Fukushima Disaster and the Future of Nuclear Energy (Fukushima, Japan)

March 11th marks the one year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Since then, the nuclear power debate has predominantly, and understandably so, focused on safety issues. The consequences of a nuclear accident on human life and the environment are substantial. It’s difficult to predict how many people will die due to exposure at Fukushima; however, the fifty-thousand people who had to leave behind their homes during the evacuation have had their lives altered, their futures distorted from everything they were working towards. And of course people died during the evacuation as the toll is all too demanding on the elderly.  As for the environment,  Japan estimates that the cleanup of radioactive materials can take up to fifty years and 100 billion USD. But who really knows for sure.

Six weeks shy of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Fukushima accident has shifted public perception of nuclear energy towards safety concerns over energy needs. Chernobyl was painted as Soviet era technology that was inferior and resembled little to the reactors in countries like France, Japan, and the US. But the feeling is that if this could happen to Japan, this could happen to any country.

Supporters argue that there are benefits to nuclear power in a world trying to cope with climate change and rising oil prices. When examined prudently, nuclear power in many ways resembles a middle path. It reduces direct carbon emissions, but instead high-level radioactive waste must be stored somewhere safe for thousands of years. It isn’t a form a renewable energy, but it is a sustainable one that can give energy independence. Japan produces the third most electricity in the world and generated close to 25% of that from nuclear.

James M. Acton, a physicist and senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, will be releasing his study entitled, ‘Does Nuclear Power Have a Future in the Post-Fukushima World?’, in the coming month. He spoke recently in Beijing about his concerns for nuclear power, and the major theme resonating throughout was prevention. The real tragedy of Fukushima: it was completely preventable. More so, there are no new lessons to be learned; only reinforced already practiced international nuclear safety standards of prudent and redundant checks and backups.

When examining the Fukushima disaster, Mr. Acton identified three major safety problems that led to his conclusion that it was completely preventable. First of all, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) who operated the GE designed boiling water reactors paid no attention to the history and geography of the region. The top-down decision making approach TEPCO had enforced resulted with the local knowledge of flooding being largely ignored in favor of the bottom line thinking 300km away head office in Tokyo.

For instance, the backup generators could have been installed on higher ground to safeguard them from tsunamis and flooding. It would have heightened the risk from earthquakes, even though buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes. It came down to a financial issue, TEPCO chose cheaper, not safer. Allegedly, in 1967 prior to construction but after the plans were approved, they changed the design of their emergency cooling system without reporting it due to financial concerns.

Secondly, there were poor and deficient computer models testing possible scenarios. This mirrors the public atmosphere of trust in nuclear power and the general attitude of – not invincibility – but being inconceivably detached from the idea that an accident could happen. How much so, they didn’t even have an emergency plan drawn up for in the event of a major disaster. This explains why some commentators claimed that Japan’s reaction was improvised, on the spot, winging it.

There’s no question that everything happened so fast – within an hour of the earthquake that cut the power to the plant, the backup emergency diesel generators were flooded by the tsunami and there was no electricity to kick in the automated cooling and meltdown ensued – but with no emergency contingency plan in place, decisions with dealing with the accident were made in haste, and presumably shock. Mr. Acton believes that the operators performed as best they could under the circumstances and the poor conditions in the moments directly after the disaster.

But what about the regulatory body in Japan, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), surely they must have had some input. Unfortunately, NISA is not an independent agency, but are under the government’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. They have also been criticized for being too close to the power industry. To whatever extent NISA was influenced by government and industry has no bearing on their great lack of imagination and preparation for a worst case scenario.

Not even the energy industry in Japan thought this possible. By their own request, nuclear operators in Japan are 100% liable for accidents. They wanted to prove to the public that nuclear power is safe. The irony of it all is that Japan’s nuclear safety regulations leave something to be desired in comparison international standards. With so much at stake, why didn’t TEPCO take extra precautions? As Mr. Acton stated, nuclear safety is all about prevention, not emergency response to it, and TEPCO and NISA fell short on both counts.

This leads to the third problem Mr. Acton found; risks studies were not reviewed, and all parties were negligent in their regulations. Despite being the largest earthquake recorded in Japan since 1900, and the fourth largest in the world, it doesn’t make for a valid excuse. TEPCO was aware as early as 2008, from an internal investigation no less, about the potential of a tsunami wave reaching 10.2 meters. The sea walls protecting the nuclear plant were at 5.7 meters in height. Apparently, officials at TEPCO felt that it was exaggerated and unrealistic that a wave of that magnitude could strike. The actual tsunami wave that hit the plant towered in at 13 meters. Another sad irony: only four days earlier NISA received this report.

Completely preventable naturally induced man-made catastrophe. Having faith, believing it impossible, instead of prepared for the worst and hoping for the best. If Japan did like Europe, then reasoning suggests that this could have been prevented without even having knowledge of tsunamis. Safety measures in EU are standard for preventing power failures, so that if something happens there will always be power to kick in the emergency-cooling systems.

From one country’s negligence resulting in disaster, countries are questioning their stance on nuclear power: Italy banned it; Germany pledged to phase it out in a decade; China paused their plans for approving any new nuclear reactors. Japan is very dependent on nuclear energy so the biggest change is in society’s perception. They are now questioning nuclear safety like never before, and this input should lead to increased and improved regulations.

But then there are countries whose position hasn’t changed a bit. Iran, with their Russian plants, and government regulator has not shifted their desire for nuclear ambitions. They have said a Fukushima like disaster won’t ever happen to them. A scary echo of the sentiment Japan felt: it assumes no risk.

North Korea takes it a step further because they are doing their nuclear projects alone. Mr Acton described North Korea’s nuclear energy plans as “terrifying”. Normally it takes ten years from building to producing electricity. North Korea predicts it will be two years from start to finish, but in reality Mr. Acton estimates closer to four of five years. Why so long elsewhere? Redundant safety standards and checks holds up the process.

At present there is no international regulator for nuclear energy, nor should there be one. There is international cooperation on safety, but having an international regulator would in essence take the responsibility away from the country and operator. National regulators are easier to enforce, and are more effective. It makes the country completely responsible for their own safety.

There will always be risk in energy production. Mining coal is dangerous; burning it causes great levels of pollution and increases climate change. The Tar Sands for oil, and fracking for natural gas poisons our water, amongst other horrible consequences. Even renewables have the risk potential of not being dependable to supply enough electricity. Japan irresponsibly neglected the risk of natural disasters their geography is prone to, and the effect it could have on their nuclear reactors.

Unquestionably, there are safety risks concerned with nuclear energy. Fukushima has supplied ample arguments against its continued use, and knee-jerk reactions for its ban. But does the risk climate change pose on our planet, with the burning of fossil fuels driving it, outweigh the risk of using a dangerous but sustainable, cleaner energy source in nuclear?

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