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Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

I’m sure that we’ve all seen the coverage of the earthquake and tsunami which has had a devastating impact on Japan, and our thoughts go out to those affected by the disaster.

When incidents like this occur there are always questions about how widespread the impact will be, and unavoidable comparisons with previous similar disasters. In this case the primary physical impact of the earthquake and tsunami is regional. There are other considerations, for example the economic and emotional impacts, which will no doubt be more widespread. The UK along with other countries has responded to a request for assistance and teams flown out to Japan to assist with tasks such as search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and victim identification.

The biggest questions presently relate to the ongoing situation around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Understandable comparisons are being made with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Current information suggests however that the situations are very different. In Chernobyl a reactor core (the part where energy is created) exploded, sending huge amounts of radiation into the air. It appears that the explosions that occurred at Fukushima were all outside of the reactor containment vessels, and current concern is centred around overheating of the reactor (1). The worst-case scenario is a predicted release of radiation far below the levels at Chernobyl, and concerted efforts are being made to reduce and ultimately remove this risk. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that the radiation effects already experienced are “of a local nature”.

Countries with citizens presently in Japan are following local advice and responding accordingly. The most recent advice from the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor remains that for those outside the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities there is currently no real human health risk from radiation that people should be concerned about. This advice is kept under constant review. However, given the overall situation in the country the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are advising against non-essential travel to Tokyo and north eastern Japan, and that British citizens currently in and immediately to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area (2). The UK Government has arranged flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong for British citizens wishing to leave the country.

Regarding the risk of a similar incident occurring within the UK, we have no nuclear reactors of the same design as those at Fukushima, and the UK is not prone to earthquakes on the scale of those experienced in Japan. As with all major emergencies lessons will be learned from this disaster internationally, and appropriate measures applied.

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