Fukushima Nuclear Accident, the media and international responses
Fukushima Nuclear Accident, the media and international responses
Vojin Joksimovich, PhD
Modern Tokyo Times
Modern Tokyo Times and brief background
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, sadly triggered a brutal tsunami and the nuclear crisis is still a major issue in this country. Therefore, nearly every nuclear energy power plant is currently redundant because of various tests and other factors. This means that Japan faces real energy problems and the “nuclear energy issue” remains “up in the air.”
The “real killer” was clearly the brutal tsunami and for many people who have lost loved ones the Fukushima nuclear crisis must be difficult to understand. After all, the tsunami killed just below 20,000 people and even in 2012 thousands of people are still missing. However, the Fukushima nuclear crisis became “a political football” and “media scaremongering” created untold economic problems for Japan.
All individuals who are associated with Modern Tokyo Times and who resided in Tokyo and throughout Kanto prior to March 11, 2011, clearly stayed in Japan. Of course other writers reside outside of Japan but the point is that many foreign nationals and embassies left Tokyo because of panic and unfounded fear. Yet while these individuals were responding without real deep thoughts, the reality on the ground was that whole communities had been devastated in the Tohoku region and other areas hit by the tsunami.
Meanwhile nations like Germany which doesn’t need to worry about suffering from a brutal tsunami just “jumped the nuclear energy ship” and panicked. Indeed, if Germany had been planning to eradicate its nuclear sector before March11, 2011, then fine and well. After all, different nations will have different opinions about the nuclear angle but of course this won’t stop Germany from utilizing energy generated from the nuclear sector in France.
Turning back to Japan then the rational and irrational approach was clear for all to see and sadly the nuclear crisis in Fukushima generated the worst of humanity because many anti-nuclear groups tried to make political capital. However, the “main issue” should have been on the 19,000 plus people killed by the tsunami and the thousands of individuals who are still missing. Also, issues related to major restructuring, housing needs, developing the transportation system, and helping people who suffered because of the tsunami, should have been the main focus alongside counseling and so forth.
The writer of the article below, Dr. Vojin Joksimovich obtained his PhD in nuclear engineering and he is a retired nuclear safety specialist. Modern Tokyo Times is honored to have such an esteemed individual to enlighten people about the “bigger picture” on this issue, and other important issues.
This article is part of the Modern Tokyo Times series based on events on and after March 11, 2011, which have impacted greatly on the people of Japan. The purpose is to pay respect to the people who died and to highlight that many thousands of individuals today are still unaccounted for. Therefore, this article is one of many being published by Modern Tokyo Times prior to the first anniversary which will take place on March 11, 2012.
Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Hysteria, Irrational and Rational Reactions was written on May 30, 2011, by Dr. Vojin Joksimovich
(Looking back on a past article which is related to remembering the tragic events that were unleashed by the brutal tsunami of March 11, 2011)
Subsequent to publications of my articles Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Tsunami Induced Man-Made Disaster and Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Stunning New Revelations Regarding Unit #1 Meltdown, the purpose of this third one in the Fukushima series is to address worldwide reactions grouped into: hysteria, political irrationalities and rational responses. Media and stock market hysteria belonged in the first group. Responses of the German government, the Swiss cabinet and the Italian Council of Ministers represent the second group. The third group with rational responses is represented by political leaders in key nuclear countries: France, China, Russia, India and Japan; the nuclear regulators in the U.S., the EU, UK, Finland, etc; and leaders of some thirty plus countries which announced that they will continue with their nuclear programs.
Media Created Hysteria
The Tohoku 9.0 earthquake, fifth largest ever recorded, created a tsunami with large waves up to 40 meters, with walls of water swallowing coastal towns, has been one of the worst natural disasters in recent history with the death toll reaching just below 20,000 people, estimated damage $310 billion. The scale of the calamity is truly epic. Hence, the Fukushima nuclear accident should have been only a side show.
Not so, it immediately became the principal show. Coverage in the U.S. media replicated hysteria, sensationalism, scaremongering and disinformation that characterized coverage of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979. It appears that coverage in Europe wasn’t much better. Initially the mainstream media paraded a stream of anti-nuclear activists who excelled in predicting an equivalent of Armageddon with cataclysmic consequences. China syndrome movie fantasies were used as an indicator what would happen if a core meltdown were to occur. It was pointed out that we were approximately the same distance from Fukushima as from Chernobyl and therefore in danger. 350,000 residents were evacuated from Chernobyl, 10 times more potentially at Fukushima.
The fact that the TMI accident resulted in a partial core-melt but with no fatalities or even radiation injuries was completely ignored. Not only that no member of the public was irradiated but the same was true for the TMI plant workers. The Fukushima accident while probably the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power, even worse than Chernobyl although not from the standpoint of released radioactivity to the environment, which amounted to 10% of that released in Chernobyl into the environment. The Fukushima accident amounted to the triple core meltdown plus serious damage to unit #4. All four units are now plant write-offs with huge bills for decommissioning of probably over $10 billion over the coming decade. Nonetheless it has also resulted in no fatalities or even radiation injuries including the plant personnel. 21 of them were exposed to > 100 milliSieverts and 2 to 200-250, levels harmless to human life. Integrity of the international media needs to be challenged.
The Modern Tokyo Times reported the statements made by the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, who as early as March 15 gave a carefully measured appraisal and advised that there is nothing to fear outside of the Fukushima exclusion zone. In addition, he vindicated the Japanese government decision to implement the evacuation of residents within the 20 km radius of the plant and the advice to residents between 20 and 30 kms to stay indoors. This writer also supported the Japanese government decision as opposed to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) advice to evacuate within the radius of 50 kms.
This writer has advised many of his callers not to worry as whatever happens would be confined to Japan. One caller inquired if travelling to Hawaii was safe despite the fact that President Obama offered assurances the day earlier. I was asked on my native Serbian TV if they were safe thousands of miles away. The reporter told me how in neighboring Croatia radiation detectors were sold out. Asked what she should do, I told her to drive safely. It became obvious that the media scared people even in Europe.
Another drastic example is in the state of California where I live. In Mooresville, North Carolina, there is a company that supplies potassium iodide pills intended to block released iodine-131 in the thyroid and known as nuke pills. This company received thousands of orders, not from Japan but from California which faced no danger. The company representative said: “People calling, panicking, crying, and sending e-mails pleading.” Incidentally, the nuke pills will protect the thyroid but not other organs and will not protect against cesium.
Stock Market Hysteria
The stock markets round the globe reacted as if the nuclear option will disappear soon with a return to carbon based energy alternatives. The price of uranium slumped: Cameco shares, the largest uranium supplier lost 29%, the uranium ETF 32%, junior suppliers 30-50%. On the other hand fossil fuel polluters were up: CO2 emissions 10.8%, natural gas 13.4 %, and coal 10.8%.
A question needs to be asked if the investment managers knew that that the uranium supplies are projected to fall short of demand already in 2012 and definitely in 2013. Megatons to Megawatts agreement, signed in 1993 between the government of the Russian Federation and the Unites States expires in 2013. Under the agreement Russian Techsnabexport (Tenex) has been downblending 500 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the Soviets nuclear warheads arsenal into low enriched uranium (LEU), fuel for nuclear power plants in the U.S. and abroad. Deliveries to the USEC, Inc, acting for the U.S. government, annually provide about half the requirements for fuel in American nuclear power plants or 10% of all electricity generated in the country, more than hydro, wind and solar put together. On March 23, the USEC and Tenex inked a deal about the continued supply of LEU to USEC, which will start in 2013 and ramp up until it reaches a level in 2015 that is only about one-half the amount currently supplied under the Megatons to Megawatts program. The LEU will be supplied from Russia’s commercial enrichment facilities rather than from downblending.
In addition to 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. there are another 340 plants operating worldwide with 147 expected to come on line over the next decade. In order to meet the demand mines will have to double the uranium output. This is not going to happen, except at much higher prices.
Billion-Euro Nuclear Shutdown in Germany
Geologically stable Germany has reacted as if the Fukushima accident happened in the heart of Germany. Four days after the accident Chancellor Merkel declared a three-month moratorium on nuclear power, in which eight nuclear power plants had to be shutdown immediately. An indiscriminate rationale was used: those that began operation in 1980 or earlier irrespective if they were BWRs, like Fukushima reactors, or PWRs. 8336 MW of generating capacity was removed overnight from the German power grid amounting to 41% of total German nuclear generation and 6.4% of country’s power plants. The market power of lost power generation is between 1-2.6 B Euros according to the International Energy Agency.
Replacement Cost $280 Billion
In 2001 a Social Democrat/Green government coalition limited nuclear power plant lives to an average of about 34 years. This phase-out policy was revised last year by the existing Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition with the effect of giving some reactors an extra eight years of operation and others extra 12. In return, the nuclear utilities were to pay a tax of 145 Euros per gram of nuclear fuel used, a total of about 2.3 B Euros per year. Subsequently, chancellor Merkel made a U-turn by announcing a moratorium to extend the plant life of Germany’s 17 reactors by an average of 12 yrs. She said: “Japan, like Germany, is a developed nation with strict safety rules, but nevertheless there was a chain of events that wasn’t expected. While Germany isn’t prone to quakes and tsunamis, it could fall victim to events we didn’t previously view as likely or possible. Now Merkel says that 2022 is a good time to completely phase out nuclear power in Germany. In June her cabinet is scheduled to meet to confirm the 2022 phase-out. Investments of more than $280 billion will be needed over the next decade to build wind turbines, coal and gas plants. Many U.S. utilities consider renewables as electrically and economically inefficient. The offshore wind farms require high voltage transmission and thus heavy expenditures.
Swiss Cabinet vs. Rational Regulator
On May 25, the Swiss cabinet decided to disallow replacement of existing aging nuclear power plants. Swiss utilities have been planning for several years to build replacements for Beznau and Muhleberg plants, after 50 years of operation, as well as a new plant built at Niederampt. If the cabinet decision gets through the parliament, the last nuclear power plant would be closed in 2034. This decision was made despite a February Referendum that supported replacement of existing plants. In addition, the Swiss regulator found no immediate danger for Swiss plants in light of the Fukushima accident. For Switzerland, a landlocked country, a tsunami was replaced with the failure of hydroelectric dams.
Italian Nuclear Moratorium
Italy’s Council of Ministers has approved a moratorium of at least one year on construction of nuclear plants. Italy was seriously considering restarting its nuclear program abandoned after the Chernobyl 1986 accident. Italy operated four nuclear plants, including Caorso and Trino, with decommissioning work under way. Italy lost about $50 billion during this nuclear shutdown and became a major importer of electricity generated by French nuclear plants. The cost of electricity has been 21 cents/kwhr compared to 13 in France. In 2008 there was a change in the government policy which led to the agreement between ENEL and EDF to build four plants.
Rational Responses: Re-Review of Nuclear Safety
The nuclear renaissance leaders (China, Russia, and India) as well as France have announced no change in their policies. The French president Sarkozy said: “We have chosen to use nuclear power, that will not change.” At the G8 annual meeting in Deauville, France, Sarkozy said: “Many among the G8 think that there is no alternative to nuclear power, even if we are convinced of the need to develop alternative energy, renewable energy. But we all want to give ourselves a very high level of regulation on nuclear safety that applies to all countries wishing to use civilian nuclear power to make the safety levels the highest ever known.
Russian PM Putin said: “No change in nuclear development plans.” China, the nuclear renaissance leader with 29 plants under construction, has only announced a freeze on new nuclear projects until 2012. Indian PM Singh said: “When cool-headed discussions take place nuclear will be one of the essential options to deal with problems like climate change and energy security.”
Japanese PM Kan (since this article you now have a new leader of Japan) has emphasized the country’s commitment to establish the “world’s highest level of nuclear safety, while thoroughly investigating the causes of the accident.” With regard to the energy policy Kan stated:” Japan would proceed with the establishment of a four-pillar policy that adds renewable energy and energy conservation measures to the measures already in place for nuclear energy and fossil fuels.” In mid-May only 17 out of Japan’s 50 remaining plants were in operation. 20 units were not operating as they had been shutdown for inspections. These plants must be returned to service in order to avoid summer power shortages.
Most countries have initiated a re-review of nuclear safety in light of the Fukushima lessons that have been learnt, which this writer considers as prudent and rational. A great deal has been learned and needs to be applied but there is no reason for panic and these reviews should be conducted in a timely fashion.
EU Stress Tests
The EU has announced stress tests for all 143 plants in its member states. After two months of arguments national safety regulators have prevailed to not explicitly include terrorism but to focus on the aspects of nuclear safety highlighted by the Fukushima accident. The push to include a criminal attack was advanced by anti-nuclear countries, Germany and Austria. Years ago Austria abandoned a plant which was built but never operated because of anti-nuclear hysteria. They even attempted to influence Slovenia and the Czech Republic to shutdown their plants.
Two initiating events are covered in the scope: earthquake and flooding. Loss of electrical supplies and station blackout, loss of ultimate heat sink and the combination of both will be analyzed with the conclusions to be applicable to other emergency situations. Plant operators should send a progress report to their regulators by August 15 and a final version by October 31. Regulators are to report progress to the European Commission (EC) on September 15 and in full by year end.
U.S. Regulator and Nuclear Industry
In the aftermath of March 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered its resident inspectors at 104 operating plants (65 sites) to conduct an examination in light of the Fukushima accident. On May 20, the NRC issued a summary of those inspections, which have reaffirmed that every plant has the capability, including the use of so-called “B5b” strategies developed in response to the NRC order after 9/11 to maintain reactor safety following large explosions or fires to cool down reactor cores and spent fuel pools. Out of 65 sites, 12 had issues during these inspections; many dealing with training. Three out of 12 have already been resolved, while the remaining ones are being worked on. In addition, the NRC has formed a task force that is examining what lessons can be learned from Fukushima.
The U.S. nuclear industry has initiated an assessment of Fukushima events and is taking a number of actions such as: verify capability to manage severe accidents including aircraft impacts, fires and explosions, capability to manage a total loss of offsite power, capability to mitigate flooding. William Lewis, President and COO of PSEG Power, testified in the Senate and confirmed the industry commitment to learn and implement lessons learned from Fukushima. Several nuclear utilities confirmed plans are on track for new built such as the Southern Nuclear Operating Co, South Carolina Electric & Gas, Duke Power Co (with expected merger with Progress), Florida Power and Light and Luminant Power. However, the NRG, the largest owner, has pulled out from the South Texas project and written off $400 million plus investment.
South Korea Bolsters Reactor Safety
Safety inspections at all 21 operating South Korean nuclear power plants (27 items checked) have concluded that they are safe against the largest earthquakes and tsunamis that have struck the country so far. However, a massive investment program has been announced aimed at reinforcing their defenses. The inspections identified a total of 50 short and long term measures that could be taken to enhance safety. South Korea generates 40% of its electricity from nuclear power plants plus five units under construction.
Three European Regulators
Safety authorities of three European countries asserted that there was no reason to shutdown nuclear plants in the aftermath of Fukushima, despite widely different political views on the technology side: UK, Finland and Germany (yes, Germany).
The UK regulator has stated: “Analysis of Fukushima has not revealed any gaps in the scope of depth of the Safety Assessment Principles,” on which the UK regulation is based. However, the regulator has committed to undertake a formal review of the principles.
The Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency (STUK) found “no new threat factors or deficiencies that would require immediate safety improvements.” Nevertheless, the Finnish plant operators will have to satisfy the regulator with regard to the flooding scenarios and sustained emergency power provisions.
The German regulator covered similar ground but included aircraft impact for which the nuclear plants should be prepared.
Conclusion by Modern Tokyo Times
It must be remembered that many facts have been made clear after this article was first published on May 30, 2011. Therefore, this must be taken into consideration but clearly the approach by Dr. Vojin Joksimovich was based on “real issues” related to the nuclear crisis. This approach was sadly missing by many writers who created easy headlines to suit either their respective agenda or because their knowledge was lacking.
The nuclear issue is ongoing in Japan because the nuclear energy future of this nation remains up in the air. Japan may follow Germany in the long-term while trying to obtain international contracts, for example like the nuclear agreement with Vietnam. Or alternatively, political leaders may believe that the nuclear sector is needed because of the lack of natural resources in Japan.
Either way, providing the issue is debated by all sides and based on “real issues” then most individuals will be happy with the conclusion. It is abundantly clear that the issue is complex and individuals are divided in Japan.
It will soon be the first anniversary of March 11, 2011, but with thousands of people still missing, the nuclear issue, housing problems, and the need to attract new investments, then clearly much still needs to be done. March 11, 2012, will be a very difficult day in Japan because of the pain and suffering which took place the year before on this day. Therefore, while much healing will have been done in the past year it is still factual that the “psychological aftershocks” remain embedded within the psyche – of course, this notably applies to people who suffered the most.
Writer had the PhD in nuclear engineering and is a retired nuclear safety specialist
Dr. Vojin Joksimovich is a highly claimed specialist.
http://moderntokyotimes.com/2011/05/30/fukushima-nuclear-accident-hysteria-irrational-and-rational-reactions/ (Original article was published on May 30, 2011 – this article is part of the Modern Tokyo Times bunch of articles related to the tragedy of March 11, 2011, when a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake unleashed a brutal tsunami. This article (and others) is focused on looking back on events before the first anniversary of this event takes place on March 11, 2012)