Six reasons the disaster in Chernobyl was worse than Fukushima

The nuclear accidents in Chernobyl (April 26, 1986) and Fukushima (March 11, 2011) were very different, but they were the only ones in history to reach Level 7, the highest, on the scale that measures these disasters.

These are six key facts that distinguish them and preserve the accident in Ukraine as the most dangerous in history, according to a report released this Tuesday in Vienna by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear).

1. Design

Fukushima had a primary containment that prevented the release of too many radionuclides, while at Chernobyl, the core of the reactor was directly exposed to the atmosphere.

The Soviet reactor released 85 petapecryl (PBq) of Cesium-137 and 1760 petabecquerel from Iodine-131, compared to 10 and 120 petabecquerel at Fukushima, respectively.

2. Immediate response

The Chernobyl fire had to be extinguished quickly to reduce the risk of the flame spreading to the rest of the reactors, exposing hundreds of workers to high levels of radiation. As many as 134 suffer from acute radiation syndrome and 28 have died. There are no fatalities among rescue teams in Fukushima.

3. The direction of the wind

80% of the radiation from Fukushima, located on the coast, went to the Pacific Ocean, while Chernobyl radiation was deposited, in the interior region, in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and part of northern and central Europe.

4. Food contamination

The Chernobyl accident occurred near the agricultural harvest, which led to the contamination of more food, along with fewer restrictions imposed by the Soviet Union compared to Japan.

Moreover, the permissible level of radionuclides in food was much lower in Japan than in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet population was not properly warned about which foods to avoid.

Contaminated food in the Soviet Union caused many people – children at the time of the accident – to develop thyroid cancer in the long term.

In addition, the medical equipment used in Japan, 35 years after Chernobyl, was more modern and therefore more sensitive to detect thyroid abnormalities, which facilitated immediate treatment of patients.

5. Immediate evacuation

In Fukushima, 118,000 people within a radius of up to 30 km were evacuated almost immediately, and they proceeded to distribute about one million tablets of Iodine among everyone under the age of 40 (in Chernobyl it was distributed only among evacuees and emergency personnel).

Apart from those who were evacuated immediately after the accident, there were another 220,000 people in Ukraine who were transported between 1989-1992 to other regions far from the accident.

6. Livestock contamination

Japan benefited from raising most of its livestock in pens instead of open pastures, as was the case in the Soviet Union, which prevented the transfer of higher levels of radionuclides to milk and animal meat.

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