Fukushima: the political fallout in Australia

Anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo, April 24.

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.

Uranium mining

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.

Spin doctors

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.”

[Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and coordinator of the Choose Nuclear Free project. For more information about Fukushima visit here.]


Jim Green, you're being a 'revisionist', as usual. Brook said: "The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero" Green replied: "Every one of Brook’s predictions was wrong" So who died as a result of the meltdown, Jim Green? If this was a disaster, surely someone must have been killed by the meltdown. Right? Wrong. Death toll from the nuclear accident is zero. The only people killed were someone on a crane during the earthquake, someone drowned by the tsunami who was in the turbine hall, and an elderly gentleman working on site who suffered a heart attack. None of these have anything to do with nuclear energy or radiation. But the truth was never your strong point, was it Jim? "Even after the first explosion at Fukushima, Brook said..." Actually, it seems Brook wrote that on 12 March 2011 at 1:55 PM, which was before any of the hydrogen explosions (first was was at 3:36 PM, Japan time). Want to try that again, Jim? "One contributor to Brook’s Brave New Climate blog summed up his problem". Gee, now, I wonder who that anonymous commenter was, eh?
In general this kind of Anti Nukes are cowards. They fear for anything based on perceived risk. They fear "if a dam bursts what happens", "if an aeroplane falls what happens", "if Lift gets struck what wil happen", etc. Any amount of reasoning, data, convincing arguments will satisfy these people, as basically weak, coward, ducking characters.
I haven't managed to get any further than this: 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. Now Green, you know that is not true. Both the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the World Heath Organisation (http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/en/ ) state that the death toll from Chernobyl so far stands at 28 deaths from radiation sickness and about 15 from cancer. That's around 43 deaths in total. This is the death toll for a group of people who were not evacuated as early as they could have been and whose children were given contaminated milk to drink. Thankfully, the people of Fukushima were evacuated early, had their water and food monitored and were supplied with iodine tablets to curb any uptake of radioactive iodine. The workers have also been closely monitored and none of them have been exposed to the kind of levels which led to fatal cases of radiation sickness in the Chernobyl workers. I think it's pretty clear that, based on the evidence from Chernobyl, the people of Fukushima are unlikely suffer any radiation related deaths.
Yes, pity the Australian people, who are turning against dangerous nuclear energy in increasing numbers. What a nation of cowards to not want to risk a Fukushima in their backyard. And cowardice seems to have broken out in a big way in Italy and Germany too. But luckily there are brave, pro-nuke people like you who stick to reasoning, data and convincing arguments to press their case.
Death toll from the nuclear accident is zero? I am a Japanese and feel very sorry for those people and animals who could be rescued and live if the nuclear accident didn't happen. The rescurers had to leave the site and abandoned survivors while hearing their calls for help inside buildings. There are at least dozen who stayed within the evacuation zone and starved to death and a number of hospital patients who lost their lives during or just after evacuation from the 20km radius. Thousands of chickens and hundreds of cows starved to death without feeders and lucky ones were put down. Once beloved dogs and cats fought and ate each other for survival. At least three people commited suicide in dispair due to the nuclear accident. These didn't happen if there were only the earthquake and tsunami. Workers at nuclear powerplants including Fukushima have been dying from exposures to radiation regardless of the occurance of accidents. In Japan there are 10 cases of compensation granted for workers who died from leukemia (6 cases), osteoid sarcoma (2 cases) and malignant lymphoma (2 cases) in past 35 years (there are more if you include the cases which were not officially credited). This is the reality of operating nuclear powerplants. Some of workers and residents in Fukushima are doomed to be killed slowly, or their quality of life significantly lowered. Children are already suffering from health problems typical to radiation sickness.
There is relatively little carried in mainsteam Australian media about the human impact caused by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. As I mention in my blog To the Mothers of Fukushima (see Aussie Views News) the Ottowa Citizen recently ran four articles. Just one quote from that paper following a march by Fukushima mothers: "We are exhausted. We have to look at every food item we eat, we only use bottled water for cooking, and on top of that every day we confront this nagging dilemma whether it’s really safe for our children to stay in Fukushima or not" Our thoughts are with them.