human error

16May12

In honor of the May 5th shutdown of every last nuclear power plant in Japan for the first time in 42 years, I wore the “nuke free” t-shirt that I bought on my visit to Hiroshima just over a year ago. Anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan is continuing to grow, with even business-minded politicians such as Toru Hashimoto, Osaka’s Mayor, calling for a delay in the restart of the Oi nuclear plant located in Fukui Prefecture.  The Oi plant, and several others, are located precariously close to Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan.  Lake Biwa provides drinking water for 15 million residents in the Kansai area (including myself) and if it were to become contaminated in a nuclear disaster the consequences are almost too unthinkable to imagine.

The battle to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants currently hinges on the prospect of power shortages during the peak usage months of July and August when both the temperature and humidity soar.  KEPCO, the corporation in charge of providing power to the Kansai region, initially claimed that it expected power shortages of up to 30% during the summer months unless the reactors were restarted.  This, however, didn’t take into account any of the measures to save power that have been proposed, and under pressure from the governments of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, the most recent figure has been revised to somewhere between 5% and 15%, depending on how high summer temperatures get and how effective the power saving measures put into place turn out to be.

Although critics of the anti-nuclear movement often claim that there’s no possible way to replace the power generated by Japan’s nuclear power plants, it’s worth remembering that only about 25% of Japan’s overall power generation comes from nuclear plants even though it ranks third in the world, after France and the US, for the number of nuclear plants in operation before March of 2011.  Reducing my personal electricity use by 25% would simply be a matter of generating good conservation habits around the home — not leaving lights on when I don’t need them, using the air conditioners in the house less, replacing incandescent bulbs with LED lights, etc.  I think it would barely be a strain, and I’m certainly willing to sweat a little more during the summer months in order to help kill Kansai’s dependence on nuclear power.

Of course, it’s not nearly enough to simply shut Japan’s reactors down.  An even more pressing problem is the cleanup of the waste storage pools where spent nuclear fuel rods are contained.  These pools are extremely dangerous, and according to some experts on nuclear power, the storage pools at the Fukushima plant could potentially unleash a second round of radioactive explosions that would dwarf the impact of the initial Fukushima disaster.  Because it’s becoming clear that the seismic fault lines in Japan are more unstable than previously thought, with long inactive faults unexpectedly becoming active (including a fault that runs directly the Fukushima plant), it’s imperative to begin the task of cleaning out the storage pools and putting the rods into dry cask storage (the safest type of storage currently available).  This may be expensive in the short term, but the potential for catastrophe in the long term easily warrants the expense.  The idea that you can safely keep pools of highly volatile radioactive waste intact for the thousands of years it will take for them to cool down is absurd on its face, even when you don’t take seismic activity into account.  There’s not a nation on the planet that has yet survived for as long as these pools will need to remain intact for the waste inside to become safe.

The problem of the storage of nuclear waste is obviously not simply a Japanese problem — it’s also a huge problem in the United States where storage sites that were constructed as temporary facilities are now being used in a long-term capacity (pools that were once designed to hold radioactive waste for 40 years have had their expiration dates extended to the point where they’re expected to hold radioactive material intact for 120 years).  Like Japan, the US needs to begin the costly process of moving nuclear rods from wet storage in pools to dry storage in casks.

It’s ironic that the Oi reactor is located on Obama Bay, given the Obama administration’s cozy relationship with the nuclear industry in the US.  While Obama has become widely known as a promoter of a worldwide reduction in nuclear arms, it’s less commonly known that his administration has been pushing nuclear power as part of the overall US energy strategy.  This is deeply unfortunate, and severely shortsighted, because not only is nuclear energy incredibly costly (even if you don’t take into account the costs of monitoring and containing nuclear waste for hundreds, if not thousands, of years), but the US already has no long-term solution for the storage of nuclear waste and is instead relying on very haphazard forms of short-term storage.

As Jerry Mander has long pointed out, different forms of technology are not neutral in their political effects.  Nuclear energy is fundamental autocratic in nature while solar, for example, has the potential to be a democratic form of power generation.  In the case of nuclear energy, power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of influential individuals and cloaked in secrecy; in contrast, solar can be made to work based on a distributive model in which micro-generation lies in the hands (and on the rooftops) of millions.  The autocratic nature of the nuclear power industry has resulted in a series of public deceptions and coverups in both the US and Japan that would put any industry to shame.  The history of nuclear power in Japan is well worth reading up on in this regard.

The anger conveyed in the Frying Dutchman video (directed by Shoji Goto) seems to be becoming more widespread as the anti-nuclear movement in Japan grows and the general population begins to question the premises behind the false promises of nuclear generation.  The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last March were said to be “once in a thousand year” events, but high-level nuclear waste needs to be contained for thousands of years.  Does it really make sense to continue building and filling waste storage areas in a country as seismically unstable as Japan?  Does it make sense to rely on a technology that’s already half a century old when there are so many new technologies available that could be implemented both for the purposes of power generation and power conservation?  A non-nuclear future is the future that we should be building toward rather than retreating to the false promises of the past in a kind of reaction formation that keeps us blinded to the very real dangers of the nuclear present.

The video below is an endoscopic view of the interior of the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  The white streaks flying around are gamma rays.  Let’s keep those gamma rays inside.

Link to an online petition calling for UN inspections of the containment pool at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.



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