April 22: 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 22, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Six weeks have passed since Japan was struck by the massive quake and simultaneous tsunami that initiated the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the situation is still not under control. Tokyo Electric Power Company has estimated that it will take nine months to completely seal off the radiation coming from the damaged reactors. Most of the work required to do that cannot even begin for three months until radiation levels decrease enough for workers to enter critical areas.  The Japanese government has already questionably doubled the allowable radiation limits for workers since the crisis began. A “nuclear safety committee” comprised of nuclear engineers and academics has concluded that fuel has melted and is pooling in the bottom of reactor Units 1, 2, and 3, and that levels of radioactive cesium and iodine are increasing in groundwater and sea water near the plant. TEPCO is still struggling to deal with tens of thousands of tons of highly radioactive water as aftershocks from the quake continue to shake the damaged reactors. With temperatures once again increasing in reactor Unit 3, which contains some plutonium-based reactor fuel, or MOX, there is continued concern that additional explosions may occur.

In all, it could take anywhere from ten to thirty years to dismantle and decommission the damaged reactors. Predictions are difficult as this severe and complicated accident involved multiple reactors and spent fuel pools and the consequent cleanup efforts will be unprecedented. Contamination still remains within a 12-mile “exclusion” zone around the site of the 1986 Chernobyl accident – the only other nuclear accident classified as Level 7 – and that reactor is entombed in concrete and lead. The company that entombed Chernobyl recommends doing the same at Fukushima, but speculates that the logistics would likely be much more difficult. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania only involved one reactor, yet it took over 11 years to clean up, without any spent fuel rods to deal with. You can find a more detailed analysis of what the cleanup at Fukushima could require based on what it took to cleanup Three Mile Island here.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service on the effects of radiation on the marine environment suggested impacts to other areas of the world, including the U.S., could continue years from now: “Based on computer modeling of ocean currents, debris from the tsunami produced by the Tohoku earthquake is projected to spread eastward from Japan in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. In three years, the debris plume likely will reach the U.S. West Coast, dumping debris on California beaches and the beaches of British Columbia, Alaska, and Baja California. Although much of the radioactive release from Fukushima Daiichi is believed to have occurred after the tsunami, there is the possibility that some of the tsunami debris might also be contaminated with radiation.”

As of midnight Thursday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the Japanese government will begin to enforce stricter control over the 12-mile evacuation zone. “Anyone found entering the area without permission could be fined up to 100,000 yen ($1,220) or detained for a maximum of 30 days. Previously, police had been unable to enforce the evacuation order for the zone, which was once home to about 80,000 people.” According to the AP, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano stated on Wednesday that, “Aside from the question of whether the accident could have been predicted, there was not sufficient preparation based on an anticipation, and there is no mistake about that. We urge all nuclear operators to immediately take any possible precaution based on the lesson from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and not wait until details of the accident are examined.”  This sentiment was echoed by the United Nations General Secretary, who called for a “global rethink” of nuclear power.

In addition to obvious safety concerns, the economic impacts are multifaceted and far-reaching. TEPCO will begin compensating evacuees, and the government is forgiving property taxes for thousands of evacuees as well. According to the Daily Yomiuri, “Under the law, the government will shoulder up to 240 billion yen [$2.9 billion US] for the Fukushima accident. If the total amount exceeds that figure, TEPCO is in principle responsible for the remainder. The total amount of compensation may reach trillions of yen [1 trillion yen=$12.2 billion US], however, making it doubtful TEPCO will be able to shoulder such a burden.”

Some additional resources and timely items of interest:

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists’ an analysis of “lessons learned” from the clean up at Three Mile Island;
  • An archive of news and resources compiled after the 2007 quake in Japan that caused problems at the world’s largest nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa;
  • Some of the most recent photos of the damaged reactors, balanced by inspirational photos of international actions against nuclear power;
  • A recently released video of Dr. Helen Caldicott presenting on the dangers of nuclear war on March 18, 2011, but focusing on the radioactive fallout from Fukushima;
  • An extended interview with nuclear engineer and expert Arnie Gundersen discussing the technical status of the Fukushima Daiichi plant;
  • Extreme weather caused tornadoes to rip from Oklahoma to North Carolina this week, causing the Surry nuclear reactors to shut down in Virginia following a power outage. Fortunately, backup generators kept cooling systems running during the outage;
  • NRG pulls out of the South Texas Project, which was likely the next in line for risky, taxpayer-financed nuclear loan guarantees. This is a shocking development which will probably end the proposed reactor expansion. TEPCO is a 20 percent owner, and obviously has plenty of problems of its own;
  • An article in Platts, in which the the Department of Energy’s head of the nuclear loan guarantee program Jonathan Silver stated before a congressional committee that the DOE did not think that the Fukushima disaster would affect the prospect of committing billions and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars toward loan guarantees for new reactor proposals (two of the three – the South Texas Project and Unistar’s Calvert Cliffs – have fallen by the wayside in just the past week!).

The international debate over nuclear energy has intensified. Germany has committed to closing all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, stating that it will use the opportunity to make a faster switch to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. And despite France’s dependence on nuclear energy for 75 percent of its power,  57 percent of the French now say they oppose nuclear energy. In India, violent protests broke out opposing the mammoth 9,9oo mega-watt Jaitapur nuclear power station; villagers called the plant “anti-people.” The Worldwatch Institute has commissioned a report, “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report for 2010-2011: Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World,” which suggests a “bleak future” for the nuclear industry. New projects have steadily declined since the 1980s, China being the only exception to that trend. Since Fukushima, China has halted all new reactor projects and already has 4.5 times more installed wind than nuclear energy. Worldwatch President Christopher Flaving stated in their press release:

“U.S. news headlines often suggest that a ‘nuclear renaissance’ is under way. This was a big overstatement even before March 11, and the nuclear disaster in Japan will inevitably cause the governments and companies that were still considering new nuclear units to reassess their plans. The Three Mile Island accident caused a wholesale reassessment of nuclear safety regulations, massively increased the cost of nuclear power, and put an end to nuclear construction in the United States. For the global nuclear industry, the Fukushima disaster is an historic—if not fatal—setback.”

U.S. Representative Dianne DeGette (D-CO), seems to agree. “It is sadly clear that we still have much to evaluate before we can know the true threats to our nation from a disaster like what we’ve seen in Japan.”

Earthquake faults are a big topic of discussion here in the U.S., with some experts expressing concern over TVA’s proposed Bellefonte reactors and Brown’s Ferry’s three existing operating reactors’ proximity to fault lines. The Huntsville Times reports, “Bill McCollum, chief operating officer at TVA, said last month that engineering studies needed before Bellefonte could be completed included [sic] analysis of seismic issues. And Bellefonte has subsequently been put on hold even though it was perhaps a decade and many millions of dollars away from being operational.” It also appears that TVA may be one of the first utilities to begin implementing safety measures in response to the Japanese disaster. They intend to make improvements to electrical components, reinforce spent fuel pool cooling systems, and move excess spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage at all six of their operating reactors. Three of the Browns Ferry reactors are of similar design to the Fukushima reactors. SACE commends TVA for taking this action, but we still have serious concerns, especially with TVA’s effort to pursue new reactors at their beleaguered Bellefonte site in Alabama.

A new poll shows that 64 percent of Americans oppose building new nuclear reactors, with 47 percent “strongly opposing.” The number of people opposing new reactors climbs to 84 percent when they are considering building them within 50 miles of their home. Given increased concern over the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ability to regulate as an independent, objective body, it is good to know the public retains some healthy skepticism. We reported last week that accusations of “regulatory capture” were being whispered. This week, WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables that show evidence that the NRC has often doubled as a “salesman” of sorts, extolling upon the virtues of American nuclear technology in efforts to “beat the French” in gaining traction in the international nuclear market. The regulatory “revolving-door” effect, in which regulators end up working for the companies they once were tasked to oversee, certainly is not something new to the nuclear industry. Southern Company, which continues to push the leading new reactor project in the country at their existing Plant Vogtle in Georgia, brought former NRC Commissioner Chair Dale Klein onto their board of directors last summer.

And the Department of Energy continues to operate from an alternate reality. According to Platts, the head of the DOE’s loan guarantee program, Jonathan Silver:

“Told a House of Representatives’ subcommittee that DOE still intends to support the three projects with loan guarantees, provided Congress gives DOE the additional $36 billion in loan guarantee authority that the Obama administration requested for fiscal 2012.

‘From an investment perspective, [the Fukushima incident] does not affect our timeline,’ Silver told the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. ‘It is too early to tell what the actual implications on the timeline will be, but I have every expectation we will be able to put that capital to work in a meaningful timeframe.’ ”

It appears from recent reports that only one of these projects, V.C. Summer in South Carolina, is even still on the table–just two weeks after Mr. Silver’s testimony. The Unistar Calvert Cliffs proposed expansion in Maryland was just dealt a serious blow thanks to all the work by the Nuclear Information Resource Service. So with project after project falling by the wayside, why does DOE keep pushing onward?

A diverse group of concerned parties, including SACE, are working tirelessly to urge the NRC to take pause and reconsider licensing decisions currently underway. In addition to the legal challenge to stop fast-tracking the licensing of the AP1000 reactor, an unprecedented petition was submitted by 45 groups this week urging the NRC to stop all reactor proceedings until a full analysis of the Fukushima accident can be completed. See our blog post about the petition here.

It is clear that Japan and the rest of the world face a long road in determining the future of nuclear energy policy. We continue to hope that regulators, policymakers, utilities and others take careful consideration before committing to multi-billion dollar new nuclear power investments that have the capacity to endanger millions of lives (and pocketbooks).

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