Three years ago, at 2:46 local time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan. It was one of the largest ever measured and it triggered tsunamis, some of which reached heights of 133 feet. Nearly 16,000 people died, most of whom were swept out to sea, and many low-lying and coastal towns were completely obliterated. Over 2,000 people are still missing. One of the places the tsunamis struck was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The result was a triple meltdown, and quite possibly the world’s worst nuclear disaster next to the 1986 Chernobyl incident. Japan is officially marking the occasion today, while its political leadership has announced plans to restart its nuclear energy program. The previous Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, had vowed in the wake of the accident that Japan would forego future nuclear energy development.
Nuclear power, often held up as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels, has led a quiet global resurgence since Chernobyl. Today, international press is wondering if our fears of nuclear energy are unfounded. On March 10, 2011, Japan was going full steam to produce a significant portion of its energy through nuclear power.
The next day, the ground began to shake.
The total fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns is estimated at 10-20% of that of Chernobyl. Long-lived nuclear contaminants were mostly confined to the concrete-encased nuclear reactors, no short-term radiation deaths were reported, and cancer rates are expected to stay relatively low. However, deaths from health complications regarding the meltdowns sits at 1,600. There were 270,000 people displaced from a radius of 30 km surrounding the plant. There are still 100,000 people displaced by the disaster, and the national government has been faulted for its efforts to relocate internal refugees. In addition to nuclear fallout from the meltdowns, groundwater and seawater contamination was, and still is, an issue, as cleanup of the site will take decades. Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO), has been evasive, and had lied about contamination levels and endangered workers while responding to the project, and to many, they aren’t the most trustworthy entity to clean up their own mess.
After the disaster, a fierce wave of protests against nuclear energy spurred Kan to drop his support for nuclear power. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who came into power in 2012, decided to restart nuclear power, despite an overwhelming majority opposed to such a measure.
In Japan today, resistance to nuclear power continues. Last Sunday, tens of thousands rallied in Tokyo to oppose a return to nuclear power, but the anti-nuclear efforts seem to be waning since 2011. Critics of the nuclear rapprochement are being silenced, says Reporters Without Borders. In one case, a blogger who was critical of an NGO’s campaign to keep residents within contamination zones, calling the residents “human experiments,” was hit with a criminal contempt charge for the remark. Fukushima police interrogated the blogger, Mari Takenouchi, for three hours at her home before referring their findings to prosecutors. Reporters Without Borders also notes that access to information regarding the disaster has been restricted, and that major media outlets have refused to cover anti-nuclear protests.
Nuclear power is held up as safe because accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima are extremely anomalous, and that Fukushima hasn’t yet resulted in many short-term deaths or long-term cancer rates that are significantly above the normal rate. It’s called “clean” because it isn’t coal. It’s as “clean” as it is “safe”. For instance, there is no long-term way to store or dispose of spent nuclear fuel; in the US, it’s buried in leaky containers near major rivers, buried in the desert or dumped into the ocean. For a long time, the plan was to stuff it into a mountain. There are hundreds of contaminated sites where radium was mined. Because nuclear power doesn’t cause the airborne pollution that coal does is a false equivalency; there are much cleaner options than both coal and nuclear. And just because two modern meltdowns were not the worst case scenario, leaving thousands of deaths, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It means we’ve been lucky.
Environmentalists blithely state that when solar energy leaks, you put on sunscreen, and point to wind energy and other solutions like geothermal power and wave motion power as viable alternatives. They are enormously preferable to nuclear, but carry their own externalities. Yet widescale adoption of solar would mean incredibly resource-intensive manufacturing of solar panels. Wind power adoption requires rare earth metals which need to be mined, and those mines are enormously toxic. Large-scale solar or wind installations would greatly disrupt habitat.
There is no perfect energy solution. However, renewables don’t leave behind reservations full of waste. When renewable systems fail and the power goes out; the materials used don’t grow volatile, metastasize and explode over the landscape, poisoning people and land.
Energy policy is a matter of political expedience, and whomever has the most influence will continue to dictate which means of energy production get used. Because governments are beholden to opulently-wealthy energy interests, action to avert climate change, which will impact global agriculture, deplete potable water supplies, and lead to a unmatched global migration due to resource scarcity is a political near-impossibility. Touting nuclear energy with the legacy of Fukushima goes beyond crass, yet energy interests need compliant believers and today is a day when a perverted legacy of a disaster makes those messages stand out.