Japan Update End of Year Review

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | December 22, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

As 2011 comes to an end and we reflect upon the previous year’s activity, for those of us that spend time tracking nuclear energy issues, the tragedy of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan looms large as the most significant accident that has occurred since Chernobyl in 1986. While Japan continues to recover from the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, the several damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex continue to release radiation. Even nine months after the disaster, Tepco is reporting the release of nearly 12,000 gallons of highly radioactive water containing strontium and cesium, confirming that contamination has reached the Pacific.

The Japanese government and Tepco assert that the New Year will begin with a stabilized nuclear power plant in “cold shutdown.” That assertion is being challenged by nuclear experts (including those in Japan), who believe that fuel in reactor Unit 1 has melted through the reactor vessel and is on the floor of the surrounding containment vessel. Regardless, the total decommissioning of the damaged nuclear facility is currently estimated to take up to 40 years–far longer than the reactors actually operated–with cost estimates of more than $50 billion–far more expensive than the reactors originally cost.

Public mistrust of the Japanese government continues, as evacuation plans were confirmed to have been woefully inadequate and many people outside of Fukushima are found to have been exposed to radiation. Even as far away as Tokyo (140 miles), extremely high levels of cesium have been found contaminating a school yard.

Fortunately, the international community has been paying attention to Japan. Scores of mass protests have occurred in the last six months, and continue to this day. Tokyo had one of its largest protests yet in September, when tens of thousands of people held a mass demonstration and parade (click here for video). Germany saw activists protesting an unsafe older reactor. In the United Kingdom, activists blockaded the Hinkley site, which was recently approved for new reactors.

However, and in marked contrast, the U.S. nuclear industry and its proponents and regulators continue to move aggressively forward with new reactor proposals. The Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design was approved today, shockingly waiving the required 30-day public notification period, with approval of the operating licenses of Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 in Georgia and V.C. Summer reactors in South Carolina expected to follow soon. Meanwhile, in Florida, Progress Energy is under fire for its role in“breaking” its Crystal River 3 reactor, even against its own advice to hire an experienced contractor. Adding insult to injury, they are also asking their customers to pay for their negligence!

In-fighting within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) only amplifies public concern over the Commission’s ability to effectively regulate the nuclear industry, especially as they deal with responding to the recommendations of the Near Term Task Force regarding the lessons learned from Fukushima. Despite all of the controversy surrounding the Commission this year as reported by the AP investigation and in a recent Huffington Post piece, they have not paused the licensing proceedings to address the Task Force finding that the NRC has a “patchwork” regulatory framework. We believe it is important for all of us, along with our elected officials, to remain ever diligent in tracking the NRC in 2012.

We would like to offer a sincere thank you to everyone and all the organizations here in the U.S. and internationally that have been tirelessly tracking this complicated tragedy. As we move into a New Year, we again state our sincere hope that our energy future is transformed into one that relies on clean, safe energy choices that do not pose these undo risks to our health, economy and environment. For more information and ways to support the people of Japan, please refer to the resources below:

  • Green Action Japan has been doing excellent work uniting the international community to help protect the children of Japan from radiation. You can also donate to a Japan-based non-profit to assist in earthquake and tsunami relief;
  • New report details the chaotic response at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in the first days after the tsunami struck the plant, and also offers a human perspective;
  • Fairewinds released a new video debunking the possibility of a “China syndrome,” and the reality of dangers that the melted fuel at Fukushima present;
  • National Geographic offers a series of photos from inside the Fukushima complex and nearby ‘ghost town’ communities in its latest issue, also available online here;
  • This video details the health impacts to people affected by low dose radiation, and how this disproportionately affects children; and
  • For more on the NRC in-fighting, you can view the full video of the Congressional hearing, with testimony from all of the commissioners.
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