Nuclear power has become safer since the devastating accident one year ago at Fukushima, Japan. It will become safer still in the coming years, provided that governments, plant operators and regulators do not drop their guard.
The accident at Fukushima resulted from an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented severity. But, as the Japanese authorities have acknowledged, human and organisational failings played an important part, too.
For example, Japan’s nuclear regulatory authority was not sufficiently independent and oversight of the plant operator, TEPCO, was weak. At the Fukushima site, the backup power supply, essential for maintaining vital safety functions such as cooling the reactors and spent fuel rods, was not properly protected. Training to respond to severe accidents was inadequate. There was a lack of integrated emergency-response capability at the site and nationally.
Human and organisational failings are not unique to Japan. Fukushima was a wake-up call for all countries that use nuclear power. It prompted serious soul-searching and recognition that safety can never be taken for granted anywhere. Key causes of the accident have been identified.
Indeed, governments, regulators and plant operators around the world have begun learning the right lessons. A robust international nuclear safety action plan is being implemented. As a result, the likelihood of another disaster on the scale of Fukushima has been reduced.
|In-depth coverage one year after triple disaster|
What, exactly, has changed? Perhaps most importantly, the worst-case assumptions for safety planning have been radically revised. At Fukushima, the reactors withstood a magnitude 9.0 earthquake – far more powerful than they were designed to tolerate. But the plant was not designed to withstand the 14-metre-high tsunami waves that swept over its protective sea wall less than an hour later.
In the aftermath of Fukushima, defences against multiple severe natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis, are being strengthened at nuclear facilities all over the world. Measures are being taken to improve preparedness for prolonged power outages, protect backup power sources, and ensure the availability of water for cooling even under severe accident conditions.
Global nuclear safety standards are being reviewed. National and international emergency-response capabilities are being upgraded. Plant operators and national regulators are being scrutinised more critically. Countries are opening their plants to more – and more thorough – international safety reviews.
Despite the accident, global use of nuclear power looks set to grow steadily in the next 20 years, although at a slower rate than previously forecast. The reasons for this have not changed: rising demand for energy, alongside concerns about climate change, volatile fossil fuel prices and the security of energy supplies. It will be difficult for the world to achieve the twin goals of ensuring sustainable energy supplies and curbing greenhouse gases unless nuclear power remains an important part of the global energy mix.
The International Atomic Energy Agency expects at least 90 additional nuclear power reactors to join the 437 now in operation globally by 2030. Although some countries abandoned or scaled back their nuclear energy plans after Fukushima, major users of nuclear power, such as China, India and Russia, are going forward with ambitious expansion plans. Many other countries, mainly in the developing world, are considering introducing nuclear power.
Nuclear safety is of the utmost importance to both established users and newcomers. It matters to countries that have decided to phase out nuclear power, because their plants will continue to operate for decades and will need to be decommissioned, with nuclear waste stored safely. And it matters to countries that are firmly opposed to nuclear power, as many of them have neighbours with nuclear power plants.
Countries planning new nuclear power programmes must recognise that achieving their goals is a challenging, long-term undertaking. They need to invest considerable time and money in training scientists and engineers, establishing genuinely independent, well-funded regulators and putting in place the necessary technical infrastructure. Some countries still have shortcomings in this regard.
Nonetheless, contrary to popular perception, nuclear power has a good overall safety record. New reactors being built today incorporate significantly enhanced safety features, both active and passive, compared to the Fukushima generation of reactors. But, in order to regain and maintain public confidence, governments, regulators and operators must be transparent about the benefits and risks of nuclear power – and honest when things go wrong.
The fact that an accident such as Fukushima was possible in Japan, one of the world’s most advanced industrial countries, is a reminder that, when it comes to nuclear safety, nothing can be taken for granted. Complacency can be deadly. The safety improvements seen in the past 12 months can only be a start. We must not slip back into a “business as usual” approach as Fukushima recedes from memory.
Second-generation farmer Muneo Kano has not been able to tend to his cattle or grow crops since the Daiichi nuclear power plant contaminated land, air and sea after being damaged by last year’s earthquake and tsunami.
He had his 11 cows scanned for radiation and sold them to another farm outside the radiation area. Kano’s own seven-hectare farm is 45km from the nuclear site, and the soil has been deemed too contaminated for farming.
And Kano has had to learn all about radiation and soil fast – he now tracks and maps radiation dips and spikes on an iPad, and has a series of maps he consults to check what authorities say about farms in the area.
Soil samples tested in Iitate still contain ten times the acceptable levels of the radioactive isotope Caesium-137 for agricultural soil, and the government has yet to remove the top layers of contaminated soil and wash the streets.
“It’s been a year already, and nothing,” said the 61-year-old farmer, visiting his land the day before the anniversary of the earthquake. Indeed, Greenpeace recently issued a blistering report on the sluggish pace of government response and the failure of implementing a nuclear emergency plan.
|In-depth coverage one year after triple disaster|
Like some 80,000 others, Kano, his wife, his father, his son, daughter in law and two grandchildren been living in temporary housing in Fukushima City since explosions at three of the plant’s reactors spewed radioactive steam across the region. His plans to pass down his organic farm to his son now remain uncertain.
“My main concern is that, if any country has the technology to build a nuclear plant, then it should first have the technology to prevent accidents and to protect people,” said Kano.
While the Japanese government is making efforts to neutralise fears of radiation contamination, there are a couple of cold, hard facts it can’t overcome.
First, there is little in the way of data showing how the levels of radiation seeping out of earthquake and tsunami damaged plant (operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. or TEPCO) will affect the local population in the long run.
Second, radiation levels aren’t the sort of thing that hold steady – they change with the wind, with accumulations of snow or dust. Scooping up contaminated dirt, bagging it and burying it (the current plan) doesn’t make it disappear, nor does washing the roads in evacuated zones, as that water – and the radioactive dust – finds its ways into gutters and onto sidewalks.
“They shouldn’t build things they can’t control,” said Kano.
Fear of a faulty plant
Indeed, control is in short supply in these parts, and it’s hard to keep up with the worrying news that comes at people on an almost daily basis.
There was the report saying that things were so unstable at the nuclear plant that the government was on the cusp of having to hatch a plan to evacuate 30 million people; a report by the Japan Meteorological Agency recently announced that there were 10,000 more quakes this year – that’s eight times more than the previous year, and, this week, local media reported that some of the thermometers used to make sure water in the plants stayed below boiling point were broken.
Additionally, the problematic reactors at the Daiichi plant have not entirely been dealt with. There are thousands of barrels of contaminated water being stored on the plant’s site, and the (some say unrealistically short) timeline to decommission it stands at 40 years.
A tourist poster at Fukushima train station sells the prefecture’s idyllic past – a far cry from its embattled present [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]
These factors combined make it hard for some of the radiation-zone evacuees to accept what they’re being told – that it’s safe to move back to the homes they were told to abandon a year ago.
All but two residents from Kawauchi – 21km from the plant – evacuated the area and moved into temporary housing in Koriyama, which, due to wind patterns, has a higher level of radiation than Kawauchi itself.
And yet, response has been tepid to the government announcement that, starting in April, it will be safe for them to return to their homes, where the radiation levels are still lower.
The village’s vice-mayor, Mitsugi Igari, told Al Jazeera that a survey of the evacuees showed that 39 per cent did not know if they wanted to go back – and that 28 per cent flat out did not want to return.
“Japanese law says that, in case of an earthquake, you can stay in temporary housing for three years without paying rent,” said Igari. Residents must, however pay for utilities and groceries, as well as mortgages back home.
“So if they don’t want to move back, we cannot force them to. But there is no law for radiation evacuees, so a new law must be implemented if they want to stay here beyond three years,” said Igari, noting that most who didn’t want to return were in their 20s and 30s, and those who wanted to return were in their 60s and 70s.
“We must create a safe environment so our young people and children can return – we must reassure them,” he said. Igari himself, a ward employee, must return.
“No choice but to go back,” he said, lips pursed.
Many of Kawauchi’s evacuees living in the temporary housing village set up in the middle of Koriyama have a choice, and they’re choosing to stay put – at least for the time being.
When asked why they wouldn’t want to move back to a place with less radiation, they pointed out that it wasn’t the radiation they feared.
“We’re afraid of Kawauchi’s proximity to the power plant,” said 34-year-old Hisae Wakamatsu, who is there with her three children (aged ten, seven and five) and her husband. Although both she and her husband work for the town, they plan to leave the children with their grandparents – who also evacuated – and commute to Kawauchi daily, rather than move there.
“I don’t know when we’ll move back, but right now, no, I don’t think we want to.”
The agony of uncertainty
Even if nuclear science and the impact of a nuclear meltdown on human health were simple to understand (and they are not), there is still the rather uneasy fact of dealing with a daily foe: invisible, odourless radiation.
This leaves the population to cling to numbers – how many millisieverts of radiation (mSv) can they be exposed to per year? How many Becquerels per kg of food can they take in, how much have they had for the day?
Where Becquerel counters are expensive and hard to come by – although some community groups share one, as do farmers’ markets – Geiger counters are cheaper and a must-have gadget in the affected areas, where radioactive “hot spots” are easily found.
With a push of a button, one can find out how much radiation one is being exposed to at that moment, and, if one were to remain at that level of exposure, how that would accumulate in a week or a year.
For now, the national limit for additional radiation exposure (on top of natural background radiation) is five mSv per year for adults and one mSv per year for children. Kano’s farm registered between 18 and 24 mSv per year – depending on where it was measured.
And a lot of people are measuring radiation these days.
Yuichiro Saito’s Fukushima-brand Geiger counters – he has also designed one that plugs into a smartphone – are on back order in the magnitude of thousands. The stand-alone counter is $230, the plug-in one goes for $120.
Saito, whose day job is running a sheet metal outfit, said he saw a need for a wider dataset for the general public. The devices are built using funds from donations and non-profit organisations – in a corner of his metal workshop 53km from the nuclear plant.
Working with Safecast, which crowdsources radiation readings gathered by volunteers, and combines it with data from other outfits to give a clearer picture of what’s going on, Saito wanted people to be able to determine what was safe for them based on fact, not paranoia or nuclear industry propaganda.
“This will help them micro-manage their lives, to be able to know which places are safe and which are not,” said Saito, who first showed Al Jazeera a prototype of the handheld Geiger counter six months ago.
Saito has his children carry them – the local governments also provide radiation meters, but they have no display. The data from the readers is collected, and if a child shows high exposure to radiation, he or she is called in for a full body scan – for which there is a long waiting list.
While each government office provides radiation data, they only use their own meters and readings.
“The government provides data, but it’s a little bit rough and they tend to collect data from the locations they’ve recently cleaned,” said Saito.
It seems if people can’t control how much radiation they’re exposed to, they at least want to know how much they have been exposed to, let alone what the consequences might be.
Finding the truth, said Saito, is hard, because even nuclear experts – be they in the nuclear industry or medicine, pro or anti-nuclear energy – tend to contradict each other.
“People are confused – they don’t know who to believe,” he said.
For now, they’re choosing to believe numbers – the lower, the better. Regardless of high or low, the public might start to get more numbers from official sources.
Volunteer and activist, Tadao Munakata, said that, after months of waiting, the government had finally given approval to Minamisoma (a town near the Daiichi plant where the mayor famously posted an SOS message on YouTube) to allow its postal delivery staff – who ride around on motorcycles – to carry Geiger meters on their bike, thereby widening their dataset.
He said he was surprised when the request was approved earlier this week.
“It didn’t seem like they would approve it,” he said. “But they just came through with the approval, and once one city to do it, all cities can do it.”
So does that mean the official mindset is changing?
“Maybe,” said Munakata, seeming almost afraid to tempt fate.