Just one year ago, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake and a 40-foot-high tsunami hit Japan. Within minutes, thousands of Japanese were killed along the northeast coastline, and untold damages were done, including the meltdown of commercial nuclear power reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Large quantities of radioactive materials were released when fires and hydrogen explosions took place at the reactors, and enormous stretches of land have since been badly contaminated and rendered uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.
Then and now, our hearts go out to the thousands of families in Japan suffering from this historic tragedy. In terms of nuclear tragedies, this was only surpassed by the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The third severe nuclear power accident took place at Three Mile Island (TMI) in Pennsylvania in 1979, although damages were much less extensive.
Although nuclear power authorities in Japan believed that they were prepared for the worst type of accident, both natural and man-made, it is increasingly clear that even modern nuclear facilities may be ill-equipped to withstand such worst-case scenarios. Japanese authorities have stated that the design basis for the Fukushima plant was a maximum 10-foot tsunami, only about 25% of the actual tsunami height that struck last year.
As we commemorate the anniversary, mourn the thousands of lost lives, and consider the hundreds of square miles that may become a permanent "national sacrifice zone" in Japan, we must better recognize and understand the dangers of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and fissile material. While nuclear power advocates and lobbyists talk about how there were only three severe accidents involving nuclear power in the last forty years, one must note that there have been dozens of less than severe accidents with commercial, research, and military reactors and nuclear systems since the so-called peaceful atom was discovered and Atoms for Peace was launched in the 1950s.
Although some still argue that nuclear power is necessary to address global warming and carbon emissions, it’s become clear to many of us in the environmental and security communities that nuclear reactors remain a risky, dangerous, and costly investment, increasingly unaffordable and unnecessary in today’s world.
A new commercial power reactor today costs in the range of $5-9 billion, not counting the untold damage costs -- likely hundreds of billions of dollars -- of an accident like Fukushima’s. New reactors also take at least nine to twelve years to construct, which is too long a timeframe to meet the global warming crisis.
Recent polls suggest that 70% or more of the public now opposes nuclear power. The fact that Japan has now closed 53 of their 55 nuclear power plants for the time being also shows the growing mistrust of nuclear power amongst the public. And, although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) listed 60 nuclear power plants under construction last year, it’s clear that most of these will never be built now, especially in light of Fukushima.
What we need now is more investment in clean, safe, sustainable, and renewable energy -- solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and other options that limit carbon emissions, are much more affordable, and do not risk the proliferation of dangerous radioactive materials. We must remember that nuclear reactors and spent fuel pools remain vulnerable across the globe to not only natural disasters as took place in Japan, but also man-made disasters as took place in Chernobyl and could also happen with sophisticated terrorist attacks.
Given that not all of the world's 400+ nuclear power plants will shut down overnight, we also need to press for much higher safety and security standards; if China, India, Russia, France, and other pro-nuclear power countries continue to operate reactors, these design and operating standards must be enforced -- not just voluntary -- especially given that such nuclear disasters are now global in scope, easily crossing national borders.