April 7: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

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

Guest Blog | April 7, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Tomorrow marks four weeks since the the deadly earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Over 12,000 people are reported dead, nearly 15,000 are still missing, and more than 160,000 are still displaced from their homes. In breaking news, a new tsunami warning was issued for north-east Japan after a 7.1 earthquake hit off the east coast of Honshu, about 78 miles north of Fukushima and 40 km offshore. Buildings were rattled in Tokyo. The AP reported that according to Tokyo Electric officials, workers evacuated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Complicating this dire situation is that after weeks of emergency response at the severely damaged nuclear facility, the situation continues to deteriorate. Radiation levels have hampered the ability of recovery teams to recover the bodies of the dead near the plant. And for the irradiated bodies that have been recovered, difficult questions on how to properly handle them have surfaced.

The New York Times reports many of the measures currently in place to prevent further damage to the reactors may actually cause further damage and challenges. The impact of using water to cool the reactors is a significant problem and, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is weakening the containment structures, making them more likely to rupture during the many after shocks the area is still experiencing. Concern remains that the continued use of water could cause additional hydrogen explosions within the weakened reactor vessels. On Thursday, Tokyo Electric began injecting nitrogen into reactor Unit 1 to reduce the likelihood of this occurring and will consider implementing this measure at reactor Units 2 and 3. Concern has increased over reactor Unit 2 as the reactor vessel may have been breached, leaving just the containment vessel in place to prevent radioactive releases.

The tragedy of this ongoing situation is exemplified by Mayor Katsonobu Sakuri’s plea for aid. There are not words to describe his message and we encourage you to listen to his recording. As reported in the New York Times:

The mayor described the dire situation facing Minamisoma, whose residents were still reeling from a devastating earthquake and 60-foot tsunami when they were ordered to stay indoors because of radiation leaks from Japan’s crippled nuclear plant, 15 miles away. Those who had not fled now faced starvation, he said, as they were trapped in their homes or refugee shelters by the nuclear alert, which also prevented shipments of food from arriving.

“We are left isolated,” Mr. Sakurai said urgently into the camera, his brow furrowed and his voice strained with exhaustion. “I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma city, to help us.”

Additional resources (remember to review past blogs for further resources):

  • Here are recent photos of the Fukushima reactors along with commentary;
  • An editorial piece on the ensuring safety on the existing U.S. nuclear fleet prior to building more;
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists has a daily blog that provides updates or in-depth analysis of issues related to the Japanese nuclear disaster;
  • Nuclear engineer and expert Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates has up-to-date information on the disaster including analysis and nearly daily video coverage;
  • As radioactivity from Japan’s damaged nuclear facility is measured in rain and other vectors here in the U.S., the Nuclear Information Resources Service (NIRS) developed information on the health impacts and protective measures that can be taken;
  • A lengthy article from ABC News about some of the anticipated impacts worldwide from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, this includes a video highlighting safety concerns at U.S. nuclear plants;
  • Southern Alliance for Clean Energy hosted a webinar earlier this week that featured Ellen Vancko of UCS and Doug Koplow of EarthTrack who discussed the impacts of the Japan disaster on nuclear power in the U.S. and the subsidies associated with nuclear power.

The international debate on nuclear power continues, with increasing public interest over safety and a desire for greater scrutiny of the nuclear industry. Germany’s conservative party took a hard knock in recent elections as voters turned out for the nation’s Green Party, which has historically been more critical of nuclear development. Germany has closed seven aging reactors and committed to phasing out all of its nuclear reactors by 2020.  Italy and others are halting nuclear projects until further assessments for safety can be made. This includes China, which was poised to become the world’s leader in new nuclear power development prior to the beginning of this disaster.

Here in the U.S. concerns about nuclear power continue, especially as radioactivity from Japan has been measured across the country. The Union of Concerned Scientists released internal NRC documents this week showing that there is no consensus within the agency that U.S. plants are sufficiently protected–casting doubts on whether U.S. reactor could withstand a Fukushima-style disaster. The documents indicate that technical staff members doubt the effectiveness of key safety measures adopted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

An alliance of concerned organizations, known as the AP1000 Oversight Group, filed a legal challenge Wednesday against the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, which is proposed for the majority of new reactors in the U.S., by calling for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend its fast-track approval process until design problems are resolved and the lessons from Japan are fully and openly analyzed.

As hearings continue to be held in Congress and the debate ensues, we hope that policymakers will take the serious impacts of this Japan disaster into account and acknowledge that accidents do and can happen. This realization has begun. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for instance sent a letter to President Obama asking for a moratorium on all reactor licensing and development of a Presidential Commission to study the Japanese nuclear disaster. The reality is we are not immune and fortunately, we have a wealth of clean, safe energy energy choices such as energy efficiency and renewables to pursue here in the U.S. We just need the will and conviction to do it.

Guest Blog
My Profile