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Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown forces U.S. to rethink its disaster preparation

Originally posted by the Daily Bruin
By Suzy Strutner

Following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan, the Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown, releasing dangerous amounts of radiation into surrounding Japanese towns.

MacDonald, a director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the Japanese government has categorized the incident in the same sector as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Researchers and professors from an array of UCLA departments assessed the intensity of the disaster during Monday’s discussion.

Japanese officials have urged residents living within 18 miles of the reactor to evacuate, and recently-installed robots have confirmed that radioactivity is probably still leaking from one reactor, MacDonald said.

Though the radioactive contamination has not yet caused sicknesses or deaths, many Japanese citizens will eventually die from radiation-related illnesses, said Albert Carnesale, UCLA chancellor emeritus and a professor of public policy and of aerospace engineering.

Fear erupting from the crisis will impede production of nuclear power in the United States, Carnesale said. Japan’s meltdown, he added, serves as a warning for American power plants.

“We need to plan for unlikely events and come up with realistic responses to accidents,” Carnesale said. “People need evacuation plans that they can actually follow.”

Because California is not located near a subduction plate, the state’s supposedly imminent “big quake” won’t involve a magnitude as big as Japan’s. Yet the potential event still merits preparation with regard to nuclear power, said Jon Stewart, vice chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

Japan experienced an unusual series of smaller quakes prior to its 9.0 shake on March 11, Stewart said. He spoke about the importance of recognizing similarly strange patterns in California and consistently updating reactors in response to developments in nuclear science.

Japan’s recent incident has brought some viable concerns to light, said Sean Hecht, executive director of UCLA’s Environmental Law Center.

Experts have taken a closer look at the expenses of nuclear power production and the risks involved with placing plants in such proximity to metropolitan areas as San Onofre, Carnesale said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently increasing regulations for American nuclear plants, likely in an effort to reassure the public that reactors are secure, Hecht added.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not analyzed the effects of a terrorist attack on nuclear plants, deeming the event “not reasonably foreseeable.” Japan’s crisis has prompted some groups to lobby for a change in this policy as well, Hecht said.

“Fukushima is a warning to use vigilance,” Carnesale told the audience. “Though it’s rare, nuclear power can cause some pretty bad things to happen.”