Japan Nuclear Disaster Worsens

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

Guest Blog | March 13, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Japan as the death toll soars. They face incredible hardships ahead and are in dire need of aid. As the world closely watches the unfolding, horrific developments in Japan resulting from the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake, tsunami and many aftershocks, the significant damage to the country’s nuclear power infrastructure has become more apparent though events occurring on-the-ground in real time are difficult to follow.

Since our blog post on Friday evening, Japan is facing a nuclear crisis of epic proportions. As reported in the New York Times today: two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 170 miles north of Tokyo appear to have suffered partial meltdowns and three reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant are dealing with failures in the cooling system. Releases of volatile radioactive elements have occurred, though the exact amounts are not yet known. Reports have stated that radiation levels have exceeded permissible limits and over 200,000 people living around the two nuclear power plants have been evacuated. There are reports that several plant workers have experienced significant radiation exposure, a confirmation that at least one worker has died and more than 160 people outside of the plant are also contaminated with radioactivity. Radioactive cesium has been measured, a sure sign that the nuclear fuel has been damaged. Potassium iodide is being distributed as a measure to protect the thyroids of nearby citizens from highly radioactive iodine in an effort to prevent development of thyroid cancer.

Further complicating matters, we have learned that in 2010, the reactor in Unit 3 at Daiichi was loaded with mixed oxide fuel, known as “MOX” or plutonium fuel. A BBC report confirms this and stated that it is possible that some of the plutonium fuel may have been exposed. This type of fuel is currently not used at nuclear power reactors in the United States though efforts are ongoing to try and produce the fuel at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Nuclear Site in South Carolina. We, along with many other concerned organizations, have opposed the multi-billion dollar dangerous and controversial program. Plutonium-based fuel has different properties than traditional uranium-based fuel. Though it is very serious if either type of nuclear reactor fuel is damaged, the ramifications from a meltdown of plutonium-based fuel are more dire in terms of the negative health impacts to surrounding populations.

There are numerous resources tracking the developments of the nuclear disaster still-unfolding in Japan, including:

  • The BBC has a detailed analysis of the situation at the Daiichi nuclear power plant;
  • Union of Concerned Scientist’s website including a blog updated by Dr. Ed Lyman and nuclear engineer, Dave Lochbaum;
  • Beyond Nuclear has extensive information, including recent interviews, maps, reactor schematics, etc.;
  • Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) is also tracking;
  • Green Action in Japan is issuing updates in English;
  • Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) in Japan held a media briefing on Sunday, March 13;
  • Click here for the audio recording of a media briefing held one Saturday afternoon with U.S. nuclear experts analyzing the Japanese nuclear disaster;
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has information available on U.S. efforts to assist Japan and possible concerns with reactors in the U.S.

The ultimate consequences of this nuclear disaster are far from known and will take time to analyze. Additionally, the worldwide ramifications of this tragedy are also not yet known. Here in the U.S., a shift in future energy policy has already begun as nuclear proponent U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman stated this morning on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” that the United States should “put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happening in Japan.” As one looks at the telling picture from Reuters featured in this blog of young children being monitored for radiation exposure near the Daini nuclear power plant, we must ask ourselves, is this what we want for future generations? Does this image represent a clean, safe energy future? Here at Southern Alliance for Clean Energy we clearly state say “no.”

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