Fukushima is just one among many similar disasters
waiting to happen worldwide; governments and regulators have systematically
downplayed the risks and hidden the real costs of nuclear power; there is no
place for nuclear in a truly green energy portfolio; furthermore, there is a
lot we can do to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle Dr. Mae-Wan
There will be a sale of artworks in aid of the victim of
the Fukushima earthquake/tsunamic/nuclear disaster in a newly launched website www.ISISArt.org, an initiative inspired by
our much acclaimed celebrating ISIS event, which took place 26-27 March 2011. A
report of the event will also be available on the new website.
Please circulate widely and repost, but you must give the URL of the original and preserve all the links back to articles on our website
Nuclear crisis following earthquake & tsunami
On Friday 11 March 2011, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9
earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami. The official toll by 6 April was 12 468
dead, and more than 15 000 missing , hundreds of thousands lost their homes,
millions are still either without electricity or affected by shortages of
electricity ; and most worrying of all, a nuclear disaster with no end in
sight. The earthquake and tsunami were unstoppable, but was the nuclear
disaster waiting to happen, and could it have been avoided?
It started with the earthquake, which damaged
the power grid, cutting off the electricity needed to run the cooling system of
the nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi station located
in the town of Okuma in the Futaba District of Fukushima Prefecture on the east
coast of Japan, 210 kilometres north of Tokyo. The station consists of six
boiling water reactors designed by General Electric with a combined power of
4.7GW , and is one of the 25 largest
nuclear power plants in the world.
On that day, reactor units 1, 2, and 3 were operating, but units 4,
5, and 6 had already shut down for routine inspection. When the earthquake
struck, units 1, 2 and 3 shut down automatically, and electricity generation
stopped. Normally the plant could use external electrical supply, which is
essential for powering the cooling and control systems after shutdown, as
substantial heat would still be generated by the fuel rods; but the earthquake
had damaged the power grid. Emergency diesel generators started but stopped
abruptly less than an hour later. The plant was protected by a sea wall
designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 metres, but the tsunami rose to a height
of over 10 metres, topping the sea wall and flooding the generator building. Further
emergency power was supplied by batteries to last about eight hours.
The earthquake struck at 05:46 (GMT); Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan declared a nuclear emergency at 10:30. By midday, people living
within 1.3 miles of the power station were evacuated . At 19:30, a government
spokesman admitted the possibility of radioactive material leaking from the
reactor vessel. An hour later, engineers were forced to vent steam from reactor
1 to relieve pressure, which resulted in radioactive material leaking out.
At 07:37 the next day, an explosion destroyed
the concrete building housing reactor 1. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio
Edano insisted the reactor core was intact. At 12:22, officials announced they
were to flood the reactor with seawater to reduce the risk of overheating. Late
that night, it was revealed that the cooling system of another reactor had
failed. Next morning, Mr. Edano told a press conference that an explosion was
possible at reactor 3, but again assured that “there would be no significant
impact on human health.”
More than 200 000 people were evacuated from
the area around the Fukushima plant late that afternoon. Japanese officials
confirmed that 22 people had suffered radiation contamination. The reactor 3
building exploded at 02:00, 14 March; again officials insisted the reactor core
was intact. Two hours later, officials admitted that more than 190 people had
been exposed to radiation. At 13:30, the government warned of a third
explosion, and later admitting that the fuel rods were melting in all three
reactors. Despite that, Cabinet Secretary Noriyuki Shikata stated: “We have no
evidence of harmful radiation exposure.” The explosion tore through reactor 2
At 01:00, 15 March, the Japanese government
confirmed that there was damage to the structure of reactor 2. Mr Edano stated:
“We have not recorded any sudden jump in radiation indicators.” An hour and a
half later, Mr. Edano confirmed that reactor 4 building was on fire, releasing
more radiation. At 02:40, Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned of danger from more
leaks and told the 140 000 people living within 19 miles of Fukushima Daiichi
to stay indoors, saying: “The [radioactivity] levels seem very high, and there
is still a high risk of more radiation coming out.” Mr. Edano added: “Now we
are talking about levels that can damage human health.”
Within the week, the nuclear accidents were
upgraded from level four to five, on par with the Three Mile Island, and exceeded
only by Chernobyl in 1986 . Two days later (19 March), Managing Director of
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that owned the power plant, Akio Komiri, wept
as government officials acknowledged that the radiation spewing from the
over-heated reactors and spent-fuel storage ponds was enough to kill people .
Mr. Edano admitted that “the unprecedented scale of the earthquake and
tsunami” had not been anticipated under their “disaster management contingency
Meanwhile, workers at the devastated plant continued
with their heroic battle to prevent a complete meltdown, which, some fear could
be another Chernobyl. The spent fuel storage pond at Reactor No. 4 had boiled
dry. Military trunks sprayed the reactors with tonnes of water for a second
day. Engineers tried to get the cooling pumps working again after laying a new
power line from the main grid. They admitted that burying the reactors under
sand and concrete, as in Chernobyl, may be the only option to stop a
catastrophic release of radiation.
Some experts warned that even concrete burial
was not without risk.
Anatomy of the unfolding nuclear disaster
The Fukushima Daiichi reactors use U-235 fission to generate electricity for TEPCO (see box). Reactor No. 3 runs on mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, in which
uranium is mixed with other fissile materials such as plutonium from spent
reactor fuel or from decommissioned nuclear weapons .
How nuclear power works
made of atoms. An atom is the smallest unit of a chemical element. It consists
of a core nucleus containing elementary particles protons and neutrons,
surrounded by electrons on the outside. Each proton carries a positive
charge, which is balanced by the negative charge of each of the electrons, so
that the atom is electrically neutral on the whole. Neutrons do not carry any
The elements are identified by their atomic number - the
number of protons, the same as the number of electrons - and atomic mass
- the total number of protons and neutrons - the mass of electrons are very
much smaller and therefore neglected in the atomic mass. The simplest element
is hydrogen; it consists of a single proton and a single electron, and is
represented as H with atomic number 1 and atomic mass1. Helium is the next
simplest element with 2 protons and 2 neutrons, and is represented as He, with
atomic number 2 and atomic mass 4. There are currently 118 elements identified.
Most elements exist as isotopes: different forms of the
element that have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.
Thus, hydrogen has two other isotopes, and unusually are given names of their own,
deuterium (with one neutron, atomic mass 2) and tritium (with two neutrons,
atomic mass 3). The element uranium has an atomic number of 92, with 92 protons
in its nucleus, and between 141 and 146 neutrons, giving rise to six isotopes, identified
by their atomic mass; the most common are U-238 (with 146 neutrons) and U-235
(with 143 neutrons). U-235 is unique in being the only naturally fissile
isotope (i.e., capable of splitting).
The protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus are held together by strong
forces, which overcome the electromagnetic repulsion between the positively
charged protons. Strong forces act only at very close range; beyond that, weak
forces due to electromagnetic interactions take over, so like charges repel
and opposite charges attract.
Nuclear power comes from the immense amount of
heat energy released during nuclear
fission of U-235 inside a nuclear reactor  (see Energy Strategies in
Global Warming: Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?SiS 27).
The nucleus of U-235, on being struck by a slow (relatively low energy)
neutron, splits into two more or less equal halves, and at the same time,
throws off two or three new neutrons (the number ejected depends on how the
U-235 atom splits), which could be captured by other U-235 nuclei, setting off
a chain reaction. However, U-235 comprises about 0.7 percent at most of
naturally occurring uranium, and so the chance for getting a sustained chain
reaction is very small. To get a sustained chain reaction for a nuclear
reactor, U-235 has to be enriched to 3-4 percent. For nuclear weapons,
enrichment to at least 90 percent is required .
The bulk of naturally occurring uranium is
U-238, which is not fissile. However, on capturing a fast (high energy)
neutron, U-238 undergoes transmutation into the next element plutonium, which
is fissile. Thus, plutonium can be bred from uranium fuel in a reactor .
Most nuclear reactors, including those at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi generating station, rely on harnessing the heat from nuclear fission to boil water into steam, in order to
drive steam turbines and generate electricity [6-8].
The enriched uranium is formed into inch-long
pellets and stacked into long rods collected together into bundles. The bundles
are submerged in water inside a pressure vessel. To prevent overheating,
control rods made of materials that absorb neutrons, such as cadmium, boron or hafnium, are inserted into the uranium bundle. By
raising or lowering the control rods, the rate of the nuclear reaction and
hence the rate of heat production can be controlled. The uranium bundle heats
the water and turns it into steam. The steam drives a turbine to produce power.
In some nuclear power plants, the steam from the reactor goes through a
secondary, intermediate heat exchanger to convert another body of water to
steam to drives the turbine, so the radioactive water/steam (immediately next
to the fuel rods) never contacts the turbine.
A concrete liner typically encloses the
reactor’s pressure vessel and acts as a radiation shield. That liner, in turn,
is enclosed within a much larger steel containment vessel, which also houses
the equipment plant workers use to refuel and maintain the reactor. The steel
containment vessel serves as a barrier (primary containment) to prevent leakage
of any radioactive gases or fluids from the plant (see Figure 1). Finally, an
outer concrete building protects the steel containment vessel. This concrete
structure (secondary containment) is designed to be strong enough to withstand
earthquakes or a crashing jet airliner. These secondary containment structures
are necessary to prevent the escape of radiation/radioactive steam in the event
of an accident. The absence of secondary containment structures in Russian
nuclear power plants allowed radioactive material to escape in Chernobyl.
The pellets of uranium fuel are
contained in fuel rods made of an alloy of zirconium. There are thousands of
these fuel rods inside a reactor's innermost chamber, the pressure vessel (see
box). Water inside the pressure vessel cools the fuel rods preventing
overheating, and also creates the steam to drive the turbines.
The pressure chamber is encased in
a protective steel shell called the primary containment vessel. Around the base
of the primary containment vessel is a doughnut-shaped structure called the
torus that serves a safety function . If pressure becomes too high in the
pressure vessel, steam can be vented into the torus through a series of relief
valves. The primary containment vessel and the torus are in turn encased by the
secondary containment building, a large box of steel and concrete. This
building also houses a storage pool where spent nuclear fuel is kept in cold,
circulating water. The water keeps the radioactive spent fuel from overheating
and melting, and also prevents radiation going into the atmosphere.
When the earthquake struck offshore on Friday 11 March, the
Fukushima Daiichi plant was not badly damaged, and its emergency shutdown
procedures went into effect. The control rods were inserted among the fuel rods
to stop the fission reaction.
But even though the fission
reaction came to a halt, the radioactive by-products of past fission reactions
continued to generate heat, so it is essential for cooling systems to continue
working to prevent overheating and potential meltdown.
Explosion at reactor 1 building
It happened first in reactor 1 where intense
heat inside the pressure vessel evaporated too much water, exposing the
zirconium alloy fuel rods to steam and other gases, which caused reactions that
produced hydrogen gas. As pressures in the inner chamber reached dangerously
high levels, steam (containing some radioactive elements) was vented first into
the primary containment vessel, and then into the secondary containment
building. But the hydrogen gas appeared to have reacted with oxygen in the
secondary containment structure, causing an explosion that ripped the roof off
the building on Saturday. While this explosion did release some radioactive
material, experts believed it did not damage the primary containment vessel [9,
3], but they were wrong (see later).
Explosion at reactor 3 building
A similar chain of events tore the roof off the
building housing reactor 3 on Monday morning. There, the operators resorted to
pumping seawater into the pressure chamber to cool it, but were not able to
prevent the explosion. TEPCOofficials initially said that the No. 3
primary containment vessel was intact. But on Wednesday (16 March), white steam
issued from building No. 3, raising fears that the primary containment vessel
had cracked due to the explosion and was releasing radioactive steam. Even if
the primary containment vessels were intact in these two reactors, the
extremely high temperatures in the reactors may have melted parts of the
zirconium alloy fuel rods, and some of the uranium pellets. Melted uranium
could drip down to collect at the bottom of the pressure chamber. If enough of
it gathers there, it could begin to eat through the chamber walls and then the
primary containment vessel, resulting in the worst-case scenario commonly
referred to as a complete “meltdown” .
There is also a danger of the fuel
collecting and momentarily re-igniting a self-sustaining chain reaction.
Plant operators continued to pump
seawater through reactors 1 and 3 in an effort to keep them cool and avert
further explosions. The corrosive salt water has effectively rendered the
reactors unfit for future use.
On 17 March, new problems arose at
the No. 3 reactor site, this time at the spent fuel pool. It appeared that the
pool had heated up, causing some of its water to evaporate away and possibly
exposing the spent fuel rods to the air. That could cause the nuclear fuel inside
to begin melting, increasing the amount of radiation emitted.
That morning, two helicopters flew
over the building to dump water on building No. 3. Later that day, police
trucks used water cannons to send jets of water into the building, with limited
success. Finally the Japanese military sent its own water-spraying trucks to
blast 30 tons of water into building No. 3 in 30 minutes. A day later, seven trucks repeated the
water-spraying operation, blasting 45 tons of water into building No. 3.
Spikes of radiation made the
situation increasingly dangerous for workers in the plant’s shielded control
rooms and difficult for outside personnel to approach the site.
Reactor No. 2 explosion more serious
The accident in the No. 2 reactor building
occurred during the morning of 15 March, and was regarded more serious than the
two prior explosions because it was the first blast involving a primary
The operators were trying, with
limited success, to pump seawater into the pressure chamber. According to
reports, the vents intended to release steam and relieve pressure were stuck
closed, and the high pressure inside the chamber prevented the injection of
seawater. As the water level in the chamber stayed obstinately low, the fuel
rods were thought to be fully exposed to the air for six and a half hours. Commenting
on the crisis in the No. 2 reactor, TEPCO said it “could not deny the
possibility that the fuel rods were melting.”
The blast in reactor building No. 2
was thought to involve the torus, when operators were venting steam into it to
relieve pressure in the pressure chamber. The hydrogen exploded within the
torus, damaging the primary containment chamber, so radioactive contamination would
be free to escape.
TEPCO workers began trying to
reconnect the plant to the electrical grid. But as of 22 March, Reactors 1, 2
and 3 were still without core cooling systems, and the fuel rods were thought
to be partially or fully exposed .
Spent fuel at reactors No. 4, 5, and 6
These three reactors were offline at the time of
the earthquake, but soon become another source of concern. Fires broke out in
reactor building No. 4 on 15 and 16 March, and TEPCO officials warned that
fires are possible in the other two buildings.
In these three buildings, spent
fuel is stored in water-filled tanks and kept cool. In reactor building No. 4,
the water temperature was reported to have risen from 40 to 84 C, suggesting
that the fuel rods overheated, causing the zirconium alloy cladding to
partially melt and react with water or steam to produce hydrogen gas that could
have sparked a blast. According to reports, the actual substance burning in
building No. 4 was lubricating oil used in machinery near the storage pool.
The fires in building No. 4 had
gone out, but not before it had drastically, though temporarily, increased
radiation levels around the reactor.
On 17 March, Unit 6 was reported to have
diesel-generated power and this was to be used to power pumps in unit 5 to supply
more water. Preparations were made to inject water into the reactor pressure
vessel once mains power could be restored to the plant, as water levels in the
reactors were said to be falling. It was estimated that grid power might be
restored on 20 March through cables laid from a new temporary supply being
constructed at units 1 and 2. But this was still not
accomplished by 29 March (see below).
On 18 March reactor water levels remained around 2 m
above the top of fuel rods. On 19 March emergency cooling was reestablished for
Units 5 and 6. On 20 March NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) announced
that both reactors had been returned to a condition of cold shutdown. External
power was partially restored to unit 5 via transformers at unit 6 on 21 March. As of 22 March, the spent fuel at reactors 5 and 6
remained undamaged .
Situation remains “very serious”
The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi
plant remains “very serious” to this day, according to IAEA update.
On 29 March,
IAEA reported  contaminated water found in trenches close to the turbine
buildings of Units 1 to 3. Dose rates at the surface of this water were 0.4
millisieverts/hour for Unit 1 and over 1000 millisieverts/hour for Unit 2
as of 26 March. A sievert is a dose
of ionising x-ray or gamma radiation absorbed in body tissue equal to 1 joule
per kilogram of body tissue. The average individual
background radiation dose is 0.23μSv/hr (0.00023mSv/hr); 0.17μSv/hr
for Australians, 0.34μSv/hr for Americans. The Fukushima level of >1 000 millisieverts/h is thus 4-5 million times the background. The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan said the higher activity in
the water discovered in the Unit 2 turbine building may be caused by the water
that has been in contact with molten fuel rods and “directly released” into the
turbine building. In other words, a partial meltdown may have occurred. Measurements
could not be carried out at Unit 3 because of “the presence of debris.”
Fresh water has
been continuously injected into the Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) of Units 1,
2 and 3. From 29 March at Unit 1, the pumping of fresh water through the
feed-water line will no longer be performed by fire trucks but by electrical
pumps with a diesel generator. The switch to the use of such pumps has already
been made in Units 2 and 3. At Unit 3, the fresh water is being injected
through the fire extinguisher line.
Fresh water was
to be pumped into the spent fuel pool of Unit 4.
Spreading contamination hazardous to health
fission products have been spreading from Fukushima. The radioactive isotopes
of greatest concern to health are Iodine-131 (I-131) and cesium-137 (Cs-137)
. I-131 has a half-life of 8 days (half of it
will have decayed after 8 days). Therefore, it is most hazardous
immediately following an accident. It also tends to vaporize and spread
easily through the air. Iodine in the human body is taken up and
concentrated by the thyroid, where it can lead to thyroid cancer in later life.
Children exposed to I-131 are more likely than adults to get cancer later
in life. To guard against absorption of I-131, people are advised to take
potassium iodine pills proactively to saturate the thyroid with non-radioactive
iodine so it is not able to absorb any iodine-131.
Cs-137 has a half-life of about 30 years, and will take
more than a century to decay to a safe level. Within the body, Cs-137 substitutes
for potassium, the major inorganic ions existing in high concentrations inside
cells. Cesium-137 is passed up the food chain, and can cause many different
types of cancer.
On 28 March, deposit of iodine-131
was detected in 12 prefectures and cesium-137 in 9 prefectures of Japan . The highest levels were found in the prefecture of Fukushima with 23000
becquerel per square metre for iodine-131 and 790 becquerel per square metre
for caesium-137. (A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity defined as 1 nuclear
transformation per second. There is an average of about 50 becquerel per cubic
metre of air inside a home from radon.)
measurements of I-131 and Cs-137 in soil sampled from 18 to 26 March in 9
municipalities at distances of 25 to 58 km from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant,
the total deposition of iodine-131 and cesium-137 has been calculated. The
average total deposition determined for iodine-131 range from 0.2 to 25 Megabecquerel
per square metre and for cesium-137 from 0.02-3.7 Megabecquerel per square
metre. The highest values were found in a relatively small area in the
Northwest from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
As of 28 March, the
Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s recommendations for restrictions
on intake of drinking water based on I-131 concentration remain in place only
in four locations in the prefecture of Fukushima. To date, no recommendations
for restrictions have been made based on Cs-137. The Japanese limit for the
ingestion of drinking water by infants is 100 becquerels per litre.
samples, collected at distances between 500 and 1000 metres from the
exhaust stack of Unit 1 and 2 of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on 21 and 22
March, were analysed for plutonium-238 and for the sum of plutonium-239 and
Concentrations reported are similar to
those deposited in Japan as a result of the testing of nuclear weapons.
As for food
contamination, Japan’s Health Ministry reported on 25 March that
tests have found levels of radioactive iodine up to 17 to 20 times the legal
limit in samples of raw milk, spinach and two leaf vegetables as far away as 75
miles from the damaged nuclear plant . Contamination was also found
on canola and chrysanthemum greens in three more prefectures. Tainted milk was
found 20 miles from the nuclear plant, spinach was collected from farms up to
75 miles south of the plant. Testing at some locations also found levels
of radioactive caesium 4 times the legal limit.
According to the
Los Angeles Times,TEPCO revealed on 5 April that it had found I-131 at
7.5 million times the legal limit in a seawater sample taken near the stricken Fukushima plant, and government officials instituted a health limit for radioactivity in
fish . Other samples contained radioactive caesium at 1.1 million times the
legal limit. On 4 April, Japanese officials detected more than 4 000 becquerels
of racioactive iodine per kilogram in a fish called sand lance caught less than
3 miles offshore from the town of Kitaibaraki, about 50 miles south of
Fukushima Kaiichi, the fish also contained 447 becquerels of Cs-137.
On 5 April, Mr.
Edano said the government was imposing a standard of 2 000 becquerels of
radioactive iodine per kilogram of fish, the same level it allows in
the European Union’s legal limit before Japan’s nuclear crisis was 600
becquerels (cesium 134 and cesium 137) per kilogram; but has since jumped more
than 20 fold to 12 500 becquerels per kilogram .
All three reactors damaged and releasing high levels of radioactivity
The IAEA update
on 4 April 2011  stated that full off-site power from the grid has been
restored to temporary electric pumps set up to supply water to cool the reactor
vessels 1, 2 and 3. It also revealed that all three reactor vessels had been
damaged, with reactor 2 “severely damaged”. Highly radioactive water was
leaking from a crack in the turbine building of reactor 2 to the sea at 5 million
times the legal limit (down from high of 7.5 million times).
radioactive wastewater had been accumulating in the reactor buildings, and
TEPCO had been given permission by the Japanese Government to discharge 10 000
tonnes of low level contaminated water from their radioactive waste treatment
facility to the sea. This is in order to make room for storing highly
contaminated water found in the basement of Unit 2 turbine building. A
further 1 500 tonnes of low level contaminated water will be discharged from
the pit under the drains of units 5 and 6 to prevent water leaking into the
reactor buildings and potentially damaging safety-related equipment.
The level of contamination in the low level permitted discharge is
100 times the legal limit , in addition to the highly radioactive leaks into
“As a result of Tokyo electric’s desperate but failed efforts to
cool the reactors, they are about to release perhaps an unprecedented amount of
radioactivity into the environment,” Shaun Burnie, a nuclear consultant to
Greenpeace Germany told the Guardian .
Officials say the situation is unlikely to get under control for
several months, and independent analysts warn it might be years.
TEPCO reported success in plugging the leak on 6 April, though there
remains uncertainty as to where the radioactive water was leaking from .
Meanwhile, a new threat has emerged .
Officials at TEPCO said a
dangerous hydrogen buildup is taking place at reactor 1 inside the reactor's
containment vessel, a sign that the reactor's core has been damaged, and
another explosion may result from the hydrogen buildup. Engineers are injecting
nitrogen into the reactor to drive out oxygen.
Nuclear safety in the spotlight
The Fukushima disaster dominated a meeting in Vienna of signatories to the Convention on
Nuclear Safety that was supposed to prevent a repeat of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl .
“I know you will
agree with me that the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has enormous implications
for nuclear power and confronts all of us with a major challenge,” Yukiya
Amano, head of the IAEA, told the participants, “We cannot take a ‘business as
It has been
clear for some time now that the ‘business as usual’ approach is inadequate
(see  Close-up on Nuclear
Safety, SiS 40). A detailed assessment of nuclear accidents and
malfunction carried out by Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and
Security Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed a litany
of design faults in nuclear reactors that fail to protect the public adequately
against accidents and malfunction due to human error, mechanical hitches, or
external events such as tornados and earthquakes. In particular, there is no
protection against malevolent or terrorist attacks. This applies to both
existing nuclear reactors and “Generation III” reactors in the pipelines or
under construction. So in many ways, Fukushima was a disaster waiting to
happen. But it is by no means alone.
Thompson condemned the calculation of risk in risk assessment (which applies to
everything from nuclear power to GMOs), in which risk = hazard x probability.
So however big the hazard, it can be reduced to a very small acceptable risk if
the probability is close to zero; such as a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a
The Fukushima disaster has triggered a
re-evaluation of nuclear energy programmes worldwide . Leak of water from
Canadian Pickering Nuclear Generating Station into Lake Ontario, 5 days after Fukushima caused many Canadians to question the safety of nuclear power plants. In the United States, a New York Times editorial called for Americans to “closely study”
their own plans for coping with natural disasters. Mark Hibbs, a senior
associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, said Fukushima
was “a wake-up call for anyone who believed that, after 50 years of nuclear
power in this world, we have figure it out and can go back to business as
usual.” Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced a freeze on all nuclear power
development projects, including design of a nuclear power plant contracted with
Russia. China froze nuclear plant approvals on 16 March.
The US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
reported 14-near misses at US nuclear plants in the past year alone . The
serious lapses included engineers accidentally switching off safety system,
electrical circuits failing and workers not knowing how to activate the system
to summon emergency services. The UCS report released 18 March 2011 came as
Obama ordered a comprehensive review of US’ 104 active nuclear power plants.
The report says the review is much needed, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
has a mixed safety record, catching some problems but overlooking others, or
allowing them to be neglected.
UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said Britain may back away from nuclear energy because of safety fears and a potential rise in costs
after the Fukushima disaster .
Countries around the world are reviewing their
nuclear options . German Chancellor Angela
Merkel announced a three-month review of plans to continue operating her
country's 17 nuclear power plants. Switzerland suspended the approval process
for three nuclear power plants, so safety standards can be reconsidered.
And India has ordered safety inspections for all of its nuclear plants. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her country has plenty of alternative sources
of energy and does not need nuclear power.
The Japanese government has criticized TEPCO for its handling of the
nuclear disaster, including giving confusing radiation readings, being slow to
admit the seriousness of the situation, and in its response. Many Japanese
people no longer trust the company .
The Wikileaks website released recent US embassy cables expressing
unease over all
the different nuclear
power companies operating in Japan, of which TEPCO is the biggest. Taro Kono, a
member of the Japanese parliament, told US diplomats that these firms were “hiding
the costs and safety problems associated with nuclear energy.” That is no news
(see  The Real Cost
of Nuclear Power, SiS 47 and  Nuclear
Industry’s Financial and Safety Nightmare, SiS 40, debunking the UK government’s estimates). A report several years ago found that TEPCO
falsified nuclear safety data at least 200 times between 2000 and 2007.
The Japanese government has attempted to downplay the health hazard
from the radiation leaks, as have governments and regulators worldwide. They
have also been at pains to minimize the deaths from past nuclear disasters. The
official number of deaths attributed to Chernobyl by the IAEA is 4 000. But
senior Russian scientists documented deaths and illnesses at least 100 times
more  (see Truth about Chernobyl,
Fukushima the last nail in the coffin?
Fukushima should be the last nail in the coffin for the nuclear industry, as
so much damning evidence has emerged indicating that it is extremely
uneconomical and unsafe as well as highly unsustainable. Nuclear is not a
renewable energy. In terms of savings in carbon emissions and energy, it is
worse than a gas-fired electricity generating plant when available uranium ore
falls below 0.02 percent, as it would in decades, just simply keeping up with
existing nuclear facilities  (see The Nuclear Black Hole,
There are other
Japan’s nuclear disaster is toxic, not just for the environment - in the
huge amounts of radioactive wastes spewed out into the atmosphere, deposited on
land, leaked, and indeed flushed out into the sea - it is also toxic for Tokyo
Electric Power Company . UK’s Guardian newspaper reports the company
facing a financial meltdown while its engineers are struggling to bring the
nuclear meltdown under control. TEPCO’s Nikkei stock index plummeted by 18
percent on 4 April to a 60 year low; the Japanese are losing faith in their
TEPCO faces hefty costs for
replacement power, construction of new generation capacity in place of damaged
plants, and decommissioning at least 4 and possibly all 6 reactors at Fukushima
Daiichi. It is also liable for compensation to local businesses and residents
affected by the radiation leaks; and lawsuits are likely. An analyst at Bank of
America Merrill Lynch estimated compensation charges of over £74 bn if the crisis
continues for more than two years.
TEPCO is being
propped up by the Bank of Japan and other big Japanese Banks, and three major
financial institutions are lending 1.9 trillion yen to deal with the crisis.
Nevertheless, TEPCO’s credit rating has been downgraded by Moody’s and Standard
& Poor. Moody’s said: “TEPCO will remain highly leveraged and unprofitable
for an extended period of time and will face substantial risk regarding nuclear
is so intricately bound up with the big banks that its demise will definitely
send shivers throughout the world’s financial markets already knee-deep in
national debts and recession.
There is talk of
nationalisation to prevent loss of confidence in the world markets.
Financial markets have already responded with sharp falls.
The stock prices of many energy companies reliant on nuclear sources dropped;
while the one silver lining in this unmitigated disaster is that renewable
energy companies rose in value dramatically by 15 to 20 percent . It
reaffirms the conclusions of our special report  Green Energies - 100%
Renewable by 2050 that a wide variety of affordable and truly green
energies - renewable, environmentally friendly, healthy, safe, non-polluting
and sustainable – are already available for all nations to become energy
self-sufficient and 100 percent renewable within decades. Policies and
legisations that promote innovations and internal market, and decentralised,
distributed small to micro-generation are the key.
We have explicitly ruled out the nuclear
option, with a recommendation that existing nuclear power stations should be
decommissioned at the end of their designated life times. Uranium mining should
cease and clean-up should begin. At the same time, weapons grade uranium should
be consumed in existing reactors in accordance with nuclear disarmament. In
addition, major public investment should be directed towards making safe toxic
and radioactive nuclear wastes by means of low energy nuclear transmutation
(see final chapter of our report , also Transmutation, The Alchemist
Dream Come True and other articles in the series, SiS 36; and  LENRs for
Nuclear Waste Disposal, SiS 41) for this new scientific development that is still being
ignored by the mainstream. There is hope for putting the nuclear genie back
into the bottle.
A month after the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is still in a dangerous condition . While the release of radioactive material has slowed down, it has already reached a tenth that of Chernobyl, which is why the INES rating of the incident has been raised to 7, the maximum. TEPCO itself has warned that the radiation total could still exceed the Chernobyl figure if the leaks are not repaired.
According to a leaked assessment by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there is still a danger that the containment structures or the emergency cooling systems may fail. The IAEA states that the situation remains very serious; the most positive thing it can find to say is that there are early signs of recovery in in some functions such as electrical power and instrumentation. The Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan has acknowledged that despite all the efforts that have been made in the past month, “ ... it has not yet reached the point where we can predict what will happen.”
Rory Short Comment left 12th April 2011 09:09:17 As a retired ex-engineer turned IT professional it was fascinating reading here-in of the events and remedial actions taken at Fukushima. Sitting here in Johannesburg South Africa reading this article was a bit like having an armchair read of a gripping fictional thriller the trouble is that it was not fiction and even more importantly it need never have happened if the nuclear plant had never been built in the first place. Such events arise from hazards that are completely humanly created. It is completely within our choice as to whether we create such hazards or not. Why do we do it then? I think the under-lying motivation in the creators of these hazards is purely and simply short term financial rewards for themselves and they manage to dupe the rest of society into going along with their plans.
Todd Millions Comment left 13th April 2011 10:10:48 A good summa-I've limited terminal time,and have had too rely on machine translations from japanese,which is fraught but fukushima was reported too having had its operation licence renewed on all reactors-before the quake(since removed from tepco site) and the decade long pr engineering here in the frosty bannana republic-That-'if only chernobayl had had a containment structure,it wouldn't have blown up'cant,only stopped after the 3rd explosion at fukushima.
The rest of the ongoing b.s. by'hoggetowne experts' is simply staggering.As is the media complicity.
While is too soon-I would like too know how much worse the waves would have being without the barrier walls.Those at least would have being done as well as could be.I should also like too know-how much of the small hydro that japan gets most of its electricity from survived the quake and with what damage?This is vital since despite limited pondage too store capacity,I expect that as japanese researches have already shown-Solar panel tiled roofs,WIth this hydro cap-for night and cloud conditions could supply all electrical needs with an elegant load match.Lovins has reported that 70% of the hydro capacity survived WW2intact,and was vital too the rebuilding efforts after.So how much survived a quake unprecedented even in Japan would be of some vital intrest,and a foudation for MUCH needed reality.