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Fukushima & beyond
To many, nuclear energy looks to be a relatively clean and logical choice in an era of increasing resource scarcity. Yet the record requires us to ask painful questions: have we correctly calculated its risks and costs? Are we doing all we can to keep the world's people safe? The unfortunate truth is that we are likely to see more such disasters.......As we are painfully learning once again, nuclear accidents respect no borders. They pose a direct threat to human health and the environment. They cause economic disruptions affecting everything from agricultural production to trade and global services.
- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chernobyl reactor site, April 21, 2011.
It is a testament to the ability of nuclear power to instil fear and awe in equal measures that nuclear power disasters, almost to the exclusion of all other man-made disasters, have the ability to indelibly cast these emotions on our collective conscience from the mere utterance of once innocuous names – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. However, the latest nuclear accident has ramifications which extend much further than those which have preceded it. If the future of the nuclear power industry prior to this had a glimmer of hope in its revival (some would argue resuscitation), Fukushima has perhaps sounded its eventual death knell.
What Fukishima has also done is demolish the nuclear power industry’s standing exhortations that they should be trusted with the welfare of millions of citizens because their industry is inherently safe. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, with a mature nuclear power industry dating from the middle of last century – long enough to ‘work out the bugs'. The country is also a mature democracy, so there are structural checks and balances. Furthermore, with a Transparency International (TI) ranking of 17 on the Corruption Index, Japan's public sector corruption should not be a major issue. Japan has also been subject to regular IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections. If Japan couldn’t prevent this disaster, what are the prospects for most of the new reactors planned for Asian and Middle Eastern Countries which lack any semblance of transparency or accountability, long-term experience, and have TI rankings far below that of Japan - China (78), Pakistan (143), India (87), Russia (154), Ukraine (134), Indonesia (110)?
The background to the Fukushima disaster
Of course, the root cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was an insular, politically well connected nuclear industry which was intertwined with a nuclear regulator that lacked the will and ability to fulfil its role of protecting the public. Many nuclear utilities' engineers and senior management sit on the regulator’s safety committee. In essence, the Japanese nuclear regulator became captive to the government and industry’s goal of nuclear promotion at any cost, leading to a poor safety culture. The organisational structure of the industry corrupted the normal checks and balances vital to ensuring safety. The nuclear regulatory agency was an arm of the ministry responsible for nuclear promotion. TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, and indeed the whole Japanese nuclear industry, has revealed a long history of poor safety, falsified maintenance and safety records, as well as fraudulently concealed accidents over many decades. In 2002, TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant, admitted it had falsified repair reports at nuclear plants for more than two decades, It was not alone. The revelation follows the confession by all four companies – TEPCO, Chubu Electric Power, Japan Atomic Power and Tohoku Electric Power – that they concealed flaws in their reactors from government regulators.
Unfortunately, the Japanese nuclear power industry was portrayed during this time as the face of a vibrant, responsible and safe utility by the World Nuclear Association, the industry lobby group and a role model for all countries to follow. The IAEA, which is responsible for overseeing the industry, sadly failed in its responsibility to alert the public, instead keeping its assessments closed to the general public. Its obligations only extend to informing the governments of its member states. Freshly revealed reports from the IAEA, dating from the 1990s, describe safety precautions at Japanese nuclear reactors as ‘dangerously weak’. IAEA inspectors visited four reactors in 1992 and 1995, finding 90 deficiencies in safety procedures. In a recently revealed Wikileaks cable, an official from the IAEA said in December 2008 that Japanese nuclear safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a 'serious problem' for nuclear power stations, which were only rated to withstand a 7.0 earthquake (compared to the recent 9.1 earthquake). and tsunamis of only 5 metres (compared to the 14m recent tsunami). This was seen as a compromise between safety and commercial viability. In other words, it would have significantly eroded the economic viability of the plant if it was rated to a higher standard. Note that the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale, so that every one point increase in earthquake severity equates to a ten-fold increase in its destructive potential – thus the costs of earthquake defence increase exponentially.
Flaws in the boiling water reactors typical for Fukushima were known for several decades. The cascade of events at Fukushima had been foretold in a report published in the United States two decades ago. The 1990 report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency responsible for safety at the country’s power plants, identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the 'most likely causes' of nuclear accidents from an external event. Documents from 1972 of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the precursor of the NRC, reveal that an AEC safety expert raised concerns about the vulnerability of the boiled water reactor's less robust containment capability that would make it vulnerable to a hydrogen explosion — the same scenario in the current Fukushima fiasco. There was an internal sympathetic response from Joseph Hendrie, later the leader of the NRC, who told his colleague who had suggested a ban on the GE design that, while such a ban might be 'attractive', it would 'be the end of nuclear power'.
Whilst the Japanese nuclear industry is rightfully portrayed as dangerous and its regulator incompetent and ineffectual, it is clear that without the tacit complicity of the IAEA and other national regulators that enabled Japan to avoid proper international scrutiny and accountability, its deficiencies would have been made public decades ago, perhaps averting this disaster. Rather than full transparency and accountability, the hallmarks of a good safety culture, the nuclear industry is wrought with a culture of obfuscation and opaqueness.
Risks of accidents have been underestimated
The estimated probability of major nuclear accidents, which was considered very small in the past,has increased significantly. The pre-Fukushima estimate for the probability of a major nuclear accident with significant release of radioactivity was roughly 1 in 100,000 for each of the 440 reactors in operation per annum. Of course, probabilistic risk assessments on which the industry estimates are based, and which often rest heavily on nothing more than best guesses, have always been problematic. Now we know they are next to useless. The likelihood of core melt and containment failure had been underestimated: the accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima amount to catastrophic meltdown in four nuclear reactors over the past few decades, more than originally assumed. Furthermore, given that, in the history of nuclear energy, 582 reactors have operated for a total of 14,400 years (counting each year of operation by one reactor as a reactor-year), a core-damage accident has happened once every 1,309 years of operation with a total of 12 core melts. With 439 reactors now operating worldwide, the rate would yield a core melt an average of once every three calendar years, and a major accident with release of radioactivity once every 9 years. Based on the earlier estimate, we were expecting one major accident with radioactive release over a 100-year period, and a core melt with no loss of containment every 10 years, with the current reactor fleet. Tripling the fleet, as the nuclear industry advocates propose, would increase these risks three fold, i.e., one core melt every year and a major accident with loss of containment every three years.
Globally, there have been at least 99 (civilian and military) recorded nuclear reactor accidents from 1952 to 2009 (defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than US$50,000 of property damage, the amount the US government uses to define major energy accidents that must be reported), totalling US$20.5 billion in property damages (this excludes the costs associated with Chernobyl and Fukushima). Property damage costs include destruction of property, emergency response, environmental remediation, evacuation, lost production, fines, and court claims. Because nuclear reactors are large and complex, accidents onsite tend to be relatively expensive.
Therefore, we should be very sceptical of the nuclear industry’s risk estimates for its Generation III reactors (which have no operational history) of one major accident per reactor every million years, i.e., ten times safer than the current Generation II. We should be equally sceptical of industry claims that the accident numbers are skewed by accidents early in the evolution of nuclear power and that the industry has improved its safety credentials. Remember, the two worst nuclear disasters (Chernobyl and Fukushima) have occurred in the last 25 years over an almost 60 year history. Just as unconvincing is the claim that new nuclear reactors are safer than the older current reactors. The vast majority of plants under construction around the world, 47 in all, are considered Generation II reactor designs—the same 1970s vintage as Fukushima Daiichi. And only 15 of the 442 nuclear reactors operating in the world possess passive safety.systems (allegedly safer because they require less human input). It is misleading to imply that the Fukushima plant was somehow unique in the world’s nuclear fleet as a mitigating factor in its failure – nearly all nuclear plants around the world, existing and planned, are of the same vintage and design as the Fukushima plant. Why? Because advanced redundant safety systems dramatically increase the cost of a nuclear power plant and nuclear power is already uneconomic.
Nuclear safety – a worldwide problem
Safety concerns pervade the nuclear industry worldwide. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said on 10 May 2011::
Men and women around the world are asking: are we really doing well and all that we can to safeguard the world’s people in the case of nuclear accidents? Recent events suggest that there are large gaps in how societies and the international system think and act about breaches to nuclear safety.
The French nuclear safety authority has suggested a ‘moratorium’ on the construction of the new EPR reactor at Flamanville due to 'very compromised' engineering works. The Nuclear Safety Authority also warned EDF, the utility that owns and runs the nuclear power reactors (and is 80 per cent owned by the French government) that it needed to 'seriously' improve the maintenance of the 58 reactors it runs in France.
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, overseeing the largest nuclear power fleet in the world, meanwhile has progressively been gutted since the Republican domination of the 104th Congress in 1994, which cut the NRC’s staff by almost half and restricted its inspection and enforcement activities. Henry Myers, the science advisor to Congressman Mo Udall, who drove to strengthen the NRC following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, has warned that, 'There hasn’t been serious oversight [of the nuclear industry] for twenty years'. Funding for nuclear safety regulation and enforcement is again being attacked by the current Republican dominated House, with the expected corrosive effect on safety culture. A task force established after the Fukushima disaster to assess the safety of the US reactor fleet concluded that there were serious deficiencies in the safety regime and operation of the ageing industry. Unfortunately, the US NRC failed to implement even the most basic of their taskforce’s thoughtful and commonsense recommendations. This would drive up costs. It should therefore come as no surprise that the industry and its allies among Congressional Republicans convinced the commissioners to bury the recommendations and delay any costly requirements on the excuse that more analysis was needed.
China remains committed to increasing its nuclear capacity 20 fold by 2030, exceeding all proposed new nuclear builds in the rest of the world combined over this period, despite deep concerns over safety. Wikileaks cables reveal the pervasive use of cheap and out of date Chinese technology ‘vastly increasing’ the risk of a nuclear disaster, amplified by weaknesses in the management and regulatory oversight of China's fast-expanding sector. Professor He Zuoxiu, who helped develop the Chinese nuclear program, stated: 'Are we really ready for this kind of giddy speed [of nuclear power development]? I think not – we're seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front'.
Russia has a longstanding reputation for poor nuclear safety, reaching from before before the Chernobyl disaster. Once again, the usual enemies of transparency and accountability are largely to account in a country that is one of the most corrupt in the world (TI ranking 154). Its nuclear waste management, for example, is renowned as being seriously deficient and breaches most international norms, and has come under sustained criticism in international fora. Now, a report stunning in its candour and prepared for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by state agencies concerned with the safety of the country's nuclear power reactors in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, reveals that Russia’s atomic reactors are grievously under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters ranging from floods to fires to earthquakes or plain negligence. Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear promotion body, it should be recalled, aims to be one of the largest nuclear plant providers in the world. Further, Australia recently concluded a uranium supply deal with Russia. The next major nuclear disaster could once again produce fallout derived from Australian uranium, as occurred at Fukushima.
What has Fukushima taught about the consequences?
The consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster highlight the severe consequences that can occur. Some 80,000 people have been evacuated from the 20km exclusion zone and may never return to their homes, with the land now uninhabitable. There is also the potential for more evacuations further away in highly contaminated zones. Total economic costs are estimated at $300bn, comparable to that of the earthquake and tsunami that precipitated the nuclear disaster. Heroic (and expensive) plans are afoot to remove contaminated soil from over 2,500km2 to reclaim as much land as possible in the densely populated country. The total volume of the contaminated soil waste will approximate that of all the high level nuclear waste ever generated in the history of nuclear power (30 million cubic metres). The former prime minister, Naoto Kan, revealed that there was a real possibility of requiring the evacuation of 35 million Tokyo residents were the fallout to threaten the capital. It was dumb luck that it didn’t, given that the prevailing winds in the first week of the disaster were offshore, dumping most of the fallout in the sea and preventing an unimaginable catastrophe. Recall, nuclear fallout does not respect national boundaries – neighbouring countries might be the biggest victims of a nuclear accident. Australia needs to consider the risks and consequences to its security if Indonesia develops nuclear power. If Indonesia, renowned for its institutional corruption (TI ranking 110) builds, as planned, several nuclear power reactors in one of the worst seismic zones on the Pacific ‘ring of fire,’ this would have devastating public health repercussions for northern Australia and neighbouring south-east Asian countries in a Fukushima style accident.
A nuclear accident has the potential to bankrupt many countries. The cost of a worst-case nuclear accident at a plant in Germany, for example, has been estimated to total as much as €7.6 trillion ($11 trillion), while the mandatory reactor insurance is only €2.5 billion.'The €2.5 billion will be just enough to buy the stamps for the letters of condolence', said Olav Hohmeyer, an economist at the University of Flensburg who is also a member of the German government’s environmental advisory body. In financial terms, nuclear incidents can be so devastating that the cost of full insurance, estimated at 2 euros per kWh, would be so high as to make nuclear energy more expensive than any other form of electricity.
Japan has decided not to build any further nuclear plants and will progressively become less reliant on nuclear power as existing plants are decommissioned. Several OECD countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan and Switzerland, among others) have already decided to either not commence or phase out existing nuclear reactors at the end of their useful life and have cancelled plans for new ones. Several reactors have also been cancelled in the US, although predictably on economic grounds. The UK paradoxically is intent on building eight new reactors to replace the ten ageing reactors it currently has, although this replacement strategy in effect decreases the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear power over time as overall consumption increases.
The future of nuclear power
We cannot predict that nuclear power is dead, just that it is on a fatal trajectory witha a timeline that is difficult to determine. National prestige, industry lobbying and influence peddling by the nuclear industry, and the notional national security argument to have the infrastructure available to subsequently develop nuclear weapons, are potent drivers to sustaining a civilian nuclear capacity. Their ability to drive rational governments (much less irrational ones) to behave irrationally should not be underestimated.
That Australia is intimately involved in the supply of uranium to the largest nuclear power generating countries in the world, and is eagerly eyeing further markets with some of the worst safety regimes, speaks to the dominance of economic considerations in its decision making and a firewalling of any moral culpability. The lack of safety stewardship that the Australian government and its multinational uranium exporting corporate partners demonstrate is breathtakingly hypocritical and shows a callow disregard for current and future generations.
In a recent review of the nuclear power industry, the Economist concluded that:
Nuclear power thus looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky. It is replaceable with relative ease and could be forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works. (March 24, 2011)
All that is lacking now is the political will – as usual.
Peter Karamoskos, MBBS, FRANZCR is a nuclear radiologist; the Treasurer of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), the Treasurer of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and the public representative of the Radiation Health Committee, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). [This paper is for information purposes and should not be cited as endorsed by ARPANSA.]