Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fukushima on their minds

no more nuke power.jpg
Anti-nuclear power activists rallied outside the Japanese consulate in downtown San Francisco on Monday.

When the earthquake and tsunami hammered the Fukushima nuclear plant two years ago, I remember thinking something like well, at least this happened in Japan -- they are a lot better at earthquake engineering than we are … As it turned out, though I still think that is true in some respects, Fukushima showed that a commercial power provider cannot be trusted to make nuclear power safe. The incentives are all wrong. Skimping on safety leads to higher profits now. Catastrophic events are rare. Probably the individuals who make the decision to skimp will have cashed out and moved on by the time problems are revealed. So corporations and their regulators will often cut corners. After all, in the long run, we're all going to be dead.

Christoph Neidhart, a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo, summed up the shock of the Fukushima meltdowns.

The disaster at Fukushima was triggered by a natural catastrophe, a tsunami, but it was allowed to happen, because Tepco, the plant’s operator, and subsequent Japanese governments ignored ample warnings, an earthquake or a tsunami of this magnitude might knock out the emergency back-up systems.

Tepco systematically violated safety rules. In more than 200 instances between 1977 and 2002, the utility submitted false data to the authorities, as stated by a commission of the Japanese parliament, the Diet. The nation’s nuclear safety authorities and government were complicit in Tepco’s blunders.

… Japan sees herself at the pinnacle of technology, a major exporter of nuclear power. Despite the fact Japan’s nuclear industry has suffered a substantial number of accidents before, the country did not have any contingency plans to deal with a nuclear accident as it happened in Fukushima. Six days into the catastrophe, Japan had no idea how to get the plant under control. In a desperate attempt, seawater was dumped from a helicopter to cool spent nuclear fuel. Despite warnings, Tepco failed to prevent hydrogen-explosions.

… Japan, a nation proud of her safety standards and disaster preparedness, was totally unprepared for an accident that had been predicted by experts. The nation of the industrial robot did not have a single machine to mitigate the crisis.

If the Japanese can't build and run these things safely, don't ask me to think U.S. companies can do it. I'm just not that credulous. This is too bad. Nuclear does look like a better alternative than coal -- but at the price of occasionally making large swathes of land uninhabitable for generations? Not to mention, nobody seems to have figured out what to do with the nuclear waste they generate except to make bombs out of it.

According to Elaine Kurtenbach and Mari Yamaguchi, writing for the Associated Press, the clean up is not going so smoothly either.

Two years after the triple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ravaged Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, debris containing asbestos, lead, PCBs — and perhaps most worrying — radioactive waste due to the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant looms as a threat for the region.

So far, disposal of debris from the disasters is turning out to have been anything but clean. Workers often lacking property oversight, training or proper equipment have dumped contaminated waste with scant regard for regulations or safety, as organized crime has infiltrated the cleanup process.

To clear, sort and process the rubble — and a vastly larger amount of radiation-contaminated soil and other debris near the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the government is relying on big construction companies whose multi-layer subcontracting systems are infiltrated by criminal gangs, or yakuza.

In January, police arrested a senior member of Japan's second-largest yakuza group, Sumiyoshi Kai, on suspicion of illegally dispatching three contract workers to Date, a city in Fukushima struggling with relatively high radioactive contamination, through another construction company and pocketing one-third of their pay.

He told interrogators he came up with the plot to "make money out of clean-up projects" because the daily pay for such government projects, at 15,000-17,000 yen ($160-$180), was far higher than for other construction jobs, said police spokesman Hiraku Hasumi.

Well that is straightforward: when the criminals in the boardrooms make a mess, hand it over to a mafia to clear it up. The hell with the workers ... This episode is only one of many instances of untrained and underpaid workers unwittingly carrying the risks of the clean-up.

It's hard to believe there is any such thing as safe nuclear power when there are greedy humans involved -- and I don't know how we accomplish an ethical shift to change that. The nukes may be okay, but we're not ready for them.

no nukes speaker.jpg

1 comment:

Classof65 said...

And we have the same kind of scenario here in the U.S., not only with nuclear power and waste, but also with the dirty oil from Canada and the XL pipeline. I have signed the petition going around, pledging to demonstrate against the pipeline even if it means risking arrest and imprisonment. To me the pipeline risks ruining our aquifers and wildlife, and for what? This oil is not even meant for the U.S., but will be shipped to China. And you know there will be leaks in the pipeline.

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