Monday, 12 March 2012

Fukushima nuclear meltdown - one year later

As the world marks the first anniversary of Japan’s triple tragedy, lessons are still being drawn from the Fukushima nuclear accident and the dangers of nuclear power plants.

 IT’S been a full year since Japan’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and the reverberations are still being felt.

The tsunami on March 11, 2011, caused around 19,000 deaths (16,000 known dead, 3,000 missing) and 320,000 were made homeless.

The nuclear disaster alone created 100,000 nuclear evacuees.

The lesson, only partially learnt in Japan itself and hardly learnt in other countries, is that natural disasters can come in many unexpected forms and governments must put aside considerable resources and facilities to prepare for and manage them.

The lesson usually becomes obvious when a disaster occurs.

After that, a pledge is made to be better prepared and much of that is not implemented until the next disaster and the cycle begins again.

While the tsunami caused the most immediate damage, it was the nuclear incidents at the Fukushima power plant that were the most shocking and may have the most long-term repercussions.

The nuclear disaster blew away a lot of myths.We now know, again, that nuclear power plants are not safe.

The claim by Tepco – the Japanese company operating the Fukushima plant – that the reactors were fail-safe and could withstand earthquakes, was proven to be wrong.

The ability of the regulatory autho­rities to monitor and check for risks and ensure safety was near absent.
An independent commission, which was set up by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation to investigate the nuclear incident, shows how close Japan came to a catastrophe.

Its chairman Yoichi Funabashi, in an article in last Saturday’s Financial Times, said that Japan was on the edge of an “existential crisis”.

As the tsunami knocked out the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems, the Tepco president indicated his company’s intention to abandon the plant and evacuate its workers.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan personally intervened, ordering the company not to abandon ship and form a “death squad” to continue the battle and inject water into the reactor vessels.

A worst case scenario, prepared for the prime minister by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, envisioned a hydrogen explosion, a succession of meltdowns and such extensive radiation that the whole of Tokyo would have to be evacuated.

Funabashi said: “The truth is that the imagined ‘worst-case scenario’ was closer than anyone would wish to admit; but for the direction of the wind (towards the Pacific, not inland, in the four days after the earthquake); but for the manner in which the gate separating the reactor-well and the spent-fuel pool in Unit 4 broke (presumably facilitating the transfusion of water into the pool). Luck was undeniably on our side.”

Funabashi’s commission found that the nuclear industry had become ensnared in its twisted myth of “absolute safety”, propagated by interest groups seeking to gain broad acceptance of nuclear power.

He also found that “Japan’s nuclear safety regulatory regime was phoney. Regulators pretended to regulate; utilities pretended to be regulated. In reality, the latter were far more powerful in expertise and clout”. He offers two lessons to be learnt.

First, is the need to overcome the myth of “absolute safety”, shatter the taboo that surrounds the concept of risks in the nuclear energy business and the need to prepare for the unthinkable and unanticipated.

Second, is the need for an independent regulatory body.

A major fallout from the Fuku­shima accident is the blow it has dealt to the nuclear industry.

It highlighted the danger a country faces when something goes wrong.

Of its 52 nuclear plants, Japan has now shut down 50 plants. The remaining two may also be shut down next month.

Although the government may try to reopen some of them, the public revulsion against nuclear plants could mean that their days are numbered.

There has also been a global backlash, with Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland declaring that they will phase out their nuclear plants.

The situation in Asia, however, is mixed. China has suspended the building of new nuclear plants pending changes in safety standards.
India, Vietnam and Korea are going ahead with their nuclear power programmes.

“If more nuclear power plants are built in developing countries with little experience of operating a reactor, or bordering a region where terrorism is a concern, or without sufficient financial resources to import state of the art technology, then the chance of a major nuclear accident hitting the developing world will loom large in the coming decades,” said Kevin Tu, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Meanwhile The Economist magazine, in its latest cover story, “Nuclear Energy: The dream that failed” is pessimistic about the future of the nuclear industry.

Nuclear plants are costly to build and operate. British studies put the overnight cost of new power plants at US$2,233 (RM6,720) for every kilowatt of capacity in 2004 and US$3,000 (RM9,028)/kw in 2008, according to The Economist.

Capacity fired by gas turbines cost less than one-fifth of that. The cost of renewable energy (wind and solar, in particular) is, however, getting cheaper every year.

Perhaps, the most intractable problem is nuclear waste. As The Economist noted, building a nuclear plant that can last 100 years is one thing, but creating waste that will be dangerous for 100 times as long is another.

So far, countries have failed to create a long-term repository for nuclear waste.

As the public has become intensely more aware of the dangers of radiation, the resistance to locating nuclear plants in their neighbourhood has grown fiercer.

No doubt the Fukushima meltdowns and its aftermath have contributed to increased awareness and to the bad name that nuclear power has acquired.

P/S:  We sympathize with Japan's sufferings from earthquake, tsunami caused by nature that resulted in Fukushima nuclear meltdown a year ago.

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