When the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake — the largest ever recorded — struck on March 11, 2011, off the eastern coast of Japan, the tremor itself didn’t result in a significant amount of damage. Unfortunately, the earthquake also caused a massive tsunami (estimates put its height as high as 100 feet in some areas) that swept ashore and traveled inland as far as six miles, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and immense destruction.
The televised and online videos of the disaster and the suffering its aftermath caused resulted in an outpouring of relief efforts from around the world. Besides a token T-shirt sale, all of the MotoGP teams and riders adopted a logo that states “With You Japan” as a show of solidarity with the country that obviously plays a pivotal role in modern motorcycling (and motorcycle racing).
Part of the tsunami’s aftermath, however, also resulted in a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant located on the coast near the town of Okuma — some 120km (75 miles) from the Twin Ring Motegi circuit, where the Japanese MotoGP event is to be held. The tsunami was so huge that it overran the protective 19-foot seawall and set in motion a series of problems that eventually triggered the release of radioactivity into the plant’s surrounding area, forcing the Japanese government to ultimately assess the situation as an INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) Level 7 accident, the maximum scale value (the only other Level 7 nuclear accident in history was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster).
Unfortunately, here is where the mainstream news media blew everything completely out of proportion in their haste to create hysteria so that they could milk the disaster for all it was worth. That hysteria resulted in a good portion of the MotoGP racers, teams, and assorted other personnel threatening to boycott the MotoGP race scheduled to be held at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit out of radiation poisoning fears. (Editors note: This was written before the Motegi GP, and was published in the Dec issue of Sport Rider Magazine. The majority of the MotoGP paddock eventually did attend the race, although there were still many who did not out of radiation fears.)
Here are the facts: the radiation contamination at Fukushima was caused by radioactive steam that had to be released due to excessive pressure buildup inside the reactor vessel that contains the fission material fuel rods. Because the huge tsunami disabled the auxiliary generators that are needed to power the reactor’s coolant pumps (even though the reactors automatically shut down from the earthquake, the fuel rods still have residual heat that needs to be absorbed), the fuel rods overheated and began to boil off the coolant water into steam. The steam reacted with the exposed zircalloy shell of the exposed fuel rods and created hydrogen, which built up to excessive enough levels that it resulted in the explosions that were seen in various news videos (note: the explosions damaged the containment buildings, not the reinforced pressure vessels containing the fuel rods). The emergency measures to inject coolant water have also resulted in problems with storing the water contaminated with radioactivity from exposure to the partially melted fuel rods.
However, there was no massive release of fission material into the environment, unlike Chernobyl, where the reactors actually exploded due to major design flaws (including the fact that the reactor was not encased inside a reinforced vessel of any kind), releasing a very significant amount of radioactive material into the environment. The levels of radiation during the Chernobyl disaster were more than 300 times greater than the highest recorded level during the Fukushima crisis.
To try and allay the radiation fears, Dorna commissioned Arpa Emilia-Romagna (an independent Italian environmental monitoring agency) to precisely measure radiation levels in and around the area of the Motegi circuit. But despite the published results showing radiation levels so low — there has not been any significant release of radiation since the fuel rod cooling situation was stabilized a few weeks after the accident — that there is more exposure in many European cities or on any overseas flight, the paranoia still persists. Much of this is due to the mistrust fostered by the missteps of both TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, owners of the Fukushima plant) and the Japanese government in handling the initial crisis. Yet there are so many other independent agencies monitoring the situation (International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, U.S. Dept. of Energy, International Aviation and Maritime Organizations, etc.), all it takes is a little internet research to find numerous scientific reports backing up the Arpa study.
There is no denying that the Fukushima disaster will have long-lasting aftereffects for the area in and around the power plant, as well as Japan itself. But unfortunately it appears that rumors and paranoia trump actual knowledge gained by doing a little research. Hard to believe in this age of instant information. SR