Two years after Fukushima: a complicated reality

Guest Blog | March 11, 2013 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

UPDATE: On today’s 2-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a landmark decision occurred here in the U.S. that squelches the so-called nuclear renaissance even further. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Commissioners today upheld last summer’s licensing board denial of a construction/operating license for the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 nuclear reactor in Maryland. The decision marks the first time in history that the NRC Commissioners have upheld the denial of a license for a commercial nuclear reactor.

The so-called “nuclear renaissance” was seemingly ground to a halt by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, which triggered the partial meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Two years later, Japan is still dealing with the challenges of trying to clean up radiation, a dangerous and invisible mess affecting communities near and far from Fukushima. Tens of thousands of residents who lived near the damaged nuclear complex are banned from likely ever going home and over 300,000 evacuees impacted by the natural disaster are still living in temporary housing. Those brave individuals that have already and continue to risk their health to work at the heavily damaged Fukushima site are exhausted and face criticism for their association with Tepco, the utility who owned and operated the nuclear complex.

The road ahead is long, with decommissioning predicted to take 30-40 years and costs of potentially $100 billion — a newly revised ‘roadmap’ is due out this June. But remarkably, the recently elected conservative government is seeking to reverse Japan’s previous commitment to phasing out nuclear energy by 2040. Read more about the status of affairs in Japan in our December blog.

In the United States, the sputtering “renaissance” was already experiencing major setbacks when the Fukushima nuclear disaster started two years ago today. Building new nuclear reactors is a very risky investment and, despite anti-consumer legislation and federal subsidies that put ratepayers and taxpayers on the hook for future reactors, the nuclear industry is still beleaguered by problems. These  complicated, expensive projects take over a decade, perhaps more, to build. Of the 29 reactors proposed in 2009, five have been cancelled and another six suspended, while only four have gained federal license approval from the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Of those approved, the two proposed Vogtle reactors in Georgia are finally getting some political push-back (V.C. Summer in South Carolina represent the other two currently licensed proposed reactors). Costs at Vogtle are almost $1 billion over budget, or more, as outlined in this analysis by former Georgia Public Service Commissioner Bobby Baker, and the project has been delayed at least 18 months; leaving utility customers on the hook while Southern Company profits from their mistakes. Unfortunately, legislation to fix this obvious unfairness failed to pass in the Georgia state legislature last week. Nevertheless, Vogtle is now firmly in the spotlight, which is an indication that the tide is turning and ratepayers and some policy makers are getting more and more frustrated.

Newly proposed reactors in Florida were supposed to be next in the pipeline for licensing by the NRC, but schedules for these beleaguered projects continue to be pushed further and further into the future. Recent estimates suggest these proposed plants could be almost a decade delayed — now in the early to mid 2020’s. Plagued by staggering cost overruns and mounting public and political opposition to a state law that allows utilities to charge a ‘nuclear tax’ up front for distant projects, these reactors are unlikely to ever be completed. However, the anti-consumer legislation passed in 2006, means that ratepayers have already shelled out about $1.3 billion for four proposed reactors that are estimated to cost over $40 billion. Ratepayer outrage has grown over the years as these projects have gotten more mired in problems. Consequently, there is legislation proposed to repeal this law in the Florida State House and in the Senate that aims to amend the bill to prevent the utilities from profiting if the projects are cancelled. It seems that, if nothing else, the issue will finally be discussed in Tallahassee.

Internationally, several countries remain committed to phasing out nuclear power, including Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Though there are 66 reactors under construction worldwide, mostly in Asian countries, with China in the lead for the number of reactors proposed and under construction, this is fewer than originally planned prior to the Fukushima nuclear accident. (And of course, there is no guarantee that all will actually be completed or ever operate.) As  reported by Reuters, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Technology Review for 2013 said, “The impact of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continued to be felt in 2012 in the relatively low overall number of construction starts on new reactors.”

Globally, two years after the most devastating nuclear power accident since Chernobyl in 1986, the resurgence of the nuclear industry is sputtering. But as memories fade and media attention pivots elsewhere, policy makers are lobbied by powerful utilities and nuclear industry interests and their proponents. As a result, governments across the world continue to ignore or overlook the affordable, safe and clean energy choices available today — renewables such as wind and solar and energy efficiency and measures to reduce energy demand. It will take all of us to remain committed to continually remind each other and our elected officials that we cannot allow another Fukushima to happen or another Chernobyl or another Three Mile Island. In order to ensure the health of not only our families but of everyone’s families, now and in the future, we must remain committed to securing a clean, safe affordable energy future. Please help Southern Alliance for Clean Energy do just this — please become a member today.

Additional Resources:

  • Union of Concerned Scientists produces a nuclear power plant safety report, listing all of the near misses for the year. Check here to see if you live near one of the 14 plants that experienced safety scares in 2012.
  • Former U.S. NRC Commissioner Perter Bradford offers an interesting perspective in his recent paper, “How to close the U.S. nuclear industry: Do nothing.”
  • Recent interview with nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates discussing the book “Japan’s Tipping Point” with author Mark Pendergrast.
  • Greenpeace released a new report, Fukushima Fallout, which they announce in this blog, which contains a heart-wrenching video of people directly impacted by the nuclear disaster. Greenpeace also took the World Health Organization to task for under reporting future cancer risks in a recent WHO report and for being in collusion with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

–SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices Program Director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this post.

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