March 11, 2016
The Fukushima disaster of five years ago has not dissuaded several countries from building nuclear power plants; 67 plants are currently under construction around the world. Fukushima was a very rare event and as such may have reassured builders of new plants. The huge earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami was indeed a rare occurrence, and the poisoning of the ocean with tons of radioactive water every day is especially unexpected. Knowing of an underground river at the site, the Japanese constructed a diversion far up the slope, but the earthquake removed the diversion, and now we have a large river running under the site, picking up the radiation from the melted cores before going to the ocean. A rapid rise in the death of fish and other marine life along the west coast of the US and Canada is thought to be the result of the radioactive material from the river. It will go on for several decades.
But much of the damage was quite predictable. In contrast to a nearby nuclear power plant (Onagawa) that was built on a high hill and was unscathed, at Fukushima they leveled much of its hill to be closer to the source of cooling water, the ocean. Though the owners were warned about flooding danger, the Fukushima site with its 6 plants was built with little protection from flooding, and its plants had the emergency generators in the basement. But all nuclear plants are built at the edge of lakes, rivers, or oceans, and thus subject to flooding in our new climate.
Fukushima is also not unique in the cozy relationship between the Japanese regulators and the plant’s owners, so thoroughly denounced by a Japanese parliamentary investigatory committee. Even President Obama has denounced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States for being too close to the industry. Attempts to close the Indian River plant near New York City for numerous violations and for leaking deadly tritium into the Hudson River have failed. Even when nuclear plants are behaving safely, it has been found in Germany, France, and the United States that living close to the plant increases the chance of childhood leukemia. The plants have to regularly release some poisonous gas.
The United States, some experts claim, has censored information about nuclear failures at Three Mile Island and the weapons processing plants—for example, by settling damage claims of citizens under nondisclosure agreements. But the Japanese have gone further, passing a secrecy bill in 2015 that provides for a prison sentence for publishing information the government has not approved of about nuclear plants. Though there is evidence of thyroid cancers among the young that are 600 times the normal amount expected, the government will not openly address the issue. Evidence of a larger “cancer epidemic” in Japan comes from non-nationals. It is hard to see China being any more open than Japan. Therefore, Fukushima and its governance problems are far from unique.
Why has the expansion of a costly and dangerous technology occurred when renewable sources are inexpensive and efficiency measures so effective, especially for developing countries? I would suggest that since wind and solar are cheap, mass produced, decentralized solutions, neither is likely to interest giant corporations such as Toshiba (Westinghouse), General Electric or Areva, who find nuclear construction so profitable. Nor can government agencies handling wind and solar expect to be as powerful as the nuclear wings of the US Energy and Defense Departments.
Can we expect new nuclear plants, with untested safety features and possibly untrained operators, located in some cases in countries with little experience with technologically sophisticated tasks, to do better than Japan?
emeritus professor of sociology, Yale University
visiting professor, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University