After Fukushima

As we pursue the abolition of nuclear weapons, we also need to phase out reliance on nuclear energy. Both are incompatible with our environmental and human security, says Rebecca Johnson.

by Rebecca Johnson via OpenDemocracy

There is still a long way to go before anyone can feel reassured that the disaster caused by Japan’s massive off-shore earthquake and tsunami will not result in an additional nuclear catastrophe.  We have to hope that the coolants and controls are fully restored, and that the severely damaged reactors at Fukushima and elsewhere will be made safe pending their dismantlement.  It is a tragic lesson to see so much attention having to be spent on one dangerous facility when Japan needs to mobilise resources to provide for half a million survivors left homeless and traumatised.

Before memories fade and people forget the fear generated by the dangers of nuclear meltdown, fires and widespread radiation from the damaged nuclear facilities, we need to reflect on the lessons.

We cannot write off the Fukushima crisis as an extreme phenomenon that will never happen again.  Earthquakes – like terrorism – may not be predictable, but they are foreseeable.  Major natural disasters might not be very frequent, but they will keep happening when we least expect.  So we need to factor that into our energy and security choices.

It is an inherent problem of nuclear technologies that if something goes wrong the risks are much greater and may spread far more widely than with any other kind of weapon or energy. An accident at a coalmine or fire at an oil rig or gas pipeline may be terrible for those directly involved, and all efforts must be made to reduce the risks and climate effects of fossil fuel production and use.  Even so, as the panicked government and nuclear industry reactions to the Fukushima crisis demonstrated with chilling clarity, a nuclear crisis can turn into a long-term tragedy far more frightening for the world than the worst foreseeable oil spill, fire or fossil fuel accident.

Fifty years of nuclear operations have resulted in many near misses and several severe nuclear accidents that caused serious contamination outside the plant: Sellafield (UK, 1957), Three Mile Island (USA, 1979), Chernobyl (Soviet Union, 1986). And now Japan, which believed it had designed its many nuclear facilities well enough to withstand earthquakes.

Radioactive Iodine 131 has recently been turning up in Tokyo’s drinking water, leading to official advice not to give this to babies. Iodine 131 has a half life of just over 8 days, which means that it loses half its radioactivity in the first 8 days after it is produced, and so on.  So how did it get into Tokyo’s water supplies 150 miles further south? Because of its short duration, less iodine would be released by spent fuel than by the  fuel rods in the operating reactor core.  At present, the published levels of radioactive contamination in Tokyo do not pose a significant health risk, even to babies, whose developing thyroid glands are most vulnerable to being harmed by Iodine 131, with increased risks of cancer in later life.

The larger worry about the iodine found in Tokyo tapwater is that it emanates from the core, signifying a partial meltdown. If so, there could be far greater contamination from other dangerous radionuclides, such as Caesium 137. The heavy damage, fires and explosion at Fukushima’s Reactor 3 have also raised the spectre of plutonium contamination, as it was adapted a few years ago to burn MOX fuel, made from a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxide. These long-lived radioactive substances were strongly implicated in clusters of childhood leukaemia near the UK nuclear facilities at Sellafield and Aldermaston from the 1960s-1990s.

Nuclear energy is neither necessary nor economic. The much-discussed “nuclear renaissance” is wishful thinking by the major nuclear plant manufacturers, promoted for commercial purposes by France, Russia, Britain and the United States.

See full article here.