April 14: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | April 14, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

After over a month downplaying the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, officials finally upgraded the disaster to a level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Previously, the ranking was 5, meaning “accident with wider consequences.” Before now, Chernobyl was the only accident rated 7, which is the highest on the scale and indicates a “major accident.” Also this week, the evacuation zone was increased beyond the original 20-kilometer zone. Now all those within the 20-30 km zone are being asked to stay indoors and to prepare to leave within a month.

Radioactive contamination is being found in more areas. Highly radioactive fish have been caught off the coast of the Ibaraki prefecture, outside of the 20-km evacuation zone. Low levels of strontium have also been detected in plants and soil outside of the 30-km zone around the plant. Despite the low levels, this is a cause for concern as there is no set ‘safe’ limit for exposure to strontium, which can cause bone cancer and leukemia.

Unfortunately, Japan will be dealing with repercussions from both the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster for years to come. Current speculations claim that it will take at least 5 years just to deal with the 60,000 tons of radioactive water that has flooded the basements of the reactor buildings; these speculations do not even take into consideration the new radioactive waste being created as the struggle to get the nuclear complex under control continue.

And the reality is that it will take years to fully understand the far-reaching impacts of this situation. We continue to hold the people of Japan in our thoughts and prayers as they struggle through this complex, seemingly never-ending tragedy.

Some additional resources to consider:

  • Videos released this week show the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex being inundated by the tsunami and footage of a Geiger counter tour within the evacuation zone;
  • An International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale fact sheet details the types of nuclear events and how they are classified by severity, as well as a historical overview of past events;
  • A summary of past significant nuclear events as analyzed by Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council;
  • Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) has short, frequently updated summaries of the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex;
  • “Chernobyl: A Million Casualties” is a 30-minute program produced by EnviroVideo that will be broadcast on Saturday, April 16, at 6:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 9:00 p.m., EDT, on Free Speech TV in 39 states and on the DISH Network (Channel 9415) and DIRECT TV (Channel 348).  The program is also available on YouTube and at envirovideo.blip.tv;
  • The Emergency Petition for the NRC filed today by 45 groups across the U.S. calls on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend all reactor licensing until lessons can be learned from the Fukushima disaster, a thorough analysis can be done of U.S. safety systems and new rules and guidelines can be established based on that analysis. See the press release and read about it in today’s article from the International Business Times.

In the United States, the public is concerned about radiation that has been detected in multiple U.S. cities. Cesium-137, for instance, has been found in milk supplies in Montpelier, Vermont. Phoenix and Los Angeles milk supplies are registering levels of iodine-131 at the legal maximum limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rainwater and drinking water in multiple cities are registering higher than normal, but mostly below regulated ‘safe’ levels for both contaminants, which are proven to increase the risk of cancer.

While radioactivity from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex continues to be measured here in the U.S., the EPA continues to debate whether it should increase the ‘allowable limits’ of various radioactive contaminants. According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “The internal documents show that under the updated PAG [Protective Action Guides] a single glass of water could give a lifetime’s permissible exposure. In addition, it would allow long-term cleanup limits thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted. These new limits would cause a cancer in as much as every fourth person exposed.” This debate has been underway for a long time. You can find more background information from NIRS here.

Another primary concern in the U.S. relates to evacuation zones. Turkey Point in south Florida and Indian Point near New York City are particularly vulnerable considering the high population densities of Miami-Dade county and New York City. U.S. officials have recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone around Fukushima, but still maintain a standard of 10 miles around U.S. nuclear reactors.

The integrity of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as a regulatory body is also being called into question, with rumors of “regulatory capture” and comparisons to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the regulatory body that oversees offshore drilling permits. MMS came under scrutiny during the Gulf Horizon oil disaster. Accusations charge that the NRC has at times put industry profit and interest before safety by allowing spent fuel pools to exceed design limits, and that the agency cannot stay objective when 90 percent of its budget comes from industry fees.

As the Japanese nuclear disaster ensues, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” here in the U.S. continues to falter. The NRC has denied Unistar’s combined operating license application to build and operate a third reactor at their Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland, stating that the corporation is not compliant with laws that prohibit nuclear projects that are dominated by foreign interests. American-owned Constellation Energy pulled out of the project late last year, leaving the majority French government-owned Electricite de France as the primary investor.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has extended the timeline on its decision to complete the two reactors at Bellefonte, a troubled project that was abandoned in 1985 after billions of dollars had already been spent. Bellefonte was an agenda item for TVA’s board meeting this week, with the notation “Extension of Decision and Budget.” However, as reported in the Chattanoogan, in light of the Japan nuclear disaster, TVA’s COO Bill McCollum said at today’s TVA board meeting that a decision on the Bellefonte project would occur, “after TVA has a clear understanding of the Japanese nuclear situation and any potential impact on the project.” Read the SACE blog posting about the numerous safety concerns regarding Bellefonte.

And in North Carolina, the utility push to get even worse state legislation passed to make it easier to charge electric customers in advance in order to fund new reactor proposals (referred to as “SuperCWIP”) was dealt a setback. According to the Charlotte Business Journal:

“The public advocate for North Carolina utilities customers has reversed position and will oppose any proposal to make it easier for utilities to recover some costs for nuclear plant construction before plants are built. Robert Gruber, executive director of the Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission, says the nuclear crisis in Japan may drive construction costs for new nuclear plants in the United States prohibitively high. He says the only prudent course is to put off any legislation until federal regulators establish new safety rules based on lessons learned at the four crippled Fukushima reactors in northern Japan. After that, the impact on plant costs can be evaluated.

It seems clear to many that the time is now for regulators, policymakers, utilities and the nuclear industry to take a step back and pause in order to fully understand how the events unfolding in Japan could have implications for nuclear power here in the U.S. This careful consideration will benefit ratepayers, U.S. taxpayers and the communities near existing and proposed new reactors. The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never been more appropriate. Caution should predominate before billions more dollars are spent and lives are at risk.

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