Deadly Fukushima Crisis Further Corrodes Viability of Nuclear Energy

At the three-year anniversary of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant reactor meltdowns, the disaster’s consequences continue to unfold. One should be a global switch from nuclear power to renewable energy sources.

The mainstream media moved on some time ago from Fukushima – and left most of us in the dark about this worsening nuclear tragedy, as if there were nothing more to mourn and no lessons to learn.

Three years ago – on March 11, 2011 – the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated northeast Japan, killing and injuring more than 20,000 people and crippling the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant. Three of the plant’s six reactors suffered hazardous core meltdowns and hydrogen gas explosions, releasing radionuclides into the air, soil and Pacific Ocean. More than 300,000 people eventually were evacuated from the region and remain today “nuclear refugees,” living with the same trauma, fear, sense of displacement and loss of livelihood and social roots as war refugees. A few thousand residents who have been allowed to return to their town Odaka find themselves alive in a dying region: “People don’t believe it is safe to visit here. They won’t believe our produce, our livestock, our fish are safe,” reported one rueful resident.

So difficult has been their fate that, by late 2013, 1,600 nuclear refugees had died of insufficient medical services, the exhaustion of relocating, suicide and, likely, heartbreak. More than 35 percent of some 38,000 Fukushima children examined have cysts or nodules on their thyroids, as compared with 1 percent of a control group of Japanese children. In a callous move to keep schools open in Fukushima, the Japanese government raised the “permissible” level of radiation for children. Japanese children now can be exposed to 20 times more radiation than was previously allowed, a level comparable to the yearly limit for German workers.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive water from the site have emptied and continue to leak via groundwater into the Pacific Ocean at the rate of 400 tons per day. Radioactive cesium, a carcinogen that bioaccumulates in animal, fish and human tissue, has been found throughout mainland Japan, in fish off the coast of Fukushima (thus closing that industry) and in large migratory fish such as Bluefin tuna off the coast of California. A plume of radioactive water from Fukushima is expected to reach the West Coast of the United States in early 2014. Tragically, there is no solution in sight to trapping and treating the cesium-, tritium- and strontium-contaminated groundwater before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. “The situation at the reactor site is progressively deteriorating, not stabilizing,” stated an international group of experts in their urgent appeal for international action to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In the wake of this $250 billion disaster, Japan closed all of its 54 nuclear power plants. An extraordinary (and embattled) act in a country that is dependent on nuclear energy for one-third of its electricity and is planning to achieve 50 percent nuclear-powered electricity by 2030. Japan had lulled its citizens into complacency with nuclear safety myths. Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the Fukushima meltdown, has since rejected nuclear power, saying ‘”there is no [other industrial] accident or disaster that would affect 50 million people”‘ like a nuclear accident. An unprecedented anti-nuclear citizen movement ignited in Japan after Fukushima and has persisted, with a strong majority of the population opposing nuclear power in the face of the current conservative and militaristic government’s determination to restart the offline nuclear power plants.

Radioactive waste is the nuclear industry’s nightmare, most currently so in Fukushima Dai’ichi, where intensely radioactive spent fuel rods lie in a warped and sinking structure and at risk of a catastrophic fire if another (and potentially likely) earthquake strikes the region. For this reason, the US State Department advised Americans soon after March 11 to evacuate to at least 50 miles from the plant.

TEPCO, the plant operator responsible for the cleanup of Fukushima nuclear power plants, has bankrupted the trust of Japanese citizens and the world. 

An independent, commissioned Japanese investigation determined that the nuclear disaster was “man-made,” in that collusion between the nuclear industry and government agencies responsible for regulating nuclear safety resulted in lapses in basic safety requirements. TEPCO ignored – at the people’s peril – the forecasts of an earthquake of this magnitude. It did not warn people immediately of the direction of the plumes of radioactivity – causing some to evacuate directly into its pathway – and it lacked adequate evacuation plans. Further, a Stanford University study found that “Japanese plants were relatively unprotected” against floods and tsunamis when compared with plants in other countries. And, yet, whether for technological hubris or for political face-saving or both, neither the company nor the Japanese government has sought or welcomed international engineering assistance in their technologically challenged project to remove and rehouse 1,533 spent fuel rods from a severely damaged cooling pond structure in reactor 4. The earthquake-compromised rods embody the radiation equivalent of 14,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

Fukushima is a mirror to the world of nuclear nightmare: core meltdowns still not understood or under control; precariously perched fuel rods threatening catastrophe throughout Japan and beyond; hundreds of thousands of nuclear refugees and desperate nuclear workers living in anomie; ongoing radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean; and collusive government and industry locked in an entitled estate of denial and secrecy against the will of the country’s citizens.

Promoting nuclear power as a “low-carbon” alternative to fossil fuels – as some prominent climate change scientists are doing – is a myopic bargain with the devil. New generations of safer nuclear power plants that purportedly would reduce the risk of ruinous Fukushima-like accidents are decades away from market readiness, too late for stemming the climate change juggernaut. Much more far-sighted is the charismatic former prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, an erstwhile nuclear power promoter. Since Fukushima, he calls for abandoning nuclear power, given its mammoth costs and Japan’s seismically active coast, and for his country to unite in creating a renewable society unparalleled in the world. Such a social movement, he foresees, would lift the country’s public spirit and recharge its economy. 

Scrapping nuclear power has palpably sped the transition to efficiency and renewable energy. In 2012, Fukushima prefecture signed an agreement to build the country’s largest solar park, and in 2013 Fukushima announced plans to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm – both part of the prefecture’s plan to generate 100 percent of its electricity using renewable sources by 2040. Countries in Europe with the most ambitious solar and wind goals are phasing out nuclear power (Germany) or have adopted a no-nuclear power policy (Denmark and Portugal). 

As for the United States, we have enough resource capacity to power the United States with solar and wind. Wind energy in the Great Plains and solar energy in the Southwest could meet current electrical energy needs more than a dozen times over, and this estimate does not include the capacity of offshore wind. Critically acclaimed studies, among them one conducted by researchers Jacobson of Stanford and Delucchi of the University of California-Davis, have laid out a roadmap for energy policy in the next two to four decades, using solely a mix of energy efficiency, wind, water and solar technologies.

In July 2012, an under-the-radar research laboratory within the US Department of Energy (DOE) – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) – released an initial investigatory report on the potential for renewable energy. The report is, in DOE’s words, “the most comprehensive analysis of high-penetration renewable electricity of the continental United States to date.” The major finding of the Renewable Electricity Futures Study supports a nuclear-free, zero-carbon renewable energy future:

Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.

The age of renewables will arrive when fossil fuels and nuclear power decline irreversibly, predicted German economist and renewable energy pioneer Hermann Scheer, stimulating renewables to increase irreversibly. The path to this age of renewables is political will forged by the will of the people – a struggle reinforced by Fukushima that ensues today in Japan and worldwide.