Is Nuclear Power Safe? The Physical Dangers of Meltdown

Image Copyright of BBC

Annabel Gillings’ Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe? (2011) is a documentary that explores the aftermath of the “Core melt accident” at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The program explores several topics while looking at the Fukushima meltdown, the majority of which focus on the effects of radiation nearby the plant; specifically the physical and psychological effects of a nuclear meltdown on a human population. This motif is further promoted through the evaluation of data from the survivors of the 1986 nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. The program uses these two events in specific to explore some of the risks associated with radiation exposure and the ailments that arise from it. However, the information provided is selective and therefore gives the impression that the documentary is subversive, or at least an unreliable analysis of the dangers associated with nuclear power.

The program begins with a brief overview of the months after the “partial nuclear meltdown in one to maybe three reactors,” as the host Jim Al-Khalili explains. However, this statement from the program appears contentious, as many sources claim that the Fukushima incident was a “full meltdown” in two to three reactors (McNeill) (Tabuchi). We are then further guided through the science of what happened, which points towards a ‘medium’ to full meltdown. MIT nuclear scientist, Ron Ballinger, explains that a “full meltdown” occurs when fuel “melt[s] into the bottom of the vessel… then eventually the vessel itself, the steel, would melt, and you’d end up with a bunch of melted fuel and steel on the bottom of the concrete faceplate of the plant, in the containment vessel.” This is different from a partial meltdown that is explained as “fuel that’s been damaged and partially melted. Some of the fuel has probably been oxidized and breached and melted at the top of the core where the heat rises” (Biddle 2).

In the case of Fukushima, according to the Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO), at least reactor #2 and #3 lost containment due to melted fuel and even “discharged radioactive water into the sea” and furthermore was announced as a meltdown (Ryall). Therefore, if containment was lost in two vessels there is no doubt that the events that took place more closely resemble a “full meltdown” in at least two of the three reactors. However, regardless of the loss of containment Fukushima never completely lost an entire reactor, as in the case with Chernobyl. It is important also to note that Fukushima “released about one-tenth of the amount of radioactive material” than Chernobyl, even though both incidents still are “stage 7” nuclear accidents (Barclay 1). These facts are important to note before we talk about the further contrasting of both disasters, so we can fully comprehend Al-Khalili’s avowal.

Al-Khalili explores the physiological effects of Fukushima, stating that “to date, no one has died,” opposed to Chernobyl, where tells us a high death rate occurred during the initial reactor meltdown, but since “cancer deaths” in particular have fallen to “less than one percent.” Interestingly, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that exposure to radiation has many more long-term side effects than that of just thyroid or other fluid cancers that appear early on (Committee 1). AMA’s list is far too long to recite, but ranges from a number of mental and physical birth defects to general life span shortening and immune system dysfunction. Al-Khalili not only glosses over these topics, but asserts that no early deaths in Japan, is essentially indicative of no long-term health concerns. The BBC also reiterates this idea in an article on their website, stating that the long-term effects in Japan are “Not yet known, but risks to human health are thought to be low” (BBC 1). The AMA explains that the ill-health effects from radiation manifest in greater density about 30 years after radiation exposure, according to studies from the nuclear bombings of Japan (Committee, Figure 3). Therefore, if Chernobyl happened in 1986, we should see much more solid cancer and other diseases/birth defects as we approach 2016. However, the same AMA article does agree that there are long-term psychological effects, such as the “increase of anxietyand somatization symptoms,” the same symptoms found in posttraumatic stress sufferers.

In the end, the BBC’s program leaves out a lot of information when exploring the consequences of nuclear power and more importantly the radioactive results of a meltdown. Al-Khalili scarcely explores the physical effects of exposure to radiation, or data of the psychological effects on people. Moreover, the closest we see is reflected in the Ukrainian woman Al-Khalili takes back to her home, who is not only higher functioning, but is no longer affected by major illness (from radiation exposure). Moreover, the effects on the environment (which we are part of) is also hardly touched on in the program. What is left for the observer to ponder is far beyond the effects of radioactive dirt on the playground we are shown in Japan. We are left wondering about the effects of the radiation in the seawater and what consequences it might have on a country that loves fish and seaweed. As Al-Khalili states towards the end of the program: “If we carry on burning fossil fuels; coal oil and gas at the rate were doing — then we risk changing our planets’ climate. The effects could be devastating.” However, the question he should really be asking is: What exactly are the proven consequences of nuclear power on our climate and how will Japan — and the world be truly affected by it?


BBC. “BBC News – How does Fukushima differ from Chernobyl?.” BBC – Homepage. N.p., 16 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

Biddle, Sam. “It’s Official: Fukushima Was Hit With a Nuclear Meltdown.” Gizmodo, the Gadget Guide. N.p., 12 May 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

Barclay, Eliza. “Fukushima Vs. Chernobyl: Still Not Equal : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio. N.p., 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

Committee, Francis. “Long-term Radiation-Related Health Effects in a Unique Human Population: Lessons Learned from the Atomic Bomb Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — Douple et al. 5 (1): S122.” Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. N.p., 13 Jan. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

McNeill, David, and Jake Adelstein. “The explosive truth behind Fukushima’s meltdown.” The Independent. N.p., 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

Tabuchi, Hiroko. “Fukushima Meltdown in Japan May Have Been Worse Than Thought –” The New York Times. N.p., 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

Ryall, Julian. “Nuclear meltdown at Fukushima plant – Telegraph.” N.p., 12 May 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <>.

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Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.

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Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.