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People wait to be scanned for radiation Japanese citizens living near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant line up to be checked for radiation. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Japan's Nuclear Disaster

Officials are evacuating areas around nuclear power plants that were damaged by last week's deadly earthquake in Japan

By Sara Goudarzi | March 19 , 2011
<p>TOP: A child takes a potassium iodide pill to help protect her from the effects of being exposed to radiation. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)</p><p>BOTTOM: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that people within 50 miles of the damaged Fukushima power plant evacuate to stay safe. (Jim McMahon)</p>

TOP: A child takes a potassium iodide pill to help protect her from the effects of being exposed to radiation. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

BOTTOM: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that people within 50 miles of the damaged Fukushima power plant evacuate to stay safe. (Jim McMahon)

Last Friday, the deadly earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan damaged two nuclear power stations. Officials say they were able to safely shut down the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant. They are now working to prevent dangerous radiation (high-energy rays) from poisoning the air in the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The Japanese government has ordered people living within 12 and a half miles of the plant to evacuate, or leave, and asked those living 12 and a half to 20 miles away to stay indoors. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is recommending that no one be within 50 miles of the plant.

Officials are also checking people for radiation exposure by scanning them with a device called a Geiger counter. They are trying to measure how far the radiation has spread and determine which people have been affected so they can get them medical attention.

NUCLEAR POWER

Nuclear power plants create energy using a chemical reaction that produces large amounts of heat. Reactors in Japan have many long, thin rods, called fuel rods, that must be kept cool.

If the reactor’s fuel rods aren’t cooled, the reaction can burn out of control. That’s what happened at the two Japanese plants after the quake and tsunami caused a power failure and the cooling systems malfunctioned. This overheating could cause radiation to escape and sicken many people.

Nuclear power is an alternative to using fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity. It creates massive amounts of energy using just a small amount of the element uranium. Japan gets almost 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are built to withstand the many small or moderate earthquakes the country faces each year. But Friday’s earthquake was one of the most severe earthquakes ever recorded, and the power stations were damaged despite their safeguards.

HEALTH RISKS

People exposed to unsafe levels of radiation have a higher than normal risk of getting cancer. The Japanese government has been distributing potassium iodide pills to people in the surrounding areas to protect those who may have come in contact with radiation from the power plant.

The pills flood the body with healthy potassium iodide. The potassium iodide works to crowd out "bad" iodine in the body that may have been poisoned by radiation.

HEROIC 50

On Tuesday morning, 750 workers were evacuated from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. However, 50 workers—called the Fukushima 50—stayed behind to use seawater to cool the fuel rods. These dedicated employees are risking their own lives to save many others.

On Thursday, officials used helicopters, fire trucks, and water cannons to spray water on the reactors to cool the fuel rods. But it’s not clear whether these efforts were successful. Officials are now working on a power line to restore electricity to the plant. They hope this will help restart the plant’s cooling system and stop the fuel rods from leaking radiation.

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