Tomorrow, March 11, marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As the world learned at Chernobyl in 1986, and as has been reinforced at Fukushima, nuclear catastrophes do have a discernible beginning. What they don’t have have is an end. They are ongoing, and especially in Fukushima’s case, will be continuing for decades.
28 years after Chernobyl, much work has been done to protect against radiation releases from the destroyed reactor, and to protect the molten fuel from going re-critical–e.g. starting a new, uncontrolled chain reaction. Is that work sufficient? So far, the answer is yes–but “so far” in nuclear accident terms is a mere droplet in time. That protection must hold up for centuries. And, 28 years later, actual decommissioning of Chernobyl remains a far-off fantasy.
Three years after the onset of the Fukushima accident, decommissioning and clean-up there too is mere fantasy; there are dangerous decades ahead of us before the accident can be deemed concluded.
And, of course, at both Chernobyl and Fukushima, evacuation turns out to mean relocation. And relocation is permanent. Small areas of our planet have been rendered, for all practical purposes, permanently uninhabitable. How many such small areas can our planet withstand?
Meanwhile, lessons from Fukushima continue to be learned but are mostly ignored by the world’s nuclear industry and its regulators. And new revelations about the crisis and the response to it come on an almost daily basis.
NBC News today published the results of an investigation into the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to the accident, based on thousands of internal e-mails it received under the Freedom of Information Act (those e-mails are now public and linked to at both the end of this article and on the front page of NIRS’ website).
NBC documented that while the NRC was attempting to reassure the public in the hours and days immediately following the accident that it posed few ramifications for the U.S., privately NRC staffers were taking the opposite view.
The NRC knew very well, for example, that more than 30 U.S. General Electric reactors were of the same basic design as Fukushima and vulnerable to the same type of station blackout issues and hydrogen explosions that occurred at Fukushima (in one e-mail exchange, an NRC staffer angrily called out Bill Nye, the science guy, for saying on CNN that there had been hydrogen explosions, only to be corrected by another NRC staffer who said that yes, there had in fact been such explosions). It was NIRS that first alerted the media to that fact, not the NRC.
And the NBC investigation showed that, faced with questions about whether Diablo Canyon and other U.S. reactors might be vulnerable to similar-sized earthquakes and tsunamis, the NRC simply denied that, even though NRC staffers admitted privately that they didn’t know. The NRC also distanced itself from its own report on earthquake risks at U.S. reactors, issued just six months earlier, that indicated New York’s Indian Point reactor site is considered by the agency to be particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.
The full article is well worth reading.
In other Fukushima-related news, the website simplyinfo.org continues to be the most reliable and comprehensive site for ongoing news and developments on Fukushima. Today they published a new technical report on what is happening at Fukushima Unit-3, the most heavily damaged and problematic of the four reactors there.
Harvey Wasserman posted the second of three articles on the recent visit of PBS correspondent Miles O’Brien’s recent visit to Fukushima, pointing out that no government anywhere in the world is helping to pay for radiation monitoring of the Pacific Ocean. Governments apparently are simply assuming that radiation levels in the ocean are not expected to be at high levels ever–an ocean that large does tend to dilute radiation; but that expectation needs to be confirmed by monitoring. Radiation and water currents do not move in uniform patterns; the potential for radioactive hotspots, as occur on land, cannot simply be ruled out without evidence. So, without any government backing, a group of scientists are trying to do it on their own, relying on small donor crowdfunding to cover the expenses.
The ultimate health effects from Fukushima radiation will likely be debated for many years; after all, there is no general consensus on health effects from Chernobyl either (for the record, in 2006 NIRS co-released a study projecting 32,000-64,000 early fatalities from Chernobyl and continues to stand by that estimate, which makes Chernobyl by far the most damaging industrial accident in history). But higher than normal levels of thyroid problems and cancers are already becoming evident among children in the Fukushima region. The government and some scientists claim this is because children now are being tested for such problems, and before they weren’t. But many others believe this is the beginning of what will be a wave of documented thyroid cancers similar to what occurred post-Chernobyl.
Matt Wald of the New York Times takes a look at Fukushima lessons learned from a nuclear industry perspective, as utilities work to implement the extremely modest new requirements the NRC so far has imposed. Missing from the article are acknowledgements of just how modest the new rules are, how hard the industry has fought new regulations, and how timid the NRC has been in implementing new rules to incorporate lessons learned. The most important steps identified by the NRC staff in the aftermath of the accident have not been approved by the NRC Commissioners–for example, requiring hardened vents to release pressure inside the containments of those GE reactors–and likely never will be. In our view, the lessons learned include the speedy shutdown of all GE Mark I and II reactors; their design is fundamentally deficient in numerous areas and cannot be effectively modified at any cost.
The pending anniversary has sparked protest across the world. In Taiwan on Saturday, some 50,000 protested nuclear power in the capital of Taipei, while 30,000 more took to the streets in smaller cities around the country. Thousands also protested in Tokyo and other Japanese cities over the weekend.
For a list of protest activities around the world this week, this website is attempting to maintain a comprehensive list. Check it for the actions nearest you, and then get out and join them.
Note: GreenWorld will not publish tomorrow, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Join the Fukushima anniversary-related action nearest you! We’ll be back on Wednesday.
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