Japan Nuclear Disaster Update March 31

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

Guest Blog | March 31, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

As we approach three weeks since the earthquake and tsunami, reports continue to indicate worsening conditions at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. Highly radioactive contaminants have been found in large amounts in pools of water in and around reactors Units 1-4. High radiation levels continue to be found in seawater, and plutonium has been found in soil samples around the reactors. Cesium-137 has been found 25 miles from the nuclear plant at levels that could prevent people from living there. Farmers in Japan are suffering the financial impacts. All reports seem to indicate that this situation is already far worse than Three Mile Island (which, incidentally, occurred 32 years ago this week). It remains unknown how much worse the situation will get, and the truth of the matter is that radiation is literally leaking out of these reactors and flowing around the globe. Click here to see a map model of the flow of the radiation plume. Insight from the emergency workers is particularly telling, as reported by the New York Times.

Monitoring stations here in the U.S. are picking up slightly elevated levels of radioactive iodine-131 in many western states, as well as in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and along the East coast. News reports state that they are low doses and will not pose health risks, but Physicians for Social Responsibility says, “any amount of radiation will damage cells and it is the delicate balance of repair mechanisms that determines the ultimate outcome of health or disease.” This means there are so many factors at play that it is difficult to say with any certainty what the actual health risks are; it all depends on age, health, immunity, fitness, predisposition, and a multitude of other interrelated factors.

Here are some additional resources:

  • Nuclear engineer and expert Arnie Gundersen posts regular videos detailing his assessment of the unfolding crisis, including the state of the core of reactor Units 1-3, as well as the recent discoveries of plutonium in the soil and large pools of highly radioactive water;
  • An interesting MSNBC article discussing the updated earthquake risk calculations for existing reactors here in the U.S. that points to serious concerns for the South, East and Midwest;
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility has numerous interviews with medical doctors on the affects of radiation exposure along with a detailed analysis of the possible health impacts from the releases of radiation at the damaged Japan reactors;
  • Reuters states that the financial impacts of the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent damage and destruction is now estimated at $300 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster.

In the United States, the debate over nuclear power continues. Many are increasingly concerned about the dangers of storing highly radioactive waste in over-crowded spent fuel pools and the increased likelihood of a catastrophic event should a fire start near one of the nations many pools of toxic waste. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Gregory Jackzo testified before Congress Wednesday about Japan and the Commission’s regulatory oversight of the U.S.’s 104 operating reactors. Nuclear safety expert Dave Lochbaum with Union of Concerned Scientists also testified. View the broadcast of the full hearing here. Congress also heard testimony from academic and industry experts on many facets of nuclear power, including safety, radioactive waste, emergency preparedness and evacuation zones.

As we reported last week, plans for new nuclear reactors in the U.S. continue to lurch forward. In South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham went on tour around the state to tout nuclear as good for the state. Tennessee Valley Authority testified to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Wednesday, discussing and setting timelines for approval of small modular reactor (SMR) designs that are not immune to problems.

President Obama outlined his plans for energy security yesterday at Georgetown University, which still included risky energy sources such as new reactors and so-called ‘clean coal’ as ‘part of the mix.’ If an ongoing disaster affecting a close political ally such as Japan does not encourage our leaders to move beyond nuclear power, perhaps economics will. Mark Cooper, senior fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and Environment, said “If they do what they are supposed to, nuclear reactor construction will be much more costly and much less inviting as a policy option as a result of the Fukushima accident.” Or perhaps the recent statements by nuclear-reliant France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first foreign leader to visit Japan since the earthquake and tsunami, to establish global nuclear safety regulations could influence our decision makers.

We shall see what motivates our elected officials and regulators to act. The pressure from industry or the legitimate concerns over public health and safety?

Guest Blog
My Profile