March 11, 2013
By: Alicia Godsberg, Executive Director, Peace Action New York State
Today is the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and led to the meltdown of the three operating nuclear power reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It’s hard to know where to begin and what to say on such a somber anniversary, one which is still bringing so much suffering to so many people in Japan and the effects of which have yet to be fully grasped or understood. But today cannot go by unnoticed or without comment because then we run the risk of other meltdowns and other disasters. We have a choice – to move toward a sustainable, job creating, carbon-free, nuclear-free energy future for our state, country, and world[i]. It is imperative that we move in this direction.
To sum up what happened two years ago in Japan[ii], an intense earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that flooded the nuclear power plant, thereby disabling its cooling systems, which moderate the temperature within the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools (in this complex, the spent fuel pools are located within the containment structures housing the reactors). Without water pumping over spent fuel pools and moderating the nuclear reactions in reactor cores, eventually the water covering the radioactive fuel rods will boil off and expose them, at which point the fuel rods can melt through the containment structures and leak into the environment. This is what happened within the three reactor cores, but total leakage into the environment was prevented by multiple containment vessels. Plenty of radioactivity was released into the atmosphere, however, after the buildup of hydrogen caused explosions in different areas of the complex (and in attempts to prevent these explosions, radiation was purposefully leaked as well). Things could have actually turned out worse if the spent fuel rods in cooling pools had also become exposed and exploded, but thankfully this did not happen.
The evacuation zone around the plant continued to be expanded over the first few days of the disaster, with the Japanese government telling those within 12 miles of the plant (over 100,000 people) to evacuate. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is responsible for nuclear safety in the U.S., sets a 10 mile mandatory evacuation zone in the event of an emergency at a nuclear power plant in the United States, that same agency recommended all U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Fukushima evacuate[iii]. In response to questions about why they expanded the evacuation zone in Japan for U.S. citizens without moving also to expand the evacuation zone at home, the NRC has been mute[iv].
In the days following the meltdown at Fukushima the Japanese government increased the acceptable dosage of radiation a citizen can safely receive from 1mSv/year to 20mSv/year. This increase of acceptable doses of radiation is in effect for children as well as adults, despite the fact that children are more susceptible to the negative effects of radiation on the body than adults. No explanation was given for this dramatic increase, which exceeds the International Commission on Radiological Protection’s recommendation of no more than 1mSv/year for anyone[v].
Bringing this closer to home, did you know that 23 of the U.S.’s 104 operating nuclear power reactors are the exact same design as the ones that suffered meltdowns in Japan? These reactors are General Electric-designed boiling water reactors called GE Mark I and were designed in the 1960s. The U.S. also has 12 reactors with a slightly later design, the Mark II and Mark II, but which operate essentially with the same boiling water design. Bringing it even closer to home, New York State has two of these GE reactors operating near Syracuse at the FitzPatrick and Nine Mile Point power plants. As of last year, more than 909,500 people are known to live within 50 miles of these power plants[vi], which themselves are having serious problems with their venting systems (remember, these systems help prevent hydrogen explosions that blast radioactivity into the air).
The two operating power plants at Indian Point – 35 miles from downtown Manhattan – sit on two active fault lines and were in fact considered targets by the 9/11 hijackers. These nuclear power plants are on the Hudson River and their cooling system takes in 2 million gallons of water each minute, killing billions of fish, eggs, larvae and plants each year[vii]. Pump failures routinely shut the aging plants down and their contribution to the grid in the NYC area is greatly exaggerated by the plant’s operating company, Entergy, which has applied to extend the operating licenses of these power plants for another 20 years. PANYS is working with several allies in the Alliance for a Green Economy NY to pass a resolution through the NYC Council to prevent this relicensing and to promote sustainable energy alternatives instead of nuclear power. The groups are additionally seeking funding from the NYS Legislature for a 2-year study on a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy future for New York State, which will include data on job creation from this transition.
For a few years prior to the meltdowns at Fukushima the U.S. was supposed to be starting a “nuclear renaissance” and the building of new nuclear power plants for the first time in decades. These plans fell apart because such capital projects are not feasible without financial guarantees the work started will be finished, and these financial guarantees were not forthcoming from the market and not possible on a large scale from the government[viii]. Liability insurance for plant operators is another issue that has not been resolved to the satisfaction of utility companies. And while nuclear power plants that are already running can be cost effective sources of electricity (if you don’t include certain costs, such as decommissioning and long-term waste storage), starting up a plant takes years, costs billions, and cannot be cost effective as a source of electricity for many years after coming online.
As for the environment, while the operation of a nuclear power plant does not release carbon emissions (although other essential related operations do, such as uranium mining), to have a positive effect on climate change the number of nuclear power plants that would have to come online worldwide would be over 1,000; so many new plants could not possibly come online in the time frame necessary to stop environmental damage[ix]. Thus, nuclear is not and cannot be a solution to climate change or a replacement for carbon-based energy that damages our environment.
We have to stand up to the nuclear industry, the IAEA (which exists to promote nuclear power around the world), and the folks who say “we need nuclear to be a part of any energy solution.” We need to stop thinking the best and brightest minds need to go into scientific study of nuclear reactions for power or weapons purposes and start encouraging science in perfecting sustainable energy and its storage and movement.
There is not one single safe, long-term repository for nuclear waste anywhere in the world. None. The storage being used at one of the U.S.’s oldest nuclear sites – Hanford, WA – has been leaking for decades and is getting worse each year, poisoning that environment[x]. Speaking globally, as more nations choose nuclear power for their energy futures the threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons increases as well. It is time we admit that the experiment with splitting the atom to create energy – whether for electricity or weapons of mass destruction – was a failed experiment, doing much more harm than good to our planet and our humanity. Let’s never forget that, especially today.