Chernobyl vs. Fukushima: Which Nuclear Meltdown Was the Bigger Disaster?

Live Science | 5/24/2019 | Staff
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The new HBO series "Chernobyl" dramatizes the accident and horrific aftermath of a nuclear meltdown that rocked the Ukraine in 1986. Twenty-five years later, another nuclear catastrophe would unfold in Japan, after the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami triggered a disastrous system failure at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Both of these accidents released radiation; their impacts were far-reaching and long-lasting.

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Only one reactor exploded at Chernobyl, while three reactors experienced meltdowns at Fukushima. Yet the accident at Chernobyl was far more dangerous, as damage to the reactor core unspooled very rapidly and violently, said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and acting director for the Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Safety Project.

Result - Fission - Products - Chernobyl - Core

"As a result, more fission products were released from the single Chernobyl core," Lyman told Live Science. "At Fukushima the cores overheated and melted but did not experience violent dispersal, so a much smaller amount of plutonium was released."

In both accidents, radioactive iodine-131 posed the most immediate threat, but with a half-life of eight days, meaning half of the radioactive material decayed within that time, its effects soon dissipated. In both meltdowns, the long-term hazards arose primarily from strontium-90 and cesium-137, radioactive isotopes with half-lives of 30 years.

Chernobyl - Fukushima - Lyman

And Chernobyl released far more cesium-137 than Fukushima did, according to Lyman.

"About 25 petabecquerels (PBq) of cesium-137 was released to the environment from the three damaged Fukushima reactors, compared to an estimate of 85 PBq for Chernobyl," he said (PBq is a unit for measuring radioactivity that shows the decay of nuclei per second).

Chernobyl - Inferno - Plume - Radioactivity - Radioactivity

What's more, Chernobyl's raging inferno created a towering plume of radioactivity that dispersed more widely than the radioactivity released by Fukushima, Lyman added.

At Chernobyl, two plant workers were...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Live Science
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