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Fukushima disaster: it’s not over yet

Jonathan Watts, Guardian
Six months after the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the streets have been cleared but the psychological damage remains

It was an email from an old friend that led me to the irradiated sunflower fields of Fukushima. I had not heard from Reiko-san since 2003, when I left my post as the Guardian’s Tokyo correspondent. Before that, the magazine editor had been the source of many astute comments about social trends in Japan. In April, she contacted me out of the blue. I was pleased at first, then worried.

Reiko’s message began in traditional Japanese style with a reference to the season and her state of mind. The eloquence was typical. The tone unusually disturbing: “It is spring time now in Tokyo and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. In my small terrace garden, the plants – tulips, roses and strawberries – are telling me that a new season has arrived. But somehow, they make me sad because I know that they are not the same as last year. They are all contaminated.”

Reiko went on to describe how everything had changed in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima the previous month. Daily life felt like science fiction. She always wore a mask and carried an umbrella to protect against black rain. Every conversation was about the state of the reactors. In the supermarket, where she used to shop for fresh produce, she now looked for cooked food – “the older, the safer now”. She expressed fears for her son, anger at the government and deep distrust of the reassuring voices she was hearing in the traditional media. “We are misinformed. We are misinformed,” she repeated. “Our problem is in society. We have to fight against it. And it seems as hard as the fight against those reactors.”

She urged me to return and report on the story. Five months on, that is what I have tried to do. Driving around Fukushima’s contaminated cities, Iwate’s devastated coastlines and talking to evacuees in Tokyo, I’ve rarely felt such responsibility in writing a story. Reiko and other Japanese friends seemed to be looking not only for coverage, but for an outsider’s judgment on the big question weighing on their minds: is Japan still a safe country?
(9 September 2011)

Nature and malice: Confronting multiple hazards to nuclear power infrastructure

Igor Khripunov and Duyeon Kim, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Article Highlights

  • As the IAEA has suggested, the lessons of Fukushima that need particular study are “those pertaining to multiple severe hazards” that might afflict a nuclear power plant.

  • Such complex hazards can emerge from natural disaster, sabotage by terrorists or other malcontents, or be a combination of natural events and intentional acts.
  • Nuclear safety and security staffs — whose cultures are quite different — should be trained to interact with one another as they respond to all three types of severe hazards.

Over the past six months, two geological events in Japan and the United States had similar characteristics but very different outcomes. At Fukushima, 40-plus-year-old reactors shut down as designed on March 11 following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, but the combination of ruptured offsite power supply lines and generators flooded by the ensuing tsunami led to a massive meltdown.

On August 23, a magnitude 5.8 Virginia earthquake shook the US eastern seaboard, causing panic, confusion, and disruption in an area unaccustomed to temblors. The North Anna twin reactor plant in Virginia, which is more than 30 years old, underwent an automatic shutdown. One of the backup generators failed shortly after being started up, but power was continuously supplied by three other generators wisely installed as a precautionary measure. In the absence of simultaneous hazards like the ones that struck Fukushima, the power plant maintained continuous coolant flow around the fuel rods, avoiding a meltdown.

Where should the line be drawn between reasonable and excessive precautionary measures at facilities where cost effectiveness matters? The lessons of Fukushima are under vigorous scrutiny now, and it will take some time to grasp their full meaning. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has suggested, the lessons that need particular study are “those pertaining to multiple severe hazards.” Such complex hazards don’t emerge just from natural disasters. They can also be the result of action by terrorists or others with bad intent. It is even conceivable that a malicious human (or humans) with access to a nuclear plant could take advantage of a natural disaster to cause a nuclear catastrophe. Because severe hazards can arise in these three ways — as what can be termed natech, maltech or combined events — safety and security staffs at nuclear power facilities should be trained to interact with one another as they respond to all three.
(7 September 2011)
The Bulletin of the American Scientists has had a series of articles on nuclear energy: Is nuclear energy different than other energy sources?. -BA

Knocking on the Devil’s Door: Our Deadly Nuclear Legacy – a documentary of the greatest urgency

Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
“We must outlaw nuclear reactors.” – Admiral Hyman Rickover, the Father of the Nuclear Navy, to Congress in his farewell speech

Gary Null, radio talk show host and author, with Producer Richard Gale, has produced a comprehensive indictment of nuclear power and weapons. The first thing the public needs to know is that it is not merely a debate about which way to go with policy. Rather, the nuclear issue is about life and death now. So a big public service is in exposing the nuclear industry’s lies that are killing people today at increasing rates. Premiered in August, Knocking on the Devil’s Door: Our Deadly Nuclear Legacy has taken on the political, financial, technical and other scientific aspects of a monstrously complicated and scary topic. In 135 minutes the film takes a semi-informed viewer from innocence to mind-blown amazement — and perhaps depression.

If one could just watch an abridged version of Knocking on the Devil’s Door, of maybe only one-fifth of the whole film, it would totally undermine any misplaced faith in the nuclear industry and its handmaiden, the government. The additional four-fifths’ content is excellent for burying the zombie forever.

Beginning with footage of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the early history of the nuclear weapons/power complex and its government backing set the stage for in-depth interviews with well-informed scientists and activists. As the film goes on, the facts and dangers pile upon yet more facts and dangers that soon cause any viewer’s head to spin with sadness and outrage.

All aspects of the nuclear assault are covered in this documentary. The expertise is unassailable, including international scientists, and well known anti-nuclear activists such as Pediatrician Helen Caldicott, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Michio Kaku, Greg Palast, Harvey Wasserman, Chris Busby, Dr. Janette Sherman, Karl Grossman, Ernest Sternglass, Aileen Mioko Smith, and Beyond Nuclear’s Kevin Kamp.

… Despite the film’s enthusiasm for a technological energy solution for the nuclear threat, unintentionally sowing confusion regarding the notion of plentiful, clean energy for today’s consumer population, I wholeheartedly recommend this film to anyone. The film’s strong point is not energy policy as the cure for society’s alleged needs. Inevitably in such a movie about a terrible problem — such as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth about climate change — the critique of the problem gives way to the suggestion for the solution. But sometimes the person describing a problem is not the right person to provide the solution (if there really is a solution).

Claims are made and hopes are expressed in Knocking On the Devil’s Door to the effect that perfectly clean and available technology can just step in to replace nuclear energy as well as fossil fuels. But one expert featured in the film, Chris Busby, makes a good case for using much less energy immediately by having a proper economic system that does not involve working too much, in ways that waste energy, enabling us to get rid of nuclear energy now.

… if we are to see life continue in a healthy fashion on Earth, the idea that a solar-powered, windmill dotted world is a viable alternative to a nuclear-energy powered world happens to be unworkable. Today’s industrial, consumer economy and the size of the present population — dependent on the vulnerable petroleum infrastructure — cannot run on renewable energy.
(17 September 2011)