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Learning From a Nuclear Disaster

Professor’s visit to Fukushima informs strategies for averting future disasters

The way Paul Locke sees it, there’s only one good thing that can come of the March 11, 2011, reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant—lessons on how to avoid a repeat scenario.

To that end, the Environmental Health Sciences associate professor traveled to Japan late last year as part of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee to conduct an in-depth study of the nuclear disaster. The group is preparing a “lessons learned” report—tentatively scheduled for release in April 2014—aimed at improving nuclear power plant safety in the U.S.

As part of their fact-finding trip, committee members suited up in protective gear outfitted with radiation monitoring devices to tour the earthquake- and tsunami-damaged plant on Japan’s north coast.  

Locke, DrPH, MPH, JD, a radiation risk expert, describe the damage as striking: “It looks like someone grabbed the top of these large oil storage tanks and just twisted,” he says. “You just do not have an appreciation for the power of the earthquake until you see that.”

The NAS committee met with nuclear industry executives, government officials and scientists to discuss findings from Japanese investigations into the nuclear accident, which forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people.

“I think the main thing we can do as people in public health is to make sure that the learning process doesn’t stop when there’s an unfortunate disaster,” Locke says.