May 19: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

Guest Blog | May 19, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Nearly two and a half months after the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, the ongoing nuclear disaster in that country is slowly disappearing from the media. Meanwhile, Tokyo Power and Electric Company (Tepco) is calling in all favors to help pay for this disaster, including tapping the government, private banks and shareholders. The cost is currently estimated at around $30 billion, but final costs will not be known until the situation is fully stabilized. Tepco has finally admitted that fuel in Unit 1 is completely exposed and that Units 1, 2, and 3 have, in fact, suffered meltdowns, which most likely occurred immediately after the earthquake. Previously, Tepco only admitted partial meltdowns, and cited the tsunami as the cause. New evidence suggests that the cooling system failure which caused the meltdowns actually began as a result of damage caused by the earthquake. Furthermore, a hole in Unit 1 is making cooling more difficult, and is causing millions of gallons of highly radioactive water to leak into the sea.

In the United States, EPA has halted extra radiation monitoring, and has shifted their focus to seafood. They have also stopped monitoring at the Fukushima site, claiming that the situation is now stabilized and that radiation levels have peaked. In Japan, however, new information continues to surface, calling ever more attention to the country’s ineffective regulatory environment. The New York Times reports that Japanese officials have repeatedly disregarded and even concealed the dangers presented by fault lines, including a decade-old warning that predicted the exact scenario that caused the Fukushima disaster. Public outcry has led to multiple court cases challenging the safety of reactors. However, “judges are less likely to invite criticism by siding and erring with the government than by sympathizing and erring with a small group of experts,” says former circuit judge Kenichi Ido.

Increased scrutiny over the safety of nuclear reactors in the United States continues. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says that they found no safety issues in their initial assessment 30 days into their 90-day review. This comes as a surprise to many, as nuclear experts have testified to Congress that our reactors are not fail safe and our rules for regulating are not sufficient. “I think if you’re listening carefully they’re telling two different stories,” said Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “On the one hand, they say we don’t need to take any immediate action. On the other hand, their inspections have turned up problems with compliance on the measures that are supposed to be in place to deal with severe accidents. It doesn’t sound like the picture is quite as rosy.”

The New York Times reports that problems identified by NRC staff were wide-ranging and included misuse of emergency equipment, non-functioning or poorly functioning water pumps, and lack of sufficient diesel fuel for generators. Additionally, disaster plans were found to be inadequate as they fail to plan for complex disasters including multiple reactor damage, communications and power failures, or damage to roads. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released a concurrent report that cites multiple safety concerns at U.S. reactors, including the lack of backup power systems for spent fuel pools and problems with malfunctioning diesel generators. The NYT report continues, “in the last eight years, the commission had received 69 reports of inoperable diesel generators at 33 plants, with six of those generators out for more than a month.” Another concern raised by the Fukushima disaster relates to the venting system that is designed to release the buildup of radioactive steam. Tepco had the same vents installed at the Fukushima reactors years ago, but mechanical failures and design flaws prevented them from functioning as designed, causing a buildup of hydrogen gas that led to the explosions.

If there is anything positive to come out of this disaster, it is the increased international desire to switch to truly clean and safe renewable energy sources. Japan and Germany have both declared that they will cease pursuing new nuclear and instead focus on efficiency and renewable energy. The Guardian asks, if the 3rd (Japan) and 4th (Germany) largest economies in the world can reduce carbon and keep the lights on without new nuclear, why can’t the 6th (United Kingdom)? Germany’s announcement came weeks ago, as they promised not to pursue new nuclear and to close all existing reactors by 2020. Japan followed suit this week, saying that they will scrap plans for new nuclear and instead meet their energy needs with renewable energy. This announcement coincides with a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that finds that renewable energy sources can feasibly generate 80 percent of the world’s energy in 40 years.

Let us all encourage our decision makers to be bold and forward-thinking enough to facilitate the shift away from risky, dangerous nuclear and fossil fuels to truly safe, clean, and renewable energy. Please see below for opportunities to take action today.


  • A map with radiation readings around Japan;
  • David Lochbaum’s (Union of Concerned Scientists) most recent congressional testimony;
  • An MSNBC report on the history of serious U.S. nuclear disasters, which emphasizes that Three Mile Island was one of many;  and
  • A report released by the office of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which details the regulatory loopholes that leave the United States vulnerable in the case of a nuclear accident.

Opportunities for Action:

  • NIRS has a petition to prevent an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees for nuclear reactors;
  • Friends of the Earth also has a petition calling for a moratorium on new construction of nuclear reactors;
  • Green Action Japan is conducting a second-round emergency petition to protect Japanese children from recently elevated allowable radiation doses; and
  • Beyond Nuclear is collecting signatures urging President and First Lady Obama to push for a nuclear-free future for the sake of future generations.
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