Remembering Fukushima One Year Later

Stephen Smith | March 8, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

The tragic natural disasters that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 — a massive earthquake and horrifying tsunami — forever changed the lives for tens of thousands of Japanese, killing more than 20,000 people, and also impacted people across the world. The resulting nuclear disaster that unfolded, and is still underway, at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility (which will never again operate) then made an unbearable situation far, far worse and has subsequently impacted not only Japan’s energy future, but that of the nations across the world.

Unfortunately we have now written blogposts commemorating the anniversaries of several devastating and preventable energy-related disasters that have occurred here in the southeastern United States — the Kingston coal ash disaster in Tennessee over the Christmas holiday of 2008 and the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil disaster in 2010. I consider the Fukushima nuclear disaster to be part of this unfortunate trend and consider all three a sort of “high-risk energy choices trifecta” given the global ramifications that are still unfolding from the meltdown of three nuclear reactors that are more than 9,000 miles from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee. And though Fukushima was triggered by monumental natural disasters, safeguards were not instituted at the nuclear facility that could have likely prevented the subsequent failures and eventual evacuation of nearly 100,000 Japanese from their homes.

As a means to commemorate the worst nuclear power disaster this century, I would encourage everyone to watch the excellent, gripping PBS Frontline piece, “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown,” which recently aired and provides a detailed analysis of what actually was happening versus what we were led to believe was happening.

To hear the former Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan (who resigned last August essentially because of criticism on how he handled the multiple disasters) state that he gave the approval to deliberately release unsafe levels of radioactivity in order to avert a more serious accident and order “suicide squads” to go into the damaged nuclear complex in an attempt to bring it under control was surreal. An excerpt below at ~19:30 into the program stated:

Narrator: “The Prime Minister knew his orders might condemn the men who went into the reactors to death. But he felt Japan’s future was at stake.”

Prime Minister Kan: “For me it was a very difficult decision. But I thought it had to be done, and I did it.”

How can an energy option that some of our elected officials, including President Obama, tout as “clean and safe” require suicide squads to be called in if a serious accident occurs in order to protect the future of an entire nation? Why are our leaders continually clinging to a technology that countries across the world are abandoning and that poses such high risks to society when safe, affordable options exist? And why have our regulators, such as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, given approval in a 4-to-1 vote last month to Southern Company’s dogged pursuit of two new Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at their existing Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia before the “lessons learned” from Fukushima have been gleaned and incorporated into nuclear reactor operation and licensing processes?

There is an easy answer of course: money and power. Power companies, the nuclear industry and its proponents have tremendous influence over national and state politics and the regulatory agencies overseeing the industry. And that same situation applied to Japan. And Fukushima happened. A February 2012 article in the New York Times reported on testimony provided by Haruki Madarame, Japan’s nuclear safety chief, to a Japan Parliament-sponsored inquiry that highlighted this untenable situation:

In surprisingly frank public testimony on Wednesday, Japan’s nuclear safety chief said the country’s regulations were fundamentally flawed and laid out a somber picture of a nuclear industry shaped by freewheeling power companies, toothless regulators and a government more interested in promoting nuclear energy than in safeguarding the health of its citizens.

Perhaps if everyone understood how they and their families could be impacted if a severe accident was to occur at a nuclear plant near them, things would change? When I walked along the beaches I grew up on during the Gulf Oil disaster, the seriousness of the issue certainly hit home. But the reality is we just have to look to Japan to see what can and did happen. An economy was devastated, thousands are still displaced from their homes, valuable land was rendered uninhabitable, and looming concerns about long-term health impacts that will begin to emerge years from now rest heavily on the minds of those exposed to radiation spewed by the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools.

This month SACE will post several more Fukushima-related blogs and we encourage you to read along and comment. We also hope that you, your family and friends, neighbors and colleagues will take part in events being organized across the region to call attention to the Fukushima disaster. Most importantly, we hope that you will commemorate this terrible anniversary by learning more about the Fukushima disaster and reaching out to your elected officials at all levels of government and ask them to move this country toward a safe, sustainable energy future — not one that relies upon such high risk energy choices that can forever disrupt our economy, environmental and health and safety.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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