You could say it was a good news/bad news kind of week for nuclear energy.
On the bright side, the Kyushu Electric Power Co. was allowed to restart a reactor at its Genkai power station, the first time a reactor has been brought back online since the Fukushima disaster last March.
On the dark side, readings from Fukushima Daiichi No. 2 suggested that fission has resumed in its pile of melted fuel. This may be turn out to be a trivial development, or the first sign of renewed crisis emerging, like Godzilla, from wreckage of the world’s second-worst nonmilitary nuclear catastrophe.
The people in charge are saying that there’s nothing to worry about, that some resumption of fission was always a possibility, that the worst-case scenario is for a gargantuan cleanup task to grow just a bit more complicated. It was going to take 30 years anyway.
But as the Fukushima saga has unfolded over the last eight months, one theme has been quite consistent — pronouncements from the people in charge could not be trusted. Often, especially in the first weeks, they had no idea what was going on inside the trashed reactor buildings. Sometimes they knew but didn’t tell. And sometimes they simply lied — about the scope of the damage, the volumes of radiation released, the effectiveness of responses, the threats to public health.
This may explain why in city after Japanese city, local officials have been exercising the peculiar local option granted them by the country’s system for regulating nuclear plants. They can’t order a plant offline, but they can veto its return to service after it’s taken down for repair — or for routine inspection and maintenance, which is required every 13 months.
Indeed, the green light that Kyushu Power got from Genkai may only be temporary. The reactor allowed to restart last week goes down again, for inspection, in December.
How Japan lost its ‘nuclear allergy’
The Fukushima disaster and its aftermath have been amply chronicled by the world press but a particularly compelling retrospective, by Evan Osnos, appeared in the New Yorker for Oct. 17 (it’s available online only to subscribers, though).
Especially fascinating is Osnos’ account of how Japan struggled with, and eventually recovered from, the “nuclear allergy” it developed in response to Hiroshima/Nagasaki and, several years later, to the radiation poisoning of Japanese fisherman by fallout from American H-bomb tests.
Japanese popular opinion was moved by the first “Godzilla” film, an allegory about Nature herself taking revenge against nuclear weaponry by serving up an irradiated monster. Americans found this movie campy and quaint; Japanese audiences, Osnos writes, “watched the film in silence and left theatres in tears.”
Soon, Japanese sentiment was was moved in an opposite direction by a concerted and sometimes covert campaign to develop nuclear power as a cornerstone of a reindustrialized Japan. Like other postwar leaders, the future prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone
believed that if Japan did not participate in “the largest discovery of the twentieth century” then it would “forever be a fourth-rate nation.” He also believed that the initiative must “proceed secretly,” because “opposition from academia and the press would blow us out of the water.’’
To help persuade the Japanese public, the Americans enlisted the services of the CIA. Its agents turned to Matsutaro Shoriki, who ran the popular daily Yomiuri, and was a proponent of nuclear energy. Shoriki, later known as the father of Japanese baseball, was code-named Podam, and, according to declassified files at the U.S. National Archives, he agreed to use his position to advance the cause. His newspaper co-sponsored an exhibition on nuclear power and ran a cheery series of articles that began with the headline, “FINALLY, THE SUN HAS BEEN CAPTURED.” By 1964, Japan had established Nuclear Power Day, to be celebrated every October ….
Secretly, the Prime Minister also commissioned a study on whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons of its own. (The study found “no technical impediments to nuclear weapons but concluded that the weapons would be costly and overly alarming to the public and to neighboring countries.)
How the world sees Fukushima
The toll on human health from radiation releases at Fukushima won’t be known for a long time, but one analysis suggests they may cause at least 1,000 additional cancer deaths. Other statistics gauge the disruption of life in the coastal prefecture: More than 80,000 households displaced by evacuation orders. An “exclusion zone” extending 12 miles from the plant. Some 3,000 contaminated cattle slaughtered. And 30 more years to finish cleaning what can be cleaned, and to seal the rest in concrete.
Of course, these impacts are dwarfed by the earthquake and tsunami themselves, in which more than 20,000 people died or disappeared.
But there is a sense in Osnos’s article, and in other dispatches from Japan, that the “nuclear allergy” has returned. There is even speculation that the entire Japanese reactor fleet, which stood at 54 before the earthquake, may be mothballed one by one as they come up for inspection and municipal veto.
The political fallout has already spread as far as Germany, Switzerland, Italy and (just a week ago) Belgium, all of which have decided to begin a transition away from nuclear power.
But in the United States, the prevailing movement still seems to be toward building the first new nuclear power plants since the Three Mile Island accident of 1979.
Congressional Republicans want new nukes almost without exception; President Obama has supported federal laon guarantees for at least a handful of “demonstration” projects; even some antinuclear environmentalists of long standing have called for resurrection of nuclear energy as the only way to rein in emissions of global-warming gases.
The wrong way to go
If we can learn anything from Fukushima, it’s that this is the wrong way to go.
I am hardly a no-nukes zealot. I think the pro-nuke side makes a fair point by insisting that the risks of death and injury from a reactor meltdown be weighed against the additional deaths and disease traceable to burning coal. I think any measures that bring drastic reductions in CO2 emissions deserve respect.
And while I see no cause for optimism that we’ll ever solve the problem of centralized nuclear waste disposal, on-site storage seems to be working well enough, so far. Knock wood.
However, I do think we dodged a bullet at Three Mile Island — which remains No. 3, although a distant third, on the global list of worst nuclear mishaps after Chernobyl and Fukushima. And I believe we have dodged countless others as various defects in nuke-plant construction, maintenance and operation have come to light in time for action. So far. Knock wood.
I also think Fukushima has changed forever the willingness of many, many Americans to trust in the safety of even the best-built, best-run nuclear power plants.
Chernobyl was easy to write off to Soviet bravado, corner-cutting and ineptitude. But Fukushima’s reactors were built by General Electric and operated by folks who do things pretty much the way we do. Despite heroic efforts by hundreds of Japanese — another stirring aspect of the Osnos article — the plant’s emergency systems failed in circumstances that were utterly foreseeable. If the Japanese can’t get it right, why think we can do better?
And so I think Fukushima may spell the beginning of the end of nuclear power in this country, too — not because it will sway the president or Congressional Republicans, but because it will galvanize local opposition anywhere and everywhere a new plant is proposed. And the expense of fighting a series of uphill battles to construction will ultimately prove too much for operators and investors to bear.
In which case, I will admit to misreading the good news and bad last week.
Perhaps the bad news will prove to be that a Japanese municipality caved to pressure and reopened a nuclear plant despite grave doubts. The good news? That renewed fission in Fukushima’s collapsed core refocused world attention on an enduring, uncontrollable catastrophe — but one that finally turned the tide against expanding nuclear power.