Japan Nuclear Disaster March 18 Update

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | March 18, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

A week has now passed and the Japanese people are still struggling under harsh conditions with very little improvement. We continue to wish them strength and hope. Despite continued lack of clarity from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) as to the severity of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, most reports tend to agree that the situation has not significantly improved and may be worsening. The New York Times reports that emergency efforts are being directed toward the Unit 3 reactor and nearby spent fuel pool, which contains plutonium-based reactor fuel, or mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, stating, “Western nuclear engineers have said that the release of MOX into the atmosphere would produce a more dangerous radioactive plume than the dispersal of uranium fuel rods at the site.” This controversial fuel is being pursued here in the Southeastern U.S. at the Department of Energy’s sprawling nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina, the Savannah River Site, and for potential use in Tennessee Valley Authority reactors.

Meanwhile, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Gregory Jackzo continues to warn that the spent fuel pool at reactor Unit 4, which apparently has not remained submersed in cooling water, is of immediate and grave concern. The Times continues, “In the worst case, experts say, workers could be forced to vacate the plant altogether, and the fuel rods in reactors and spent fuel pools would be left to melt down, leading to much larger releases of radioactive materials.” The spent nuclear fuel pool near reactor Unit 3 has also been losing water, making it difficult to keep the fuel rods covered.

TEPCO has a complicated and troubled history of inadequately dealing with their increasing level of radioactive nuclear waste, and last week’s devastating earthquake has brought much of this to light. In addition to the continuing problems posed by the spent fuel pools at Fukushima, an interim nuclear waste storage facility near Rokkasho spilled over during the quake. Further exacerbating the situation, Reuters reports charges of corruption among Japanese nuclear regulators, citing incompetence, “particularly with respect to confronting Japan’s own safety practices.”

Here are a few new resources in addition to others we have posted previously:

  • The Knoxville News Sentinel interviewed Dr. Michael Allen, a nuclear scientist who has run nuclear-accident simulations at Sandia National Labs, about the scope and severity of what’s happening in Japan.
  • Listen to a debate with Gene Purcell of WPR on whether new nuclear plants should be built in the United States with Erich Pica, President, Friends of the Earth and H. Sterling Burnett, Senior Fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis;
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists explores how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been effective and ineffective at regulating U.S. nuclear industry;
  • The New York Times has a continuing blog with updated information as the situation continues to develop
  • The Institute for Energy & Environmental Research compiled a fact sheet on radiation and human health.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 70% of Americans are “more concerned” about a U.S. nuclear disaster in light of recent events in Japan. Despite these increasing concerns, some lawmakers are rushing to defend nuclear power. South Carolina U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham declares that he has “faith in nuclear power.” Meanwhile, Chair of Energy and Natural Resource Committee, New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingamen called for meetings with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a review of our existing fleet, while continuing his support of nuclear power. Industry lobbyists are scrambling to maintain wavering support of nuclear power in Congress. President Obama addressed the nation from the White House yesterday afternoon about the situation in Japan, stating that U.S. nuclear reactors are safe and that we have a “responsibility to learn” from events in Japan and called for the NRC to do a comprehensive review of our safety standards.

We are very concerned about the continued championing occurring here in the U.S. by apologists and lobbyists for the nuclear industry. It is disturbing that they are misleading the American public as to the severity of the crisis which was just upgraded from Level 4 to Level 5 (on a seven point international scale) placing it on par with the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. This ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan may continue for weeks and the ultimate impacts may continue for years, so honesty about this situation and an open debate about the dangers of nuclear energy are essential.

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