Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

Get my RSS |

Advertise on

Japan's Nuclear Emergency Explained

| Fri Mar. 25, 2011 1:10 PM EDT
A satellite image of shows damage after an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in quake-ravaged Japan.

This was originally posted on Saturday, March 12 at 2:01 PM EST and is being updated regularly. Some of the information at the top is very basic; if you're familiar with the outlines of the problem, you can jump straight to the latest updates.

Fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe are high in northern Japan, where multiple explosions have occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and the cooling systems at four separate reactors are suffering problems. Officials have reported that a partial meltdown has likely occured at three reactors, though the extent of the damage to their cores is not yet clear. Spent fuel rods at a fourth reactor also threaten to melt down. The emergency at the plant comes on top of the devastation caused by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 33-foot tsunami.

What is wrong with the plant? There are six boiling-water reactors on the site, though only three were in operation at the time of the earthquake. These systems, designed by General Electric, rely on an influx of water to cool the reactor core. But the water systems require electricity that was cut off by the earthquake. It also appears that something—the initial quake, the tsunami, or aftershocks—knocked the site's back-up generators offline. Without the cooling system bringing in water, the core of a reactor will start to overheat—which in turn heats up the water already in the system and causes more of it to turn to steam. Emergency responders have been forced to vent some of the steam, releasing radiation, in order to prevent the containment domes from exploding. They are in a race against the clock to bring in new water supplies before the reacting nuclear fuel heats up beyond control.

It is believed that all of units have already suffered a partial meltdowns of their reactor cores—the uranium fuel rods where the nuclear chain reaction happens—and four of the plants have been damaged by explosions or fires. There was a blast on Saturday March 12th at Unit 1, followed by explosions at Unit 3 the following Monday and Unit 2 on Tuesday along with a fire at Unit 4, where spent fuel rods may have boiled off all of the water in their cooling pond.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the plant, has been flooding the reactors with a mix of sea water and boric acid, which is used to slow down the chain reaction. They have encountered multiple problems, however, with keeping water levels up. Leaving the rods exposed causes them to heat up faster and increases the risk of a meltdown.

How large is the area affected by radiation? Trace levels of radiation from the plant are expected to travel thousands of miles. Of course, radiation powerful enough to pose a health threat will cover a much smaller area. The Fukushima plant is about 160 miles north of Tokyo, and residents within a 12.6-mile radius have been evacuated. However, US officials have advised Americans in Japan to evacuate to at least 50 miles from the plant. British authorities are recommending that their citizens leave Tokyo and the whole of northern Japan. It's still unknown how large an area will be seriously affected.

On March 13th, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is docked at the US naval base in Yokosuka 200 miles south of the reactors, detected "low levels of radioactivity" on its decks. The ship's commander recommended the military personnel limit outdoor activities. A 17-man Naval helicopter crew flying a relief mission about 60 miles from the reactor passed through a radiation plume that exposed them to a month's worth of radiation within one hour. A US Navy spokesman told Bloomberg that low-level radiation exposure will probably become "a fact of life" for military personnel flying relief missions in the area.

Levels of radiation more than four times the legal limit have been found in milk more than 40 miles from the plant. Radiation has also contaminated local crops and tap water.

The IAEA reports that officials are working in the most affected areas to distribute iodine tablets, which are used to block the absorption of radiation.

Will the radiation reach the West Coast of United States? Yes, but experts don't think the levels will pose any danger. MoJo's Julia Whitty has a rundown of the latest modeling and key uncertainties.

How many people have been killed or injured as a result of the disaster? As of Sunday, 8,277 people are dead and more than 12,000 are missing in the aftermath of the earthquake. The precise impact of the nuclear accident is unknown, and its worst-case impacts could ultimately be longer-term health problems such as cancer. According to the New York Times, five Tokyo Electric workers "have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3." 

Hundreds of Japanese soliders and firemen have been working to cool the reactor units. On Thursday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expressed fears that many of them will suffer lethal radiation doses, despite their protective gear. On March 19th, Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) raised the radiation threshold for workers responding to the crisis from 100 to 150 millisieverts. Earlier in the week, the Japanese government had raised the legal limit to 250 millisieverts. The typical person is exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation a year. The International Commission of Radiological Protection recommends no more than 50 millisieverts of radiation a year for nuclear recovery workers. However, it offers no restriction in a crisis when "the benefit to others clearly outweighs the rescuer's risk." 

Where can I learn more about the science and health effects of radiation exposure? Here and here.

We'll be providing updates on this developing story below:

9 Bills That Would Put Creationism in the Classroom

| Wed Mar. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

State governments are grappling with massive budget deficits, overburdened social programs, and mountains of deferred spending. But never mind all that. For some conservative lawmakers, it's the perfect time to legislate the promotion of creationism in the classroom. In the first three months of 2011, nine creationism-related bills have been introduced in seven states—that's more than in any year in recent memory:


1. Texas

Legislation: HB 2454 would ban discrimination against creationists, for instance, biology professors who believe in intelligent design. Defending his bill, Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler told Mother Jones, "When was the last time we’ve seen someone go into a windstorm or a tornado or any other kind of natural disaster, and say, 'Guess what? That windstorm just created a watch'?"

Status: Referred to Higher Education Committee.


2. Kentucky

Legislation: The Kentucky Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act (HB 169) would have allowed teachers to use "other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." Kentucky already authorizes public schools to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation." The state is home to the world-renowned Creation Museum and it may soon build the Ark Encounter, the world's first creationist theme park.

Status: Died in committee. 


3. Florida

Legislation: SB 1854 would amend Florida law to require a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." In 2009, Florida state Sen. Stephen Wise, the bill's sponsor, rhetorically asked a Tampa radio host: "Why do we still have apes if we came from them?"

Status: Referred to Senate Committee on Education Pre-K-12, which Wise chairs.

MAP: The Troubling Spread of Radiation in Japan

| Tue Mar. 22, 2011 8:57 PM EDT

A map of radiation levels in Japan released by the US Department of Energy on Tuesday evening indicates that potentially dangerous levels of radioactive contamination have spread beyond the 13-mile evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The data is sure to further undermine confidence in Japan's response to the disaster. US authorities have recommended that Americans stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Here's the map, which was generated from the DOE's Aerial Monitoring System and ground sensors:

Spread of radiation for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plantSpread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

To put these numbers in context, a typical chest X-ray produces 10 mRem. US EPA guidelines require government intervention if the public is exposed to more than 1000 mRem over four days. People near Fukushima could be exposed to that amount of radiation at least every 3.3 days in the red zone and anywhere from there to every 19 days in the orange zone above. Of course, it's unclear from the chart to what degree radiation levels in the area fluctuate over time. "Measurements show an area of greater radiation extending northwest from the accident," a DOE backgrounder notes, adding with dry understatement: "This area may be of interest to public safety officials and responders."

Wed Jan. 22, 2014 8:38 PM EST
Thu Oct. 3, 2013 12:30 PM EDT
Mon Aug. 19, 2013 12:47 PM EDT
Thu Jun. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Jun. 10, 2013 3:45 PM EDT
Tue May. 21, 2013 9:56 AM EDT
Mon May. 20, 2013 11:38 AM EDT
Mon May. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sat Apr. 20, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Apr. 8, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Mon Mar. 4, 2013 10:56 AM EST
Fri Mar. 1, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Thu Feb. 28, 2013 7:31 AM EST
Tue Feb. 19, 2013 6:41 PM EST
Tue Feb. 19, 2013 7:02 AM EST
Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:36 AM EST