UNITED NATIONS - The nuclear mishap caused by Monday's earthquake in Japan has unleashed another wave of environmental concerns about the use of nuclear technology to meet the world's energy needs.
"Nuclear power is hardly the safe panacea its supporters claim it to be," said Norman Dean of Friends of the Earth (FoE), a network of hundreds of environmental groups around the world.
Raising similar concerns, the environmental group Greenpeace International's Jan Beranek described the Kashiwazaki nuclear site incident as another "reminder" that nuclear power "is not safe".
Both Dean and Beranek warned of "far more serious nuclear accidents" and "real risks" posed by earthquakes and industrial disasters, as well as possible terrorist attacks in the future.
Monday's earthquake killed nine and wounded more than 1,000 people, in addition to causing a radioactive leak and fire at the world's largest nuclear-power producing plant.
Japan's energy officials have acknowledged that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant leaked hundreds of gallons of water that was contaminated with radioactive waste.
However, they described the amount of radioactive waste mixed with water as "tiny," and said there had been "no significant change" in the seawater and that there was no effect on the environment.
Greenpeace accused Japanese officials of "lying" in their initial assessment of the impact of the fire -- in which they said there was no danger of radioactive leakage -- adding that the Japanese and global nuclear industries have been marred by a series of accidents and cover-ups.
According to environmentalists, there are many similarities between what happened in Japan and an incident at Germany's Krummel power plant last month, in which a fire broke out in the transformers building and damaged the reactor.
"In Germany, the industry first claimed that the fire had no impact on reactor safety," said Beranek, "[but] in reality the fire led to serious malfunctions that directly threatened the safety of the reactor."
Various agencies measured Monday's earthquake between 6.7 and 6.8 on the Richter scale.
The quake hit on Marine Day, an official holiday in Japan, when most people were inside their homes. The Japanese media reported that a series of smaller aftershocks are still going on.
On Monday, authorities said they had evacuated some 2,000 people whose homes had been completely destroyed by the quake.
Critics point out that this was not the first time the Japanese nuclear industry has tried to cover up a nuclear accident.
According to Beranek, for example, the Hokuriku utility did not inform the public or nuclear inspectors about a serious incident that took place at the Shika nuclear power plant, where a mechanical failure in 1999 led to an uncontrolled chain reaction.
In April 2006, there was a radioactive spill of 40 liters of liquid containing plutonium in the brand new reprocessing plant in Rokkasho-Mura, the group said, adding that in August 2004, a pipe was ruptured in the Mihama plant, which resulted in the death of five workers.
More famously, nuclear meltdowns occurred at Three Mile Island in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania in 1979 and in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union. A recent Greenpeace report estimated that 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancers were caused by that disaster.
Greenpeace and many other environmental groups have repeatedly called for the United Nations, United States and other powerful nations to stop promoting nuclear technology as an alternative to fossil fuels.
In April 2006, some leading European politicians raised serious questions about the U.N.'s role in encouraging countries to acquire nuclear energy for non-military purposes.
Former environment ministers from European countries, including Russia, sent a letter to the former U.N. chief Kofi Annan urging him to reform the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Nuclear power is no longer necessary," they said in the letter. "We have now numerous renewable technologies available to guarantee the right to safe, clean, and cheap energy."
Greenpeace's Beranek echoed the same message Monday. "Nuclear power undermines real solutions to climate change, by diverting resources away from the massive development of clean energy sources the world urgently needs," he said.
"What's more," he added, "climate change will increase natural disasters, in turn posing a greater risk to nuclear power plants, and to our safety."
But this line of reasoning has failed to win over many of the world's most powerful nations. In July last year, when leaders of the world's most industrialized countries, known as the Group of Eight, gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, they signed a joint statement saying that nuclear energy is one way to address climate change.
Many environmentalists see nuclear reactors as dangerous because in addition to natural disasters they are also vulnerable to unintentional human error.
"Energy conservation and wind and solar power are cleaner and safer than nuclear power," said Dean. "They are a better way to fight global warming."