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Meltdown: An Anti-Nuke Activist’s Perspective on Lessons from the Japanese Crisis

     The final outcome of Japan’s nuclear crisis is still in question.  The March 11th earthquake and subsequent Tsunami are exacting a toll that is not fully known, although the devastation is certainly massive and greatly alarming.  The basic details behind what Bloomberg News calls “the nuclear industry’s worst catastrophe since Chernobyl” are becoming increasingly known throughout the rest of the world, but it’s unclear if we’re learning the most basic lessons about the perils of nuclear power.

     Disaster struck near Tokyo on March 11th, as a 9.0 magnitude earthquake resulted in a massive tsunami, leading to a death toll that reached more than 7,000 as of March 18th.  The tsunami triggered an ensuing nuclear crisis, due largely to the failure of the backup generators that were relied upon to circulate cooling water into the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, located more than 130 miles northeast of Tokyo.  The Wall Street Journal reported on March 16th that a partial meltdown had occurred at the station, affecting at least four of the six operating reactors.  Available evidence suggests that the failure of backup generators led to a series of explosions in the station’s reactors, which spewed radioactivity into the atmosphere as spent nuclear fuel rods ignited in flames.  Japan’s nuclear emergency grew even direr in the week following the tsunami, as reactor 4 at Daiichi saw its water reserves depleted, prompting warnings that its nuclear rods would be exposed to the air and could trigger another series of radioactive explosions and leak radioactive isotopes such as iodine-131, strontium-90 and cesium-137 into the air.  Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency responded by raising its threat level from 4 to 5 on a seven point scale, with Chernobyl representing a 7, and Three Mile Island representing a 5.  Officials in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia, and France responded to the disaster by recommending their citizens evacuate the Tokyo area.  These actions should provide global audiences with a sense of the severity of the nuclear crisis Japan is facing.

     Within a week after the tsunami hit, those who couldn’t escape the city of Tokyo and surrounding areas were facing increasingly dire circumstances, in light of an escalating crisis at reactor 4, and due to the already-leaked radiation from the Fukushima site.  Japanese officials ordered an evacuation of those living within 12 miles of the reactors.  This evacuation affected an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 people, in addition to countless others who live within another 6 miles of the reactor, who the Japanese government advised to remain indoors.  Of course, the effects of the radiation spanned much further than this warning area.  The U.S. embassy recommended that Americans leave any area within 50 miles of the Fukushima plant.  Radiation spread even greater distances, however, as the 30 million people living in the Tokyo metropolitan area (more than 130 miles outside the reactor site) were exposed to radiation levels ranging from 2 to 23 times higher than normal levels in the week following the tsunami.

The U.S. Connection

     Progressive environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have been involved for decades in the movement to ensure that no new nuclear reactors are developed in the United States.  They’ve tirelessly worked toward the decommissioning of existing reactors.  With the help of a critical public, the movement had succeeded by the early 1980s in preventing the further proliferation of nuclear power, although it has been far less successful in dismantling the more than 100 reactors that still exist across the U.S.  My involvement with the anti-nuke movement spans almost ten years, covering the period in the early 2000s when, as a resident of north-central Illinois, I was involved with a number of environmental activists committed to preventing the expansion of nuclear power within the state.  Illinois was prime ground for an anti-nuke campaign in light of the fact that it has the largest number of nuclear reactors in the country and is one of the most reliant on nuclear energy of all the fifty states.  Our campaign was primarily based off of the very concerns about public safety that have now drawn the global public’s attention to Japan’s dire predicament.  Anxiety over potential nuclear accidents (related to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or just plain incompetence), and concern over long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel and waste were at the forefront of our list of grievances.  As environmentalists, we viewed nuclear power as one of the most severe dangers to conservation and preservation of the natural world.  These concerns were long dismissed by local nuclear advocates, nuclear engineers, and pro-business Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) bureaucrats, all of which viewed it as their primary objective to facilitate the growth of the nuclear power industry.

     Events in Japan have led critics (and even traditionally status-quo-oriented journalists) to raise questions about the possibility of a nuclear accident in the U.S.  These concerns are well founded in light of future dangers, and considering past accidents.  A number of reactors throughout the country suffer from immediate safety risks.  For example, the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre reactors in California are located between the Pacific coast and a number of fault lines, exposing them to potential devastation in the case of a severe earthquake.   Diablo Canyon recently received critical attention recently when it was revealed that the plant is not even required by the NRC to have an emergency response plan in the event of an earthquake exceeding a 7.5 magnitude. 

     On the east coast, concerns are arising with regard to other nuclear dangers.  The Indian Point nuclear power plant, two dozen miles north of New York City, lies off the banks of the Hudson River and near an active fault line.  Indian Point’s potential vulnerability is a matter of serious concern for New Yorkers.  State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently commented with regard to Indian Point that the reactors “should be closed.  This plant in this proximity to the city was never a good risk… You can’t bet the safety of New York on the ability of firefighters to get there in 25 minutes.  The consequences are enormous.”  The Indian Point recently gained critical media attention when it was listed by the NRC as the most vulnerable of all U.S. nuclear plants, with a one in 10,000 chance of damage to its reactors’ cores estimated for each year they continue to operate.

The “one in 10,000” estimate seems to suggest that the danger of accidents at Indian Point is extremely remote.  This is hardly the case when examining the reactors’ atrocious operating record.  As recently as 2009, a small hole in a buried pipe near one of Indian Point’s two reactors leaked about 100,000 gallons of radioactive tritium-laced water into the ground.  The 2009 accident was merely one of many over the last decade.  In 2008, traces of another radioactive isotope (strontium-90) were found in a monitoring well near Indian Point.  Another incident in 2005 saw a far larger leak of tritium and strontium-90 into the local groundwater and into the Hudson River.  One study from January 2007 found that strontium-90 was found in an estimated four of twelve fish tested in the Hudson.  In early 2000, Indian Point saw yet another radioactive leak in which 20,000 gallons of coolant were leaked into the plant.  This incident was followed by a release of radioactive gas into the atmosphere and a leak of hundreds of gallons of radioactive water into the Hudson.

     The number of nuclear accidents in the U.S. is numerous.  Even a small sampling of them demonstrates the dangers involved with nuclear technology.  Aside from the infamous case of Three Mile Island (1979), more recent accidents include the near-fatal disaster at the Davis Besse plant in Ohio (nearly two dozen miles southeast of Toledo), in which a football sized hole was found at the head of the plant’s nuclear reactor in early 2002.  The hole was accidentally discovered during a refueling shutdown, which had been caused by acidic reactor coolant.  The NRC was completely unaware of the hole, largely because officials decided to take reactor technicians at the word rather than inspecting the facility for themselves.  This kind of “capture” of bureaucratic “regulators” by the industries they are supposed to be regulating is all too common today, although in the case of the nuclear power industry it’s also potentially deadly.  Although the former Davis Besse engineer who lied to the NRC was eventually convicted in federal court, this incident reveals the tremendous dangers inherent in an industry whose employees put profits ahead of human health concerns. 

Illinois, the Vanguard of Nuclear Power

     The NRC’s post-hoc report on Ohio’s nuclear crisis estimated that the Davis Besse plant would likely have seen some sort of meltdown if the plant had continued to operate without change for another two to 11 months.  Sadly, other nuclear locations have not been as lucky.  In Illinois, I regularly participated along with other anti-nuke activists in protests of the state’s 11 operational reactors, which have also amassed poor public safety records.  The Exelon Corporation, which operates reactors in the cities of Braidwood (60 miles southwest of Chicago), Byron (over 90 miles northwest of Chicago), and Morris (over 60 miles southwest of Chicago), and elsewhere were spotlighted for numerous leaks of millions of gallons of tritium (a nuclear isotope) that contaminated local groundwater.   Exelon was forced to pay more than $1 million in fines in relation to the incidents, which surrounding communities were kept unaware of for years. 

     The city of Clinton, Illinois (less than 50 miles from the state capitol of Springfield), has been the site of a number of public battles in recent years, due to plans (now abandoned) by the plant owner (Exelon) to build a second reactor on site.  This plant, if constructed, would have represented the first new nuclear power plant to be built in nearly 35 years.  Clinton also suffers from a questionable safety record.  In 1996, the city’s reactor was forcibly shut down for two years after one of the re-circulating pumps leaked 7,000 gallons of radioactive water throughout the reactor area.  Illinois Power (the company operating the plant at the time) was fined more than half a million dollars for the incident.  Exelon, the current owner of the Clinton reactor, applied for an “early site permit” in 2003 to build a second nuclear reactor on site.  The proposal was met with much support from local community members who saw it as an opportunity for local growth and for jobs, and greeted with intense skepticism in surrounding communities (such as Bloomington-Normal, where I lived for five years, and which is less than 25 miles from Clinton), whose residents would see none of the economic benefits and be exposed to potential risk in the case of a serious accident. 

     I travelled to Clinton during the public battle over the new reactor to attend public forums on the granting of an early site permit following Exelon’s application.  Along with fellow activists, I encountered strong resistance from Clinton plant officials, community residents, and NRC officials themselves, who had all formed a united front in favor of granting the permit.  The Clinton-NRC meetings were supposedly designed to answer public questions regarding the proposed reactor, although no substantial information was made available concerning safety issues.  NRC officials and Clinton management refused to disclose the number of people who would be used to guard the plant from possible attacks, and no information was made available about the amount of low and high-level radioactive waste that would be generated over the lifetime of the new reactor.  Nor was any information given on how waste would be stored or with regard to how it would be kept safe.  NRC officials were oblivious to, and unconcerned with activist criticisms of their decision to hold the meetings in Clinton itself (which essentially stacked the deck in favor of company officials and local residents who treated anti-nuke activists as embarrassing, outside agitators).  Prior to granting the early site permit, one NRC official commented to me that her primary concern was with finding ways to “reduce unnecessary regulatory burden” on the Clinton plant.  Sadly, such a view reflects the weakness of the NRC today, as it serves more as an advocate for nuclear power profits than as a watchdog and protector of public safety.

     Of course, the battle in the U.S. is far from over when it comes to the expansion of nuclear power.  Exelon cannot proceed with the construction of new nuclear plants in Illinois while a quarter-century old state moratorium is still in place preventing the development of any new nuclear facilities.  As Illinois’ State Journal Register recently reported, the effort to remove the ban is now considered “on indefinite hold” by state officials in light of the events surrounding the disaster in Japan.  Japan’s tragedy seems to have galvanized political skepticism toward nuclear power, and this opposition could not have come at a better time considering that the Illinois Senate voted last year 40-1 to lift the state moratorium.  That vote has been buttressed by support at the national level from Republicans and Democrats – including President Obama, who pledged more than $8 billion in federal loans to help build new nuclear reactors in Georgia, and requested $54 billion from Congress overall for new nuclear power plant production.

     The terrible events in Japan, by themselves, may not be enough to stave off the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants in the U.S.  Americans are still incredibly divided with regard to the building of new nuclear facilities, and national political officials from both parties have given little indication that they’re open to a continued national moratorium covering new reactor construction.  There has been no fundamental rethinking of the official commitment to nuclear technology  overall, and it won’t be surprising to hear them come forward with revised plans declaring their support for a new generation of plants, while only adding modest or even meager to non-existent regulations. 

American Public Opinion

     Public opinion is largely split on the nuclear issue.  A Fox News poll finds that, as of March 14-16th, 51 percent of Americans “believe nuclear power is a safe source of energy” compared to just 40 percent who disagree with this statement.  Furthermore, the percentage of people who believe nuclear power is safe has barely declined following the events in Japan.  While 53 percent of Americans thought nuclear power was “safe” as of June 2008, the number had declined by just two percentage points (to 51 percent) as of mid-March 2011.  USA Today/Gallup polling from mid-March finds that just 47 percent of Americans oppose “the construction of nuclear power plants in the United States,” compared to 44 percent who favor such construction.  In short, there has not yet been a movement toward strong, majority opposition to nuclear power in this country. 

     Americans should be reminded of the tremendous dangers surrounding the nuclear energy industry if we are to ensure a continued moratorium on new nuclear plants.  Aside from the dangers described above, other problems remain.  We’ve been socialized to value quick fix energy sources such as nuclear power, which provide short term energy gains while imposing incredible social and environmental costs over the short and long term.  The average nuclear reactor produces 25 to 30 tons of nuclear waste per year, and the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste already produced in this country will remain with us for generations to come.  Nuclear materials such as strontium-90 and cesium-137 have radioactive half-lives of approximately 30 years each (meaning that their radioactivity will likely remain deadly for hundreds of years).  Other isotopes such as Plutonium-239 and Np-237 have a staggering half-life of 24,000 years and 2.14 million years respectively, meaning their toxicity will essentially remain with us forever.  The long term costs of storing and keeping safe massive amounts of nuclear waste far outweigh the short term benefits of 50 to 100 years of electricity.  These costs will inevitably be socialized as nuclear energy corporations transfer the costs of long term storage and safety to the American taxpayer.  Coupled with the risk and frequency of accidents, the costs of nuclear power look increasingly unacceptable.  This is the lesson Americans should be drawing from Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Anthony DiMaggio is the co-author (with Paul Street) of the forthcoming “Crashing the Tea Party” (Paradigm Publishers) due out in May 2011.  He is also the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at:

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Anthony DiMaggio

Anthony DiMaggio