Japan’s nuclear nightmares

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By Bruce Duncan

Fukushima posterThe world was transfixed by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan after it was hit on 11 March last year by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and 14-metre tsunami, destroying the plant’s cooling systems.

The situation became so dire in following days that the president of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) reportedly wanted all its 600 staff to abandon the Fukushima plant. This would have resulted in a much larger disaster, according to a new study by the private Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation.

The Japanese prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, vehemently protested to TEPCO about abandoning the plant. In the event, the manager at Fukushima, against TEPCO orders, used sea water to cool the reactors, and with about 50 colleagues prevented a  greater explosion. If the worst had happened, resulting in a much larger release of radiation, the government secretly discussed evacuating Tokyo, 240 kilometres to the south, and with a population of 35 million.

As it was, 80,000 people were evacuated from around Fukushima, and a 20-kilometre exclusion zone remains. Some 3000 workers are now on the site, though some areas are so radioactive that people can only stay hours or even minutes.

Though thegovernment claims the three melted reactors have stabilised, the process of removing melted nuclear fuel from the reactors will not even start for another ten years. Meanwhile the plant is “still rather fragile”, according to the new plant chief, and obviously vulnerable to
another earthquake or tsunami.

Japan currently has only two of its 54 nuclear plants in operation, and has had to turn for its energy supplies to coal, oil, and gas, undermining its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Japan had boasted of the safety of its nuclear plants. But recent studies have revealed that not only was the design of the plant inadequate, but there were major problems in management and training as well.

If Japan, with its reputation for thoroughness, discipline, and scientific prowess, has so spectacularly been found wanting, what confidence can we have about other countries relying on nuclear power?

Consider this: many hundreds of nuclear power plants are likely to be built from west Asia to China and the Philippines. Many of these, as in Indonesia and Japan, are in earthquakeprone areas, with tsunamis possible as well.

Many others are in areas vulnerable to conflict and war, with power plants obvious targets. Do we seriously think that wars will never again sweep through these regions?

If these nuclear power plants proliferate, we will likely face many more Chernobyls and Fukushimas in the future.

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