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    Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl

    by Kevin Matthews

    Our goal with this article is to support an accurate, technically grounded, and broadly comprehensible comparison of the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, to facilitate realistic understanding of these serious accidents by the technically savvy ArchitectureWeek A/E/C readership.

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    Why This Comparison?

    The BBC says, "most experts agree the two nuclear incidents are very different." [1]

    The government of Japan says, "Although Level 7 is the highest level of INES rating, it is estimated that the amount of discharged radioactive materials to the environment in the current stage is approximately 10 percent of the Chernobyl accident." [2]

    Reuters says, "But for all their criticism of how Tokyo Electric Power Co and Japan's government are handling the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, experts agree with them on one point: Fukushima is not another Chernobyl." [3]

    Nature says, "Understandably, the press has made quite a big deal out of the new rating, but the reality is that Fukushima is a very different accident than Chernobyl." [4]

    The World on PRI says, "So—Fukushima like Chernobyl? Fukushima NOT like Chernobyl? I still believe the comparison is inappropriate no matter how the numbers do or don't stack up... But it's clearer than ever this week that that's a losing rhetorical battle, even as it's also clear that the comparisons are more meaningless than ever." [5]

    ArchitectureWeek says, "Fukushima is another Chernobyl."

    Of course every accident will have different particulars. But a straightforward marshaling of the facts shows that the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters are remarkably similar.

    Several of the points mentioned to differentiate the two accidents are fundamentally misleading, including exaggerations of the differences in reactor containment levels, fires, and explosions.

    Comparisons of total releases of radioactive material are also misleading, since about half the release from Chernobyl was in the form of biologically inactive noble gases. The atmospheric releases of radioactive isotopes of high biological concern is much more similar between the two accidents — with Fukushima releases still ongoing!

    And, in addition to large ongoing atmospheric releases of radioactive material, the Fukushima accident is generating what a Woods Hole marine geochemist calls "the biggest man-made release ever of radioactive material into the oceans."

    While suffering horribly from earthquake and tsunami, despite a relatively high level of preparedness, during the nuclear disaster Japan has benefitted greatly from one primary mitigating factor. For most of the last month, winds have blown primarily offshore, taking a large portion of the released radioactive material away from populated areas. Thank goodness for that.

    In the U.S., however, we should now get past pretending a meltdown at Diablo Canyon or Indian Point would necessarily meet such a favorable condition.

    It's past time for industry and major media alike to face the music, and grasp the fact that a Chernobyl-level disaster is not just an aberration of the Soviet system. It not only can happen in a technologically-advanced wealthy democracy — it has happened.

    The life safety responsibility of design professionals demands accurate disaster assessments. The political process around industrial risks and benefits does as well.

    Summary Table Comparing the Chernobyl and Fukushima Nuclear Disasters

    See detailed tables posted at the Archiplanet wiki for line-by-line references and ongoing updates.





    April 26, 1986

    March 11, 2011

    Accident Initiation

    Loss of electric power due to system failure while testing electric power backup, followed by power surge and loss of control

    Loss of electric power and other damage due to earthquake and tsunami, followed by extended loss of cooling and loss of conrol

    Severity Rating

    Level 7 on the INES scale - major accident

    Level 7 on the INES scale - major accident

    Core Damage

    Partial meltdown, with suspected nuclear recursion, in one reactor

    Partial meltdown in three reactors, plus damage and fires of fuel rods in storage pools

    Containment Breach

    Reactor vessel and reactor building breached

    Reactor vessel and reactor building breached







    Radioactive Material Released to Atmosphere

    1.9 EBq total of high-concern isotopes
    (1.8 EBq of short half-life I-131)

    0.6 EBq total of high-concern isotopes in first 3-4 weeks, with releases likely to continue for many more weeks

    More than half of the total radiation released in the Chernobyl accident was in the form of noble gases, which have very low uptake in biological systems

    Radioactive Material Released to Ocean


    At least 10,000 metric tons (2,000,000 gallons) of contaminated water and ongoing

    Evacuation Radius

    30 km

    20 km - 45 km

    People Evacuated


    Over 85,000, and expanding

    See also Chernobyl by the Sea - ArchitectureWeek, 2011.0323   >>>

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...


    ArchWeek Image

    Aerial view of the collapsed Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 3 enclosure building, seen on April 11, 2011.
    Photo: Courtesy TEPCO

    ArchWeek Image

    Aerial view of the collapsed Chernobyl Reactor 4 (center) and its damaged turbine building (lower left), seen shortly after the infamous April 26, 1986, meltdown.
    Photo: Wikipedia

    ArchWeek Image

    Video footage from the crane of a concrete pump being used to pump emergency cooling water at Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 4, on March 24, 2011, shows close-up views of containment building damage.
    Video: Courtesy Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)

    ArchWeek Image

    Another fire was detected on April 12, 2011, at Reactor 4's discharge canal sampling building, located around the ocean-side discharge canal at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (Fukushima I) in Okuma, Japan.
    Photo: Courtesy Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)

    ArchWeek Image

    A re-purposed concrete pump sprays cooling water into Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 4 on March 22, 2011.
    Photo: Courtesy TEPCO Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A contemporary view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, with a concrete "sarcophagus" enclosing Reactor 4.
    Photo: Courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Extra Large Image


    Click on thumbnail images
    to view full-size pictures.

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