UPDATED February 27, 2012
Why is it that trivial news stories (for example, reports on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) often receive disproportionate coverage, while important news stories are sometimes neglected?
Here’s my vote for the most neglected news story of 2011: the radioactive contamination of hundreds of square miles of land around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Although most news outlets have reported some details of this story, I think it deserves much more attention than it has received.
This radioactive contamination is heart-rending, and its effects will be felt for decades — possibly centuries. The contamination is due to engineering hubris, and most nuclear engineers show few signs of having learned any lessons from the disaster. Considering the fact that a similar disaster occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, it seems entirely probable that other areas of our planet will suffer radioactive contamination in the future.
According to the Japanese environment ministry, the contaminated area — usually referred to as the “exclusion zone” or the “no-entry zone” — measures 930 square miles, an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island.
Whose idea was it to put the diesel generators in the basement?
On March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were hit by a powerful tsunami. Since the backup diesel generators were swamped, no electric power was available to shut down the reactors safely. As a result, the nuclear cores of three of the reactors melted down.
As is often the case in a disaster, the reaction of emergency workers was confused and stumbling. Some of the details are astonishing. The utility that owns the nuclear facility, Tepco, had long assumed that it was impossible for a tsunami to overwhelm the plant, so the official operations manuals had no information on how to address such an emergency.
During the early hours of the disaster, workers at the plant were communicating with their emergency headquarters using cell phones. However, once their cell phone batteries ran down, they had no way to recharge their phones, and communication ceased.
According to the New York Times (2/27/12), Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other officials “began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. … The report [by Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation] quoted the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that this ‘demonic chain reaction’ of plant meltdowns could have resulted in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south. … ‘We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time,’ Mr. Funabashi, the foundation founder, said.”
In the days after the crisis, the Japanese government evacuated residents from the area near the crippled reactors: first from towns within a 20-kilometer radius, and later from towns in a 30-kilometer radius. The number of evacuees has been variously estimated. According to low estimates, about 70,000 people were evacuated; higher estimates put the number at 140,000 or even 160,000 people.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/27/11), “In the ghost towns around Fukushima Daiichi, vines have overtaken streets, feral cows and ownerless dogs roam the fields. Dead chickens rot in their coops. The tens of thousands of people who once lived around the plant have fled. They are now huddling in gymnasiums, elementary school classrooms, bunking with friends, sometimes just sleeping in their cars, moving from place to place as they search for alternatives.”
One reporter who has visited the exclusion zone is David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press. When he was interviewed by National Public Radio on December 12, 2011, Guttenfelder said, “The government told people at the beginning that the plant was not going to be leaking radiation. … So, you know, people left everything. They took just what they had on their backs, and they thought that they’d be coming back very soon. But then, of course, the power plant exploded. It sent a cloud of nuclear debris over this area the size of Chicago. And people really haven’t been able to come back at all.”
Evacuees from some towns located farthest from the crippled reactors — those located between 20 and 30 kilometers from Fukushima — have been invited to return home. One such evacuee, Masahiro Igawa, a 33-year-old man who fled Minami-Soma City with his wife and four children, was interviewed by a reporter from The Yomiuri Shimbun. Igawa said, “Though decontamination operations have started, areas around schools still show high radiation levels, and hospitals have not been restored to original conditions. We can’t go home even if we want to, out of consideration for our children.”
The government lies to the people
There is overwhelming evidence that both Tepco and the Japanese government have repeatedly lied about the disaster. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article reported, “According to a study led by Andreas Stohl of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, twice as much radioactive cesium-137 — a cancer-causing agent — was pumped into the atmosphere as Japan had announced, reaching 40 percent of the total from Chernobyl.”
According to the Wall Street Journal (12/16/11), Tepco President Toshio Nishizawa admitted, “We’ve lost public confidence because of our inadequate release of information early on in the crisis.” Although Nishizawa’s admission implies that the utility has learned its lesson, Tepco and the Japanese government continue to lie about the severity of the disaster.
After the Japanese government’s recent announcement that workers had succeeded in performing a “cold shutdown” of the melted reactors, many experts were openly skeptical, including Arnie Gunderson, an American nuclear engineer who has testified to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the Fukushima disaster. A December 16, 2011, story from Bloomberg quoted Gunderson: “I don’t know why they choose to say ‘cold shutdown,’ because that’s an affront to those in the industry who really know what the term means. That nuclear core is still in a configuration where the center is extraordinarily hot. … In the eyes of the Japanese public, the last thing they need to do is exaggerate. And this is an exaggeration.”
According to a September 28, 2011, report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Nearly seven months after the meltdowns at Fukushima, about 80,000 people are still living in shelters or temporary housing. Former special adviser to Japan’s prime minister and cabinet Kenichi Matsumoto has told the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] that the government has known for months that many who live close to the Fukushima plant will not be able to return to their homes for 10 to 20 years because of contamination. … He says the government is simply too scared to tell Fukushima residents that they cannot return. Prime minister Kan actually said that eastern Japan might not be able to keep functioning; that it might collapse.”
In Tomioka, one holdout remains
Among the settlements that were evacuated is the town of Tomioka. As it turns out, one resident of Tomioka, 52-year-old Naoto Matsumura, defied the government’s evacuation order.
According to the Mainichi Daily News (12/14/11), Matsumura explained, “‘I understand that the law is asking us to evacuate to protect our lives. But if that evacuation is to last for dozens of years, I want to stay as long as possible in the town of Tomioka, where I was born and raised.’. … Matsumura’s home lies around 12 kilometers southwest of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. He says he is the only person left in the town of Tomioka. About one month after the March 11 disasters, Matsumura evacuated to the city of Koriyama, but seeing evacuees lying crowded on the floor of a shelter there, he felt he wouldn’t be able to withstand it. He returned to Tomioka after around three days. … ‘Is it really a crime to return to your home? We’re victims, after all,’ says Matsumura. … For a bath, he uses firewood to heat well water. At night he lights candles. … Every day, Matsumura spends several hours walking around the town, feeding wandering animals with food sent by humane societies. The animals include dozens of dogs and cats, around 400 cows, and even escaped ostriches. … He has passed the message that ‘no machine made by man is perfect’ and ‘the “energy of our dreams” (nuclear energy) was an illusion.’ ”
The situation at the plant will be dire for decades
The situation at the Fukushima reactors is still far from stable. According to the Wall Street Journal article cited above, “The declaration that the Fukushima Daiichi plant is safe comes amid continuing public mistrust of the government and Tepco. … Since the containers at the Fukushima Daiichi are severely damaged by melted fuel and can’t hold water, Tepco needs to pour hundreds of tons of water over the molten fuel every day.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article of 12/27/11 reported, “Under a detailed roadmap, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company will remove the melted nuclear fuel, most of which is believed to have fallen to the bottom of the core or even down to the bottom of the larger, beaker-shaped containment vessel, a process that is expected to begin in 10 years. All told, decommissioning the plant will likely take 40 years.” According to an Associated Press report (10/31/11), “The panel said removal of the fuel rods at Fukushima would not begin until 2021, after the repair of the plant’s containment vessels.”
According to Tadashi Narabayashi, a nuclear engineering professor at Hokkaido University, the tools required to decommission the plant have not yet been invented. Narabayashi explained (Bloomberg, 12/16/11), “Work on decommissioning is a long way off. For now, they have to focus on making robots to remove melted fuel and developing new technologies to demolish facilities.” The cost to decommission the plant (not including the cost of decontaminating the land) has been variously estimated at $15 to $45 billion.
The 40-year time estimate does not include the time required to decontaminate the farmland and towns surrounding the plant. According to the Japanese Environment Ministry, about 926 square miles of land will need to be decontaminated. One source (Nature.com, 11/11/11) reported, “It is estimated that more than 100 million cubic meters of soil and debris will need to be removed.” The Japanese government has announced that it is willing to spend $12.8 billion to decontaminate some areas of the evacuation zone — an amount that is unlikely to be sufficient.
Most nuclear experts believe that the government’s time estimate for decommissioning the plant is optimistic. According to M.V. Ramana, a researcher at Princeton University specializing in the nuclear industry, “The 40-year timeline is more in step with normal reactors reaching the end of their economic life. These would not have a mass of melted down radioactive fuel on their floors. Fukushima does not fit that description and so it could be very tough to do it in 40 years.”
Evacuees are unlikely to be able to return to their homes
How long must evacuees wait before they can return to their homes? According to the Asahi Shimbun (12/21/11), “Areas exposed to more than 50 millisieverts of radiation per year are designated as the ‘difficult to return’ zone. … The ‘difficult to return’ zone will remain uninhabitable for decades.” The New York Times (12/6/11) reported, “The most contaminated parts of this area will be uninhabitable for at least three decades, experts say, though steps like removing soil could shorten that time.”
Japan’s dead zone is similar to the one surrounding the Chernobyl reactor. According to a Bloomberg report (6/30/11), “Radioactive soil in pockets of areas near Japan’s crippled nuclear plant have reached the same level as Chernobyl, where a ‘dead zone’ remains 25 years after the reactor in the former Soviet Union exploded. Soil samples in areas outside the 20-kilometer (12 miles) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant measured more than 1.48 million becquerels a square meter, the standard used for evacuating residents after the Chernobyl accident, Tomio Kawata, a fellow at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, said in a research report published May 24 and given to the government. … When asked to comment on the report today, Tokyo Electric spokesman Tetsuya Terasawa said the radiation levels are in line with those found after a nuclear bomb test, which disperses plutonium. He declined to comment further. … The ‘dead zone’ around Chernobyl remains at 30 kilometers, Mykola Kulinich, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, said in Tokyo on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Belarus, which absorbed 80 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl explosion, estimates that 2 million, or 20 percent of the population, was affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe, while about 23 percent of the country’s land was contaminated, according to a Belarus embassy website. About a fifth of the country’s agricultural land has been rendered unusable, which means some $700 million in losses each year.”
Nuclear power faces a cloudy future
The hubris of nuclear engineers is appalling, and the engineers’ willingness to put the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens at risk raises moral and philosophical concerns. Yet the eventual demise of the nuclear power industry is likely to hinge on economics, not moral or environmental issues.
According to Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School, “Fukushima is magnifying the economic problems that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ faced, which are the very problems that that have plagued nuclear power throughout its history. Nuclear power suffered from high cost and continuous cost escalation, high risk and uncertainty long before Fukushima. The nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima will increase the cost and further undermine the economic viability of nuclear power in any country that conducts such a review. The Japanese government has recently estimated that the cost of power from nuclear reactors will be 50% higher than estimated seven years ago. … As all stakeholders re-examine all aspect of energy policy, the risks of nuclear reactors increase and the attractiveness of nuclear power compared to other options decreases.”
Satisfying our insatiable appetite for electricity
All over the world, people want more electricity, and are burning so much coal to produce it that our planet’s climate is changing quickly.
Because the dangers of burning coal are so clear, some energy experts are willing to make a Faustian bargain with nuclear engineers. After all, nuclear plants don’t emit CO2. These nuclear proponents are crossing their fingers, hoping that a massive switch to nuclear power over the next few decades will satisfy the world’s insatiable appetite for electricity without any more disasters on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima. This path would be enormously expensive and risky.
It’s common for people to ask about the payback period for a solar array. What’s the payback period for 100 new nuclear power plants? Well, I don’t know… but whatever method you use to make the calculation, you can throw the answer out the window if you have one Fukushima-scale accident.
Yet most nuclear proponents, including hippie-turned-nuclear-booster Stewart Brand, are undaunted by the high cost of nuclear power. As Brand points out, “If the market rules, coal wins almost everywhere.”
Unlike Brand, I have no faith that engineers can eliminate the risk of nuclear plant accidents, or that they can find a way to safely store nuclear waste for centuries. But Brand is right when he reminds us that we face stark energy choices in the coming decades. Every path ahead carries risks. I hope we all keep that fact in mind as we consider what types of power generation plants we want to see in our communities.
In my corner of Vermont, the letters-to-the-editor pages in our local newspaper are filled with complaints about our nearest power generation plant. The letter-writers are disturbed — not by CO2 emissions or particulates in the air or radioactivity in the soil, but by the fact that the new wind turbines are spoiling their view. If that’s the level of sophistication of our current public debates about electricity generation, I fear that we’re in for a rocky 21st century.
Last week’s blog: “An Introduction to Thermal Imaging.”