Another somber anniversary: Fukushima – the disaster that seems to have no end

Guest Blog | March 11, 2014 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Today, March 11, marks the third anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan killing thousands of people and displacing tens of thousands more. This also initiated the devastating and still-ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Large releases and spills of radioactive water continue to occur and tens of thousands of people remain evacuated, many never to return home due to long-lasting radioactive contamination.

In January, we reported on the new state secrets law that passed in Japan, penalizing journalists for critical reporting of the disaster. Later in the month, we discussed the impact the disaster is having on elections, as well as the global impacts. Major leaks had just occurred before those blog posts and then, just a few weeks later, a 100-ton leak of highly contaminated water occurred – described as the worst in the last six months. The water contained high levels of strontium-90, a long-lasting, dangerous radionuclide that has a half-life of nearly 30 years. While many potential solutions have been proposed, each has its own set of challenges. To make matters worse, water contamination isn’t the only problem, as land needed for interim storage of contaminated soil is being sought, and disposing of disposable radioactive suits are even posing a problem. The utility, TEPCO, is accused of continuing to withhold and cover up critical information.

Despite the ongoing crises at the Fukushima site, some interests in Japan want a nuclear revival and are pushing to ignore public sentiment and restart the 48 still-idled nuclear reactors before another summer passes. There is still a lot of finger pointing regarding who is to blame for the accident, with TEPCO, the government and independent investigators all disagreeing on the cause of the accident and even the timing of the tsunami. With prosecutors dropping the case they brought against the utility three years ago, it appears that no formal charges will be sought, a reality that aroused protests in Tokyo earlier this month.

Even in the face of this unfolding nuclear disaster in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, the “nuclear renaissance” here in the U.S. continues to limp along. The Department of Energy (DOE), Southern Company and Oglethorpe Power recently finalized $6.5 billion in taxpayer-financed loan guarantees for the two new Vogtle reactors near Waynesboro, Georgia. SACE continues our pursuit of transparency for this dirty deal, filing our tenth Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the DOE to unearth the significant risks this places on taxpayers.

In Florida, the uprate project at FPL’s St. Lucie Unit 2 nuclear reactor, often touted by the utility as a success story for the state’s controversial nuclear tax, is now being called into question. There are clear indications that the reactor’s replacement steam generators are experiencing similar wear and degradation of tubes as was seen in the now-shutdown San Onofre reactors in California. Because of potentially serious safety concerns, SACE has called for an open and transparent investigation of St. Lucie Unit 2 during the scheduled refueling outage that started last week, urging the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to hold a public meeting and delay restart until a full investigation can be conducted. SACE filed a formal request with the NRC yesterday, supported by an expert declaration from nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen. As the far-from-stable situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility continues to demonstrate, nuclear power can be an incredibly unforgiving technology. With over one million people living within fifty miles of St. Lucie, safety must come first.

The lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima disaster have apparently not been absorbed here in the United States or in Japan or in other parts of the world that continue to view nuclear power as a viable technology when cheaper, more affordable and safer energy choices exist that can also reduce carbon emissions. Another nuclear power accident can be avoided and must be — we don’t need any more somber anniversaries brought to communities courtesy of the nuclear industry and its proponents, and weak regulators.

In closing, we would like to share thoughts from U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey, a leading Congressional voice on nuclear safety and member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who released the following statement today decrying the lack of progress on key improvement to America’s nuclear fleet three years after Japan’s nuclear disaster:

“America’s nuclear reactors are no more protected than they were three years ago when Japan experienced the worst nuclear disaster in history. Since the catastrophic meltdowns at Fukushima, reactors in the United States have yet to be required to implement a single new safety measure. While the NRC’s technical expert report called for swift mandatory adoption of all of its recommendations, the Commission voted to extend implementation deadlines, add cost-benefit analysis barriers to moving forward and delay consideration of some of the recommendations altogether. Three years later, it is past time to immediately act to implement all of the NRC technical staffs’ recommendations and ensure Americans, especially those living near nuclear reactors, are safe.”

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–SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices program director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.

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