Several months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we’re beginning to get a sense of the likely long-term impacts.
Radiation has spread across much of the northern hemisphere and parts of the southern hemisphere, including northern Australia.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimates the radioactive release at 770,000 terabecquerels in the first week of the crisis.
Total radiation releases will probably fall somewhere between 10-40% of those from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Radiation releases have not been stopped and will continue for some months.
At the Fukushima Daiichi site, at least four reactors will be permanent write-offs, and the other two are unlikely to be restarted.
The long-term cancer death toll will probably be somewhere between several hundred and several thousand. For comparison, a reasonable estimate of the Chernobyl death toll is 30,000.
Allowable radiation dose limits in Japan have been thrown out the window, both for emergency workers and for the general public.
Estimates of the economic costs of the disaster range from $50 billion to $130 billion — but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the true costs are considerably greater.
Between 100,000 and 150,000 people cannot return to their homes because of radioactive contamination. Some may be able to return before the end of this year but permanent relocation is a likely outcome for those who lived in the most contaminated regions. Legal and political battles will take decades to play out.
TEPCO, the company that owned and operated the Fukushima plant, will be bailed out by Japanese taxpayers as per the golden rule of capitalism: privatise the profits and socialise the losses.
Globally, the nuclear power “renaissance” has taken a big hit. Germany, Italy and Switzerland have decided to abandon nuclear power in favour of renewable energy sources.
Plans to introduce or expand nuclear power in many other countries have taken a big backwards step.
Before Fukushima, a reasonable estimate was an 18-36% global expansion of nuclear power from 2010-2030.
In the wake of Fukushima, there will be little if any expansion of nuclear power in the next 20 years. In the 2030-2050 window, roughly 300 of the 430 currently-operating reactors will be permanently shut down so the industry will have to build new reactors at a cracking pace just to stand still.
Nuclear power in Australia
TEPCO has for many years put profits ahead of safety and this is the root cause of the nuclear disaster.
Commonsense and prudent emergency planning would have protected emergency diesel generators against the March 11 tsunami. Working generators would have prevented the explosions and fires by maintaining reactor cooling.
The problems were not limited to TEPCO — they were (and are) systemic problems arising from the control of Japan’s nuclear industry by a clique of corporate executives, supine regulators and captured bureaucracies.
Similar problems are evident in Australia. In the past year, three whistleblowers have raised concerns about safety standards at the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
All three were suspended. The government’s health and safety watchdog Comcare produced a report highly critical of ANSTO’s safety record and its treatment of whistleblowers, but instead of acting on the report the federal government called for further reviews.
The non-independent regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), has produced two reports into the problems at ANSTO.
The reports contradict each other so now there is a review into ARPANSA. The upshot of all this: lots of reports and reviews, most of them not worth the paper they’re written on, and no safety improvements at Lucas Heights.
Thankfully there is no prospect of these clowns operating nuclear power plants in Australia. The Labor Party has reaffirmed its opposition to nuclear power and the Coalition has dropped its tepid support for the introduction of nuclear power.
A poll by Roy Morgan Research several days into the Fukushima crisis found that 61% of Australians oppose the development of nuclear power in Australia, nearly double the 34% that support it.
A Lowy Institute poll in June came up with near-identical results. The Morgan poll found that just 12% of Australians would support a nuclear plant being built in their local area, 13% would be anxious but not oppose it, and 73% would oppose it.
Radioactive by-products of Australian uranium have been spewing into the atmosphere from Fukushima. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto export uranium from Australia to TEPCO from the Olympic Dam and Ranger mines, respectively.
Heathgate Resources, operator of the Beverley uranium mine in South Australia, has probably also supplied TEPCO.
As a major uranium supplier, Australia could have played a role in breaking the vicious cycle of nuclear safety breaches, data falsification and cover-ups in Japan over the past decade by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulation.
But the mining companies and state/territory governments did nothing.
And they will continue to do nothing.
A joint statement released by the prime ministers of Japan and Australia on April 24 recognised “the need to enhance their cooperation in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to globally strengthen the safety standards of nuclear power generation”.
In other words, uranium exports will not be made conditional on improved management of nuclear plants or tighter regulation. Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan that Australia would continue its stable supply of energy resources.
In June, the head of the IAEA opened the agency’s first major meeting since the Fukushima disaster with the warning that “business as usual” was not an option for the nuclear industry.
But the meeting decided that business as usual is indeed an option. A proposal for mandatory random IAEA safety inspections of nuclear plants was rejected.
More fundamental reforms, such as separating the IAEA’s promotional and regulatory functions, were not even on the agenda.
The Fukushima disaster will not fundamentally change the situation for uranium mining in Australia, but it will have some effects.
Public opposition to uranium mining has strengthened. A Morgan poll found 50% opposition to uranium exports compared to 44% support.
This heightened opposition has had flow-on effects such as the opposition Western Australian Labor Party’s reaffirmation of its no-uranium-mining policy at its state conference in June.
It may also be more difficult politically to open up new markets for Australian uranium. For example it will complicate the current push for Australia to ditch the long-standing policy to not allow uranium sales to countries refusing to sign the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.
Another consequence of Fukushima is that demand for uranium will be significantly weaker than it would otherwise have been.
Pro-nuclear ideologues have been madly spinning the Fukushima disaster.
Several days into the crisis, Dr Ziggy Switkowski made the remarkable comment that: “The best place to be whenever there’s an earthquake is at the perimeter of a nuclear plant because they are designed so well.”
In June, Switkowski claimed “there have been no casualties from the operations of those nuclear reactors in the path of the tsunami or from subsequent uncontrolled leaks of radiation” and that there is no evidence yet of adverse health effects.
He ignores the widespread human exposure to radiation from Fukushima and the likely resulting long-term cancer death toll.
Switkowski has been repeatedly reassuring us that lessons will be learned and improvements will be made in the design of nuclear reactors. However, history clearly shows that nuclear lessons are not properly learned.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency notes that lessons may be learned but too often they are subsequently forgotten. Or they are learned but by the wrong people. Or they are learned but not acted on.
The situation in Japan illustrates the point — it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that more protection against seismic risks is necessary, but the nuclear utilities haven’t wanted to spend the money and the Japanese nuclear regulator and the government haven’t forced the utilities to act.
Adelaide University academic Barry Brook has made even more of a goose of himself than Switkowski.
Even after the first explosion at Fukushima, Brook said: “The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero.
“There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces.
“I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong … but I won’t be. The only reactor that has a small probability of being “finished” is unit 1. And I doubt that, but it may be offline for a year or more.”
Every one of Brook’s predictions was wrong. Bad idea to mix a flawed assessment with arrogance and scattergun abuse towards anyone with different views.
One contributor to Brook’s Brave New Climate blog summed up his problem: “Unfortunately, Prof. Brook has really abdicated a neutral position on this event. His clear support of nuclear power seems to have impacted his critical thinking skills … Every time he states something in this crisis is ‘impossible’, it seems to happen the next day.”