Japan One Year Later: Global Response to Fukushima

Guest Blog | March 22, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices program director, Sara Barczak, co-authored this blog.

After the Japanese government prematurely declared the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors stable at the end of 2011, much of the media retreated from covering the still volatile situation. But given the commemoration of the one year anniversary of this nuclear accident, the international media turned its attention back to the disaster, critiquing the management of the crisis and discussing the future role of nuclear energy.

Public opinion of nuclear power remains low, with a new Civil Society Institute poll finding that 57% of Americans “are less supportive of expanding nuclear power in the United States than they were before the Japanese reactor crisis,” which shows little change from last year’s poll results. This is a marked contrast to the pre-Fukushima Gallup poll that indicated 62% support for nuclear power. The Fukushima disaster also shifted opinions about clean energy options, as the same Civil Society poll found that 3 out of 4 Americans, or 77%,  are more supportive of clean, renewable energy than they were a year ago. In response to the declining support for nuclear energy and perhaps as a sign of desperation, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the well-funded lobbying arm for the nuclear industry announced a massive media campaign blitz that will in part target younger audiences by advertising during and appearing on shows such “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Despite public desire to move towards clean, safe energy options such as energy efficiency and renewables, it’s politics as usual at the state and federal levels of government. In February, just a month shy of the one year anniversary, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in a 4-1 vote, approved the combined operating licenses for Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 in Georgia; the first such license approved in the U.S. in 30 years. NRC Chairman Jaczko was the sole dissenter, expressing strong reservations about approving an operating license before the the lessons from Fukushima are more fully understood and addressed. With the NRC approval, construction activities at Vogtle are moving ahead, despite continued legal intervention by SACE and our allies. This runs directly counter to what has happened in China as reported in the current issue of The Economist, where regulators have temporarily ceased approving new reactors in order to further study flooding and seismic issues. In addition, legislation in China is being pushed to restructure their regulatory program — removing the oversight from the National Development and Reform Commission, the industrial planners or “nuclear cheerleaders,” to instead, the environment ministry.

In Florida, state legislators refused to move on bi-partisan legislation to repeal nuclear cost recovery policies, even though resolutions against the “nuclear tax” were passed in several cities in both Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy of Florida service territories, including the Broward and Miami-Dade League of Cities. It seems the Florida legislature is not receptive to the concerns of their constituents residing in these many municipalities. And despite multiple warnings from Republican State Senator Mike Fasano in Florida, it appears that the legislators in Iowa are about to make the same mistake in approving a nuclear cost recovery law (referred to there as “CWIP” for construction work in progress). In a compelling opinion editorial, an Iowa dairy farmer who ran for Secretary of Agriculture in 2010 highlighted the contamination that farmers in Japan are struggling with because of the Fukushima nuclear accident and warned Iowa state lawmakers not to put the state at risk.

Back on the regulatory front, the NRC finally set a 2016  timeline for dealing with the Near Term Task Force’s first three recommendations on the lessons learned from Fukushima, despite NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko having reservations about the agency’s ability to meet the 2016 timeline. The industry is responding with their own plan, which not surprisingly avoids some of the more expensive recommendations of the task force. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, after the industry spends resources implementing aspects of their own plan, they will skirt the NRC’s upcoming standards by complaining to Congress that the new standards render their newly installed equipment useless. Looking back at the industry’s influence over the NRC, it is unclear if the NRC will finally stand up to the industry to ensure they fulfill their mission of “protecting people and the environment.”

While politicians and regulators drag their heels, the public continues to take action. Tens of thousands of people across the globe commemorated the one year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster with prayers, moments of silence, rallies, protests, human chains (24,000 people in Germany alone formed an 80-km long human chain) and “die-ins” to honor the future cancer victims. Thousands of people came out in Tokyo, Fukushima, and other parts of Japan. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Germany and France. Over 1,000 people demonstrated at the aging and long protested Hinkley Point nuclear plant in the United Kingdom, and nearly 10,000 demonstrated in Taiwan. For a series of moving photos from around the world commemorating the Fukushima nuclear disaster, click here.

Many commemoration events took place here in the U.S. From Asheville, North Carolina to San Onofre, California back to New York and down to the Tennessee Valley, to Georgia and Florida, people gathered to stand in solidarity with the Japanese, to commemorate the victims of the tripartite disaster, and to protest nuclear power. The stage is set to make real change in our country’s energy policy and is happening already across the world; affordable, safe energy technologies are available and advancing. The people want clean and safe energy–now where is the political will from our elected leaders to make it happen?

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