This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.Guest Blog | March 16, 2011
All eyes continue to be on Japan, as the death toll continues to climb and yet another reactor suffers an explosion at Fukushimi Daiichi nuclear plant. It is getting increasingly difficult to decipher what is happening on the ground. Since Tuesday, multiple explosions have occurred. Two fires have also occurred at reactor Unit 4 — the second discovered early Wednesday morning (they are 13 hours ahead of ET), causing serious concerns. The New York Times reports that radiation levels were 800 times more intense than the recommended hourly exposure limit in Japan after the second explosion at reactor Unit 2, which appears to have damaged the inner reactor containment vessel. The spent fuel pools within may have also suffered damage. Reuters reports that the spent fuel pool may be boiling, which is a considerable concern due to the increased likelihood that radiation will escape into the atmosphere. Nuclear engineer and technical expert Arnie Gundersen commented, “There is more radiation in the spent fuel pool than in the reactor. They need to keep water in those pools because the roof over the building housing the pools is already damaged and radiation will escape.”To make matters worse, other spent fuel pools within the complex are also potentially experiencing issues with failure in cooling.
While the situation worsens in Japan, the debate over new nuclear in the United States intensifies. Yesterday, we reported that U.S. Representative Markey is urging President Obama to halt domestic nuclear plans until a full assessment of this country’s emergency preparedness is done. In contrast, Secretary of Energy Chu says he “think[s] we are in good hands” and that the Japanese crisis should not interrupt nuclear plans in the U.S. in spite of the Japanese situation worsening. The nuclear lobby is out in full force in D.C., trying to reassure shaken lawmakers. Meanwhile, Iowa lawmakers may be softening their support of new legislation that would place more of the financial burden on utility ratepayers and make building nuclear plants easier in the state. And Southern Company somehow still believes that the proposed new Vogtle reactors in Georgia, the lead reactor project in the country, will be on time and on budget. For an industry founded on the concept of supposedly incorporating ‘lessons learned’ into their practices, this presumptuousness is troubling.
The New York Times reports that of the 104 reactors in the United States, 23 are the same General Electric Mark 1 reactor design as those at Fukushima. Some examples in the Southeastern U.S. include TVA’s Browns Ferry in Alabama, Southern Company’s Plant Hatch in Georgia and Progress’ Brunswick plant in North Carolina. See the full list of reactor designs here in the U.S. from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This reactor design has had safety concerns since the 1970’s, with special concern over the ability of the containment structure to withstand explosions and contain the core during and after hydrogen explosions and along with the vulnerability of the spent fuel pools.
As policymakers and people in the U.S. consider their stance on nuclear power, other countries took their opposition to the streets. Sixty thousand people formed a 27-mile human chain in Germany, while people in Italy, France, and Taiwan also protested.
We believe that a pause must happen; a careful consideration of the world events occurring and thorough evaluation must take place before committing billions and billions of dollars into what has proved to be a very challenging energy choice when circumstances don’t go the way that utilities or regulators ever believed was possible. As we look at Japan’s continuing nuclear disaster, it’s not just resulting in financial impacts — human lives are at stake, some have already been lost, and more may be lost as the plant workers heroically try to prevent what may end up being the worst nuclear power disaster the world has ever faced and the surrounding communities deal with what has become their reality.