Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 March 2012

The lessons of Fukushima, one year later

As the world marks the first anniversary of Japan’s triple tragedy, lessons are still being drawn from the Fukushima nuclear accident and the dangers of nuclear power plants.


It’s been a full year since Japan’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and the reverberations are still being felt.

The tsunami of 11 March 2011 caused around 19,000 deaths (16,000 known dead, 3,000 missing), and 320,000 were made homeless.  The nuclear disaster alone created 100,000 nuclear evacuees, a new tern created to describe those who had to leave their homes to escape radiation.

The lesson, only still partially learnt in Japan itself, and hardly learnt yet in other countries, is that natural disasters can come in different and unexpected forms, and governments must put aside considerable resources and facilities to prepare for and manage them.

Usually that lesson becomes obvious when the disaster happens, then a pledge is made to be better prepared, and much of that is not implemented, until the next disaster strikes and the cycle begins again.

While the tsunami’s effects were the most graphic and caused the most immediate damage, it was the nuclear incidents in the Fukushima power plant, that were the most shocking and may have the most serious and long-term repercussions.

The nuclear disaster blew away a lot of myths.  We now know, again, that nuclear power plants are not safe and when an accident happens it can cause tremendous and sometimes unimaginable harm.

The claim by TEPCO, the Japanese company operating the Fukushima plant, that the reactors were fail-safe and could withstand earthquakes, was shown spectacularly to be wrong.

The ability of the regulatory authorities to monitor and check for risks and to ensure safety was shown to be worse than inadequate; it was almost absent.

The top government officials, including the prime minister who took charge, were in a desperate state trying to control a dangerous situation that ran out of control.

An independent commission investigating the nuclear accident set up by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation shows how close the country was to a catastrophe.

Its chairman Yoichi Funabashi in an article in last Saturday’s Financial Times revealed that Japan was on the edge of an “existential crisis”.   As the tsunami knocked out the Fukushima plant’s cooling system, exposing the reactors to total meltdown, the TEPCO president indicated his company’s intention to abandon the Fukushima plant and evacuate its workers.

The prime minister Naoto Kan personally intervened, ordering the company not to abandon ship and to form a “death squad” of workers to continue the battle and inject water into the reactor vessels.  A worst case scenario prepared for the prime minister by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission envisioned a hydrogen explosion, a succession of meltdowns and such extensive radiation that Tokyo itself would have to be evacuated.

That didn’t happen, but could have but for luck.  Says Funabashi:  “The truth is that the imagined ‘worst-case scenario’ was closer than anyone would wish to admit: but for the direction of the wind – towards the Pacific, not inland, in the four days after the earthquake; but for the manner in which the gate separating the reactor-well and the spent-fuel pool in Unit 4 broke – presumably facilitating the transfusion of water into the pool. Luck was undeniably on our side.”

Funabashi’s commission found that the nuclear industry became ensnared in its twisted myth of “absolute safety”, propagated by interest groups seeking to gain broad acceptance for nuclear power.

He also found that “Japan’s nuclear safety regulatory regime was phoney. Regulators pretended to regulate; utilities pretended to be regulated. In reality, the latter were far more powerful in expertise and clout.”

He offers two lessons to be learnt.  First is the need to overcome the myth of “absolute safety”,  shatter the taboo that surrounds the very concept of risks in the nuclear energy business and learn to prepare for the unthinkable and unanticipated, which requires constant vigilance on  safety of nuclear plants and practices of nuclear waste disposal.

Second is the need for a regulatory body independent from the industry, bureaucrats, and academics working to promote nuclear energy.

Those are lessons too for all other countries that have or are assessing whether to have nuclear power and other radiation-linked industries.

A major fall-out of the Fukushima accident is the blow it has dealt the nuclear industry.   It highlighted the extreme dangers when something goes wrong, as it did in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima.

It showed up the devastating social impacts as when homes and villages had to be abandoned by the 100,000 nuclear evacuees, the adverse health effects (which are not yet fully known) , and the high cost to the government to compensate and re-locate them.

Of its 52 nuclear plants, Japan has now closed 50 due to safety concerns or for checking and maintenance.  The remaining two may also close in April.  Although it is likely the government will try to reopen some of them, the public revulsion against nuclear plants could also mean that their days are numbered.

There is also an international backlash, with Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland declaring they will phase out their nuclear plants.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while marking the anniversary of the Japanese tragedy, lauded her government’s decision to close 8 nuclear plants and phase out the remaining nine by 2022, and added:  “We have seen the risks in a highly developed industrial country, risks which we considered impossible – or speaking for myself, I considered impossible.”

The situation in Asia is mixed.  China suspended building new nuclear plants pending changes in safety standards.  India, Vietnam and Korea are still going ahead with their nuclear power programmes.

“If more nuclear power plants are built in developing countries with little experience of operating a reactor, or bordering a region where terrorism is a concern, or without sufficient financial resources to import state of the art technology, then the chance of a major nuclear accident hitting the developing world will loom large in the coming decades,” says Kevin Tu, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Meanwhile The Economist magazine, in its latest cover story, “Nuclear Energy: The dream that failed” is pessimistic about the future of the nuclear industry, pointing to both safety concerns and the cost factor.

Nuclear plants are costly to build and operate, requiring large subsidies from governments, and they are getting even more expensive.  British studies show the overnight cost of new power plants at US$2233 for every kilowatt of capacity in 2004, and US$3,000/kw in 2008, according to the Economist.   Capacity fired by gas turbines cost less than one fifth of that.    The cost of renewable energy -- wind and solar -- also getting cheaper every year, in contrast to the rising cost of nuclear.

Perhaps the most intractable problem is nuclear waste.  As the Economist noted, building a nuclear plant that can last 100 years is one thing, but creating waste that will be dangerous for 100 times as long is another.  So far countries have failed to create a long term repository for nuclear waste, so in the meanwhile the waste from today’s reactors is piling up.

And as the public worldwide has become intensely more aware of the dangers of radiation, not least for their babies and children, the resistance to locating nuclear plants in their neighbourhood has grown fiercer.  No doubt the Fukushima meltdowns and its aftermath have contributed to that awareness, and to the bad name that nuclear power has acquired.