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Fukushima nuclear disaster: PM at the time feared Japan would collapse

Justin McCurry, The Guardian
Japan’s prime minister at the height of the nuclear crisis has said he feared the country would collapse, and revealed that Tepco had considered abandoning the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after it was hit by the 11 March tsunami.

In candid interviews with Japanese newspapers, Naoto Kan, who resigned this month, said that at one point he believed the disaster could become many times worse than Chernobyl.

“It was truly a spine-chilling thought,” he told the Tokyo Shimbun, adding that he foresaw a situation in which greater Tokyo’s 30 million people would have to be evacuated, a move that would “compromise the very existence of the Japanese nation”.

In the first week of the crisis Tepco played down speculation that fuel rods had melted after the quake and tsunami crippled the reactors’ cooling systems. “The power was totally lost and there was no cooling capacity,” Kan said. “I knew what that meant and I thought, ‘This is going to be a disaster’.”

His unease grew when his trade minister, Banri Kaieda, told him that Tepco was considering pulling its staff out of the plant and leaving it to its fate. “Withdrawing from the plant was out of the question,” he said. “If that had happened, Tokyo would be deserted by now. It was a critical moment for Japan’s survival. It could have been a led to leaks of dozens of times more radiation than Chernobyl.”…
(8 September 2011)

Fukushima disaster: it’s not over yet

Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
The streets are clear of debris, reconstruction is under way and evacuees are moving out of shelters. But millions of people are having to readjust to levels of ionising radiation that were – until March – considered abnormal. This is not a one-off freak event, it is a shift in day-to-day life that changes the meaning of “ordinary”. But quite how is hard to determine. Low-level radiation is an invisible threat that breaks DNA strands with results that do not become apparent for years or decades. Though the vast majority of people remain completely unaffected throughout their lives, others develop cancer. Not knowing who will be affected and when is deeply unsettling.

This has happened before, of course. Twenty years after the 1986 reactor explosion in Chernobyl, the World Health Organisation said psychological distress was the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident: “Populations in the affected areas exhibit strongly negative attitudes in self-assessments of health and wellbeing and a strong sense of lack of control over their own lives. Associated with these perceptions is an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.” Russian doctors have said survivors were “poisoned by information”. But in Japan, it would be more accurate to say that people are contaminated by uncertainty….

In other countries, people might want to put more distance between themselves and the source of the radiation, but this is difficult on a crowded archipelago with a rigid job market. Thousands have fled nonetheless, but most people in the disaster area will have to stay and adjust. Doing so would be easier if there were clear guidance from scientists and politicians, but here, too, contemporary Japan seems particularly vulnerable. The country has just got its seventh prime minister in five years. Academia and the media have been tainted by the powerful influence of the nuclear industry. As a result, a notoriously conformist nation is suddenly unsure what to conform to…

Unlike an earthquake, he says, the survivors do not suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms of insomnia, shaking and flashbacks. Instead, the radiation “creates a slow, creeping, invisible pressure” that can lead to prolonged depression. “Some people say they want to die. Others become more dependent on alcohol. Many more complain of listlessness.”…

(9 September 2011)

Switch from nuclear power would cost Japan $280 bln-Greenpeace

Natalia Konstantinovskaya, Reuters
Shifting away from nuclear power and replacing it with wind and solar energy would cost Japan around $280 billion in new investment by 2020, Greenpeace said on Monday, calling on Tokyo to ensure safety for future power generations.

The report comes as Japan debates the future of nuclear energy after the March quake and tsunami triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at the Fukushima Daiichi plant…

Currently, only 11 out of 54 reactors are operating in Japan following maintenance checks due to heightened public worries. That means only 20 percent of the nation’s total nuclear power capacity is in use. Solar and wind power account for about one percent of the country’s electricity.

In a green energy scenario that includes a small increase in gas-fired power generation, the environmental lobby proposed raising generating capacity from wind turbines to 56 gigawatts from 2.1 GW and that from solar panels to 57 GW from 3.6 GW.
(12 September 2011)
(Can’t find the report yet – will post when found).

UK joins laser nuclear fusion project

Jason Palmer, BBC
The UK has formally joined forces with a US laser lab in a bid to develop clean energy from nuclear fusion.

Unlike fission plants, the process uses lasers to compress atomic nuclei until they join, releasing energy.

The National Ignition Facility (Nif) in the US is drawing closer to producing a surplus of energy from the idea…

Part of the problem has been that the technical ability to reach “breakeven” – the point at which more energy is produced than is consumed – has always seemed distant. Detractors of the idea have asserted that “fusion energy is 50 years away, no matter what year you ask”.

But Mr Willetts told the meeting that was changing.

“I think that what’s going on both in the UK and in the US shows that we are now making significant progress on this technology,” he said. “It can’t any longer be dismissed as something on the far distant horizon.”
(9 September 2011)

Thorium advocates launch pressure group

Duncan Clark, The Guardian
Parliamentary events are often dull affairs, but Thursday night’s launch of the Weinberg Foundation – a new pressure group advocating thorium nuclear energy – was quite the opposite. I can’t remember the last time I stood in a room full of people concerned about climate change that was so full of optimism…

The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel. The Weinberg team is already talking to Sellafield about this idea….
(8 September 2011)

Blast at French Nuclear Site Is Said to Kill 1 Person

Steven Erlanger and Nicola Clark, New York Times
One person was killed and four were injured Monday afternoon in an explosion at a nuclear waste treatment site in southern France, according to the French Nuclear Safety Authority.

The authority and local police officials said there had been no radiation leak. Some five hours after the explosion, the authority announced that the episode was over. The site, about 20 miles from Avignon, has no nuclear reactors, the authority said. A spokesman for the French power utility E.D.F., which owns the site, said that “it is an industrial accident, not a nuclear one.”…
(12 September 2011)