Post No.4 The Return of Nuclear Power, Ready or Not

Happening Now

Have you noticed how nuclear power has crept back onto the energy agenda of the US and other countries?  Last month President Obama visited Georgia where, before a crowd of union workers, he announced that the administration would provide $8.3 billion in loan guarantees (aka subsidies) toward the construction of two new nuclear power plants—the first to be built since the 1970s.  Eager to stay a step ahead of Republicans, Obama wants billions more for additional plants, and the nuclear industry already has plans for South Carolina, Maryland and Texas (www.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/business/energy-environment/17nukes.html?_r=0). Meanwhile, in China, the government is forging ahead with very ambitious nuclear plant construction, after a brief pause when the Fukushima Daiichi plant imploded.  France and South Korea likewise are continuing their significant reliance on nuclear energy for electricity.  

It’s an old story: a disaster occurs and the initial reaction is official concern.  But then the backtracking begins: “We are certain it will never happen here.”  The accident was an aberrant case. Fukushima was the result of Japanese negligence (or substitute Chernobyl and Russian negligence). Nuclear power is perfectly safe, creates jobs, and represents “clean energy” that we all want.  The public is reassured of nuclear power’s absolute safety.  When nuclear-plant workers raise serious safety concerns, such as two did (one of them the safety manager) at the Hanford Nuclear Power Reservation in Washington State, they are fired (http://nuclearstreet.com/nuclear_power_industry_news/b/nuclear_power_news/archive/2013/10/07/hanford-news_3a00_-urs-whistleblower-laid-off_2c00_-report-finds-fault-with-vit-plant-documentation-100702.aspx#.UwZFbvldUkw; www.cbsnews.com/news/second-whistleblower-donna-busche-fired-at-troubled-wash-state-hanford-nuke-plant/).  (Note: The New York Times did not mention either of these firings, even when it reported on March 1 that nuclear-waste tanks at Hanford are again leaking.)  Once again we see that laws to protect whistleblowers don’t.

The Japanese story is relevant to us, first, because major nuclear accidents can and do happen, and second, because countries that rely on nuclear power also have “nuclear villages” like Japan’s (see below).  These pro-nuclear interests that bring together government, energy company executives, pliable scientists, and assorted other supporters is the equivalent of a military-industrial complex.  Their political power is hard to challenge.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Crisis Continues

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant remains in critical condition, and consequently so does Japan.  The plant has been plagued by problems since it was declared stable by Prime Minister Kan Naoto in December 2011. Waste water contamination and leaks, inadequate and delayed cleanup, and breakdowns of equipment are among the unsolved problems for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).  Two hundred thousand tons of radioactive water containing high levels of cesium and strontium-90 sit in 1,000 temporary containment vessels.  Hundreds of tons have leaked from underneath the reactor into the soil and into the Pacific.  (As I write, the largest spill in six months has just occurred—24,000 gallons.)  TEPCO reportedly has no way to stop the leaks or, because of high radiation levels, do a full-scope inspection of the reactors.  Ocean dumping of radioactive waste water from Fukushima Daiichi may already be impacting the US West Coast. Scientists in California are tracking radiation levels of kelp, and some fish may be dangerous to eat (Christina Sarich, “Kelp Watch 2014 on California Coasts to Measure Radioactive Contamination from Fukushima,” www.nationofchange.org/kelp-watch-2014-california-coasts-measure-radioactive-contamination-fukushima-1390748462).  Meanwhile, 83,000 nuclear refugees still cannot return home; a few who do so, illegally, cannot hope to resume a normal life or restart their livelihoods.  The area is a dead zone, and it seems safe to assume that it will remain so for at least for another generation.  As the New York Times reported last September, the constant flow of bad news at Fukushima Daiichi was “making a mockery of the authorities’ early vows to ‘return the site to an empty field’ . . .”

That fact has given a boost to the anti-nuclear forces in Japan.  They have fielded a powerful lineup that now includes all former Japanese PMs—Nakasone Yasuhiro, once a strong supporter of nuclear power; Hatoyama Yukio; Hosokawa Morihiro, now a candidate for governor of Tokyo; Kan Naoto; and Koizumi Ichiro, who has been particularly outspoken and has become Hosokawa’s principal backer. They have all called for ending reliance on nuclear energy, and they have been joined by scientists, former government bureaucrats, and NGO leaders who regard the situation at Fukushima Daiichi as critical.  Kurokawa Kiyoshi, for instance, who was chairman of a major official study of the Fukushima disaster— the Independent Investigation Commission (IIC), the first of its kind to be authorized by the Diet—called the government’s cleanup efforts “just one big shell game aimed at pushing off problems into the future” (the full report of the IIC has just been published in English by Routledge on March 11).

In forwarding the IIC report, Kurokawa wrote that the triple disaster of 3-11 was “Made in Japan,” by which he meant that it was a product of a culture infected by “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” These cultural attributes led to individual and bureaucratic incompetence, conflicts of interest between the regulating agencies and those being regulated, and the elevation of the organization’s interests above public safety. What the IIC and other independent investigations pinpointed is the notorious influence on public policy of the “nuclear village” (genshiryoku-mura), defined by Jeff Kingston as “pro-nuclear advocates in the bureaucracy, Diet, business community, utilities, vendors, and lenders.”  Some calls for reform, such as by creating a new “nuclear regulatory authority that is not part of a ministry that promotes nuclear energy use”—have been heeded.  But the new agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), created in September 2012, has been caught up in conflicting pressures from rival camps and has very limited resources to determine nuclear plant safety.  The village thus remains very much alive—despite the government’s assumption of a majority stake in TEPCO, despite a strongly anti-nuclear public, despite continuing public health risks from radiation exposure, and despite the view of some critics that a repetition of 3-11 is quite conceivable in the event of another earthquake.

Making the Case for a New Energy Policy

            Alternatives to nuclear energy are, of course, well known and much discussed.  There is no lack of NGO pressure groups this time around; the Fukushima disaster has at least had the virtue of galvanizing a sector of Japanese society that had been rather quiet before.  The Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, the Japan Renewable Energy Platform, the Green Energy Law Network, the Green Local Government Portal, Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, and cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama are all involved in pushing for greater (or even total) reliance on non-nuclear power—through research and publications, lobbying, or legislation. The main differences in these groups’ proposals of electricity alternatives have to do with the mix of renewable energy sources and the future, if any, of nuclear power.  Thus, proposals vary as to the proportions of renewables (hydro, solar, thermal, and biomass), natural gas, coal, and oil in a new energy program; and they vary as to whether or not nuclear power has a place in the mix, which might range from zero to ten percent. Fortunately, some cities, led by Kyoto, and prefectures, including Fukushima, are not waiting for Tokyo to act.  They are already moving away from nuclear energy, aiming in some cases at 100-percent reliance on renewable sources for electricity within 20-25 years. 

Prospects for Japan and Lessons for Us

               Funabashi Yoichi, co-author of one of the sharpest critiques of the government’s handling of the 3-11 crisis and chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, wrote one year afterwards that Japan’s “pacifistic-to-the-point-of-avoidance approach to national security . . . has been matched by our aversion to facing the potential threat of nuclear emergencies” (“The End of Japanese Illusions,” New York Times, March 11, 2012.)  TEPCO’s and the nuclear bureaucracy’s influence allowed the government to downplay such emergencies so as not to arouse public anxiety.  Their claim of an unexpected crisis and confusion belied their belief in the myth of nuclear energy’s “absolute safety” and refusal to follow the precautionary principle when dealing with nuclear uncertainties.  Now, of course, there is no question about the public’s anxiety: public opinion typically runs about 70 percent in favor of phasing out nuclear power.  Kan Naoto, who was prime minister at the time of the nuclear accident, testified that “Gorbachev said in his memoirs that the Chernobyl accident exposed the sicknesses of the Soviet system. The Fukushima accident did the same for Japan.”  His conclusion was that Japan simply could not rely on the safety of nuclear plants, and that the best approach was “to get rid of them” (New York Times, May 28, 2012).

What has been occurring in the post-Fukushima period is a tussle between those who want to move away from nuclear power, either gradually or immediately, and the pro-nuclear advocates who are using the new regulatory authority as an excuse for restarting reactors.  It is a game that puts the anti-nuclear forces at a major disadvantage.  Abe and the nuclear village can claim that past problems are on their way to being solved. He announced before the Diet in February 2013 that once nuclear power plants had complied with the NRA’s new safety regulations, such as not locating them on active earthquake faults, they could come back on line. Those regulations went into effect in mid-year, but how long it would take any of the plants to be in compliance—or whether they would evade the regulations with half-measures—remains uncertain. That didn’t stop Abe: On February 25 this year his government issued a new energy plan that reaffirmed an important place for nuclear energy and repeated the intention to bring all the plants on line as well as construct new ones.

The anti-nuclear forces have two challenges: convince people that the claim of nuclear safety is specious, and that Japan has alternatives to reliance on nuclear energy that will not dramatically raise costs or reduce the quality of life people have come to expect.  Anti-nuclear public opinion does not mean that people can’t be swayed, or neutralized, by official promises to abide by stronger regulations and continue to deliver comfortable lifestyles.  Opinion, after all, is not the same as behavior.

            In presenting the IIC’s report to the Diet, Kurokawa Kiyoshi suggested that at bottom, the Fukushima disaster revealed the weaknesses of Japanese civil society, for it was no match for the power of the nuclear village.  That fact constitutes the most serious challenge for Japan today—how to enable democratic decision making to take its rightful place in shaping public policy.  Perhaps needless to say, Japan is not alone in dealing with this issue of regulatory capture.

Postscript:  About a week ago Brian Jennings, on his NBC news program, gave roughly 10 seconds to reports that contaminated water from Fukushima would reach the US and Canadian west coasts in about 6 weeks.  He said the US government believed the radiation would be harmless. End of story.  But just days ago the BBC reported on independent assessments that within 60 days—i.e., by mid-April—scientists will know the level of contaminated water that is reaching the West Coast (http://turnerradionetwork.com/news/322-pat; thanks to Keith Strom for alerting me to this source).  Traces of radiation have already been detected; the question now is the level it might reach. The other side of the story?  The US government is not testing the water!  So we must ask: Is protecting the security relationship with Japan more important to the Obama administration than protecting the health of the American (and Canadian) people?

Recommended reading: Asia-Pacific Journal (www.japanfocus.org) carries numerous articles on the Fukushima tragedy; those by Andrew DeWit and Jeff Kingston are especially informative.  Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa, “Fukushima in Review: A Complex Disaster, a Disastrous Response,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (2012), (http://bos.sagepub.com/content/68/2/9.full), offer a devastating critique of decisionmaking.  On the public health dimension, see articles by Tilman A. Ruff and Anders Pape Møller and Timothy A. Mousseau, both in the October-December 2013 issue of Asian Perspective (http://journals.rienner.com/toc/aspr/37/4).

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4 Comments

  1. cold war ‘duck and cover’ childhood fears are still apprpriate today, but instead of a big ‘boom’ it will be fear
    of a thousand toxic ‘paper cuts’. The root of it all is not in asia, but right here at home, when we neglect to question authority of 1% control of the energy market and our lives. What goes around comes around.
    The government is undoubtedly testing the approaching waters (for the 1% to plan which megahomes they should reside in, which to avoid). We are not likely to be given the same test results that guide the richest, our advisories will ‘placate the masses’ with acronyms and symptom treatment advice (official government advice) of course. My mother alway said, as she sprayed the house with pesticides regularly, “our government would not allow it if it were not good for us”.

    1. It is disturbing if the radiation spike from atmospheric transport just after the first events really did reach 60 x’s the drinking water criterion, and most of us did not know that. Many local folks are drinking what is essentially rainwater in our ‘spring’ systems. In a relatively short duration spike we could at least have taken some precautions, like staying indoors for a time and drinking well water for a time. At least give us the human right dignity of accurate test results in a timely manner so that we could make the best of a horrible environmental chemical trespass onto our wellness.

  2. Thanks for another excellent post, Mel. This is obviously a difficult and touchy subject for many and one where cultural influences have an impact that may not always be obvious. I do not know the correct answers, but I’m delighted that you have provided links to a variety of informed sources. I was about to suggest the item that Keith forwarded to you and some other, but you’ve obviously already seen it.
    As I have noted before, Mel, you write and I will read. I can never promise complete agreement with all posts, but reading your work is always worthy time, time not wasted. Thank you, Mel! -Craig

  3. Interesting as always Mel, but I’m not ready to write off nuclear yet. Fukushima had three major and costly issues: poor site placement and oversight; bad luck in the fact that the fuel rods happened to be in cooling tanks at the time of the tsunami; and most importantly, it was a uranium reactor with active (human activated) safety features.
    There is no disputing the human and environmental costs. However, I do want to share some information and thoughts. First, overall, coal based energy alone may do far more damage. Cohen estimated in 1990 that it may be directly related to 30,000 US deaths per year and of course major environmental destruction with strip mining and top soil depletion (see http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/index.html). Secondly, since the 1960s scientists have known that thorium based nuclear energy would be safer and more environmentally sound than uranium based reactors (see “Civilian Nuclear Power…a report to the President 1962”, p.39 — doc here http://thoriumenergyalliance.com/ThoriumSite/resources.html). Oak Ridge actually ran a thorium reactor for 22,000 hours successfully in the mid-1960s and believed its molten salt reactor to be far more safe (see Popular Science article “Concepts and Prototypes: Next Gen Nukes” at http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-06/next-gen-nuke-designs-promise-safe-efficient-emissions-free-energy?nopaging=1). Lastly, current reactors like the Gen5 reactor the French are building or the thorium based (still theoretical) LiFTR are using passive safety features making automatic shutdown a necessity, to avoid human error.
    I completely agree that nuclear energy in its current form and under its current human guidance is not in the human interest. However, with increasing energy needs on a global scale being considered, I believe it is in the human interest of the coming generations for us to investigate thorium nuclear technology as a safe alternative to the uranium paradigm.

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