet 55 meters (180 feet) from the ocean. The highly radioactive water is reportedly at a level about a meter short of actually overflowing.

For comparison, under normal conditions, the maximum annual radiation dose for a U.S. nuclear worker is 50 mSv (millisieverts), although the current allowed dosage at the plant in Japan is currently at an emergency level of 250 mSv (millisieverts). The measured level of 1000 mSv/hr could deliver a normal 50 mSv annual dose in just three minutes, or the full emergency-allowed annual dose in just 15 minutes.

With containment buildings gone, fuel cores damaged, and emergency cooling continuing with a "boil off" method, essentially unpreventable radioactive releases are likely to continue for weeks.   >>>

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Updated Monday, March 28, 2011 at 10:40am PDT

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