Fukushima Accident Update by Peter Prebble
As of June 2012, only 2 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were operational. The rest have been shut down, as the national government requires nuclear reactors to undergo new safety tests and as many local communities express strong opposition to their nuclear power plants reopening. At the time of writing, it is still uncertain how many of the nuclear reactor shut-downs will be temporary and how many will become permanent. What is clear is that Japanese public opinion on the future of nuclear power has shifted significantly. Polls show that the vast majority of Japanese want to see a much reduced role for nuclear power society. Twenty five percent want to see nuclear power completely abandoned, and they are supported by Japan’s Prime Minister during the Fukushima crisis. He has since stepped down from office, but he is calling for a complete end to the use of nuclear power in Japan.
The people of Japan endured terrible suffering and loss of life as a result of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. More than 20,000 people are dead or missing in eastern Japan as a result of these events. One of the many terrible consequences was that a 14 metre high tsunami wave struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. This resulted in a loss of electricity to the cooling systems in the power plant, followed by a series of hydrogen explosions and a nuclear fuel meltdown in 3 of the reactors on site. The result was an enormous release of ionizing radiation, as fission products inside the reactor contaminated the air, the ocean, groundwater, soil and crops. Japanese authorities rated the accident as a Level 7 – the highest severity rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
The Fukushima accident reinforced one of the important hazards of nuclear power, namely that even when nuclear reactors are successfully shut down in an emergency situation, as was the case at Fukushima, a major radiation release can still occur. That is because, after shutdown, nuclear reactors must be cooled for months. If electricity is not available to run the cooling systems, the temperature of the uranium fuel bundles keeps rising. When the fuel bundles reach approximately 2,800 degrees Centigrade, they melt down, releasing a vast store of dangerous fission products.
There is a direct link between Saskatchewan and the Fukushima accident. Cameco has been a supplier of uranium to Tokyo Electric Company, the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Some of the fission products now contaminating farms, school grounds and homes in Japan originate from Saskatchewan uranium that was sold to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and subjected to fission in the three reactors that suffered melt-downs.
Today, over 80,000 residents in 8 towns and villages around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station are still unable to return home. Most will likely never be able to do so because their properties are too radioactive. Moreover, millions of Japanese citizens have been exposed to excessive amounts of ionizing radiation, a circumstance that will lead to elevated rates of cancer in the years to come.
Meanwhile, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power station are far from resolved. The greatest concern is a high level nuclear waste storage pool in the Unit 4 reactor on site. The spent fuel pool is now exposed to the outside environment after a hydrogen explosion blew off part of the reactor building. Unfortunately, the reactor building will not be easy to repair. The risks posed by the spent fuel, in the event of another earthquake, are so serious that dozens of non-profit groups across Japan are urging the United Nations to organize a special security summit on the issue.
The economic costs of the Fukushima accident are also enormous. The cleanup of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant site is expected to take 30-40 years. The total cost of the disaster is estimated at $100 billion.
In response to the Fukushima accident, many other countries have cancelled plans for nuclear reactors purchases or have announced they will shut down existing reactors. For example, Germany has already shut down 8 of its nuclear reactors and plans to phase out the rest by 2022. Switzerland has cancelled plans for buying new nuclear power stations, while Italy voted in a referendum last year to reject nuclear power. Planned nuclear power stations have also been cancelled in Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Venezuela, Kuwait and Brazil.
If there is hope that emerges from the Fukushima tragedy, it is the resilience of the Japanese people and their resolve to pursue a more sustainable energy future. The Japanese are working hard to reduce energy use. Many industries are cutting peak demand for electricity, while spreading the electrical load more evenly throughout the week. Japan is also encouraging investment in solar, wind and geothermal energy resources. To this end, on June 18th Japan’s national government launched a program of feed in tariffs that will require Japanese utilities to buy electricity produced from renewable energy sources, and to pay pre-set premium prices for that electricity for up to 20 years.
For more information on the Fukushima accident and nuclear power, please refer to this 15 page report, Lessons From Fukushima by Petter Prebble.