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A Lesson from Fukushima: A Safe, Clean Energy Future Will Be Nuclear-Free

Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees walk in front of the No. 4 reactor building, rear, crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, at the utility company's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Saturday, May 26, 2012. (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi, Pool)

Today, the 11th of March 2015, marks the fourth year since beginning of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters: the triple reactor core meltdowns and catastrophic containment building failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It's a nuclear crisis that, unfortunately, continues to unfold.

The widespread environmental contamination largely remains. Decontamination efforts are, many times, missing the government's targets. Massive amounts of highly radioactive water flow into the ocean from the reactor site every day. The location of molten reactor cores in Units 1-3 remains unknown – which is a problem that requires massive amounts of cooling water every day to minimize the risk of another major radiation release.

In spite of these ongoing problems and the fact that many of the over 120,000 displaced nuclear refugees are still living in difficult evacuation conditions four years later, the Abe government in Japan is pushing to restart the country's idled nuclear fleet.

Prime Minister Abe has been touting nuclear as a necessary part of the energy mix, needed for the country to meet its climate commitments. In reality though, it is highly unlikely that Japan will ever reach the 15-20% nuclear electricity targets that have been currently floated by a special task force of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Environment.

Relying on nuclear to fulfill Japan's climate obligations is betting the future of the planet and generations of people to come on a politician's fantasy.

And, how "safe" and "clean" is this energy source, really? If we believe the nuke huggers, it is very safe – one catastrophic accident occurs only once every 250 years, they say.

However, it doesn't take a nuclear scientist to tell you we've experienced a few more major accidents than that in the 70 years of nuclear programs, including the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant — with 3 reactors at the site experiencing core meltdowns; the catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl; and the partial meltdowns at the Three Mile Island and Fermi 1 nuclear power plants in the US – just to name a few.

A logical person would look at this evidence, as well as the industry's track record, and either revise their opinion or revise their prediction models. Probably both are in order.

Unfortunately, the industry, and many regulators, have continued to tow the "safety" line – while at the same time weakening reactor safety standards so that aging reactors can meet them. And the aging nuclear fleet in many parts of the world results in increased safety risks, as components degrade with time and wear.

If we are to discuss "safety" within the context of nuclear, it's also important to broaden our perspective beyond a narrow focus on solely catastrophic accident risks at operating nuclear reactors, to major environmental and public safety risks imposed by the entire nuclear cycle. These include uranium mining; uranium processing to create nuclear fuel (milling, conversion, enrichment and fabrication – each step uses fossil fuels and generates radioactive wastes); radioactive releases during operation – both, routine radioactive releases and accidental ones; and the ever increasing nuclear waste problem. After over seven decades of nuclear technology, final spent nuclear fuel disposal is still unsolved anywhere in the world. Some countries, like the UK, France, and Russia, compound the radioactive waste problem by "reprocessing" spent nuclear fuel — a chemical process separating plutonium from high level radioactive waste, which not only generates an enormous amount of radioactive gaseous and liquid effluent, but increases nuclear bomb proliferation risks.

There are also indications that even in the absence of a major disaster, nuclear reactors may be hazardous to human health – particularly for children.

The positive is that we do not need to accept this dirty, dangerous, and outdated technology – neither to keep the lights on nor to meet carbon reduction targets.

Perhaps nowhere is this point more relevant than in Japan. As of the fourth Fukushima Daiichi disaster anniversary, the country will be nearly a year and a half without a single reactor online – and not a single blackout or brownout as a result.

And while successive Japanese governments have failed to enact robust policies that fully support the renewable energy expansion and energy efficiency measures needed to meet the global challenge of mitigating climate change impacts, local governments are stepping into the leadership void left by the national government.

Fukushima City declared in December 2012 that its first objective to revitalize the disaster-ravaged prefecture was "Building a safe, secure, and sustainable society free from nuclear power." In 2014, the prefectural government followed through on that goal with a committment to a 100% renewable energy target by 2040.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government just announced a record 23% reduction in carbon emissions in the fourth year of its cap and trade program – due in large part to energy efficiency measures that began as a result of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

These important steps stand in stark contrast to those of the Abe government, which continues pushing for nuclear power – while at the same time developing mechanisms to undermine the development of renewable energy. The nuclear village that Abe inhabits, along with the bureaucrats in the Industry Ministry and nuclear power companies, have seen the clean energy future – and they don't like it. They know that the costs for renewable energy – especially solar PV – will continue to drop and its market share increase across the planet. And these plummeting costs, rapid construction times, and massive carbon savings from modern renewable energy sources, render old, dangerous, and dirty technologies, like nuclear energy, obsolete.

Those who created the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe know that their nuclear power plants have no place in a modern Japan. And they are fighting as hard as they can to stop clean energy progress and shore up their dirty-energy-based profits.

But, for the people of Japan, a majority of whom oppose any nuclear restart, there are massive opportunities on the horizon for a truly safe and clean future. And we, at Greenpeace, will stand with them – against the onslaught of the nuclear village – to ensure that the clean, renewable energy future becomes a reality.

To stand together with the clear majority of Japanese people who believe a #ZeroNuclear future is possible, for Japan and the world, add your name to the petition today.


Kendra Ulrich

Kendra Ulrich is a Global Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. Follow her on Twitter: @KendraUlrich

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