Fukushima nuclear disaster’s political impacts…not only in Japan

Guest Blog | January 28, 2014 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Earlier this month we gave a brief technical update of the ongoing effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that began nearly three years ago. The situation continues to spiral out of control, as yet another radioactive water leak was discovered since that last update. This time the leaking water had been previously used to cool the melted reactor core, and contains high levels of cesium and strontium. As if this news isn’t bad enough, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) recently released data indicating that Strontium-90 had been detected in groundwater and seawater back in August. Tepco previously concealed this data, darkening the shadow of distrust the public has in the power company.

Here in the U.S., efforts are underway to test for radioactivity in seawater in the Pacific along the West Coast and in California’s sea kelp forests. Many Americans may not be aware that some U.S. military personnel aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which came to Japan immediately after the earthquake and tsunami on a humanitarian mission, believe they were exposed to radioactive plumes that have negatively impacted their health. A recent article questioned:

“Are McCants, Cooper and many other young sailors suffering from Fukushima radiation exposure, contacted from atmospheric fallout or from seawater pumped into ship desalination systems? A mass tort lawsuit filed in San Diego last June (an amended suit with around 100 plaintiffs is due to be refiled next month) believes they are and points a finger at Tepco.”

But the Fukushima disaster has made for interesting politics so a political update is also pertinent. Nuclear energy is at the heart of Japan’s upcoming election cycle, as two of the primary candidates for Tokyo governor are running on an anti-nuclear platform. One-third of local Japanese governments are calling for an end to nuclear energy, not as drastic as it may sound given that all but two of Japan’s 50 reactors have been shut down since the disaster began. While much of that energy has been replaced with fossil fuels, namely liquid natural gas, Japan has also instituted a feed-in tariff policy to boost solar production. This policy, combined with other factors, including foreign investment, has propelled Japan into the small rank of nations with over 10 gigawatts of installed solar. The only other nations to have surpassed this milestone include Germany, Italy, China and the United States.

Overall, global nuclear power output has declined to 10% in 2012 and its share of global commercial primary energy production dropped to 4.5% percent, a level last seen in 1984. This is partially due to Japan’s stall on nuclear energy, but also a result of the shutdown of reactors in the U.S., including San Onofre in California, Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Crystal River 3 in Florida. The World Nuclear Industry Status report of 2013 also sites high construction, operation and waste “disposal” costs. Despite this global decline, there are nearly 30 nations considering pursuing new nuclear programs.

The United States is still pursuing nuclear energy, despite cost overruns and delays on the current new reactor projects in Georgia and South Carolina. Several prominent climate scientists, including James Hansen, are publicly calling for support of nuclear power as a solution to climate change, which raised the ire of over 300 clean energy and environmental groups (including SACE), who responded in an open letter challenging any notion that nuclear energy offers an affordable solution to the climate crisis. In addition to the high costs and lengthy timeline, highly radioactive nuclear waste (not to mention the waste generated during the entire uranium fuel chain) certainly prevents this energy source from ever being classified as “clean” energy. The U.S. and other countries continue to seek long-term storage for highly radioactive spent fuel, despite decades of trying and billions and billions of dollars spent.

As the Fukushima nuclear disaster continues, Japan is not the only country that has the opportunity to learn from past mistakes in order to change the energy landscape to rely more on truly clean, safe and affordable energy choices — primarily renewable energy and energy efficiency and conservation. If not now, when? And if not, why not? Hasn’t this devastating accident clearly demonstrated the perils of putting most of one’s eggs in the nuclear basket?

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

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