There’s been a steady diet of news coming out of Japan in recent days about the state of the tsunami-and-earthquake-crippled nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The stories all have one thing in common — they are highly negative. It’s increasingly clear that a complete cleanup of the plant and the surrounding area — including removing and disposing of the highly damaged fuel rods at the site and then restoring the contaminated lands nearby — is a process that will take decades and cost billions of dollars. That’s money that could have been spent productively on other things, such as developing safe renewable sources of energy for one of the world’s largest economies.
The people who live in and near Fukushima are furious — just this weekend the townspeople voted their incumbent mayor out of office because of the troubled aftermath of the nuclear disaster — and understandable so. The entire world should be upset over what has happened in Japan, because the crisis is also having an impact on global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the most dire consequences of climate change:
TOKYO — Japan took a major step back on Friday from earlier pledges to slash its greenhouse gas emissions, saying a shutdown of its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster had made previous targets unattainable. The announcement cast a shadow over international talks underway in Warsaw aimed at fashioning a new global pact to address the threats of a changing climate.
I agree with environmentalists who question whether this move is necessary:
Japan’s environment minister, Nobuteru Ishihara, said that the new target “does not consider the possible effect of nuclear power plants reducing emissions” and that Japan “would set a more definite target” once it settled on what sources of energy it would use in the future.
Environmental groups attending the climate talks criticized Japan’s new targets and said reducing emissions and keeping the country’s reactors offline were not mutually exclusive.
“Japan can get dramatic emission reductions while shutting down nuclear entirely,” said Martin Kaiser, head of the Greenpeace delegation. Greenpeace said its own calculations showed Japan could achieve emissions cuts of more than 20 percent without relying on nuclear power if it more aggressively pursued renewable energy.
There’s no doubt that the Japanese nuclear program should be shut down, possibly for good. We’ve learned over the past couple of years that the plant’s operator TEPCO had difficulties with safety before the 2011 tsunami, that it has severely botched the cleanup — allowing massive amounts of radioactive water to escape into the Pacific — and there has been a large-scale effort to hide the true picture from the public.
How bad is the situation? This interview with a scientist published over the weekend acknowledges that the waters immediately surrounding the plant is contaminated but downplays the impact on the broader ocean. Another scientist whom I’ve known and respected for a long time — Christopher Busby, a longtime adviser to the Green Party in the United Kingdom — this week shared with me a new paper on the worst case scenario for Fukushima, in which the removal of the fuel rods goes awry and a fission explosion destroys all the reactors and their associated spent fuel pools.
Busby believes there is a potential for such an accident, in either a collapse of the building housing the fuel rods or some other type of mishap which could lead to a meltdown. He looks at what would happen in that event — basing his analysis on the 1986 Russian nuclear accident at Chernobyl, nuclear weapons testing and other known events:
The total immediate catastrophic release of the entire contents of the Fukushima reactors and fuel pools would not amount to more than has already been injected into the global environment by atmospheric weapon tests. The health effects of these are known and amount to some 52 million cancer deaths. Accordingly, the worst case scenario at Fukushima will not make the northern hemisphere uninhabitable and the total doom/ death of life on earth predicted by some, is impossible. The most likely outcome would be catastrophic contamination of northern Japan forcing total evacuation of the population. The main global consequence will be serious contamination of the Pacific which may catastrophically affect Pacific biota. Effects on human populations in other countries will be finite but less than the global weapons fallout effects which have been quantified at 52 million cancer deaths. Apart from northern Japan the target group at risk are those living on the shores of the northern and eastern Pacific Ocean, Japan>Korea>China> Eastern Russia>North West USA> Western USA. The contamination of the Pacific from the worst case scenario at Fukushima can be usefully compared with the slightly greater Baltic Sea contamination from weapons fallout and Chernobyl.
Simply put, the consequences of another accident at Fukushima are unfathomable. On one hand, it’s incumbent upon the Japanese government to call in the world’s best experts and spend whatever it takes — frustrating as that is to see so much money spent so unproductively — to make sure this worst-case scenario does not come true. On the other hand, the situation in Japan should never have reached this point. The money that will be wasted should have been spent on renewable energy development. Not only is nuclear power not the solution to our greenhouse gas problem, but its risk for the citizens of this planet are too great to bear.
Please read the entire Busby paper at: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Fukuworstcase2.doc
To learn more about the ousting of the mayor of Fukushima, please check out: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/11/18/national/newcomer-defeats-incumbent-in-fukushima-mayoral-election/#.UoofrCf4LNQ
Read The New York Times article on how the Fukushima crisis is affecting climate change: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/world/asia/japan-shelves-plan-to-slash-emissions-citing-fukushima.html
For one Japanese scientist’s take on contamination from Fukushima, please read: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201311180001
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