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The Fukushima Accident's Legacy One Year Later

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Crossposted with The Green Grok and National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge blog.

Post updated with author's note, 3/12/2012.

A look at things a year after one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake erupted some 50 miles off Japan’s Tohoku coast. The ensuing tsunamis set off by the quake devastated communities up and down the Japanese coast, killing some 20,000 people. The one-two natural-disaster punch also triggered the shutdown and subsequent meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

While Fukushima is not the world’s worst nuclear accident (Chernobyl holds that dubious distinction having leaked about 10 times more radioactive material into the environment than Fukushima), there is plenty of fallout from the Japanese disaster still playing out.

Fukushima after the tsunami struck
The Fukushima nuclear plant crippled by the tsunami that struck Japan's coast in March 2011 is an accident still being played out. (Photo: Jun Teramoto/Flickr)

Japan Still Reeling

Perhaps the greatest enduring tragedy is what’s been transpiring in the 12 miles surrounding the Fukushima plants. Some 80,000 people have had to abandon their homes because of radiation contamination, and it’s estimated that it will be more than 20 years before the land will be habitable for humans. That’s a lot of real estate for a small nation of islands to give up.

Another set of problems stems from the nuclear plants themselves. Completely dismantling them is projected to take 30-40 years. And while authorities seemed to have passed a major milestone last December, their announced cold shutdown (a technical term normally describing the safe and stable conditions in an intact nuclear reactor fuel core deemed necessary to prevent a chain reaction) was anything but normal. Although temperatures in the reactors had fallen below the 100-degree Celsius cutoff necessary for a cold shutdown, more than a hundred thousand gallons of water have had to be injected into the reactors daily to keep things copacetic. Even so, as recently as last month, radiation was discovered leaking from the plant.

Since the disaster, the Japanese nuclear industry has been in free fall. In the aftermath of the natural disasters and subsequent meltdown, all but two of the country’s 51 nuclear plants* were shut down; the two still operating are scheduled to cease operation in late April. Following the accident, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged a nuclear-energy-free Japan. However, Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s current prime minister, acknowledging in one breath “that the government shared the blame for the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” in another indicated a desire to get the country back on the nuclear-energy track.

Debris Field: Heading for North American Shores

Meanwhile, ocean currents are carrying eastward the debris knocked from Japanese coastal towns by the tsunamis. In September, a Russian training ship spotted debris from Japan, including a television set and a refrigerator, adrift some 1,800 miles from Japan. The find occurred just north of the Midway Islands, the northernmost atoll of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the largest marine reserve in the United States.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that bits of debris will begin washing up on small islands northwest of Hawaii soon and on the coasts of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Canada between March 2013 and 2014. Fortunately, whatever floats ashore will not arrive as a flotilla; the stuff will have spread out over such a wide swath of ocean that just bits and pieces will make the full voyage and even then only a tiny proportion of the estimated 20-25 million tons of debris will make it.

The good news is that this debris field is a legacy of the tsunami and unrelated to the nuclear accident. No need to worry about the stuff being radioactive, but it will be hazardous to marine life.

(For an interesting simulation of the debris field check out this site.)

Global About-Face

In Fukushima’s wake came a wholesale reassessment of nuclear energy. Germany and Switzerland elected to end their nuclear power programs. Belgium also announced plans to exit the nuclear power game, but it has become torn by, among other things, the short deadline of 2015 and Europe’s mandated carbon targets. Recent U.S. moves show the United States is similarly of two minds.

The State of U.S. Nuclear Power

The U.S. nuclear energy program has been at a standstill since our own little nuclear mishap at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. (Note 3/12/2012: A colleague of mine pointed out after this was published that this sentence might give the wrong impression that Three Mile Island was the cause of America's nuclear plant stoppage. In fact, as noted in a recent piece in the Economist, "America's nuclear bubble burst not after the accident at Three Mile Island but five years before it." The reason: "building nuclear power plants is no longer a commercially feasible option: they are simply too expensive.") A steady number of about 100 nuclear power plants has been active for decades; today’s 104 reactors supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. In contrast, U.S. renewable energy generation (including hydroelectric) has been growing, so much so that it surpassed that of nuclear for the first three months of 2011.

But, Fukushima or no Fukushima, nuclear energy is not down for the count. In February the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the construction of two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia near the South Carolina border. And while the latest assessment by the U.S. Energy Information Administration sees the race between nuclear and renewable as essentially neck and neck, nuclear power seems to get a slight edge: projections for 2035 have nuclear supplying about 18 percent of the nation’s electricity and renewables only 16 percent.

But building a nuclear power plant requires lots and lots of bucks for capital costs -- costs that translate into lots and lots of risk for investors. And that capital outlay can scare investors away, and then bye-bye, new nuclear plant. But the nuclear industry has found other ways to raise the necessary funds. (See here and here.) The latest is called Construction Work in Progress -- a financing scheme that allows utilities to charge financing costs to their ratepayers in advance.

Whether incurred upfront or after the fact, the costs and overruns that nuclear plant construction inevitably leads to can hurt -- just look at the inflated electricity costs folks living in eastern North Carolina are paying (hundreds of millions of dollars in 2009 more than average state rates) thanks in part to the bulging debt from a nuclear deal sealed in 1982.

Safe or Safety Myth

Though it's just a year since Fukushima, and it will be another twenty or so before the damage recedes and can be fully assessed, folks are getting bullish about nuclear power, including the world's top three electricity users.

The U.S. NRC characterized its decision about the Vogtle plant as a “clarion call to the world that the United States recognizes the importance of expanding nuclear energy.”

Mere weeks after the green light for the new Vogtle reactors was announced, and after not approving any new nuclear power projects in 2011, the Chinese government announced plans for a new plant in Fujian province.

Chen Bingde, chief engineer of the Nuclear Power Institute of China and a member of a prominent government advisory body, is so confident about the safety of nuclear power plants he proclaimed that “in the near future, nuclear plants can be built right next to cities.” (Maybe, but those future urbanites might well want to know that Japan had considered evacuating Tokyo even as it played a PR game of playing down risks to the public. And, if Italians are any indication, the general public is not keen on nearby nukes. And as for current city-dwellers in close proximity to nuclear plants, even as I write, the fate of the Indian Point nuclear power plant some 35 miles from the island of Manhattan is being hotly debated.)

Japan’s Prime Minister Noda, reflecting on the causes of the Fukushima accident, provided a somewhat more somber assessment than Bingde: “The government, operator and the academic world were all too steeped in a safety myth.”

Here’s my take: There’s a world of difference between safety, acceptable risk, and too much risk. Nuclear power plants lie somewhere between the second and the third. Anyone who tells you they’re unqualifyingly safe is blowing smoke. Hopefully it won’t be radioactive.

More Information

Frontline‘s “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown”

Nuclear Crisis in Japan

The Nuclear Option: Waste Plan or a Wasteland?

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End Note

* Depending on the source, the number of nuclear reactors reported to be in Japan varies from 50 to 55. I suspect this variation arises from how reactor units are distinguished from a reactor. The number 51 reported here comes from the World Nuclear Association.

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