On 11 March 2011 – as I was preparing to enter graduate school – a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunami caused a full meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant located on the island of Honshu, on the east coast of Japan. Within days the Vienna-based international organisation tasked with verifying the proposed moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing – the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization – issued a series of six technical briefings to its then 182 member states that detailed the nature and extent of the plant’s radioactive emissions. Interestingly, this was despite the detection of radionuclide releases from civilian nuclear reactors being outside its terms of reference. The CTBTO’s mandate was, after all, exclusively nuclear weapons related. At the time, the CTBTO’s ‘international monitoring system’ had around thirty-five active radionuclide stations that were able to detect radioactive particles and noble gases at levels a billion times lower than those that are harmful to humans. Working in tandem with the radionuclide stations was the CTBTO’s network of seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound sensors. The verification regime is designed such that any significant event on the planet – not to mention the troika of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, as occurred at Fukushima – would be detected in one or more constituent parts of earth’s biosphere, in real time.
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