Impact of Fukushima disaster still hard to determine

One of the largest natural disasters of our time created a dangerous nuclear situation, but three years later scientists and scholars are still debating the effects and consequences from the event.

Dr. Kathryn Higley, professor of nuclear engineering and radiation physics at Oregon State University visited Linfield to explain the scientific facts behind the disaster and address some of the mysteries surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant damage. The lecture, originally scheduled for Murdock 105, was moved to Graf 101 where seating was still difficult to find.

“It’s a societal question,” Higley said of the topic of her lecture. “What is an acceptable level of risk?”

In 2011 an 8.9 magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. While the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was designed to withstand earthquakes up to an 8.2 magnitude, this huge natural disaster was too much for portions of the structure to withstand.

Much of the over 290,000 person population of Fukushima was evacuated after radioactive Cesium-137 and Cesium-134 was released into the atmosphere. Exposure to these chemicals can increase the chance for cancer, though data about these human reactions is limited.

Most of our knowledge about human reactions to nuclear power comes from the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 who were exposed to the atomic bombings of World War II. People are, however, exposed to radioactive materials almost constantly. Which chemicals depend on where you live, but because these chemicals naturally occur in such low doses there is no effective way of measuring their effect on the body.

Less than 10 millisieverts of a radioactive material cannot be measured on the human body. The people of Fukushima are currently being allowed to return to their homes in areas with less than 10 mSv of these radioactive materials. The decision is made after vegetation and soil in the area is tested for Cesium-137 and -134.

Higley addressed reports that some starfish and polar bear species were going extinct as a possible result of the Fukushima disaster. But she said these reports could not be proven scientifically.

“Humans are more complex organisms than these species,” Higley said. “Therefore, we are more susceptible to negative side effects of these radioactive chemicals. If these species were dying than we would most definitely be dying as well, which is not the case.”

The earthquake did, however, have many negative effects for the people of Japan.

In total there were 15,884 deaths, 747,989 buildings partially destroyed and there are still 2,633 people missing today.

People were displaced from their homes; about 160,000 people still are displaced as testing in some areas of Fukushima, especially near the Daiichi plant, is ongoing.

Dairy and produce production in Japan was also affected as international buyers were reluctant to purchase products exposed to radioactive materials.

“Managing this thing is going to take a decade,” Higley said. “This was an enormous tragedy. We’re learning about reactor design, emergency preparedness, radiological impact, and trying to apply those lessons here and elsewhere in the world to make sure that we can do a better job in responding if a natural disaster of this magnitude ever occurs again.”

This lecture was hosted by the Science Colloquium program in conjuncture with the PLACE program.

Olivia Marovich

News editor

Olivia       Marovich can          be            reached   at