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Fukushima nuclear power disaster could last a very long time

Commentary by Masao Suzuki |
March 13, 2014
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San José, CA - March 11 marks the third anniversary of the tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The power plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO, says that it will take at least six more years to begin to remove the melted and radioactive uranium fuel, and even worse, that they don’t know how they are going to do it. The cleanup could go another 10 or 20 years and cost $50 billion or more.

Three years ago the massive tsunami generated by a huge earthquake struck northern Japan, killing more than 15,000 people. The tsunami wave measured more than 100 feet in height, wiping out both the electrical power and the back-up generators at the seaside nuclear power plant (many nuclear power plants, including all the plants in California, operate by the sea to use seawater for cooling). This led to the melt-down of the nuclear fuel as the plant’s cooling equipment had no power, leading to the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Some 300,000 people had to be evacuated because of the radioactive contamination. 1500 of them died because of hardships and lack of medical treatment. Radioactive cooling water has been leaking from the power plant’s storage tanks, going into the ground water and then the Pacific Ocean.

Although most Japanese support the continued shutdown of Japan’s 50-plus nuclear power plants, the right-wing government of Shinzo Abe supports nuclear power. So far two nuclear power plants have been reopened in Japan.

Despite the growth of worldwide opposition to nuclear power after the disaster, the Obama administration is also continuing support nuclear power. Two new nuclear power plants are now under construction, the first since the U.S. Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Two more are approved, and there are more than 25 applications by the utility industry to build more nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power only exists because the government provides insurance against a disaster and it has proven to be an expensive form of energy. In addition, there is no safe way to store the radioactive waste from nuclear fission power reactors, which can last hundreds of thousands of years.

However, with government backing, nuclear power can be very profitable, especially for the giant corporations such as General Electric, which designed the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. More than one-third of the 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S. have the same design (‘boiling water reactor’) as the Fukushima Daiichi and twelve are in seismically active areas prone to earthquakes, including both of California’s plants at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre.

While the tsunami was a natural disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was manmade. People in the U.S. need to continue to push for the complete shutdown of nuclear power and an end to export of this expensive and dangerous energy to other countries.