Japan Nuclear Disaster Update March 25

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | March 26, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Two weeks have now passed since the fateful earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. More than 10,000 people have died and another 17,500 are still missing and hundreds of thousands are without shelter and adequate care. Compounding the crisis is the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi site, which continues to be plagued by significant setbacks. Conditions remain highly unstable as officials widened the evacuation zone around the six-reactor nuclear plant from 12 miles to 19 miles. American citizens had already been advised by the U.S. government to evacuate to 50 miles. Reactor Unit 3 continues to cause the most concern; it is suspected that the integrity of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in the spent pool has been damaged. New reports also suspect that the reactor vessel may have been damaged. This nuclear fuel mixture of uranium and plutonium contains much higher levels of radiation than the uranium-based fuel used in the other reactors.

The seawater that has been used to cool the reactors and spent (used) fuel pools is causing an entirely different set of problems, as thousands of pounds of salt are accumulating and insulating the reactors and further complicating efforts to keep them cool. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has now switched to freshwater to prevent further salt accumulation and in attempt to dislodge some of the build up.

Sadly, three workers dealing with the third reactor were recently exposed to high levels or radiation (reportedly 10,000 times the level normally seen in coolant water at the plant) and have been hospitalized bringing the reported number of injured workers to over two dozen. “There is no safe level of radionuclide exposure, whether from food, water or other sources. Period,” said Jeff Patterson, DO, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.  “Exposure to radionuclides, such as iodine-131 and cesium-137, increases the incidence of cancer. For this reason, every effort must be taken to minimize the radionuclide content in food and water.” Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian pediatrician long active on nuclear proliferation issues, described some of the likely health effects from the Japanese nuclear disaster in an interview with CNN.

Some informative new resources:

  • The New York Times developed a useful interactive tool providing the updated status of multiple aspects of the nuclear complex;
  • The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research issued a press release late Friday discussing the high radioactivity measurements and the possible health impacts, including the fact that the radioactive iodine releases at the Fukushima Daiichi complex are 100,000 times greater than from the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island;
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies put he Japanese nuclear disaster into perspective in the article, Fukushima: What it Is and Isn’t;
  • Friends of the Earth issued a summary of how international financial markets are responding, as a variety of nuclear investments experienced serious downturns.

Discussions in the United States continue to heat up as experts, politicians, and even comedians focus in on the implications of this disaster on U.S. energy policy. Scientific American did an extensive piece on the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design that has been proposed for the majority of reactors in the southeast and across the U.S. — the same design proposed at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia — the lead new reactor project in the country. While supporters tout the design for the passive cooling measures built into the design, nuclear expert and engineer Arnie Gundersen says the very characteristics meant to more efficiently cool the reactor would also increase the likelihood of radioactive contamination getting into the environment. Gundersen released a report on this very issue in April of 2010, which you can access here.

Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinan has arranged a tour of Turkey Point for a congressional delegation and several Florida mayors this coming Monday, seeking to understand the plant’s safety and emergency preparedness. Concerned Floridians can click here for an opportunity to encourage her to ask hard-hitting questions.

Late show host and comedian David Letterman, who works near the Indian Point nuclear reactors, had Dr. Michio Kaku on his show. Dr. Kaku discussed the effects of the Fukushima disaster on Japan’s people, environment, and economy. Letterman exclaimed that he doesn’t want Indian Point, doesn’t need them and wants to know how to make them “go away.”

China, the current leader in new reactor development, has ordered safety reviews for all of its operating reactors and a temporary suspension of a new reactor licensing.

In marked contrast, here in the U.S. it appears currently that regulators, such as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are proceeding full steam ahead in their support of nuclear power despite the worsening events in Japan. For instance, the NRC shockingly issued the final supplemental environmental impact statement for Southern Company’s proposed two new AP-1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle.

Though the ultimate approval of the Vogtle federal license still has many hurdles to clear, we are deeply disappointed with the NRC’s apparent failure to take what would rightfully be considered a reasonable step to assess any possible “lessons learned” from the unfolding Japan nuclear disaster before issuing the final SEIS.

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