The Tragedy in Japan and the Future of Nuclear Energy
Washington, DC (March 16, 2011) – The evolving tragedy in Japan is shocking as we are once again reminded of the power of Mother Nature and the unpredictable risks of technology. As the full impact of the earthquakes and tsunami is assessed in Japan and the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants along the northeast Japanese coast becomes increasingly dangerous, it is important to pause and consider our relationship with the planet. The unfolding catastrophe occurring at the Fukushima plants also raises serious questions about our reliance on nuclear energy and its status as a clean and safe source of power. Dr. Paul Walker, Director of the Security and Sustainability Program at Global Green USA, spoke yesterday across the country on the situation in Japan. In numerous radio interviews, he stressed the multiple dangers of relying on nuclear energy. Citing the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Dr. Walker stated that it will be years before the full extent of the damage caused by the nuclear reactors in Japan will be known. The Japanese will have to deal with the environmental, social, and financial costs of the earthquake and tsunami, and also the radiation emitted in the Fukushima plant meltdown for years to come. They will also have to face the long-term and costly clean-up required at the nuclear power plant site.
Dr. Walker highlighted the vulnerability of the entire nuclear fuel cycle – from uranium mining to nuclear enrichment to commercial nuclear power to spent fuel storage, transportation, and finally reprocessing. All of these stages are vulnerable to theft, diversion, proliferation, terrorist attack, and accidents, both natural and man-made. Proponents of nuclear power often downplay these potential problems and emphasize the “carbon-free” nature of nuclear power reactors and their ability to combat global warming. While watching the events in Japan unfold, it is important to remember that although redundant safety measures have improved greatly at nuclear power plants since the Chernobyl accident in1986, the strength of a natural disaster can easily overcome such measures. One must also recognize that 23 of today’s 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. are of the same design as the 35-40-year-old Fukushima reactors.
Lobbying by the nuclear industry is increasing in the United States and Washington DC and the press posits a “nuclear renaissance” for commercial nuclear power. In light of this, nuclear power deserves a closer examination regarding its environmental, public health, safety, and proliferation impacts. The new congressionally mandated “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” is partly addressing these issues as well, but a more public dialogue is now called for after this past week’s crisis in Japan.
In order to address these serious and timely issues, Global Green's Security and Sustainability Program is organizing a series of roundtable discussions, “Energy Futures: Nuclear Power, Global Warming, and Nonproliferation,” to address the full life-cycle of nuclear energy. The first of these events will be a seminar on the environmental impacts of uranium mining on March 30, 2011. For more information, visit http://www.globalgreen.org/events/166.
Green Cross International President, Alexander Likhotal stated in a press release yesterday, "The nuclear accident of the Japanese nuclear plant demonstrates that safe nuclear power is a contradiction in terms. […] The accident at Fukushima 1 nuclear plant is a shocking reminder of the reality of nuclear power threats, the huge modern technological risks for those living as well as future generations and the vital need to turn the world economy green." In addition, the founder of Green Cross International, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote an article titled “Chernobyl 25 Years Later: Many Lessons Learned” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on March 1, 2011 (See http://www.thebulletin.org/.)
The tragic events in Japan should remind the international community that the environmental and health costs placed on the public by nuclear energy may far exceed the energy benefits. Countries such as Switzerland and Germany are already rethinking their nuclear energy plans. Switzerland has ordered a freeze on new or replacement nuclear plants and Germany has suspended a decision on whether or not to extend the use of its nuclear plants. Now is the time to reexamine the role of nuclear power in the United States.
The Obama Administration and the 112th Congress need to take at least four immediate steps:
(1) closely study the lessons learned from the ongoing Japanese tragedy;
(2) further evaluate safety and security risks to all U.S. nuclear power plants;
(3) make clear which federal agency or agencies are responsible for nuclear power plant disasters, similar to what we did in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster; and,
(4) develop the highest standards possible for preventing such power plant breakdowns during natural and man-made disasters.
In the meantime, all planning for new nuclear power plants must be put on hold until we can truly guarantee to the American public that nuclear plants are safe, secure, and sustainable.
For more information call Marina Voronova-Abrams or Caitlin Doughty at (202) 222-0700.
For technical information on the Fukushima situation in Japan visit the Union of Concerned Scientists website at http://www.ucsusa.org/.