May 5: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

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 | May 5, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

It is hard to believe that two months have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. And though the ensuing nuclear disaster has been superseded by other worldwide news events, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the Japanese government are still struggling to gain control of the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. As was the case in our update from last week, emergency cooling efforts continue at reactor Units 1, 2, 3 and 4. Reactor Unit 1 remains the primary concern as temperatures and pressure continue to rise, and Tepco is still pumping nitrogen into the unstable reactor in an effort to prevent another hydrogen explosion. As reported by Reuters today, the situation is still many months from being over, and many significant complications remain. Current estimates are that it will take six to nine months just to stabilize the facility, and several decades to decommission it.

The handling of the disaster has prompted public backlash directed toward the Japanese government. A highly criticized decision to raise radioactive exposure doses for children to the amount allowed for nuclear workers (20 millisieverts per year) has caused an international outcry. This would mean that school children could be exposed to 20 times more radiation than the amount previously permissible. A special radiation expert advising the government on the issue recently quit, saying the new standards are “inexcusable.” On Tuesday, over 350 Japanese citizens delivered an international petition signed by organizations and individuals from over 40 countries urging the government to reverse its decision. Parents also presented bags of radioactive dirt from their children’s school yards to Japanese government officials. Some of these samples had radioactivity levels as high as 38 millisieverts on a Geiger counter. Physicians for Social Responsibility also blasted the increase in allowable radiation exposure in a highly critical statement: “[Twenty millisieverts] for children exposes them to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer. And if they are exposed to this dose for two years, the risk is 1 in 100. There is no way that this level of exposure can be considered ‘safe’ for children.”

Fukushima workers’ living conditions have also been called into question. Accusations of inadequate food and poor housing conditions have prompted Tepco to begin delivering fresh food “soon.” The company also plans to begin constructing temporary living facilities. Some experts are still not satisfied, claiming that Tepco relies mostly on contract workers who are more likely to be exposed to life-threatening doses of radiation and the least likely to have the equipment necessary to accurately track their doses. Over 600 workers are reportedly at the site, but there are only 320 reported dosimeters, and most of these are given to management.

Despite all of the concern over health, radiation and environmental hazards raised by this disaster, Tepco shockingly does not have disaster insurance. Speculations are that the company will be nationalized and that the Japanese government, which likely means taxpayers, will assume the burden of Tepco’s massive liabilities. The fact that most nations with nuclear reactors do not require the operators to carry insurance extensive enough to cover damages from potential disasters is an issue of great concern. As the Associated Press reports, “In America, where no new reactors have been planned and completed since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the necessary insurance for nuclear operators is capped at just $375 million by law, with further claims funded by the utilities, up to a maximum of $12.6 billion.” Ultimate costs from accidents can be difficult to predict, but many estimates place total damages, including economic loss, in the trillions. You can read more on this discussion here, and also access a 1982 report to Congress that estimated the public health impacts and financial damages if a severe accident were to occur at an existing nuclear reactor site. The report estimated that a severe accident at just one of Southern Company’s existing Plant Vogtle reactors in Georgia could cause up to 39,000 immediate injuries and cost over $70 billion (in 1982 dollar and Census figures).

Additional information and resources:

  • A compilation of resources and updates from Green Action Japan;
  • Fairewinds Associates’ new video interview with radiation expert Professor Marco Kaltofen;
  • A New York Times opinion editorial by Dr. Helen Caldicott discussing radiation health effects and physicians’ responsibility to engage in the nuclear debate;
  • The German affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War’s  report, Health Effects of Chernobyl: 25 Years After the Reactor Catastrophe; and
  • The Discovery Channel’s informative program hosted by Paula Zahn, Nuclear Nightmare: Japan in Crisis, found in three parts on YouTube: part 1, 2 and 3.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster once again reinforces the need to challenge the paradigms that leave citizens responsible for the risks regulators and policymakers allow private industry to take. Now is the time to take a stand for clean, safe energy efficiency measures and renewable energy choices that do not threaten our economy, health and environment. If not now, when?

Guest Blog
My Profile