Japan recently marked the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the nation’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011, which destroyed towns and caused the triple meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. More than 18,000 people died and nearly half a million were displaced.
Ten years later more than 40,000 people are still unable to return home, most of them from the area around Fukushima, where high levels of radiation still pose a hazard to human health. The work to decommission the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi plant includes solving the problem of disposing of millions of gallons of radioactive contaminated water and recovering and isolating molten nuclear fuel and waste. According to some estimates, it may take up to another 30 to 60 years to fully decommission the plant.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who examines the current status of the Fukushima nuclear disaster cleanup and the future of the nuclear industry around the world and in the U.S.
TIM JUDSON: The proper way to think about this is not that it’s the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster happening. It essentially is sort of the 10th anniversary of that disaster starting because the reality is that the Fukushima disaster is still ongoing. And, you know, to this day, there’s still over a hundred tons of contaminated water flowing through that reactor site and into the environment every day. And they’re still struggling to be able to even contain the release of radiation from these three melted down nuclear reactors.
SCOTT HARRIS: And what about the region in terms of radiation that’s affected the environment there, as well as human health? What do we know about that? And of course, that question has a lot to do with the transparency of the Japanese government and TEPCO, the operators of Fukushima.
TIM JUDSON: The reality is that the Japanese government has really tried to suppress any real monitoring or transparent information about the state of the environment in the Fukushima area. And what they’ve done actually is in order to justify trying to get people to move back into the vicinity, they’ve actually raised the permissible standard for radiation exposure in the area. So now what they say is that it’s safe for people to move into areas where they would receive 20 sieverts of radiation exposure a year. And that’s actually 20 times what the safe standard for exposure to members of the public was before the disaster, and is actually equivalent to the safety standards for workers working in nuclear power plants. So essentially what the Japanese government has done is simply change, sort of raise the bar for what is okay for people to be exposed to in terms of radiation, in order to justify allowing people or forcing people to move back into those communities.
So what people in Fukushima have done — this is mothers who have children — they’ve had to undertake doing their own radiation monitoring in their neighborhoods and in their communities in order to try to provide as much protection as they can to their families. So that’s part of what’s going on; you have sort of grassroots community members having to take action to figure out how best to protect their families, because the government really isn’t doing it.
SCOTT HARRIS: I have read that it may take 30 more years, including the 10 years that have just passed to actually effectively decommission those Fukushima nuclear reactors that melted down — the three of them.
TIM JUDSON: That’s probably the shortest amount of time that it’s going to take. Since the disaster happened, Japan has sort of focused on a 2060 target date for completing, you know, the decommissioning and the cleanup of the site. But that target keeps on becoming more and more untenable because of the complications that they’re finding in how to actually perform the work that’s needed. And so there’s a lot of people who really feel that the estimate is probably going to be closer to 60 years that it’ll take to clean it up, you know, probably 2070 at least, because they keep on running into problems that they didn’t anticipate. Like the fact that they haven’t really been able to figure out where most of the molten nuclear core material is. And they’re finding it farther away from the reactor cavities than they expected.
SCOTT HARRIS: Ten years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, what is the status of the global nuclear industry as well as here in the United States?
TIM JUDSON: The reality is that nuclear power globally is in decline — in a pretty significant decline. You do have countries like Germany, Spain and Italy that have decided to phase out nuclear power entirely. Germany is gonna have shut their last reactor in 2022. Even in China, which is the only place where there is a really significant, you know, construction happening in the last decade. Even China’s rate of building reactors has slowed down and is not meeting the targets that were projected five years ago. And that’s in part because, you know, they’re running into some problems with construction taking longer than expected. But we assume it’s because the Chinese are realizing that the investment in renewables is much more productive than spending on building new nuclear power plants, and they’re building their wind and solar at a much, much faster clip than they are with their nuclear construction. And, that’s really where the best bet is financially.
So then you have the rest of the world, which includes the U.S. where nuclear power is not being phased out. But it’s definitely in decline, because what we have is most of the reactors in the world are over 30 years old now. And in the U.S. most of our reactors are over 40 and they’re just becoming more and more expensive to operate. So they’re just not competitive and they’re becoming prohibitively expensive to maintain. And so, you know, in the U.S. we have 10 reactors that have closed in the last six or seven years. There’s more that are going to be closing, by 2025. And then we have, going into 2030, a massive percentage of reactors in the U.S. are coming up to the end of their 60-year license. And so, the idea that nuclear is going to be expanding anywhere in the world besides China in the near term is not very realistic. But in reality, you know, the industry is really declining worldwide and in the U.S.
For more information, visit Nuclear Information and Resource Service at nirs.org.