Japan Situation Deteriorates March 16-17 Update

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

Guest Blog | March 17, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

As more are reported dead and the Japanese people endure difficult weather conditions, lack of water and food and the emotional turmoil of the unfolding aftermath, the nuclear disaster becomes even more dire. Events continued to escalate as the essential, remaining workers at the failing Fukushima nuclear reactors were ordered to evacuate on Wednesday morning (in Japan) due to high radiation levels. The crisis appears to be spiraling out of control as four reactors are now seriously compromised; reactors Unit 1, 2 and 3 are in partial meltdown and the spent fuel pool in reactor Unit 4 has had multiple fires and the highly radioactive spent fuel rods are in danger. The full extent of damage remains unknown as conflicting reports from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) continue to circulate — a private company with a troubled history. Crucial details that would help experts worldwide assess the situation are just now being shared — and some may not yet be known. The New York Times reported that radiation levels were extremely high and quoted U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Gregory Jackzo stating, “We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.” U.S. citizens were advised to evacuate to a 50-mile (80km) radius – much further than the current 12-mile (20 km) zone imposed by the Japanese government.

As more nations call their nuclear energy policies into question, sentiments in the U.S. are varied. We reported yesterday that Secretary of Energy Chu is still advocating for new nuclear power reactors. But some proponents of nuclear energy are calling for more review of policy and safety measures, including U.S. Senator John McCain who agrees that a review would be prudent. And of course, utilities in the Southeast continue to downplay the events in Japan including Duke Energy and Southern Company, both who arrogantly march forward refusing to even pause to review the lessons to be learned from this disaster as they rush to build new nuclear reactors in South Carolina and Georgia.

Most notably, the New York Times reports that China is halting all of its new nuclear development until safety measures can be strengthened and inspections of old plants can be strengthened. This is a significant shift in China’s policy from just days ago and represents a responsible announcement of caution from the global leader in new reactor development. Going a step further, Germany will close its seven (7) pre-1980 reactors until at least June to assess safety factors as Switzerland reevaluates its “blanket authorizations” until safety standards can be thoroughly assessed. Read more about international responses to the Japan nuclear disaster here. We find it very, very troubling that the Obama Administration has not yet expressed these same concerns. It is overdue and it must happen.

Here are some resources for tracking developments that we have not previously mentioned:

  • Physicians for Social Responsibility held a tele-press conference on Wednesday, March 16 with experts on the health affects of the radiation being released in Japan;
  • The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum has comprehensive reports of the status of the reactors;
  • The New York Times is blogging up-to-date information on Congressional hearings questioning Secretary of Energy Chu and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair, Gregory Jackzo;
  • Friends of the Earth is providing updates as they become available, including interviews with experts;
  • The Washington Post has compiled a series of images to accompany an overview of the international nuclear debate, as well as 5 Myths About Nuclear Energy.

As we all watch what is happening, it is hard to imagine the incredible stress that the emergency workers at the site are working under–especially given the acknowledgment that Japan’s Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare raised the maximum legal exposure for nuclear workers to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts. It described the move as “unavoidable due to the circumstances.” Let us hope and pray that those workers have the strength to continue as it appears they may be the only defense left.

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