Last week twelve members from the IAEA’s International Remediation Expert Mission, representing several countries visited Japan to inspect, assess and help with clean-up plans and future waste management. Why this concern and assistance from experts outside of Japan? Well, any country with nuclear reactors, more likely, fear ever having to be in the position Japan is in right now. Could the US be headed for a “Fukushima” experience (or any other nuclear state for that matter)? Would things be handled differently? A look at the present conditions in both countries can give us an idea.
There are 440 nuclear reactors in the world with 54 in Japan and 104 in the United States. Both countries started building their reactors in the 50’s and 60’s, not only due to industry and government partnerships but also, often as a coalition between Japan and the US with R&D co-operation across borders. GE built the Fukushima reactors in the seventies, like many of the reactors in both countries, making them 30 to 40 years old. In addition to the 104 reactors in operation in the US, an additional hundred plus reactors were started and cancelled for various reasons and at various stages of construction.
Nuclear energy production cannot happen without massive amounts of water for it’s cooling systems under normal conditions and as we will see, even larger doses are needed once an accident like Fukushima has occurred. Therefore, reactors must be built near large bodies of water: rivers, lakes and most popular, oceans. Japan’s coastlines as well as the west coast of the United States and Canada are seated on a series of fault lines, often referred to as the “ring of fire.” The east coast of the United States also has fault lines as evidenced by the most recent movement felt in DC. There are many causes for nuclear reactor accidents including human error, mechanical malfunctions, and unexpected disasters, natural or otherwise. All these are potential hazards for the remaining reactors in both the US and Japan.
The problems created by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in the area around the Fukushima Daiichi reactors are many and severe. The first problem is the management and cost of uprooting evacuees, and compensating them in new lives, homes and industry (Who pays for that?). Next is the cost and manpower involved in administering to the sick and injured as a result of escaped radioactive chemicals. Cost is one thing, but adequate equipment and willing qualified health specialists is proving harder to come by. Many specialists desire to help, but are not willing to risk their own health, as seen by the recent report showing a ten percent exodus in health care specialists in the Fukushima area. As radiation continues to escape and linger for years, often longer (depending on it’s half life), problems of monitoring and regulating the sales and consumption of food and water will increase. Radiation spreads in the air to be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, as well as settling into the soil and moving through plant life that is digested by humans or livestock. Where does one begin to check and regulate?
Japan has seen a drastic decrease in food exports as the global community has moved away from Japanese agricultural products. Every week new agricultural areas and crops are being added to the unsafe list domestically. First it was milk, beef, and spinach, then tea and recently some regions rice crops have been sadly added to the list. This is harming many already low-income farmers in Japan. Imagine if the mega-agricultural enterprises in the US were suddenly restricted from exporting any of their sugar, corn or soy products and then had the added burden of waste management of these now radioactive crops. What would that do to global food supply and prices?
The biggest issue (in my opinion) that is not talked about much in the media is the increased need for water and the increased waste management problem that Japan is now dealing with. Fukushima is a nightmarish experiment that has now added a new cost to nuclear power production-what to do with the radioactive waste created by the process of cooling the radioactive material? The process goes like this- In order to cool the 2000 tons of half-melted nuclear fuel from the Fukushima reactors as well as the material in the cooling ponds, water is needed, tens of thousands of tons a days worth. In order to avoid stripping Japan of all its potable water over the coming years, a “recycled water cooling” system is necessary. In June, this system was piece together by a coalition of enterprises from France, Japan and the US. This process, while producing a percentage of re-usable water, now creates additional radioactive waste. This contaminated sediment has a radiation level 100 times higher then the highly contaminated water. This waste now needs to be cooled and managed. The energy it will take for this perpetual cycle is considered an externality (costs not figured into the total cost of energy production) and has not yet been calculated into the cost.
Any number of things could happen to create a Fukushima in America or any other country that produces nuclear power. With reactors on the west coast fault-lines, 11 aging reactors in the state of Illinois alone (more than any other state), and the dozen or so reactors near NYC and along the east coast, are among the most worrisome. How would a Fukushima affect our Agri-business and food supply? Where would the extra water come from in many already drought-prone-regions? And would the American people be ready to sweat through record-breaking summers to conserve energy as Japan did with this summer’s “setsuden” campaign (see Renew Yamada article)? Would Americans, like Japanese really have a say, or is the industry/government bond as strong as it is in Japan. If the protest last month in DC, where 1250 people were arrested for peacefully demonstrating or the on-going, ignored OWS protest any indicator, it will be more like ‘business as usual.’
The Fukushima accident has prompted Japan to move more toward increased renewable energy and continued conservation measures. While Japan could serve as a harbinger of things to come many pro-nuclear advocates still argue that it is too expensive and too difficult to move to new technology and systems, like clean renewable energy connected to a smart grid with battery storage capabilities. The argument against conservation measures is that you can’t ask or make people use and consume less. It infringes on a citizens right to free choice and it will make our market system fail. Well, news flash, the system is failing. Nuclear accidents, food crisis and water shortages will only speed up the fall.
I wish I could wrap this up with a happy ending…but I can’t think of one that does not include a complete paradigm shift in our systems, institutions and way of life.
See also “The Elephant in the Room” on Mary Beth’s Driver of Change wesite.