April 28: Japan Nuclear 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 28, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Seven weeks have passed since the massive earthquake and tsunami disaster occurred in Japan. Recent reports have the current death toll at more than 14,000 with more than 11,000 people still unaccounted for and 130,000 people still living in shelters. The situation is also taking a toll on its political leaders as pressure increases for the Prime Minister to step down.

In the midst of this immense tragedy, the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to present new challenges. The nuclear fuel in reactor Unit 1 is apparently melting with emergency cooling efforts requiring 6 tons of water injected every hour. Radiation being released at the reactor are at the highest levels since the disaster began as reported by Bloomberg, with peak levels of more than four times the annual dose allowed for Japanese nuclear workers. The overcrowded spent nuclear fuel pool at reactor Unit 4 is also suspected to be severely damaged and emergency cooling efforts are failing. This spent fuel pool contains more used reactor fuel than any of the other pools at the complex, with over 1,500 spent fuel rods. To make matters worse, the weight of the water being injected into the pool, more than 200 tons, is further compromising the structural integrity of the pool and the containment vessel of reactor Unit 4. Last week, Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato vowed that he would not allow Tokyo Power and Electric (Tepco) to resume operations at any of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility (Tepco has said it will permanently close the damaged reactor Units 1-4). Additionally, the Japanese government announced that it has taken public relations efforts away from Tepco; they will now primarily be handled by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The Japanese government is considering building a containment wall around the crippled reactors to prevent further spread of radioactivity that has already contaminated groundwater up to 10,000 times the legal limit. The wall would extend far underground to reach sedimentary layers that would not absorb water. This is an extreme measure to prevent the continued leakage of highly radioactive water from the plant. As we reported in previous postings, radiation has been found in soil, food, water, and now, in the breast milk of Japanese mothers. There is no known “safe dose” of ionizing radiation, and the government is under increasing pressure to do a full analysis of health impacts that radioactive fallout could have on nursing mothers and infants.

Much is being made of the corruption of nuclear regulators in Japan, with the New York Times reporting the existence of a culture of complicity that sounds similar to recent charges that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) suffers from regulatory capture. As we reported last week, Wikileaks obtained cables that prove there is a conflict of interest in the NRC’s role to regulate, which is being compromised by their apparent double role as diplomats extolling the benefits of American nuclear technology. This is completely unacceptable considering the NRC’s stated mission, “to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.” How can regulators objectively regulate when a large portion of their budget comes from the industry? The problem is further compounded by the regulatory “revolving door” which clearly affects decision-making. We don’t need to look far here in the Southeast to see instances of “regulatory capture.” Former NRC Chair Dale Klein joined Southern Company’s board of directors  just months after leaving the NRC and just as the utility giant and its partners accepted the first conditional nuclear loan guarantee of $8.3 billion for the two new proposed reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

Fortunately, it does appear that increased scrutiny of nuclear power plants and future plans are becoming more commonplace here in the U.S. and abroad. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) controversial proposal to complete the never-finished, aging reactors at its Bellefonte site in Alabama continues to be challenged. Many experts claim that no amount of money can compensate for an old, flawed reactor design and the lack of quality assurance oversight at the site since TVA requested to terminate the project with the NRC back in 2006. But as reported by Bloomberg, NRC officials today said that no immediate fixes were needed at existing U.S. nuclear plants in light of the Japan disaster. To us it appears that the NRC is doing everything it can to not be held responsible for the potential demise of the nuclear power industry’s supposed renaissance. That certainly is not what regulators should be worrying about.

This past Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Chernobyl disaster and many activists across the globe hosted and will host clean energy rallies and anti-nuclear protests to commemorate that disaster, while also standing in solidarity with the people of Japan. Access information about some of these events at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) website. SACE and its partners in Florida are hosting an event this Saturday, April 30 to protest Florida Power & Light’s proposal to build two new reactors at their Turkey Point nuclear plant, just 25 miles south of Miami. While Chernobyl and Fukushima represent the most severe accidents reported, it is important to be aware of other nuclear accidents and near-misses that have occurred, many of which you can view here.

Some new resources providing additional information:

  • Physician’s for Social Responsibility this week released an interactive map that shows existing nuclear plants here in the U.S. with 10 and 50-mile evacuation zones, a Lessons from Fukushima and Chernobyl report and a video of their most recent press conference discussing Chernobyl and Fukushima;
  • An interesting analysis of “risk assessment” in relation to nuclear power and financial institutions that questions our reliance on technology to “eliminate the risk of catastrophe;”
  • Interactive graphics in the Wall Street Journal on the current status of each of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors;
  • A discussion on U.S. protocol on the venting of radioactive gases;
  • A letter to the editor by Mayor Stoddard of South Miami, challenging the NRC’s insufficient evacuation plans for the Turkey Point reactors in Homestead, Florida;
  • And Rolling Stone published a colorful article about the U.S. policy response to the Fukushima disaster, describing regulatory capture and quoting experts Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates and David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Worldwide concern with nuclear power, including whether to invest in new reactors, continue. Thailand just announced that they will impose a three year delay on the start-up of five new proposed reactors in part due to safety concerns following the nuclear crisis in Japan. Energy Minister Wannarat Charnnukul said that Thailand instead will build three 800-megawatt combined-cycle power plants to offset the deferral of the nuclear plants under the country’s long-term energy development plan. And today Dow Jones reporters in the Wall Street Journal report, “India’s environment ministry deferred approval for four nuclear reactors being built by state-run Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd., signaling a likely tightening of regulations following the recent nuclear crisis in Japan and protests at home.”

Public concerns here in the U.S. continue. A new McClatchy-Marist poll looked at how people view the safety issues surrounding nuclear power. As reported in an interview on WAMC, “According to the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, Lee Miringoff, Americans are paying attention to the events at the Fukushima Daichi plant in Japan. He says 57 percent believe it’s likely or very likely that an emergency at a nuclear plant like the one in Japan could happen here.”

In the Southeast, we just experienced horrible storms with tornadoes that have caused extensive damage and killed hundreds, including last week’s storms in North Carolina. TVA’s three Browns Ferry reactors in Alabama, which are of the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, lost offsite power due to the storms. Thankfully, the emergency diesel generators operated properly. But it is a reminder that our electricity system is vulnerable.

The 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and the ensuing nuclear crisis in Japan also remind us that while the probability that a severe accident could occur at a nuclear power plant here in the U.S. is small, the consequences can be devastating, affecting not only today’s generation but also those to come. Other energy choices exist that do not pose these risks, notably energy efficiency and conservation and renewables. Now is the time to let regulators and your policymakers know that its imperative to move towards a clean, safe energy future that does not further rely on nuclear power.

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