On March 11, 2011, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were flooded by a 49-foot tsunami wave. The plant lost of power and the reactors began overheating as the cooling systems stopped working. In the days that followed, the the plant experienced a full nuclear meltdown. What happened at Fukushima was the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The question now is not how we could have prevented this, because no matter how hard we try we can’t go back in time. Instead, we should ask ourselves what can be done to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
Before Fukushima I — an avid environmentalist — was not entirely opposed to nuclear power. Despite growing up during the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear seemed like the least of the dirty power evils. As long as it works like it’s supposed to, maybe that is true. But, when something goes wrong in a nuclear plant, it goes horribly wrong. Fukushima reminded us of this.
After the disaster in Japan, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, who owns and operates Fukushima, and the Japanese government were hard at work doing damage control. Trying to prevent a PR-disaster while working to minimize the damage to people and the environment is not easy, and the public often felt that they were not given enough information. It’s only recently that a full picture of Fukushima’s fallout has begun to emerge. On August 30th of this year, the Japanese science ministry released a map showing contamination over a 100-kilometer radius around the plant. On the day of the accident, the government evacuated people within a 3-kilometer radius of the plant. On the second day, the evacutation-zone was expanded to a 20-kilometer radius. Late in March, residents within a 30-kilometer radius were told to prepare to evacuate and even though it was not mandated most did so anyways. This area still is much smaller than that which the report showed was contaminated. People rarely want to leave their homes, but when lives are at stake wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry?
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has also published new estimates of the total radiation released in the accident. These figures, reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June, suggest that the total airborne release of caesium-137 amounts to 17 percent of the release from Chernobyl. The government estimates that the total radiation released is five or six percent of that from Chernobyl. This is good, but still bad.
What about the oceans? They are already so jam-packed with toxins that eating fish seems like a death-defying action. A study by Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that about two weeks after the earthquake, the plant released radioactive cesium into nearby waters to create levels that were 1 million times greater than they had been before the accident. By May, however, concentrations had fallen to about ten thousand times greater than normal, and remained constant through July. Still, based on the total amount of radioactive material released, the meltdown at Fukushima ranks as the largest accidental radioactivity release into ocean waters ever. It is second only to nuclear tests performed in the 1960s, but those count as voluntary releases (oh, the mistakes of nuclear youth).
Experts cannot agree on whether these levels are higher than the safety threshold for humans and remain unsure about the long-term health effects of exposures due to the accumulation of radioactive material in seafood and ocean sediments. It would seem wise for us to be careful about consuming fish and sea vegetables from those parts of the world for a while.
So what are the options? In the U.S. today, we have 104 working nuclear plants. Most of them were build in the 70s or earlier. The good news is that as nuclear power’s reputation has become tarnished there are not many new ones are being built. The bad news is that the existing ones are starting to get old (which, in the nuclear world means “more dangerous”). The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced it will launch a comprehensive safety review of all the existing nuclear reactors across the United States, at the request of President Obama. The current administration, however, “continues to support the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, despite the crisis in Japan.”
According to a CBS news poll, public support for nuclear power in the U.S. is now at 43 percent, just a bit lower than it was immediately following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. One survey found that 64 percent of Americans oppose the construction of new reactors, while another (conveniently sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute) found that 62 percent of Americans favor nuclear power as energy source and 35 percent are opposed.
In Vermont, the only state that gives its Legislature authority to make decisions about nuclear plants, the Yankee Nuclear Plant is set to close in 2012 following a refusal to extend its 40-year operational license issued in 1972. Under the leadership of Governor Peter Shumlin, who was recently awarded Beautiful Earth Group and Opportunity Green’s Green Governor of the Year Award, the state of Vermont fought, and ultimately won, a bitter battle against the owners of the plant, Entergy Corp. Despite reports indicating the opposite, Entergy insists that the plant is completely safe and reliable and claims that by not renewing its license, the state legislature will rob the residents of Windham County, where the plant is located, of two billion dollars of income. Governor Shumlin says that he has made sure the citizens of his state know that for every dirty job he takes away several green ones are created. There is enough clean, green technology out there today that we should not have to risk the health of ourselves and the environment to power our lives. By moving away from nuclear power, Vermont is on to a good start. Let’s hope the rest of the country follows suit.
Top photo: likeablerodent, Flickr Creative Commons