Crisis continues 5 years after Fukushima meltdowns

The massive earthquake struck offshore, triggering a devastating tsunami. Thousands died in the disaster and three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown, exposing some 32 million people to radioactive fallout.

“There is no end in sight for communities in Fukushima,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “What started as a natural disaster turned into one of the worst industrial accidents in human history and a reminder that humanity must urgently turn its efforts toward safe, clean renewables.”

Five years after the fires and explosions, some 100,000 people remain displaced, decontamination is far from complete, cleanup costs ballooned to $118 billion, the amount of radioactive waste and water builds with no solution for disposal and health studies show an alarming spike in thyroid cancer among Fukushima’s children.

The nuclear disaster compromised food supplies and affected flora, fauna and especially fisheries in Fukushima Bay, where contaminated water continues to flow.

The plant will never return to operation and decontamination seems nearly impossible — radiation levels are too high to enter the reactor housing. Radiation is even killing the robots built for the dirty work.

What has been learned at Fukushima?

“Although the probability of nuclear accidents is thought to be very low, the consequences are extraordinary and devastatingly high,” University of Chicago professor Kennette Benedict recently wrote in an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “The disruption to individual health, to families, to communities, to energy supplies, to economies and to societies has long-lasting effects.”

In Japan, 53 percent of citizens oppose the resumption of the country’s nuclear energy program.

A slightly larger percentage is registering opposition to nuclear power in the United States, even as the U.S. government and Wisconsin Legislature move to encourage an expansion of nuclear energy.

In Wisconsin

Six years ago, on the 24th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Wisconsin residents celebrated the defeat of a Republican effort to repeal what’s called the “nuclear moratorium law.”

The law actually did not create a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants. Instead it required that any proposed nuke plant be economical for ratepayers and have a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuel and other waste.

Environmentalists, after turning back a repeal, claimed a victory six years ago. Not so this year.

The Legislature has sent Gov. Scott Walker another repeal bill intended to ease the path to constructing nuclear plants.

And Walker is likely to sign the measure, which predictably has strong support from business and labor and strong opposition from environmental groups.

The legislation will remove the requirement that new nuclear power plants have a plan for storing and disposing of their waste, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, part of the coalition that rallied against the bill.

Additionally, the legislation will add nuclear energy to the list of preferred energy options in the state, even though Wisconsin’s Energy Priorities Law was intended to promote the cleanest and cheapest forms of energy.

The legislative effort had some small support in the environmental community, but largely was opposed by activists who encouraged lawmakers to focus instead on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

These environmentalists also warned passage of the bill could lead to the state becoming a depository for nuclear waste.

A letter to lawmakers from the Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free Coalition stated, “In the 1980s, the Department of Energy ranked Wisconsin’s Wolf River Batholith as No. 2 for a second high-level nuclear waste repository. A 2008 DOE Study on the Need for a Second Repository listed Wisconsin as one of the top potential states based on our granite geology. After the cancellation of the potential Yucca Mountain repository [in Nevada], the DOE is desperate to find an alternative.” Signatories included representatives of Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.

Anti-nuke sentiment growing

The Sierra Club is unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy. The organization’s nuclear-free future statement says, “Although nuclear plants have been in operation for less than 60 years, we now have seen three serious disasters,” referring to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. “Nuclear is no solution to climate change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.”

The Sierra Club’s nuclear-free campaign emphasizes:

• What to do with the long-lived waste remains unresolved.

• Uranium mining has contaminated large sections of the southwestern United States and other areas in the world.

• Almost all older plants leak tritium and other radionuclides into groundwater.

• Nuclear power has a huge carbon footprint due to energy needs in uranium mining, milling, processing, conversion and enrichment, formulation of fuel rods and construction of plants.

A new Gallup Poll indicates that 54 percent of Americans are on Sierra’s side.

Gallup began asking about nuclear energy in 1994 but not until this poll has a majority opposed nuclear power.

Gallup found Republicans more likely to favor nuclear power than Democrats or independents, but support is down all around.

Gallup, in its analysis, suggested the drop in support had more to do with relatively low gasoline prices than fear of a nuclear accident.

Yet environmental leaders say people should be afraid — as the impact of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster cannot ever be fully mitigated.

“All of Fukushima’s lessons warn against a nuclear industry that protects its profit margins over public safety margins,” said Paul Gunter of the nonprofit Beyond Nuclear.

Forever in Fukushima?

Greenpeace, in mid-March, released Radiation Reloaded, a report on the ecological impact in Fukushima that documented:

• High radiation concentrations in new leaves on cedars.

• Mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels.

• Heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations.

• DNA-damaged worms in highly concentrated areas.

• Apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows.

• Decreased abundance of 57 bird species with higher radiation levels.

• High levels of cesium contamination in freshwater fish.

• Radiological contamination of coastal estuaries.

“For the foreseeable future, Fukushima-contaminated ecosystems will continue to be radiation loaded. And reloaded,” the Greenpeace report stated, noting how man-made radioactive elements are taken up by plants and animals, cycled and recycled.

The findings were based on 25 radiological investigations in Fukushima and independent research in the area.

Greenpeace also drew from research into the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.

“The government’s massive decontamination program will have almost no impact on reducing the ecological threat from the enormous amount of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Japan. “Already, over 9 million cubic meters of nuclear waste are scattered over at least 113,000 locations across Fukushima prefecture.”

Benedict, the University of Chicago professor, summarized the nuclear power dilemma: “The products of nuclear fission, including melted fuel as well as other radiation-contaminated materials, will require continuous care and storage for tens of thousands of years. The question is whether any society has the capacity to safely deal with this fire that will not go out.”

Fukushima, then and now

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami sent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan into multiple meltdowns and exploded containment buildings.

A look at the disaster and recovery:

• 164,865: Fukushima residents who fled their homes after the catastrophe.

• 97,320: Number of residents who haven’t returned.

• 53: Percent of Japanese citizens who oppose the restarting of nuclear power plants in the country.

• 760,000: Metric tons of contaminated water stored at the Fukushima plant.

• 10.7 million: Number of 1-ton bags containing radioactive debris and other waste collected from outside the plant.

• 33,000 workers: Decommissioning and decontaminating outside the plant.

— AP