Three months since beginning of Fukushima nuclear disaster
From: Damon Moglen, Climate and Energy Director, Friends of the Earth U.S.
Subject: Three months ago, the Fukushima nuclear disaster began
This weekend marked the three-month anniversary of the start of the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan. Spurred by the massive earthquake and resultant tsunami of March 11, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has now been revealed as the worst since Chernobyl and perhaps the worst in history—and the devastating situation is far from over.
What we know already, despite the initial denials of TEPCO, the plant operator, is that within hours of these natural disasters, the three reactors that had been operating at the Fukushima site experienced total core meltdowns which in turn lead to breaches of the reactors’ containment. The explosions that followed at all three reactors released massive amounts of radiation directly into the air and in turn into the sea rendering large areas, water, vegetation and food stuffs contaminated. In turn, tens of thousands of Japanese have been forced from their homes, becoming refugees in their own country and unlikely to be able to ever return to their homes. Overall, millions of Japanese have been and will be subjected to radioactive contamination which may cause damaging if not fatal cancers in the future.
Three months on the crisis in Japan is still unfolding, as are its implications for the nuclear industry in the United States. We hope you will continue to cover this important story, and that the following information and resources will be of assistance as you do so. Friends of the Earth nuclear experts are available to provide additional information on request.
The worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl
The earthquake struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant the afternoon of March 11, immediately shutting down the facility’s three operational reactors, with three other reactors already inactive due to maintenance. As the cooling systems failed and as back-up generators were disabled by a 45-foot tsunami wave, heat and pressure built to dangerous levels, leading to multiple fires and explosions (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282). In reports released more than two months later, Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted that three of the reactors suffered complete core meltdowns, causing breaches in their containment chambers and large releases of radiation (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-24/tepco-confirms-meltdown-of-no-2-3-reactors-at-fukushima-1-.html).
More than 80,000 people were evacuated from a 20-kilometer radius around the plant (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13153339), and the Japanese government is now considering expanding the evacuation zone over worries about still-high radiation levels (http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/govt-may-expand-scope-of-evacuation-order-in-fukushima). It is unlikely that many of these evacuees will ever be able to return home.
An even worse crisis may have been prevented due to the valiant efforts of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, who volunteered to remain behind knowing that the exposure to extremely high doses of radiation could shorten their lives. The so-called Fukushima Fifty, actually numbering in the hundreds, braved miserable living conditions and daily challenges as they sought to bring the nuclear reactors back under control (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1371616/Fukushima-Fifty-shun-sleep-food-water-battle-Japan-nuclear-crisis.html). Chillingly, it has now been revealed that many workers were sent into contaminated areas without radiation badges, making it impossible for them to know what doses they received and over what time periods.
No end in sight
Questions are still arising over Japan’s initial and continuing response to the nuclear crisis. Top nuclear advisor Toshiso Kosako resigned in protest over a government decision to allow schoolchildren near the Fukushima reactor to receive high doses of radiation, potentially increasing their risk of developing cancer (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/world/asia/01japan.html?ref=asia). Further, tens of thousands of tons of radioactive water used to cool the Fukushima Daiichi reactors have been purposefully and accidentally released into the ocean, threatening the safety of fish stocks and leading to an uproar from local communities and fishermen and from neighboring countries outraged by Japan’s non-compliance with international norms. (http://e.nikkei.com/e/fr/tnks/Nni20110608D08JF220.htm).
Recent disclosures reveal that the situation at Fukushima was much worse than originally thought. Estimates of the radiation released into the air during the first few days of the disaster have been revised to 770,000 terabecquerels, one-sixth of the total radiation released at Chernobyl and more than double an earlier estimate of 370,000 terabecquerels (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-06-07/world/japan.nuclear_1_nuclear-accident-radioactive-release-nuclear-plant?_s=PM:WORLD). And these released figures only address the aerial releases—Japanese authorities have yet to account for the massive amounts of radiation released into the open ocean (amounts which may prove comparable to the aerial releases). Japan also admitted to being unprepared for the nuclear crisis, citing design flaws and lack of protection for workers (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/sns-ap-as-japan-earthquake,0,3608283.story).
The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is still ongoing, with reactors not expected to achieve a complete cold shutdown until April 2012 or later, despite earlier announcements that cold shutdown would be reached by the end of 2011 (http://www.dbune.com/news/business/6296-tokyo-electric-moves-target-date-for-stabilizing-fukushima-reactors-to-april-2012.html). There is also the question of stabilizing and storing the radioactive waste, including the vast amounts of radioactive water used to cool the reactors. Finally, the lasting impact of the released radiation will have tragic long-term implications for residents of the Fukushima region and potentially wider areas across Japan.
Further headwinds for the nuclear industry in the U.S.
The shocking situation at Fukushima has reawakened concerns over the safety of nuclear power in the United States. President Obama called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review the safety of the 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/17/ap/politics/main20044397.shtml), including 23 that are of the same GE Mark I design as the reactors in which the meltdowns occurred in Japan. The industry’s plans to build new reactors in the U.S. are running into increasingly substantial roadblocks.
Nuclear reactors are risky financial investments. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the chances of a nuclear power firm defaulting on its loans for reactor construction to be more than 50 percent (http://cboblog.cbo.gov/?cat=19). In light of the disaster in Japan, financial analysts further downgraded expectations for nuclear plants in the United States (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/14/us-nrg-nuclear-idUSTRE72D7VH20110314). Shares plummeted for a variety of nuclear-related companies in the days after the Fukushima explosions, including 25 percent and 11.5 percent drops for Uranium Resources, Inc. and PowerShares Global Nuclear Energy, respectively, illustrating a lack of investor confidence in the nuclear industry (http://247wallst.com/2011/03/15/nuclear-power-gets-killed-all-over-again-japan-watch-pkn-nucl-ura-usu-ccj-shaw-urre-ge/#ixzz1GgO4S7Fz).
There has been no new reactor construction started in the U.S. since 1977 (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf41.html), due to overwhelming concerns about cost and safety. And even though the industry has in recent years been attempting a resurgence – President Obama set aside $55 billion in potential bailouts for the construction of new nuclear plants in his 2011 budget proposal after declaring his support for “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” in his 2010 State of the Union address (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35236957/ns/politics/t/loan-guarantees-recharge-nuclear-debate/) – the political goodwill that the industry spent millions buying may now not be sufficient to garner the government support required for reactor construction.
Mounting opposition to nuclear power
The Fukushima crisis highlighted for the public the unavoidable risks associated with nuclear power. A recent CBS poll shows that public support for new nuclear plants is now at only 43 percent, down from 58 percent three years ago and lower even than the 46 percent support the industry received after the Three Mile Island accident (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23poll.html?_r=1). This is hardly the only obstacle the industry confronts.
· Proposed nuclear plants in Texas have been scrapped, mainly for financial reasons. Exelon cancelled plans to construct a twin-unit nuclear plant in Victoria County, Tex., citing lower electricity demand (http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/31/a-nuclear-giant-moves-into-wind/), in order to focus on wind energy instead (http://archive.chicagobreakingbusiness.com/2010/12/exelon-completes-purchase-of-john-deere-wind-unit.html). Plans for two other Texas reactors have fizzled due to “uncertain economics.” (http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/aid-sought-for-nuclear-plants/)
· After ground was broken for new nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, construction prospects were impeded by serious questions about the safety of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built at those sites. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had previously been expected to approve the reactors by the end of summer, significant delays are now expected after flawed calculations in Westinghouse’s submission “led to more questions,” according to chairman Gregory Jaczko (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/21/business/energy-environment/21nuke.html). See Friends of the Earth’s formal comments highlighting the safety concerns posed by the AP1000 design: /sites/default/files/Gundersen_FOE_Report_5-10-2011.pdf
· A bill to fund new nuclear reactors in Iowa, previously thought to be a sure victory for the nuclear industry, is now facing strong opposition. The reactor(s) would be constructed by MidAmerican Energy and financed through utility rate hikes, allowing MidAmerican to keep the money regardless of whether the reactors are actually built. “We got the details and realized that the rate payers really have to have all the risk in this thing,” said State Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo) (http://statehousenewsonline.com/2011/05/10/some-see-support-eroding-for-nuclear-power-plant-bill/). Popular opposition to the construction of new nuclear reactors is jeopardizing the bill’s once-certain future, as polls show that 75 percent of Iowans are unwilling to pay more for dangerous and expensive nuclear reactors (http://thegazette.com/2011/04/27/iowa-house-takes-huge-step-on-proposed-new-iowa-nuclear-plant/).
Friends of the Earth experts are available for interviews and to provide more background information about the crisis in Japan and how the U.S. nuclear industry is being affected. Please contact us if we can be of assistance.
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