Fukushima lessons still haven’t been learned three years later
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Three years ago this month an earthquake struck Eastern Japan, sparking a tsunami and a triple reactor meltdown in Fukushima. While the disaster has faded from much of the world’s memory, it is an ongoing tragedy for the 83,000 residents of Eastern Japan waiting to return home to an evacuation zone the size of Connecticut. Tokyo Electric Power Company, commonly known as TEPCO, and the Japanese government continue to struggle cleaning up the reactor site and surrounding areas.
The disaster at Fukushima should serve as yet another reminder that nuclear power can never be safe or clean. Fukushima didn’t only rouse the ire of those already fighting nuclear power as a dangerous and dirty technology. The catastrophe also turned some pro-nuclear officials, such as then Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and former NRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko. Reflecting on the Fukushima catastrophe, former Prime Minister Kan said “After experiencing the disaster of March 11, I changed my thinking 180- degrees completely… There is only one way to eliminate accidents, which is to get rid of all nuclear power plants.”
Reiterating Kan’s sentiment, former Chairman Jazcko added “The question Japan has to ask itself is: Is the country willing to have another accident? And if the answer is no, then the answer has to be no more nuclear power.”
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns. Sadly, most of the events that led to the catastrophe at Fukushima were known knowns and known unknowns. The fact that Japan is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis has been common knowledge for millennia, though no one can predict when or with what intensity these events will strike. Nuclear engineers have been aware of flaws in the Fukushima reactor designs for decades, yet nuclear operators are opposed to spending money on safety upgrades and regulators are loath to cross them. Taken together, these facts should be more than enough to determine that nuclear reactors are not a safe or economic way to generate power.
The issue of spent nuclear fuel – fuel that has been irradiated in a reactor to produce power and is now high level waste – is another critical flaw for nuclear reactors. Nuclear regulators around the world have known about the risks presented by spent fuel pools full of nuclear waste with nowhere to go for almost as long as the nuclear industry has existed. TEPCO has recently begun the painstaking process of emptying the Fukushima spent fuel pools. This is a delicate process because spent fuel pools actually contain much more radiation than the nuclear fuel inside reactors. With the reactor buildings already damaged by the earthquake, tsunami and hydrogen explosions they are vulnerable to further damage that could release huge amounts of radiation.
Tragically, the NRC has failed to learn from the Japanese experience at Fukushima. A recently released piece of the NRC’s post-Fukushima review of U.S. reactor safety revealed that an accident at a spent fuel pool here – where fuel is packed much more densely than in Japan – could render 9,400 square miles uninhabitable, forcing 4.1 million people to evacuate their homes for 30 years or more. Nuclear engineer and safety advocate Arnie Gunderson comments on this situation in the context of the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Mass., “Is Pilgrim any different from Fukushima Daiichi? The reactor is identical to Daiichi’s units 2 and 3. In a critical way, it’s worse. The Japanese have seven or eight years of spent fuel stored there, we have 35 years of spent fuel sitting in a pool in Pilgrim, and the pool sits on top of a building.” Even in the face of this staggering analysis, the NRC has thus far refused to act to store spent fuel more safely.
Senator Markey (D-MA) said it best: “Three years later, it is past time to immediately act to implement all of the NRC technical staffs’ recommendations and ensure Americans, especially those living near nuclear reactors, are safe.” This is why we’ve filed a petition with the NRC to re-evaluate spent fuel pool and reactor licensing regulations in light of information coming out of their ongoing post-Fukushima review. Commemorate this somber anniversary by taking action to demand that the NRC does everything in its power to ensure that the next nuclear accident isn’t in your back yard. Contact the NRC now to support our safety petition.
Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency staff tour the Fukushima reactor site. Photo credit to IAEA