WHAT DOES JAPAN’S TRIPLE DISASTER TELL US ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY?

My heart goes out to the Japanese people. The March 11, 2011 earthquake was the largest in its recorded history; the fifth biggest globally in a century. The resulting tsunami swept whole settlements away as it surged inland, sometimes as far as a km. As though bad things do come in three, there then came the threat of a core meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear plants. The Prime Minister said it was Japan’s worst catastrophe since WW II, which we should remember ended with two Atom bombs being dropped on the country.

Those standing in shock on the flatlands of debris where villages once stood might have had flashes of Hiroshima or Nagasaki being leveled in 1945. Today’s radiation threat, however, didn’t come from nuclear bombs, but through a series of interlocking disasters. The earthquake, measuring 9, cut power off at the Fukushima nuclear complex. The pumps keeping water going over the reactor core shut down, and the extremely hot fuel was exposed; threatening a core melt-down and trans-continental radiation release such as happened at Chernobyl. Officials thought that they had diesel generators as a back-up, but these were in a reactor basement and were damaged by the tsunami.

A building exploded from the build-up of hydrogen gas at reactor # 1. To stop things getting totally out of control the decision was made to pump sea-water to try to cool the core. This was a desperate measure, because it pretty much trashes the reactors for future use. Two days later another explosion occurred at reactor # 3.

It’s lucky the nuclear complex was near the ocean; otherwise the reactors might have immediately gone into full meltdown. As I write, Fukushima reactor # 2 is also malfunctioning and a full meltdown is not ruled out, and a state of emergency has been declared at another nuclear plant at Onagawa. And we learn from Beyond Nuclear that spent fuel rods (nuclear waste) containing lots of plutonium is stored on top of one of the reactors at or near where an explosion occurred. These too can “melt down.”

NUCLEAR UNKNOWNS

It is this complexity of dangerous unknowns that makes nuclear power so contentious.  By looking at the combination of natural and technological disasters we can learn much about how to get serious about human sustainability.

For a while there seemed to be a complete breakdown of communication. While being interviewed by the BBC, a respected nuclear expert, Walter Patterson, asked the Japanese government’s spokesperson whether the control room was still operating and providing reliable information about what’s happening in the core. The spokesperson said he didn’t know. Later it was reported that there was a partial core meltdown, later it was reported that the reactor temperatures weren’t dropping as they should, since starting to pump sea-water. Though officials didn’t want to create panic, they clearly know the risk is great, for 200,000 people were evacuated from a 25 km zone around the Fukushima plants. And there have been reports that iodine pills are being distributed.

ORIGINS OF CRISIS

The Island of Japan was created by earthquakes and the steady building of nuclear plants there has been contentious for decades. A seismologist has now gone public saying that he advised authorities to not allow nuclear plants on Japan’s geological faults. But nuclear industry “experts” continued to argue that their reactors are among the best designed on the planet. Apparently that wasn’t good enough!

The nuclear industry continues to promote itself as the alternative to the fossil fuels which create greenhouses gases and climate change. Japan is the country where this scenario has already been tested.  With its high-energy industrial economy, Japan used to depend on importing foreign oil. When the oil crisis occurred in the mid-1970s Japan decided to enhance its energy security by quickly expanding its nuclear fleet. Now nuclear power is Japan’s greatest single source of electricity (33%), with natural gas and coal not far behind. After the US and France, Japan has the highest production of nuclear power anywhere.

People are now asking why Japan didn’t explore renewable energy, such as geo-thermal electrical plants, run by the plentiful volcanic steam in the earthquake-prone region. Such technology wouldn’t have posed the threat of a radioactive meltdown, or produced long-lived toxic nuclear wastes. Storing these wastes in Japan’s earthquake-prone region will present challenges long after the nuclear plants close.

With greater promotional money and government connections, the nuclear lobby won out. However, there is no energy security in the aftermath of this triple-Japanese disaster. There will now be rolling power outages across Japan, similar to those after the bombing of Iraq.

NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS

If no full meltdown occurs, the nuclear industry will say this shows that nuclear power plants can withstand this magnitude of a natural disaster. If a meltdown occurs they’ll say they can’t be expected to plan for such an unprecedented natural disaster, but will factor this all into their future designs. We can’t afford to learn about the risks of nuclear power one catastrophic accident at a time. Sustainability requires us to change our technology so that there isn’t this magnitude of risk for future populations. Unbeknown to many, worldwide electrical production from renewable energy surpassed that from nuclear power in 2005, and nuclear plant phase-outs are the way to go.

There have been many nuclear accidents over the years. Three meltdowns however stand out. The first occurred in 1957 at the Sellafield, English plant used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The US’s Three Mile Island power plant had a meltdown in 1979. The worst nuclear accident ever occurred at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986. A 7-point scale has been used to rate the severity of these accidents: as of March 14th the Japanese nuclear accident  got a “4”, Three Mile Island got a “5”, and Chernobyl got a “7”.  But within a week the Fukushima disaster had become rated as a “6”. (We are approaching the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, on April 25th, and vigils will be held worldwide at 4:10 pm, when the catastrophe started.)

NUCLEAR PLANT ‘BOMBS’

This Japanese accident may come as no surprise to those studying the probability of major nuclear accidents; experience shows they occur about once every 20 years. If the number of nuclear plants increases, the probability will increase. Speaking in 1977 to the IAEA, renowned nuclear proponent, Alvin Weinberg said, if we succeed in building enough nuclear reactors “…to make any noticeable dent in the world’s use of petroleum, we can expect to have a core meltdown approximately every 4 years. The lesson is clear. We must stop building these reactors near large cities.” I suggest we just stop building them!

Understandably the Japanese are reminded of the devastation left by the A-bombing of their country. While today’s radioactive threat occurred as a result of an earthquake, tsunami and failed nuclear safety system, Japanese will be experiencing the fear that came with nuclear bombs. And their instincts are correct, for the meltdown of a reactor core can release equal or greater amounts of deadly radiation across vast human populations as would come from a nuclear weapons blast.

The Japanese nuclear accident once again shows there really isn’t a “peaceful atom”, and that whether we continue building nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants we are playing with a different kind of fire. We will get much more peace and security, including energy security and psychological security, by quickly moving our energy system on to a sustainable path.

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