6/21: Japan Nuclear Disaster Update

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | June 21, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Three and a half months have passed since Japan was struck by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that led to nuclear meltdowns in three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi  nuclear facility. The severity of the crisis and the extent to which the government mishandled information is finally, slowly coming to light. As reported by the Daily Yomuiri, the Japanese government is under fire for not effectively using radiation data in their evacuation plans, which shockingly moved many people into the radiation plume rather than away from it.

According to the Daily Yomuiri, the ¥11 billion (yen) taxpayer-funded SPEEDI, a system used to make forecasts of radiation diffusion patterns, showed that the Tsushima district was experiencing high radiation doses. But this important information was not passed on to town authorities. “Mayor Tamotsu Baba said later, ‘We weren’t told anything important.’ ”

Additionally, it seems Tokyo Power and Electric Company (Tepco) also withheld critical information from the government and the public, although astonishingly they claim that “it never occurred to [them] to make it public.” It appears that any information that was given to the public seems to have been done without proper context to properly educate and inform citizens of the actual status of the reactors or the potential threats to their health.

An insightful and informative article by The New York Times reports on the deep mistrust among Prime Minister Kan, his advisers, regulators and officials at Tepco that further complicated the Japanese responses to the March 11 disaster:

The convoluted drama has exposed the underlying rifts behind Japan’s handling of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, which eventually resulted in explosions at four of the plant’s six reactors. Mutually suspicious relations between the prime minister’s aides, government bureaucrats and company officials obstructed smooth decision-making.

At the drama’s heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived him of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions.

The blame game is common after disasters: Hurricane Katrina epitomizes that fact here in the U.S. People want to know who to blame for the disaster and the resulting (often inadequate) response. In this case, most fingers seem to point to Tepco for what is proving to be an extensive history of cover-ups and deceit. One former employee that worked with Tepco for 12 years says he quit because the company refused to acknowledge or deal with the known risk of meltdown in the event of a tsunami and that it was taboo to talk about. An independent committee of academics and legal specialists has been established to fully investigate the cause of the accident and offer counsel on prevention of future accidents and new regulatory recommendations. The committee will hold hearings to question government officials, the Prime Minister and Tepco staff.

Amid all the hindsight analysis, the situation begs the question: why continue relying on such a risky energy technology? Some governments are asking the same question, as more vow to move toward a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy future that focuses more on energy efficiency and renewable energy. In Italy last week, voter turnout just for a referendum on nuclear power was strong at 57% and amazingly, 94% of those that voted, voted yes on a nuclear ban. Switzerland is on its way to phasing out nuclear, with the Swiss Cabinet voting to not replace aging reactors with new ones. If this decision is echoed by the upper cabinet, it would effectively phase out nuclear power in Switzerland by 2034.

These votes follow decisions by Germany and Japan to move away from nuclear power, amid large protests in both countries, to pursue less risky energy options such as renewables instead. Despite France’s dependence on nuclear energy for nearly 75% of its energy, a recent poll suggests the French overwhelmingly support a gradual shutdown of the country’s 58 reactors over the next 30 years. Despite public sentiment, the French government has vowed to expand its nuclear power capacity program and to increase nuclear exports to neighboring countries.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues the 90-day task force analysis of the safety of nuclear reactors. Their initial assessment is that U.S. reactors are safe, but that emergency preparedness plans and backup systems are lacking at some nuclear plants. However, an investigative report by the Associated Press concludes that the NRC has a history of “fudging the numbers” in order to allow aging nuclear reactors to remain compliant. An excerpt from the article states, “Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.” In short, the AP investigation accuses the NRC of weakening safety standards that are based on “overly conservative” calculations so that reactors could continue operating and delay implementation of expensive equipment upgrades.

Yet the Obama administration remains committed to nuclear power and new reactor proposals, despite public opposition. Protests organized by Japanese people were staged in New York against nuclear power and to stand in solidarity with residents of Japan, where even larger protests were organized. County officials in Fresno, California also took a stand against a proposal to build two nuclear reactors, voting unanimously “to withhold a letter of interest for the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group,” which is backed by France’s infamous nuclear giant, Areva. Efforts are being organized at the state and national level all over the country to put an end to anti-consumer and taxpayer funding schemes such as early cost recovery, construction work in progress and federal nuclear loan guarantees–all of which unfairly place the financial burden of building new reactors onto utility customers and taxpayers.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a part of this larger effort and continues to work to end federal nuclear loan guarantees. Please join us Thursday, June 23 at 11:30 am EST for an educational webinar with Michele Boyd of  Physicians for Social Responsibility as she discusses federal loan guarantees and state funding schemes such as early cost recovery. Click here to for more information and to register for the webinar.

As concerned citizens throughout the world reach out to their policy makers and elected officials to transform their energy sector away from risky, polluting energy options such as nuclear and fossil fuels, we are challenged to see what we can do to move us in a direction that will benefit not only today’s society but that of future generations. The question fundamentally rests upon whether there is the will to actually transform our society. We believe it is there and it is stirring and it will prevail. Take a step closer today by becoming a member of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.


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