How the 2011 Tsunami Destroyed Japan’s Confidence in Nuclear Power | Environment News

Ten years after a tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeast Japan, controversy and doubts over its cleanup efforts continue to plague the industry. And voices calling on the government to switch to greener forms of alternative energy and to decommission its nuclear reactors have only grown.

After Fukushima was swamped by a tsunami that left three of its reactors melting in 2011, its opaque decommissioning process kept the crippled plant in the limelight as authorities debate what to do with the nearly 1.25 million tonnes of radioactive water used to cool the molten reactors.

The contaminated water is currently housed in around 1,000,000 metal tanks on the factory grounds and authorities say there is little room for more.

Widely reported plans for drain the water in the Pacific Ocean have created a national and international alarm. Concern has delayed the authorities’ decision to release the radioactive water, but no response has been given since.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, visiting the nearby town of Minamisoma on Saturday, said the water disposal policy would be decided “at the right time and responsibly”. But he added: “We cannot delay our decision indefinitely.”

Plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has treated the contaminated water with what it calls the Advanced Liquid Treatment System (ALPS), noting on its website that it “ultimately eliminates most of the water. radioactive materials with the exception of tritium ”.

Tritium, explains Ken Buesseler, senior researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is “one of the least harmful radioactive isotopes” and perhaps poses no significant threat to human health.

Much larger amounts of tritium have already been deposited in the seas, as hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world are allowed to discharge it and because nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific in the 1950s has also had it. released into the surrounding oceans.

However, Buesseler says there are more serious reasons to be concerned about other more dangerous elements that will be released when the water from the Fukushima Daiichi is released into the sea.

Toxic water from devastated Fukushima plant is stored on site and government has suggested it should be dumped into the sea [File: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool via AP]

Unlike the gases that escaped the plant in large volumes during the first months of the crisis, he says, the types of radioactive contamination found in the water used to cool the reactors are “a whole different beast” that includes much more dangerous isotopes such as cobalt-60, strontium-90 and cesium.

According to TEPCO’s own account, ALPS “reduced” the levels of these much more worrying isotopes, but it did not eliminate them.

“What else is in the tanks is an important question before deciding what to do with it,” warned Buesseler, one of the world’s leading experts on the matter.

Although the data published by TEPCO is incomplete, Buesseler estimates that about 70 percent of Fukushima’s “treated” water in reservoirs requires additional treatment and that independent experts should be brought in as part of a process of recovery. careful checking.

Trust undermined

The challenge facing the Japanese government and TEPCO is also a legacy of miscommunication, cover-up and misinformation about nuclear safety issues at the Fukushima plant.

“It’s always been, ‘Trust us, and we’ll design solutions,'” noted Buesseler, “I think they lost the public’s trust very early on … So once you lose that trust, it’s hard to rebuild, and I think it continues to be rampant. them to date.

In the months and years following the 2011 disaster, a series of revelations Severely damaged TEPCOs reputation.

One of the more serious accusations was that the company’s own internal studies had concluded before the accident that the plant could be vulnerable to a large tsunami and needed a protective barrier.

The conclusion was later dismissed because senior officials felt the wall would be too expensive to build. But even after the disaster, TEPCO and government regulators continued to claim that a tsunami of such magnitude struck the plant was “unpredictable.”

Fukushima plant photographed two weeks after tsunami showing damaged reactors one to three [File: AIR photo service via AP]

In the months following the accident, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were taken offline and the government put new safety rules in place. The discredited Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has been replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA), which is thought to be less government-controlled.

But these measures have done little to assuage people’s concerns about the risks of nuclear energy.

A large public opinion poll conducted by the national broadcaster NHK late last year found that only 3% of the Japanese public believed nuclear power should be developed, compared with 50% who believed it should be developed. reduced and 17% who wanted its immediate abolition.

However, the Japanese government’s current energy plans call for a significant expansion of nuclear power, arguing that it remains a reliable source of energy that does not contribute to climate change.

In the 10 years since the Fukushima disaster, the pro-nuclear government and anti-nuclear citizen activists have taken various cases to court and now appear to be at an impasse. The anti-nuclear camp has been unable to prevent the government from restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants – but Tokyo has not been able to meet the nuclear targets it initially set for itself.

“Even 10 years after the Fukushima accident, the government and the public services in place were only able to reopen nine reactors,” observed Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute in Tokyo. The country had 54 reactors in service before the tsunami.

Today, nuclear power contributes just over 7 percent of the country’s electricity supply – not between 20 and 22 percent as originally planned, fueled by the restart of around 30 reactors. Few independent observers consider the plan to be plausible.

Deep divisions

Many activists, including Caitlin Stronell, editor-in-chief of Nuke Info Tokyo at Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center in the Japanese capital, are bewildered by the Japanese government’s resistance to what they see as the obvious and only viable solution for the ‘future – a substantial shift towards renewable energies such as solar and wind power.

Stronell scoffs at arguments that renewables are not a viable solution for Japan due to engineering issues.

“They think they can take care of the radioactive fuel for 10,000 years. They have the technology for it, ”she said. “But can’t they save sun overnight in a battery?”

Stronell believes that the falling costs of renewables and the rising costs, financial and political, of building nuclear power plants and disposing of radioactive waste can ensure that the bottom line is foregone.

“Even though it’s a business decision, nuclear power just doesn’t pay anymore. It’s really expensive, ”she says.

Even as Japan and the world celebrate 10 years since the magnitude 9 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, there is still a long way to go.

The disaster forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from communities in and around the Fukushima factory after the 2011 disaster [File: Wally Santana/AP]

Kyle Cleveland, associate professor at Temple University in Japan and co-editor of the upcoming book Legacies of Fukushima: 3/11 in Context, observes: “Fukushima is one of the most important nuclear accidents in the history of the world” .

Chernobyl has emitted more radiation into the environment and killed more people, but the fallout from Fukushima – the world’s second worst civilian nuclear disaster – continues to be felt, affecting the Japanese economy – especially in Fukushima prefecture – and coloring the debate on its national energy policy. .

The impact of radiation on human health also remains under scrutiny, whether it’s encouraging residents of Fukushima to return home or deciding what to do with the water used to cool melted reactors.

There is no common ground between the Japanese pro-nuclear government camp and anti-nuclear activists who challenge them – even on basic medical facts.

“A lot of times when people debate the effects of radiation, they don’t really talk about radiation,” Cleveland said. “They talk about politics. It is a proxy for politics.

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