Sunday

4th Dec 2016

Opinion

Fukushima one year on - lessons learnt?

  • "The nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima is far from over" (Photo: US Navy)

On 11 March last year, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, resulting in thousands of tragic deaths, and causing a nuclear disaster.

While global attention has long since shifted elsewhere, the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima is far from over. This is the nature of nuclear accidents: they leave a long-lasting radioactive legacy.

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One year on, the situation is not 'under control'. The announcement by the Japanese government that the damaged reactors were in a state of 'cold shutdown' was met with scepticism and anger from a concerned public – and with disbelief amongst nuclear experts.

As the recent rise in temperature in reactor 2 has shown, the Fukushima facility remains unstable and highly vulnerable to a new earthquake. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that "cleaning up" the disaster will take a hundreds-strong workforce decades to complete.

Beyond the reactors themselves, and the arbitrary 20km 'exclusion zone', the surrounding area in Fukushima province and beyond will suffer from radioactive contamination for generations to come.

To give a concrete example: the amount of radioactive caesium 137 (which has a half life of around 30 years) released during the Fukushima disaster was 168 times that released by the Hiroshima bomb.

It has been estimated that deaths, due to radiation exposure in the region, could run into the thousands.

Fukushima, like Chernobyl twenty five years before it, has shown us that while the likelihood of a nuclear disaster occurring may be low, the potential impact is enormous.

The inherent risk in the use of nuclear energy, as well as the related proliferation of nuclear technologies, can and does have disastrous consequences. The only certain way to eliminate this potentially devastating risk is to phase out nuclear power altogether.

Some countries appear to have learnt this lesson. In Germany, the government changed course in the aftermath of Fukushima and decided to go ahead with a previously-agreed phase out of nuclear power. Many scenarios now foresee Germany sourcing 100% of its power needs from renewables by 2030. Meanwhile, Italian citizens voted overwhelmingly against plans to go nuclear with a 90% majority.

The same is not yet true in Japan. Although only 3 out of its 54 nuclear reactors are online and generating power, whilst the Japanese authorities conduct 'stress tests', the government hopes to reopen almost all of these and prolong the working life of a number of its ageing reactors by to up to 60 years.

The Japanese public have made their opposition clear however. Opinion polls consistently show a strong majority of the population is now against nuclear power. Local grassroots movements opposing nuclear power have been springing up across Japan. Mayors and governors in fear of losing their power tend to follow the majority of their citizens.

Elsewhere, in the UK and Finland for example, nuclear new build remains high on the agenda however.

The European-level response has been to undertake stress tests on nuclear reactors across the European Union. However, these stress tests appear to be little more than a PR exercise to encourage public acceptance in order to allow the nuclear industry to continue with business as usual. They fail to assess the full risks of nuclear power, ignoring crucial factors like fires, human failures, degradation of essential infrastructure or the impact of an airplane crash.

Fukushima showed us that nuclear remains a high risk technology and that the reassurances of the nuclear industry cannot be relied on. However, nuclear also fails to make the grade in economic terms.

As we have seen with the two new nuclear reactors under construction in Europe, the already prohibitive upfront constructions costs have been grossly underestimated. The EPR reactors under construction in Finland and France are both around 100% over budget, with the end date for construction being constantly postponed.

The hidden costs of nuclear - such as waste disposal, insurance and decommissioning - are also huge, and it is the public that ends up footing the bill. Surely it makes more sense to invest billions in genuinely sustainable and low risk technologies?

One year on from Fukushima, we should not wait for another disaster to finally convince us to give up on nuclear power.

The writer is co-president of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. She visited Japan and Fukushima in January of this year.

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