Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fukushima revisited

 It’s around year and a half since the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster started. But it’s still not over. The reactor core meltdowns may have been contained, although they are still active and temperatures have fluctuated, suggesting continued risks of further fuel melts and emissions.  Perhaps more worryingly, a tank containing spent fuel is still precariously balanced on top of the wreck of Reactor 4, and some fear that if another earthquake hit the site it could fall and spill its lethal contents- 1500 fuel rods. That could result in much more radioactive material being released than from any previous nuclear accident.  The open waste tank has been propped up and a cover put over it, but it will take some time before the rods can be removed.  It will also be some while before the melted fuel in the cores can be removed, and the mess from the explosions can be cleaned up- vast areas of NE Japan have to be decontaminated

So maybe it’s not a bad time to take a look at what happened at Fukushima and its implications. That’s what I tried to do in a new book, to be published soon as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s new Pivot e- book initiative.

Japan has been hit by nuclear disasters before. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, forcing its surrender, seem to have been part of the reason why Japan as a society redefined itself as a non-military state, still devoted to winning, but this time through civil technology.  It did well in many areas of technology, although its choice of nuclear technology seems not to have turned out to be wise. Perhaps now it will reconfigure itself as a non-nuclear, renewable energy focused society – and win that way. In May, Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister, told a parliamentary committee that the bulk of the blame for the disaster lay with the nuclear lobby, which he said had acted like the nation's out-of-control military during the Second World War, with "a grip on actual political power".

There certainly is a continuing incentive to make changes. The economic impact of Fukushima has been very serious. The disaster clean up cost – put at around $250 billion, forced the Japanese government to bail out and take over TEPCO, the plant operator, and, with public fears mounting, it has also carried out safety tests on all the other all the plants. That meant that by May all Japan nuclear plants had been shut down- although two have now been restarted, despite massive 170,000 strong protests. 

The full social and health impacts of the Fukushima  accident are as yet unknown. While no radiation related deaths have yet been reported, longer-term effects are possible. In May TEPCO almost quadrupled its initial estimates of total Iodine-131 releases from Fukushima- from 130 Peta Bq to 511PBq. Iodine-131's half-life is 8 days, so it is so not worrying as the releases of  Caesium 137, which has a 30 year half life. TEPCOs estimates for releases of Caesium 137 were raised from 6.1 to 13.6 PBq .

An  interim UN-World Health Organisation study says that in the most affected areas of Fukushima prefecture, thyroid doses from iodine-131 were estimated as between 10 and 100 mSv apart from one area which was lower, at 1 to 10 mSv, and one that was higher for infants at 100-200 mSv. In the rest of Fukushima, adults received 1 to 10 mSv to their thyroids while children and infants received 10 to 100 mSv, the study estimated. For comparison, it said young people in the vicinity of the Chernobyl accident received on average doses of 300 to 1400 mSv to their thyroids.

However comparisons with Chernobyl do not go down well in Japan, which is desperately trying to re-establish normalacy.  Not least since Japan was a candidate for hosting the 2020 Olympics. While by then the radiation issue may not be seen as so significant, the International Olympic Organising Committee have indicated concerns about the energy situation in Japan. They are not alone. Whereas Germany already had a established plan for nuclear phase out and expansion of renewables, which it accelerated after Fukushima, renewables had been marginalised in Japan. Now it is desperately trying to catch up. For example, it is backing some large offshore wind farms using floating wind turbine technology.

While it remains to be seen whether policies will change elsewhere, with the UK, USA, China, India and Russia still pressing ahead with nuclear to various extents, it is clear that, as I review in my new book, Fukushima, like Chernobyl before it, has led to major changes in attitudes around the world, and for Japan and several other key countries, including German, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium, a fundamental shift in policy. Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines have also backed off from nuclear. Following the elections in 2012, nuclear power is also now being challenged in France, increasingly on economic grounds, this leading to potential knock-on impacts for the UK programme, with investment in its proposed nuclear projects looking increasingly risky.
I suspect that it can only get worse.

Radiation issues:
Impacts: which talks of there possibly being 100s or maybe 1000s of radiation-related deaths  around the world  ultimately, due to Fukushima, most though in Japan.