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A new solution -- and a clear one -- is needed for nuclear plants

Japan's crisis has Canadians wondering how prepared we are for trouble closer to home.

Flickr photo of Darlington nuclear power plant by Ilker Ender.

For many Vancouver residents, the discovery of elevated amounts of the radioactive element iodine 131 in their rain water and coastal seaweed has been an eye-opener.

Initial concerns focused on the potential global risks posed by the unstable state of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant hit hard in March after an earthquake and tsunami rattled Japan.

Simon Fraser University nuclear scientist Kris Starosta has ruled that the resulting elevated levels of iodine 131 here pose no threat to people. 

But their presence in our water does raise another question: our ability to deal with possible future nuclear disasters, both around the world and closer to home.

The idea of global nuclear devastation frightens many who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, when full-on nuclear war was discussed daily over coffee.

Several elements of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis have again highlighted the dangers of nuclear-plant meltdowns and the scope of their effects.

In the area around the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, plutonium has already been detected in the soil. Highly radioactive water has been found in local tunnels surrounding the reactors, and thousands of people have been evacuated from the area. Farmers in the area are especially devastated, as they are no longer able to market their crops due to contamination. 

Reports from Ireland suggest that radioactive elements have already reached as far west as Europe, and jet streams continue to push radioactive elements as far east as California.

And while the future of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor is still unclear, scientists in Vancouver have confirmed that radioactive rain may continue to fall for three to four weeks after the Fukushima nuclear reactor stops releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Aside from the physical dangers, even the costs of repairs and the period of time required to clean up the reactor and surrounding area remain unknown.

With so much danger and uncertainty surrounding Japan's crisis, many Canadians are questioning the durability of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. Living in an earthquake-prone zone has many West Coasters wondering whether nuclear reactors are worth the risk.

The San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Diego County is currently a major source of electricity for the state of California, but it also happens to sit in prime earthquake country. Its status has recently been questioned in the wake of the Japanese quake, and has left many people skeptical about North America’s nuclear future. 

Many governments around the world have chosen to put a stop to the building of nuclear power plants after having witnessed the post-Daiichi panic.  

Finally, the failure of the Japanese government to provide the public with accurate information on the levels of radioactivity has added to the scope of the crisis, and has prompted general public distrust in the government and its abilities to deal with a nuclear crisis.  

University of B.C. politics professor Kuniaki Nemoto, who has family in Sendai, one of the quake-damaged cities in northern Japan, said:

“While I understand that the Japanese government doesn’t want to confuse people, it must realize that people have the right to know important information in these emergency situations ... The government tries to calm down people, but by giving a vague statement like, 'You can drink water but you shouldn’t keep drinking it,' it makes people all the more nervous."

As the story of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant continues to develop, researchers from Simon Fraser University say they'll continue to keep a close eye on the levels of radioactivity around the province.

In the meantime, Vancouverites are free to complain about the rain, but should be reminded that rain is only a small part of a much greater problem that has yet to be resolved.

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