New book reveals Fukushima disaster no accident

Issue 

Fallout From Fukushima
By Richard Broinowski
Scribe, 2012
273 pages , $27.95 (pb)

The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last year was no accident, says Richard Broinowski in Fallout from Fukushima.

Sitting a nuclear reactor on an “active geological fault line where two of the earth’s tectonic plates collide” was courting catastrophe from an earthquake and tsunami like the one that duly hit the Pacific in March last year.

The powerful Japanese nuclear industry, immunised from critical scrutiny by the “cozy ranks of politicians, bureaucrats, academics, corporate players and their media acolytes”, ensured the Fukushima plant was under-prepared for foreseeable risks.

The reactor core meltdowns in Units 1, 2 and 3, and damage to Units 4, 5 and 6, which all released a “toxic stew of radioactive isotopes”, were therefore no accident.

Before the tsunami swept aside inadequate protective concrete walls and knocked out the emergency generators, the earthquake had already caused radiation leaks and critical damage to reactor core cooling systems.

The desperate attempt to cool the cores by pumping in millions of litres of seawater was unsuccessful. The freshly irradiated seawater wound up back in the sea, contaminating fish stocks. Dangerous levels of radiation were detected as far away as Tokyo.

All of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors pose the risks of Fukushima. In an earthquake and tsunami prone country, they share the same “supposedly quake-resistant design” of Fukushima and human error in complex technological systems is almost inevitable. Nuclear calamity is the predictable consequence.

Also predictable was the response to Fukushima by the nuclear establishment. This featured a denial of meltdown or radiation release, delays in providing information, suppression of bad news and downplaying health risks.

When the Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, eventually cancelled plans to build an extra 14 reactors and announced a policy to subsidise renewables (which make up just 1% of Japan's energy), his own “apparently progressive” Democratic Party of Japan forced his resignation.

Kan was replaced by the more nuclear-compliant Yoshihido Noda.

The head-in-sand response may have been the preferred position of Fukushima’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (the world's largest energy company), and its government protectors, but the Japanese people spoke up.

Huge anti-nuclear rallies forced all Japan’s existing reactors to be shut down for safety checks. Few have come back online in the face of strong local opposition.

The building of new reactors has also been suspended in response to “deep public suspicion and concern” ― 80% of Japanese voters support ending nuclear power.

This is coupled with the financial realities of escalating capital costs, wary insurance providers, and repair, clean-up and compensation costs. Compensation alone from Fukushima is estimated at between US$74 billion and $260 billion.

Broinowski sees a future of “terminal decline” for the nuclear industry in Japan, and an increasingly fragile official pro-nuclear consensus in the rest of the world. At least some states, such as Germany, are keen to steal a march on emerging renewable energy business opportunities.

Broinowski’s solution, however, also depends on “commercial engagement” with a renewables future rather than the publicly owned and run renewables enterprise needed to switch from nuclear and fossil fuels to clean, green energy.

Broinowski was a long-time Australian government diplomat. If some of Broinowski’s book has the measured tone of a diplomatic briefing, it makes for a very handy pocket reference guide to the deja vu history of nuclear folly. This includes the long saga of official denial and myopia about the health dangers of the nuclear cycle.

Here Broinowski sheds his bureaucratic cool, especially when he turns his gaze on the Australian uranium mining industry.

Japan is the second largest market for Australia’s uranium (which makes up 40% of the world’s uranium deposits). Australian uranium mining companies include the big two, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Their Labor and Liberal government flunkeys must wear some moral stain for Fukushima, for the global nuclear energy industry, and, courtesy of colander-like “safeguards”, nuclear weapons proliferation.

The conservative, pro-nuclear media goad Broinowski. In response to Fukushima, the Murdoch press supplied the sneering Andrew Bolt and a bizarre Greg Sheridan, who accuse nuclear opponents of being “Greens/Taliban fundamentalists seeking to de-industrialise the West”.

With the less rabid but equally pro-nuclear think-tank, the Lowy Institute, providing “respectable” cover, this nuclear cheer squad gives vocal accompaniment to the main game: making nuclear energy someone else’s problem while selling them the deadly raw material and cashing the cheques.

Ethics never has been the strong suit for Australian capitalism.