Energy choices are not born of necessity, they are born of politics. It is a point often made by David Freeman, once the Head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the vast, federally owned overseer of power generation and land management across six southern states. And it is a point driven home by the contrast, seen this week, of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe standing beside visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, discussing their energy and economic futures just days before the fourth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which left almost 20,000 dead, hundreds of thousands homeless or displaced, and started one of the most dire and enduring environmental crises in a generation.
It was in the early morning hours of March 11, 2011 that a 9-point quake knocked out the electrical grid around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Northwest Japan. The grid powered the vital cooling systems at the plant, which were, themselves, compromised by the earthquake. Twenty minutes later, a tsunami flooded the backup generators and further damaged the plant’s infrastructure. With no way to circulate water through the reactors, the cores quickly overheated. The results: meltdowns and melt-throughs of the nuclear fuel, breaches in the core containment vessels, and explosions that destroyed the containment buildings and blasted radionuclides across the surrounding land and into the global Jetstream.
After 3/11’s one-two punch, Japan had to shut down all of its 50-odd nuclear reactors — all of which remain offline today — but it was the German government that made an active policy choice to end its dependence on nuclear power. Merkel said the Fukushima disaster convinced her the risks were too great. In reality, the necessities of parliamentary politics also probably played a role in the policy shift, but no matter the ingredients, the sausage remains the same: Germany will completely phase out its use of nuclear power by 2022.
Abe, whose party ousted the ruling PM 20 months after the devastating quake, has made quite the opposite pledge, vowing to restart all but a handful of his country’s nuclear plants as soon as the wheels of government allow.
That government, of course, is notorious for its close relationships with big business — but when it comes to the nuclear industry, the ties bind across political parties and across the Pacific.
The boiling water reactors (BWRs) that failed so catastrophically at Fukushima Daiichi were designed and sold by General Electric in the 1960s; the general contractor on the project was Ebasco, a US engineering company that, back then, was still tied to GE. General Electric had bet heavily on nuclear and worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (the precursor to the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to promote civilian nuclear plants at home and abroad. According to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education, a nuclear watchdog group, GE told U.S. regulators in 1965 that without quick approval of multiple BWR projects, the giant energy conglomerate would go out of business.
It was under instruction from GE and Ebasco that the rocky bluffs where Daiichi would be built were actually shaved by 10 meters to bring the power plant closer to the sea, the water source for the reactors’ cooling systems. But it was under Japanese government supervision that serious and repeated warnings about the environmental and technological threats to Fukushima were ignored for another generation.
Failures at Daiichi were completely predictable, observed David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Experts and engineers proposed many upgrades over many years, but recommendations were not heeded. “The only surprising thing about Fukushima,” said Lochbaum at a 2013 conference on the effects of the disaster, “is that no steps were taken.”
That surprise should probably cross the Pacific. Twenty-one U.S. reactors, still officially in operation, mirror the design of the Fukushima BWRs, and many stand where they could be subject to earthquakes or tsunamis. Even without those seismic events, some U.S. plants are still at risk of Fukushima-like catastrophic flooding.
Prior to the start of the current Japanese crisis, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission learned that the Oconee Nuclear Plant in Seneca, South Carolina — with its three early-1970s model pressurized water reactors — was at risk of a major flood from a dam failure upstream. In the event of a dam breach — an event the NRC deems more likely than the odds that were given for the 2011 tsunami — the flood at Oconee would trigger failures at all three reactors.
In the summer of 2014, the NRC deemed Oconee worthy of greater scrutiny, but that was because of cracks in a key safety system, not because of the flood threat. On that wetter matter, beyond burying their report, the Commission has taken no action — not before Fukushima, not since.
Instead, across the U.S., the Daiichi-style GE reactors and dozens of their antiquated cousins continue to nominally operate, many well-past their projected lifespans, most without any post-Fukushima upgrades. The NRC commissioned a report on “lessons learned” from the Japanese crisis, and it was delivered in a matter of months, but the process of turning any of the report’s recommendations into mandatory rules has been slow-walked to near-death status.
Meanwhile, federal loan guarantees and consumer rate hikes continue to prop up the energy policy choices of a half-century earlier.
Future as choice
Still, as vexing as that might be to some, the notion that Japan’s government would again choose the nuclear option is even harder to reconcile with the very measurable facts on the very contaminated ground.
Four years after the quake and tsunami, half of the tens of thousands still displaced are displaced because of radioactive contamination. Miles of northern Japanese countryside are piled with giant plastic bags of irradiated material, with plans for even a temporary repository still only in the negotiation phase. And on the site of the crippled nuclear facility, water still needs to be circulated over the melted cores and fuel storage tanks in the damaged reactors. Hundreds of tons of that water, which contains a laundry list of toxic isotopes like cesium 134, cesium 137, strontium 90, plutonium 239, iodine 131 and tritium, leaks every day into the nearby sea, while hundreds of tons more is pumped into hastily constructed 1,000-ton storage tanks [PDF], which now stretch for miles in several directions away from the plant.
There is now roughly half a million metric tons of radioactive water stored in tanks around Fukushima.
The decommissioning and cleanup of the reactors themselves will take a generation. Parts of northwestern Japan will likely be dangerous for human habitation past the lifespan of any of the tsunami’s survivors.
Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe noted the irony of Abe’s pro-nuclear stance after the joint appearance of the PM and Merkel, and called on Japan to follow Germany’s lead. “It was very symbolic,” Oe told the Associated Press, “Japanese politicians are not trying to change the situation but only keeping the status quo even after this massive nuclear accident, and even if we all know that yet another accident would simply wipe out Japan's future."
And even without the next human-made nuclear “accident,” the plight of the Japanese in the region is more than symbolic. With many of the displaced facing an end to their disaster stipends this month, with only a tiny fraction of new housing built for the internal refugees, and with the government asking residents to live with radiation standards twenty times higher than what was considered an acceptable risk before the start of the crisis, many Japanese wonder about Abe’s priorities.
As former TVA chief Freeman likes to point out, every investment in a nuclear power plant — just like those for coal or gas — is a 20-, 40- or 60-year commitment to a dirty, dangerous and outdated technology. In the U.S., every pledge of a subsidy or a loan guarantee to one, sets off a round of lobbying for like treatment by the others. In Japan, billions will be needed just to clean up the current mess, and billions more should be spent to help rebuild the lives disrupted by it. And in both countries, money spent backfilling past mistakes is money that could have been invested in a safer, more sustainable future.
There are many new choices facing Japan and the planet because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but that one was just as true on March 10, 2011 as it is today.