Through Fukushima Lense, a Look at Looming US Nuclear Crisis
It started this June in California. Speaking about the problems at the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plants through the perspective of the Fukushima nuclear complex catastrophe was a panel of Naoto Kan, prime minister of Japan when the disaster began; Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time; Peter Bradford, an NRC member when the Three Mile Island accident happened; and nuclear engineer and former nuclear industry executive Arne Gundersen.
This week, the same panel of experts on nuclear technology, joined by long-time nuclear opponent Ralph Naderwas on the East Coast, in New York City and Boston, speaking about problems at the problem-riddled Indian Point nuclear plants near New York and the troubled Pilgrim plant near Boston, through the perspective on the Fukushima catastrophe.
Their presentations were powerful.
Kan, at the event Tuesday in Manhattan, told of how he had been a supporter of nuclear power, but after the Fukushima accident, which began on March 11, 2011, “I changed my thinking 180-degrees, completely.” He said that in the first days of the accident it looked like an “area that included Tokyo” and populated by 50 million people might have to be evacuated.
“We do have accidents such as an airplane crash and so on,” said Kan, “but no other accident or disaster” other than a nuclear plant disaster can “affect 50 million people...no other accident could cause such a tragedy.”
All 54 nuclear plants in Japan have now been closed, Kan said. And “without nuclear power plants we can absolutely provide the energy to meet our demands.” Meanwhile, in the two-plus years since the disaster began, Japan has tripled its use of solar energy, a jump in solar power production, he noted, that is the equivalent of the electricity that would be produced by three nuclear plants. He pointed to Germany as a model in its commitment to shutting down all its nuclear power plants and having “all its power supplied by renewable power” by 2050. The entire world, said Kan, could do this. “If humanity really would work together...we could generate all our energy through renewable energy.”
Jaczko said that the Fukushima disaster exploded several myths about nuclear power including those involving the purported prowess of U.S. nuclear technology. The General Electric technology of the Fukushima nuclear plants “came from the U.S.,” he noted. And, it exploded the myth that “severe accidents wouldn’t happen.” Said the former top nuclear official in the United States: “Severe accidents can and will happen.”
And what the Fukushima accident “is telling us is society does not accept the consequences of these accidents,” said Jaczko, who was pressured out of his position on the NRC after charging that the agency was not considering the “lessons” of the Fukushima disaster. In monetary cost alone, Jaczko said, the cost of the Fukushima accident is estimated at $500 billion by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Nuclear engineer Gundersen, formerly a nuclear industry senior vice president, noted that the NRC “says the chance of a nuclear accident is one in a million,” that an accident would happen “every 2,500 years.” This is predicated, he said, on what the NRC terms a probabilistic risk assessment or PRA. “I’d like to refer to it as PRAY.” The lesson of “real life,” said Gundersen, is that there have been five nuclear plant meltdowns in the past 35 years: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and the three at Fukushima Daiichi complex. That breaks down to an accident “every seven years.”
“This is a technology that can have 40 good years that can be wiped out in one bad day,” said Gundersen. He drew a parallel between Fukushima Daiichi “120 miles from Tokyo” and the Indian Point nuclear plant complex “26 miles from New York City.” He said that “in many ways Indian Point is worse than Fukushima was before the accident.” One element: the Fukushima accident resulted from an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The two operating plants at Indian Point are also adjacent to an earthquake fault line, said Gundersen. He also spoke of the “arrogance and hubris” of the nuclear industry and how the NRC has consistently complied with the desires of the industry.
Bradford said that that the “the bubble” that the nuclear industry once termed “the nuclear renaissance” has burst. As to a main nuclear industry claim in this promotion to revive nuclear powerthat atomic energy is necessary in “mitigating climate change” this has been shown to be false. It would take a tripling of the 440 total of nuclear plants now in the world to reduce greenhouse gasses by but 10 percent. Other sources of power are here as well as energy efficiency that could combat climate change. Meanwhile, the price of electricity from any new nuclear plants built has gone to a non-competitive 12 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour while “renewables are falling in price.”
Bradford also sharply criticized the agency of which he was once a member, the NRC, charging among other things that it has in recent years discouraged citizen participation. Also, as to Fukushima, the “accident really isn’t over,” said Bradford who, in addition to his role at the NRC has chaired the utility commissions of Maine and New York State.
Nader said that with nuclear power and the radioactivity it produces “we are dealing with a silent cumulative form of violence.” He said nuclear power is “unnecessary, unsafe, and uninsurable...undemocratic.” And constructing new words that begin with “un-,” it is also “unevacuatable, unfinanceable, unregulatable.”
Nader said nuclear power is unnecessary because there are many energy alternatives led by solar and wind. It is unsafe because catastrophic accidents can and will happen. He noted how the former U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in a 1960s report projected that a major nuclear accident could irradiate an area “the size of Pennsylvania.” He asked: “Is this the kind of gamble we want to take to boil water?”
Nuclear power is extremely expensive and thus uneconomic, he went on. It is uninsurable with the original scheme for nuclear power in the U.S. based on the federal Price-Anderson Act which limits a utility’s liability to a “fraction” of the cost of damages from an accident. That law remains, extended by Congress “every ten years or so.”
As for being “unevacuable,” NRC evacuation plans are “fantasy” documents,” said Nader. The U.S. advised Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate. Some 20 million people live within 50 miles of the Indian Point plants and New Yorkers “can hardly get out” of the city during a normal rush hour.” Nuclear power is “unfinancable,” he said, depending on government fiscal support through tax dollars. And it is “unregulatable” with the NRC taking a “promotional attitude.” And, “above all it is undemocratic,” said Nader, “a technology born in secrecy” which continues. Meanwhile, said Nader, “as the orders dry up in developed nations” for nuclear plants, the nuclear industry is pushing to build new plants in the developing world.
Also at the event in New York City, moderated by Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay and held at the 92nd Street Y, a segment of a new video documentary on nuclear power by Adam Salkin was screened. It showed Salkin in a boat going right in front of the Indian Point plants and it taking nearly five hours for a “security” boat from the plant to respond, and Salkin, the next day, in an airplane flying as low as 500 feet above the plants. The segment demonstrated that the nuclear plants on the Hudson are an easy target for terrorists and, it noted, what it showed was what “terrorists already know.”
The San Onofre nuclear power plants were closed permanently three weeks after the June panel event and after many years of intensive actions by nuclear opponents in California to shut down the plants, situated between San Diego and Los Angeles. The panel’s appearances this week in New York City Tuesday and Boston Wednesday, titled “Fukushima: Ongoing Lessons for New York and Boston,” are aimed at the same outcome occurring on the East Coast.
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