Fukushima and the Whale

The last couple of weeks have been busy ones for Australian political news, so it might have flown under the radar that Australia and Japan finished their concluding cases at the International Court of Justice regarding Japan’s whaling program. Australia has argued strongly that there is nothing scientific about Japan’s scientific whaling program. Japan’s closing argument, in response, threatened to quit the International Whaling Commission entirely if the verdict of the court didn’t go its own way. Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s deputy foreign minister, argued: “What will happen to stable multi-lateral frameworks when one morning suddenly you find your state bound by a policy of the majority and the only way out is to leave such an organisation?”

The threat to pick up your bat and ball and go home seems to be inherent in much of modern global politics. From Australia’s opposition parties openly considering exiting the International Convention on Refugees, to the US and others saying to global environmental agreements such as Kyoto “That’s nice, but not for us,” we live in a world where international law hasn’t gone much beyond the feudal stage. In the long-distant past, disagreements between individuals would be settled on the battlefield, on the gallows or in a duel. At the national level, those days are long gone. Pretty much all nations agree a set of their own rules and enforce them. In the same way that individuals in each country accord power to the structures of law, it would seem appropriate that the world politic should grow up and agree to some ground rules. Particularly when you start looking at things that have global importance or ramifications, or which are too big for a single nation to handle. International law should operate on more than just an honour system.

It could be argued that whaling is not an issue of global importance, not in the same league as runaway climate change, for instance. Perhaps binding international conventions should be reserved for the gravest of trans-national imperatives. Things with greater ramifications than the subjugation of an ethnic subgroup or the extermination of a species of macrofauna. Issues, perhaps, like nuclear power.

In March 2011, an undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami laid waste to a large part of Japan’s coastline. In the process, it interrupted power to, and swamped, the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The resulting disaster led to meltdowns, widespread radioactive contamination, and a greater health and environmental disaster than anyone is yet admitting. It could have been far worse than this, if not for several hundred workers at the plant who effectively sacrificed their lives, modern-day kamikazes. But Fukushima has largely slipped off the radar in Western media; we don’t hear very much about it nowadays. The immediate disaster is well and truly over, and our MSM isn’t very good at covering ongoing disasters. So let me give you a few fun facts.

Fukushima’s nuclear plant is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is majority Japanese government owned. TEPCO has now admitted that the first meltdown began before the tsunami hit the coast, as power to the plant had been interrupted by the quake itself. TEPCO has consistently shown itself to be unreliable in reporting the full scale of the issues, risks and challenges, and has consistently put the company’s interests ahead of the interests of staff at the plant and the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from the surrounding areas. Last week, TEPCO admitted that the number of staff at the plant who had suffered cancer-inducing radiation exposure was more than ten times the number they had originally reported. The issue is compounded by the fact that most of Japan’s nuclear reactors are typically staffed – including up to 89% of staff at Fukushima prior to the disaster – by untrained temporary workers hired by the day from questionable agencies.

The disaster is far from over. This week, steam was spotted escaping from one of the reactors; TEPCO has no explanation. Last week, TEPCO admitted that radioactive isotopes are leaking into the Pacific. This simply confirms what has been obvious for some time with the detection of highly radioactive fish near the plant and strontium and tritium isotopes in the groundwater. At least three of the reactor containment vessels were ruptured and are no longer waterproof. This is an issue as they still contain fuel rods that require constant cooling. TEPCO is currently pumping 400 tons of water a day over the reactors to stop them reigniting and melting further. This water is then escaping the non-waterproof reactor chambers and gathering in the basements, merging with the 400 tons of groundwater that is also pouring in. TEPCO is pumping this water out and storing it in tanks on-site, but they are running out of space, the tanks they are using are only intended for temporary use, and neither TEPCO nor the government have any alternative solutions. TEPCO wants to treat and filter this water to reduce its contamination and then pump it back into the sea. If they’re not allowed to do this, they will eventually run out of capacity and it will escape anyway.

I could go on, but it’s a depressing litany. This is a situation that will not be resolved any time soon. Decommissioning the reactors is estimated to require at least thirty to forty years, but the job can’t be started while TEPCO is still playing catch-up. And the half-life of the radioactive materials in the local environment can be anything up to 30 years. Japan has only just started to see the effects of the disaster. It may take another eight to ten years for the large majority of health problems from those affected become critical, but experts are expecting an epidemic of cancer.

The risks of nuclear disaster in Japan, at Fukushima or elsewhere, are nowhere near resolved. Fukushima resides near the coast of an island nation in a tectonically active area. Japan has another fifty nuclear reactors, and has just elected a pro-nuclear government with a majority in both houses. Nuclear power, despite vociferous public opposition and most plants being in temporary shut-down since 2011, may be expected to ramp back up. If power is interrupted to the site at Fukushima, or there is an interruption to the supply of water, there is a likelihood that the reactors could experience further meltdown. Conceivably, a large portion of Japan’s habitable area could become contaminated and unusable for generations.

Then there is the economic cost. Looking just at the cleanup and disaster relief – not even considering the human costs, the loss of habitable land and whole cities, the incomparable healthcare costs that are bound to be incurred – the cost of the March 2011 disaster is currently estimated at 50 billion dollars. That doesn’t include any kind of compensation, nor does it cover the costs of decommissioning the reactors, which could cost a further 100 billion and take up to 40 years.

As we can see, the total costs of a nuclear disaster are astronomical. Assuming no further disasters or large-scale problems, there are estimates that Fukushima will eventually cost one trillion dollars – so it’s a good thing that Japan’s economy is in such a robust shape their economy is royally buggered. And Fukushima was lucky: prevailing winds sent the radioactive cloud out to sea, rather than inland towards Tokyo, and the courageous actions of hundreds of Japanese workers, and the refusal of Naoto Kan (then Prime Minster) to accept the arguments of TEPCO, prevented a much worse outcome.

In March 2013 a French report was leaked that estimated the lower and upper costs of a disaster at one of that country’s nuclear power generators: the lower cost – the best case scenario – was estimated at €760 billion – one third of France’s GDP. The worst case estimate was €5.8 trillion – three times France’s GDP. A disaster of that scale would be beyond France’s ability to cope, but of course it would likely affect those countries around it, so help might be forthcoming.

All of this raises some questions. Primary among them: why is the Fukushima response being handled locally? Japan can’t afford it. TEPCO may not be competent to manage it. Japan is conveniently isolated, but the ocean is a big substrate and radioactive fish have already been detected off the coast of California. Can the world trust that the cleanup is being done well enough?

If nuclear power is [one of] the answer to our energy needs of the future, the relief from fossil-fuel induced climate change, if we’re going to rely on nuclear power – anywhere in the world – I believe it requires a global response to
monitor and control, and to remediate in the case of disasters.

Nuclear proponents argue that nuclear accidents are rare. They may be, but every new reactor is a potential disaster-in-waiting. One out of every 145 reactors worldwide to date has experienced a disaster. There are 577
reactors currently existing. Another 67 are currently being planned and built, of which most are in the Asia-Pacific region. Our region is subject to regular earthquakes and tsunami. Is the risk negligible? In risk management, the chance of an event occurring is balanced with the potential cost of the event. Even a low probability event can put a halt to a project if the cost is high enough. Is nuclear safe? The chance of any individual reactor failing is miniscule, but add a lot of miniscule chances together and you get a non-miniscule number. And the cost of a failure is so astronomically high that this needs to be taken into account.

Those that claim that nuclear power is the answer to our environmental and climate change woes are playing a high stakes-game of Russian roulette. A barrel with 500 chambers and one bullet, but the stakes are the lives of whole populations – millions of people – and the economic future of entire countries. In my opinion, the stakes are too high. But if we must has nukes, we definitely need a global responsibility. One with teeth. One that the countries can’t walk away from.

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