2 August 2012

ABC (Australia) : The Fallout From Fukushima

The fallout from Fukushima

ABC, 2 August 2012

by Jim Green

Two important reports have been released in recent weeks - one analysing the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and another on the impact of the disaster on the nuclear ’renaissance’.

The report of the 10-member Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAAIC) - established by Japan’s national parliament - states that the Fukushima disaster was « a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented ».

The report « catalogues a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11. »

The accident was the result of « collusion between the government, the regulators and [Fukushima plant operator] TEPCO », the report states, and these parties « betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. »

TEPCO « manipulated its cosy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations. » The independence of the regulators « was a mockery ».

Those conclusions, based on 900 hours of hearings and 1,167 interviews, contrast sharply with the spin from nuclear apologists that the disaster was caused by the ’unforeseeable’ scale of the earthquake and tsunami.

The NAIIC report is equally scathing about the response to the disaster :

« Insufficient evacuation planning led to many residents receiving unnecessary radiation exposure. Others were forced to move multiple times, resulting in increased stress and health risks - including deaths among seriously ill patients. »

In some cases people were moved to areas with higher radiation levels than the place they started from. Iitate village, north-west of Fukushima, was not evacuated for over a month despite earlier evidence of radiation levels in excess of the evacuation criteria.

A bungled evacuation of 340 patients from a hospital near the nuclear plant was one of many problems that arose because of seriously inadequate emergency planning (which, in turn, was due to hubris, cost-cutting and collusion). Eight patients died after spending almost 12 hours on a bus while about 35 were mistakenly left at the hospital for two additional days. Nearly 600 deaths were caused by fatigue or by medical conditions worsened by evacuation from areas affected by the tsunami and/or the nuclear disaster.

TEPCO failed to give most workers dosimeters to measure radiation exposure in the days after the crisis. A construction company forced workers at the Fukushima plant to cover their dosimeters with lead plates in a bid to stay under the exposure threshold and to prolong their work at the stricken plant. An executive explained :

« We judged mistakenly that we could bring peace of mind to the workers if we could somehow delay their dosimeters’ alarms going off. »

Most of the 150,000 evacuees from the nuclear disaster are still dislocated and the NAIIC report notes that they « continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment. »

The report states that « the government and the regulators are not fully committed to protecting public health and safety ; that they have not acted to protect the health of the residents and to restore their welfare. » Add that to the « wilful negligence » that caused the disaster in the first place and it is no wonder that there are regular, large anti-nuclear protests in Japan. A July 16 protest in Tokyo, for example, was attended by 100,000 to 170,000 citizens. Most Japanese opposed the construction of new reactors even before Fukushima.

What a shame that Prime Minister Gillard pronounced last year that Fukushima « doesn’t have any impact on my thinking about uranium exports ». The disaster and its aftermath provide plenty of food for thought about the wisdom of turning a blind eye for many years to the gross mismanagement of nuclear power in one of Australia’s uranium customer countries. Apart from anything else, that blinkered approach isn’t good for business. Japan’s previous plan to increase nuclear to 50 per cent of electricity generation is in tatters ; a cold peace may be achieved at a figure of around 15 per cent.

The 2012 World Nuclear Industry Status Report details the impact of the Fukushima disaster on the global nuclear ’renaissance’. Global nuclear power capacity has been stagnant for the past 20 years - the renaissance has been more rhetoric than reality.

In 2011, seven new reactors started up while 19 were shut down. Four countries have announced that they will phase out nuclear power within a given timeframe : Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Taiwan. At least five countries have decided not to engage or re-engage in nuclear power programs - Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, and Thailand. Some countries - such as China and India - will continue with nuclear expansion plans but at a slower pace.

Of the 59 power reactors under construction around the world, at least 18 are experiencing multi-year delays and the others are in the early phase of construction with no certainty of reaching completion. Construction costs are rapidly rising. Most of the world’s power reactors are edging towards old-age so even if modest short-term growth is achieved, significant new build will be required in coming decades just to replace permanent reactor shut downs.

Last year Iran became the first country to start commercial operation of a new nuclear power plant since Romania in 1996. However Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons points to the long history of ’peaceful’ nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for WMD programs. More food for thought for our Prime Minister.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and author of a detailed briefing paper on the events leading up to the Fukushima disaster. View his full profile here.