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     Mar 10, 2012

Nuclear power back from the grave
By Victor Kotsev

A year after one of the worst industrial disasters in history - the triple reactor meltdown and spent fuel fires at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant - we still don't have a very clear idea about the full ecological, health and economic consequences facing Japan and the world.

Yet, while staggering amounts of radiation were released into the environment (the danger of new discharges lurks: even the plant director acknowledges that the reactors are "still rather fragile"), the global nuclear industry seems unfazed.

Its executives have good reasons to be cheerful, despite the gloom that had started to spread among them last year. The human lust for power - in the forms of cheap energy and nuclear weapons - is unquenchable, and seems stronger even than the fear of death and collective destruction. Meanwhile, alternative


sources of such power beyond carbon fuels and nuclear energy, despite decades of efforts, are still underdeveloped.

Citing data that 60 countries were looking to jump on the nuclear bandwagon in 2011 and that four Asian countries (Vietnam, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey) are expected to start building their first reactors this year, on Thursday Japan Today ran the headline "Future of nuclear power brighter than ever, despite Fukushima." [1]

To be fair, modern societies need energy, and some of the alternatives to nuclear power are hardly better for the environment or for our own health. The dilemma policymakers are facing was aptly captured in the title of a panel discussion that took place at New York University last November: "Global Warming or Nuclear Meltdown?"

In an essay published by Foreign Policy, Robert Dujarric argues that "we cannot expect renewables to 'solve' the energy question in the foreseeable future. ... Thus, though they seldom mention it, those who seek to abandon nuclear power are arguing in favor of greater reliance on fossil fuels." [2]

For many developing countries that import fossil fuels, much like for Japan until last year, nuclear power holds the promise of energy independence and prosperity. Others depend on their aging and unsafe reactors so much that in practice it is proving impossible to shut them down (such is the case, for example, of Armenia, which is home to one of the world's most dangerous nuclear power plants). [3]

On the other hand, however, lurks the danger of nuclear catastrophe. A report published by the International Journal of Health Services, for example, claims that about 14,000 deaths "in excess of the expected" in the United States in the first 14 weeks after the disaster at Fukushima may be linked to the radioactive fallout from it. [4] It was not possible to obtain similar statistics about Japan or any other country in the region, but given that the West Coast of the US, which is closest to Japan, is over 5,000 miles away, the conclusions should raise concerns.

According to the latest figures provided by the Japanese government, the combined death doll of the March 11, 2011 disaster is 15,853, with 3,283 missing. Most of these people, however, were killed by the magnitude 9 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that triggered off the meltdown.

Both the government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), have often been accused of covering up the magnitude of the disaster over the past year. TEPCO announced in December that its workers had managed to achieve "cold shutdown" status of the inflicted reactors, meaning that the temperature of the cores had dropped below 100 degrees Centigrade. However, the cleanup of the site will take decades - up to 40 years, according to the current estimates. Tons of radioactive waste were reportedly bulldozed there.

Meanwhile, the danger of further contamination is not gone. "The biggest problem for the immediate future is the possibility of a severe aftershock earthquake," said Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior executive, in a recent internet broadcast. "Tokyo Electric has calculated that if a severe earthquake hits, all of the jury-rigged piping that is in place will fail again, and within 40 hours we will be back to a meltdown. Now that is hardly stable." [5]

Even when a reactor has been turned off, the spent fuel continues to produce heat, and if the cooling system fails, a fire can start. Such fires can be as dangerous as nuclear meltdowns; this was demonstrated by the fire at reactor number 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which had been shut down prior to the tsunami, but the spent fuel caught fire several days into the crisis. Given that there were large amounts of spent fuel at all the reactors at the plant, we can expect Fukushima to remain a significant danger for decades.

A cleanup effort is underway in the towns and agricultural lands nearby (and much of the beach near the plant will be cemented over), but even the government has acknowledged that some areas remain permanently uninhabitable. [6] Meanwhile, comprehensive data about the contamination of either the atmosphere or the Pacific Ocean are not available, but most estimates indicate that Fukushima surpassed considerably a similar disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology shows that Fukushima polluted the ocean with a lot more radioactive chemicals than did Chernobyl. The peak releases occurred about a month after the accident, and at one point, on April 6, 2011, the levels of radioactive cesium near the plant were almost 50 million times higher than the normal background levels. [7]

At present, all but two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are offline, and the others are expected to shut down within a few weeks. Given Japan's dependence on nuclear energy (about 30% of the country's electricity came from the nuclear power plants prior to the disaster), many experts expect at least some of the reactors to be restarted soon, after safety tests and improvements.

However, public opinion in the country has turned against nuclear power, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who tried to advocate the above path, is facing considerable resistance; in fact, he has also called for a gradual phasing out of nuclear power over several decades.

In a move fraught with symbolism, even the man who years ago convinced the former US president Ronald Reagan to allow Japan to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium, feeding speculations that he was seeking a nuclear weapons capability, former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, recanted after the disaster. "I want to make Japan into a solar power nation by skillfully using solar energy," he told a solar energy conference, quoted by the newspaper Asahi Weekly.

"That statement by the 93-year-old who had long pushed nuclear energy as a national policy was an expression of a drastic change in energy policy even before any such move was even being considered by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party that he once led," the article concludes. [8]

However, Japan and several other developed countries that are moving away from nuclear power - most notably Germany - seem rather isolated in this endeavor. As mentioned above, most often the primary reason for this is the lack of good sustainable alternatives for the peaceful generation of electricity; however, in some cases the motivation is darker.

Consider for a moment the advice that a Chinese scholar, in his own account speaking to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, gave to the Iranian ambassador in Beijing:

"I suggested taking Japan's route. Japan is a nuclear power. It has nuclear reactors and immense amounts of stockpiled plutonium and enriched uranium, but it has decided not to build nuclear weapons. Of course, it has the option to do so. If Japan wants to, it can build nuclear weapons within a very short time." [9]

Estimates vary, but according to the Asahi Weekly article cited above, Japan has stockpiles of plutonium sufficient to build 1,250 nuclear bombs. Indeed, Japan's fuel recycling program, while never quite successful in recycling the fuel for energy purposes, has been the object of envy of several Asian countries for its potential military applications.

In an insightful analysis in Foreign Policy magazine, Henry Sokolski argues that the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Japan is also a moment of opportunity for initiatives against nuclear proliferation:
The weapons potential of this plutonium is an unspoken driver behind South Korea's interest in getting into plutonium recycling, too. Seoul has long sought to keep up with every aspect of Japanese technology, including the most questionable and dangerous nuclear- and missile-related activities. If Tokyo were to terminate its fast-breeder and commercial plutonium reprocessing efforts, it would go a long way toward depriving Seoul of its argument. [10]
We can assume that Iran is following the developments closely, as is North Korea along with a number of other countries in the region. Sokolski's punchline, however, comes toward the end of the article, with the information that the Barack Obama administration itself is lobbying against legislation designed to impose better controls on exports of nuclear technology:
Despite all the high-minded rhetoric about the importance of nonproliferation, it appears the White House attaches higher priority to nuclear sales in developing countries. Just last week, word leaked out that the administration is renewing talks to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia - even though Riyadh's royals recently declared that Saudi Arabia was committed to acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran did. [11]
Given that a nuclear arms race seems to have already started in the Middle East (and other parts of Asia), one has to wonder whether the US is entirely serious in its anti-proliferation efforts on the continent.

One of the broader lessons is, perhaps, that until disaster is brought intimately close to us - people in general - we seem unable to learn from it. It is true that the reactors where serious incidents have occurred have all been old and flawed; new designs are supposedly much safer and produce much less waste (even so, the thought of Bill Gates manufacturing "smaller, cheaper and safer" nuclear reactors might be a bit shocking).

However, in the long term, our reliance on a technology that is so harmful to us and to the environment will invariably carry risks that are too high to justify. This is, of course, assuming responsible use, which is hardly a very safe assumption.

1. Future of nuclear power brighter than ever, despite Fukushima, Japan Today, March 8, 2012.
2. Robert Dujarric: Why a Nukes-Free Future is a False Dream [excerpt], Foreign Policy, June 29, 2011.
3. Is Armenia's Nuclear Plant the World's Most Dangerous? , National Geographic, April 11, 2011.
5. TEPCO Believes Mission Accomplished & Regulators Allow Radioactive Dumping in Tokyo Bay, Fairewinds, December 29, 2011.
6. Areas near nuclear plant may be unlivable forever, gov't says, Japan Today, February 25, 2012.
7. Impacts of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants on Marine Radioactivity, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 2011.
8. NUCLEAR LEVERAGE: Long an advocate of nuclear energy, Nakasone now says Japan should go solar, Asahi Weekly, July 22, 2011.
9. 'China will not stop Israel if it decides to attack Iran', Ha'aretz, September 22, 2011.
10. The Post-Fukushima Arms Race?, Foreign Policy, July 29, 2012.
11. A Window Into the Nuclear Future, The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 8, 2012)


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