Nuclear Energy still looking good for climate change reduction post–Fukushima
Since the March 2011 Fukushima Dai–ichi nuclear plant accident, Japan has effectively abandoned its commitments to climate change reduction.
After the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami led to a partial meltdown at Fukushima Dai–ichi nuclear power plant in Japan, erroneous reactions by some scientists and political leaders, compounded by misinformed reporting (including in this publication), have shifted public policy on nuclear energy in Japan, Germany and other nations.
How this happened is a story of paradoxical difficulties — just the sort of human dilemmas I follow on the Neutron Trail, a cultural inquiry into our shared nuclear legacy. The concepts are technical, the emotions powerful and the facts often counter–intuitive. Yet these issues are vital.
To a people traumatized by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the rogue release of radioactive fallout from the U.S. Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test in 1954, the Fukushima nuclear plant accident must have seemed, in the initial moments, as potentially deadly and destructive.
A Japanese friend who lives in Vancouver Noriko Nasu went home to Japan shortly after 3/11 and again a few times since. After her first visit, she told me, “People in Japan are very frightened.”
She described how even school children were ostracizing their new classmates — the children of families who fled the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. “A few of the parents, they’re calling them hibakusha,” she told me.
It’s a name with a distressing history coined to describe survivors of the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Literally hi = suffer, baku = explosion, sha = person.
The name was not only used in sympathy, after the bombings of World War II, it was used to exclude. Hibakusha suffered extreme physical pain and stares at their deformed bodies. Potential marriage partners rejected hibakusha, because they might be sterile. Even if they could bear children, the fear of passing genetic deformities onto future generations prevented marital unions.
I was upset and felt a sense of outrage to hear the term hibakusha being applied to people from Fukushima. “Those children shouldn’t be tainted like that — it doesn’t make sense,” I said to Noriko and, with sorrowful eyes, she nodded in agreement.
Noriko kindly researched the situation a year later. The City of Namie (aka Namiemachi), a town inside the 20 km exclusion zone, conducted a survey of approximately 1,000 of its schoolchildren (grades 1–9) in February 2012. 40% are still living outside of Fukushima Prefecture and a few of these children are still being ostracized out of an irrational fear that they carry radiation like a contagion.
The vast majority (79%) of all of the children are most concerned about their friends and when will they see them again. 54% worry about another earthquake and tsunami (aftershocks continue in Japan even now). 36% are worried about the effects from nuclear accident and 21% don’t want to play outside because they’re afraid of radiation. (Survey results in Japanese only.)
The atomic bombings of Japan and the accident at Fukushima have nuclear in common. But the dangers are not the same.
In the January 2012 Frontline documentary Nuclear Aftershocks, Professor John Moulder, a radiation biologist and leading expert on radiation sickness described three distinct radiation dose levels and their effects. He said, “Very high doses of radiation can kill you within minutes to hours. You get lower [doses], it’s not going to kill you outright, but it’s going to increase your risk of getting cancer sometime. And then you get down to background levels of radiation, and as far as we know, there are no hazards at all.”
Radioactivity and heat from the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 were in the high dose range — enough to kill approximately 200,000 people instantly. Many others received incredibly painful radiation burns, cancers, physical and emotional scars.
In contrast, from Fukushima 2011, “Probably no one has received radiation doses where they are going to get sick,” said Moulder in an April 2011 radio interview. The visible wreckage and the deaths of at least 18,000 — which was compared to Hiroshima and Nagasaki — came from the earthquake and tsunami, not from the nuclear accident.
The actual exposure to radiation from the Fukushima accident is so small it may not even be statistically significant, whereas other toxins exposed by the earthquake and tsunami pose a greater risk (Scientific American, March 2, 2012).
Gen Suzuki, Radiation Specialist, Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission put it succinctly (Nuclear Aftershocks). The average risk of getting cancer in Japan is 30%. If someone were exposed to radiation from Fukushima at 20 microsieverts their risk of cancer might go from about 30% to about 30.2%.
But is this information getting through?
I spoke via Skype with a city Councillor in Fukushima Prefecture Kensuke Tadano on the edge of the exclusion zone. He described the dilemma all Japanese people are facing — how to know what is safe and what isn’t? The primary symptom both he and our translator in Tokyo reported is conflicting and/or confused information from the Japanese government.
I can’t help wondering if government officials themselves aren’t also battling ghosts of atomic bombings as they attempt to deal effectively with the massive destruction of the earthquake and tsunami, plus the Fukushima accident.
Nuclear Accidents in Perspective
How should one verify facts? Below I give a few examples of issues clouded by controversy, where there should be none. (Difficult when one is in the situation, but easy to see from the outside.)
- Greenpeace and other unsubstantiated reports claimed one million deaths from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, for all time, but a careful review of the scientific literature indicates the death toll is estimated to be more like 4,000. See United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and Theodore Rockwell.
- The stress and upheaval of leaving one’s home and community may be far more damaging health–wise than the risk of what amounts to few additional CAT–scan’s worth of radiation. (Scientific American, March 2, 2012)
- Both Chernobyl and Fukushma were given the same rating (7), which confuses journalists and the public into thinking they are equivalent, when this is not true.
- The Chernobyl reactor didn’t have a containment vessel. Fukushima Dai–ichi did and the release of radioactive materials from the Japanese reactor was 1/10th that of Chernobyl. (Nuclear Aftershocks)
- Dr. Gregory Jaczko, theoretical physicist and chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reversed his initial position on Fukushima and confessed he over–reacted to the accident. He said even with the release of radioactive materials and high exposure for some workers, there is “nothing that is going to lead to an immediate loss of life.”
Before the Fukushima Dai–ichi nuclear accident, Japan had supported the Kyoto Protocol to reduce human–made greenhouse gases. As part of this strategy, they had planned to increase nuclear energy production to 40% of their electrical needs by 2017, and 50% by 2030.
Instead, over the past year, in response to public desire, Japan has been gradually shutting down all of its nuclear power plants. As of this writing between three and six are still operational, with all to be closed by May 2012.
Citizens and corporations have voluntarily reduced energy consumption and the nation has reverted to fossil fuels. Importing coal and oil has caused Japan to suffer trade deficits for the first time in decades.
Even though overall energy consumption is down since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, net fossil fuel use is higher than before the earthquake. (graph at article top)
Consuming fossil fuels causes climate change by emitting greenhouse gases (CO2). Japan was a strong supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, but now, “leaders have been frank in dismissing any hopes of meeting climate change targets.”
Role of Nuclear Power in Preventing Climate Change
Coal miner, Pul I Khumri, Afghanistan
by Steve McCurry, with permission.
People’s gut emotional reactions, understandably, fueled the idea nuclear energy is evil and should be banished altogether. Yet scientific evidence and logic would say nuclear energy is worth pursuing.
Human–induced climate change is a real threat (basic climate change info and resources) and the effects are already measurable. (NASA Global Climate Change Evidence, James Hansen, leading climate change scientist video, 1–min climate change video, Vancouver Observer columnist Barry Saxifrage)
Many leading scientists and environmentalists now say, without question, we need nuclear power to help mitigate climate change. When I heard Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalogue fame, speak about this in October 2010, I became one more environmentalist willing to rethink a position against nuclear energy.
In the industrial age, human over–population and climate change combine to threaten civilization, as we know it. We are forced to choose between the lesser of pollutants. There is no perfect answer and this is difficult to face on many levels.
Coal is the major fossil fuel we use in the world, Coal isn’t just a major cause of climate change, among energy sources it’s far more lethal than nuclear power. Per watt, air pollution from burning coal kills 4,000 times as many people as does nuclear power. (See chart above.)
Base load energy is a stable, consistently available energy source. Think about how you can turn on a light, recharge your cell phone and ride in a bus, airplane or car, on demand (assuming you have the funds). This is the luxury of base load energy in our industrial age.
Renewables, like solar and wind, are climate–friendly, but are not yet efficient enough to supply the base load energy needs of 7–9 billion humans.
Nuclear energy can easily supply base load energy.
Nuclear energy could help save our civilization from devastating climate change. (I’m not talking about nuclear weapons – those could end life, as we know it.) The U.S. (19%), France (78%), Korea (39%) and many other nations already use nuclear power to supply a significant part of their energy needs.
Nuclear power generation (with all of its problems, beyond the scope of this article to enumerate) per equivalent unit, currently adds only one–quarter of the amount of global warming carbon, as does coal (Our Choice by Al Gore, p. 165).
Ounce for ounce, uranium has one million times as much potential energy as does coal or oil. Nuclear power has the potential to become virtually climate neutral!
Current technology only taps into 1% of uranium’s energy potential, but governments and private interests are working on new, safer, cleaner and more efficient nuclear technologies.
So far, no one has deployed any of the new generation of nuclear power options, though many of them are quite viable.
James Hansen suggests the way to shift our civilization from its life–threatening reliance on fossil fuels is to impose a tax at source on all fossil fuels. Increase this fee over time and distribute the revenue directly back to citizens as a dividend. More information about the fee and dividend solution to climate change.
Fukushima could have been easily prevented — not with fancy nuclear science but with simple engineering:
On March 11, 2011, all eleven of the nuclear plants in the earthquake zone shutdown automatically, including Fukushima Dai–ichi. This key safety measure worked fine.
The nuclear plants rely on electricity to pump water and keep spent fuel rods from overheating.
At Fukushima Dai–ichi, the electrical grid failed during the earthquake and the tsunami wiped out the back–up generators.
Basic engineering could have prevented the accident at Fukushima Dai–ichi. The generators sat below the spent fuel rods so cooling water had to move up, against the flow of gravity.
Placing the generators on higher ground, out of the tsunami’s reach or in waterproof containment would be a simple first step to prevent future accidents.
Days after the earthquake, I was confused and concerned by conflicting reports in the media and contacted physicists at MIT and Harvard who told me about the simple solution in private conversations, as did many other physicists I queried over the past year. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE did an in–depth post–mortem on Fukushima Dai–ichi (see lesson 1 in red). Five Steps to Prevent Another Fukushima published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists offers a more in–depth look at measures to increase safety as well as security at nuclear plants.
Coal is far more lethal than nuclear energy. Climate change caused by burning coal and other fossil fuels is melting glacial and polar ice at alarming rates, raising sea levels, acidifying oceans and disturbing weather patterns.
With public support, governments and private industry could deploy next generation nuclear power that: helps stop climate change, utilizes 90% or more of the potential energy of the fuel and consequently creates far less waste than do current nuclear plants. With emerging technologies, the waste can be safely contained in inert casings and doesn’t have to be toxic for as long. (Bill Gates, Microsoft TED talk on climate change, nuclear and renewables.)
My heart goes out to the Japanese people and I can’t help wondering what I would do in their shoes. I feel a deep sadness at their dilemma and hope over time the truth becomes clearer, so that they themselves can make the most logical choices about the role of nuclear energy in the mix.
The challenges for humanity’s future survival are tough, complex and new. Accidents, even terrible ones, can teach us how to do it better. Navigating the times ahead is going to be all about generating strategic, intelligent responses.