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What, If Anything, Will the US Learn From Fukushima?

Proponents push nuclear power as “clean” energy, but the Fukushima meltdown shows why nuclear energy should be examined more closely.

(Photo Nickolay Vinokurov via Shutterstock)

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With climate change concerns on the table, proponents push nuclear power as a “clean” energy. But the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown provides one of many reasons why nuclear energy should be examined more closely.

It’s been nearly three years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, but its effects are still being felt in Japan and elsewhere in the world. Three hundred thousand Japanese refugees still live in makeshift camps, and on the other side of the Pacific, a forthcoming study quantifies the effects of “low” doses of traveling radioactive contamination on children’s health in California.

According to some experts, Japan is incapable of safely decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear plant alone. Every day, hundreds of tons of radioactively contaminated water leak out of the damaged reactors, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has suggested dumping the toxic water into the Pacific Ocean once the water has been partially decontaminated. But it has been estimated that the process of even partially decontaminating the water already stored will take at least seven years.

In a Climate Reality Check Coalition conference call in December 2013, political activist Ralph Nader and radioactive waste watchdog at Beyond Nuclear Kevin Kamps discussed the problems they’ve identified with nuclear power and the powerful forces behind the industry.

Nuclear Power: A “Clean” Alternative to Fossil Fuel?

With climate change concerns on the table, nuclear proponents are angling for a new hook. Nuclear energy is touted by the industry as “clean” energy, but that discounts the mining impact and the toxic waste byproduct.

“To this day, I’m amazed at how few activists look at nuclear energy in depth and just see it as a technology that doesn’t emit greenhouse gas, but they don’t look at the entire fuel cycle,” Nader said. He continued:

Remember that the nuclear fuel cycle starts with nuclear mining – uranium mining with radioactive-emitting tailings, which are emitting radiation as we speak around these mines. Lots of workers have been contaminated, died. And then you have the fuel rods, and then you have the transportation … Put yellowcake into form with the fuel rods, and you have the transportation of fuel rods to the nuclear reactors. And then they’re put into place in the reactors, and then you have the spent fuel rods. And then you don’t have a permanent waste disposal site for 3,000-4,000 years. But if you did, you’d have the transportation trucks and the rails to these sites. And what’s the purpose of this entire, complex operation? To boil water. To produce steam.

Nader says that with the huge potential for conservation, nuclear power is unnecessary. “Where are you going to invest your money for the biggest bang for your buck and the least externalities?”

Kevin Kamps said Amory B. Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute has shown several times that energy efficiency is more cost-effective than nuclear power at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “With limited time and limited money, energy efficiency is the lowest-hanging fruit of all. We need to do that; why aren’t we talking about that?”

If energy efficiency just reduces the price of fossil fuels, aren’t more people are going to use more of it? Kamps doesn’t think so. He refers to Arjun Makhijani’s book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy, which posits that the United States, politically willing, could phase out nuclear and fossil fuels by 2040 at its current energy consumption without any technological breakthroughs. It wouldn’t require any more money than we currently spend on dirty fossil fuels and nuclear power.

New Technology and Its Discontents

Industry proponents have claimed that new technology advances in nuclear energy have led to safer designs. In December 2013, the Department of Energy awarded a firm $226 million to develop “small modular reactors.”

Kamps said the “inherently safe” designs actually would pump radioactivity into the environment in an accident if there is a problem like a hole in the radioactive containment structures because of convection currents that are put there by design. He referenced the reactor proposed in Michigan, saying that the Fermi Hitachi reactor was “a supposedly ‘new and improved’ boiling water reactor like the ones that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi.”

While the nuclear industry in the US is promising “new and improved” nuclear technology, Germany is going the opposite direction.

The German Example

There were regional elections in Germany about two weeks after Fukushima began to unfold, and in some places where the conservative party had ruled for 58 years, the Green party won the election.

According to Kamps, this was a direct response to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. “Germany lived under the Chernobyl cloud in 1986, and there had been a very strong anti-nuclear movement in Germany for decades, and the heartbeat of that movement was protesting against radioactive waste shipments to a place called Gorleben, on the old border between East and West Germany that was targeted for the national dump site.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel had spent her first years in office trying to undo a previously established nuclear phase-out agreement that the Social Democrats and the Greens had hammered out in Germany, but then she saw the writing on the wall and joined that alliance, Kamps said.

Every major party in Germany now is anti-nuclear, Kamps said. They will phase out all nuclear plants in Germany by 2022. Germany is serious about the climate crisis, and it plans to phase out fossil fuels almost entirely by mid-century. The figures say 80 percent to 100 percent of Germany’s electricity will come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2050.

Of course, it’s a transition that takes some time, Kamps said. “There’s a similar situation in Japan, where the Fukushima catastrophe has led to the shutdown, effectively, of the entire nuclear industry in Japan, which is 50 surviving reactors – a large fraction of their electricity supply … There’s this ‘civil war,’ so to speak, in Japan between the pro-nuclear government forces and industry and civil society, which is fighting hard to transition Japan to renewable energy, for which they have tremendous potential, as we do here in the US.”

While the Fukushima catastrophe has prompted Germany to phase out its nuclear industry, the United States has not followed suit, and the American public remains largely unaware of the many drawbacks to this form of energy.

The Costs of Nuclear Energy

According to the World Nuclear Association, the United States currently has 104 nuclear reactors. Nader said they’re closing down because they’re uneconomic. He cited the case of Duke Energy’s failed plant proposals in Florida: “Nuclear power wants consumers to start paying before the designs are even approved; before the first shovel is in the dirt.”

Kamps said that nuclear power has enjoyed the lion’s share of energy subsidies for a half century in the United States, receiving hundreds of billions of dollars from federal taxpayers and local rate-payers.

Kamps said the Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957, was supposed to be on the books for only 10 years, but it’s been renewed out to 2025. The act assigns liability coverage if there is a major accident in the United States, for which only about $10 billion to 12 billion of liability would belong to the nuclear power industry and its insurance providers. “Everything else would be on the backs of federal taxpayers. We’re talking the potential of hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said.

“Nuclear power is the antithesis of any kind of market test,” Nader said. “Wall Street won’t finance any new nuclear plants without essentially a 100 percent loan guarantee, and there are about $50 billion worth of loan guarantees already authorized by Congress.”

Not only is nuclear energy argued to be economically unfeasible, it is also highly susceptible to undue health and safety risks.

Health and Safety: The Biggest Risk in the Industry Is Not Necessarily a Meltdown

Kamps said uranium mining may have the biggest health impact of any process in the uranium fuel chain and that regulations are essentially nonexistent.

Additionally, nuclear power plants are allowed by permit to release radioactivity on a regular basis, with risk potentials that grow worse as the reactors age. “One of the most shocking statements an official of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said in recent months in the Japanese press was, ‘Hey, what’s the big deal about these oceanic discharges? We would have been releasing 1 percent of this anyway on a normal day if a catastrophe hadn’t happened,’ ” Kamps said.

Kamps said the National Academy of Sciences in the United States has affirmed for decades that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how low the dose, carries a health risk for cancer.

Nader said that the school of thought that sees a certain level of radioactivity as “safe” was absurd.

Another dynamic of great concern, according to Kamps, is the attitude of the nuclear establishment that the Pacific Ocean will dilute radioactivity. “We are at the top of the food chain, so we’re going to get the most concentrated dose from seafood and a very long list of foodstuffs from Japan that are contaminated.”

Logistically, Nader said nuclear power is “unevacuable”: “There’s never been a real-life evacuation drill around any nuclear power plant since nuclear power plants started, not one.”

The Problem of Nuclear Waste

Michael Keegan from the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes was quoted as saying: “Electricity is but the fleeting byproduct from nuclear reactors. The actual product is forever deadly radioactive waste.”

Kamps says we have 70,000 metric tons of commercial radioactive waste in this country and an additional 15,000 tons of other military-related high-level radioactive waste. “We’re [more than] 50 years past the deployment of nuclear power in this country, and we still haven’t figured out what to do with the first cup-full of high-level radioactive waste.” He said it is in “interim storage,” an Orwellian notion that can mean decades or centuries.

In 1957, another subsidy was bestowed upon the industry to “dispose” of nuclear waste: “The federal government let it be known to the nuclear power industry that the industry didn’t need to worry about that; it would be taken care of for them,” Kamps said. “And that became law in 1982 in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

Kamps said that at this point, the US taxpayer is paying out $500 million per year to the nuclear industry to store the high-level radioactive waste that’s piling up at reactor sites.

“We’re looking at the NRC about the end of its public commentary period on December 20 regarding its nuclear waste confidence policy, which says they are confident waste is safe where it’s at; they’re confident that a dump will be found someday, somewhere, somehow, by someone, so therefore, just go ahead and make more … as much as you want,” he said.

However, when the facts don’t align with the official story, mechanisms are put into place to silence those that would blow the whistle on safety concerns.

The Criminalization of Reporting on Nuclear Energy Facilities

Brian Covert pointed out that around the time TEPCO began the process of decommissioning the plant, Japan passed a state secrets law, which means “leaking sensitive information concerning Fukushima could technically be considered a crime, both for the whistleblower who leaks it and for any journalist who reports it.”

Similarly, in the United States, the NRC admitted in sworn testimony in October that it had stripped whistleblower protection from the licensing of nuclear power plants, according to nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen.

Traditionally in the United States, quality assurance criteria are required as soon as an applicant submits plans for to license a site. Such criteria evaluate details of the plant’s safety and design. But Gunderson said the NRC had reinterpreted this law without informing the public that it had done so, allowing quality assurance programs to be submitted late in the licensing process. Moving the point at which a company is regarded as an “applicant” to the end of the licensing process discharges the company from being “subject to NRC rules guarding against deliberate misconduct, the bearing of materially false witness, and requirements of completeness and accuracy of information, employee whistleblower protections, oaths of affirmation, and reporting of defects and noncompliance,” Gundersen said in a statement.

NRC Senior Public Affairs Officer, Viktoria Mitlyng, responded to Gundersen’s assertion via email, saying: “Contrary to the statements from Mr. Gundersen, the NRC staff’s explanation of applicable [quality assurance] QA requirements does not represent a change in NRC’s position regarding QA. And the NRC’s QA requirements do not affect the individual job protections available to whistleblowers, protections which are already provided government-wide by the Department of Labor.”

Update: See the official transcripts of proceedings for the testimony in which Gundersen referenced the witnesses on behalf of the NRC reinterpret the law to effectively omit whistleblower protection here and here.

Watch: Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen and special guest David Lochbaum, the Director of Nuclear Safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, compare experiences about how nuclear whistleblowers are NOT protected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if they bring safety concerns forward.

Additional Resources:

Take Action: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Waste Confidence Decision – Public Comments due 12/20

Public Citizen


Beyond Nuclear

IEER resources

Arjun Makhijani’s 1999 book The Nuclear Power Deception: U.S. Nuclear Mythology from “Electricity Too Cheap to Meter” to “Inherently Safe” Reactors

Brice Smith’s 2006 book Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change

Arjun’s 2007 book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy

UCS reports

2011 UCS report by Doug Koplow of Earth Track, “Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies”

UCS’s most recent nuclear power safety reports

Rocky Mountain Institute (Amory Lovins)

“Reinventing Fire” – Electricity

Peter Bradford resources

Peter Bradford, along with Mark Cooper, both of the Vermont Law School, speak on the atomic reactors most at risk of near-term shutdown in the United States (link to audio recording of press conference).

Beyond Nuclear board member Karl Grossman’s article, posted at Enformable Nuclear News, about Peter Bradford’s October 8, 2013, presenation in New York City (along with Ralph Nader; former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who served during the first months of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe; former NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko; and nuclear engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates Inc.).

Beyond Nuclear resources

“It Does NOT Take an Accident: Routine Radioactive Releases from U.S. Nuclear Power Plants”

“Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive: The Verdict is in on Nuclear Power”

“A Mountain of Radioactive Waste 70 Years High: It’s Time to Stop Making It!”

“Uranium Mining and Human Rights: The Impact on People, Our Health, and the Environment”

“Freeze Our Fukushimas: A Campaign to Close U.S. GE Mark I and II Boiling Water Reactors”

NIRS press release

“All Levels of Radiation Confirmed to Cause Cancer,” press release dated June 30, 2005, regarding the US National Academy of Sciences Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR 7) report

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