One year on, Fukushima is still spinning

Jim Green, ABC

The first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster is fast approaching and it promises to be another silly-season for Australia’s pro-nuclear zealots.

They have form. While the crisis was unfolding in March last year, Ziggy Switkowski advised 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.”

Switkowski wants dozens of nuclear power plants built in Australia – dozens of places to shelter from earthquakes.

Even as nuclear fuel meltdown was in full swing at Fukushima, Adelaide University’s Professor Barry Brook reassured us that:

“There is no credible risk of a serious accident… 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.”

Eggs, anyone?

John Borshoff, CEO of uranium miner Paladin, described the Fukushima crisis as a “sideshow”. A Fukushima farmer was equally succinct in his suicide note: “I wish there wasn’t a nuclear plant.”

Here are some of the arguments we will likely hear from nuclear boosters in the lead-up to the March 11 Fukushima anniversary.

Expect a barrage of personal attacks since the boosters will want to avoid discussion about the horrendous impacts of the nuclear disaster – and how the disaster could so easily have been prevented if plant operator TEPCO had taken straight-forward measures to properly protect back-up power generators from flooding.

Cameron England said in the week following the Fukushima meltdowns, fires and explosions that “some parts of the environmental movement will be quietly high-fiving each other this week”. There’s a nod in the direction of that offensive drivel in Barry Brook’s claim that I was “delighted” to hold him to account for his asinine statements as the nuclear disaster unfolded. Academic Allan Patience said “it appears that the opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is happening in Fukushima”.

No evidence for any of those claims, of course.

The nuclear lobby will attack critics for overstating the scale of the disaster. Any comparisons with Chernobyl will be howled down. True, radiation releases from Fukushima have fallen short of the radioactivity spewed into the environment from Chernobyl. But TEPCO itself drew the comparison a month after the disaster began:

“The radiation leak has not stopped completely and our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl.”

And while they’re attacking nuclear critics for overstating the radiation releases, the boosters will be trivialising the problem or ignoring it altogether. Brook wrote an ABC opinion piece in December which states that “no-one was killed by radioactivity from the event” and is silent on the problem of long-term cancer deaths from exposure to radioactive fallout.

The boosters will repeatedly use this quote from a June 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report:

“To date no confirmed long-term health effects to any person have been reported as a result of radiation exposure from the nuclear accident.”

How could long-term health effects be evident three months after the event? Cancers typically have a latency period measured in years. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that one of the IAEA’s objectives is to promote nuclear power.

To cut a long story short, on the basis of available evidence it’s difficult to see how the long-term cancer death toll from Fukushima could be lower than a few hundred deaths, and difficult to see how the number could exceed a few thousand. For comparison, the IAEA estimates 9,000 long-term cancer deaths from Chernobyl and other scientific studies put the figure 10 times higher.

The nuclear lobby is keen to point out that the earthquake and tsunami caused much greater damage (including human deaths) than the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Brook states:

“What has this earthquake taught us? That it’s much, much riskier to choose to live next to the ocean than it is to live next to a nuclear power station.”

But the impacts have been cumulative; one disaster doesn’t negate or excuse another. And areas affected by the nuclear disaster stretch inland, well beyond distances reached by the tsunami.

There’s a tired old argument about Chernobyl – the (false) claim that the death toll amounted to no more than about 50 people, whereas 200,000 unnecessary abortions were carried out across Europe as a result of radiophobia spread by greenies. Nuclear power: safe. Greenies: mass murderers.

Now we’re seeing variations of that argument in relation to Fukushima. Ted Rockwell, winner of the American Nuclear Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has been thinking laterally. He blames the “radiation police” who won’t “let the good people of Fukushima return home and get on with their lives”. No-one has received a life-altering injury from radiation at Fukushima, Rockwell claims, and the “atrocities” are caused by the application of excessively cautious international radiation standards.

It’s not entirely clear who the “radiation police” are in Rockwell’s diatribe but Andrew Bolt will have them wearing koala suits as the Fukushima anniversary approaches.

Nuclear boosters are unsure whether to defend TEPCO or to cut the company loose and portray it as a rogue operator. Toro Energy, an Australian uranium mining company, defends Toro:

“It was therefore a sequence of extraordinary forces unleashed by an unprecedented natural disaster which caused the accident at the reactors, not any operating failure, human error or design fault of the reactors themselves.”

Yet the Japanese government’s Investigation Committee found that TEPCO’s preparations for and protections against a disaster where “quite inadequate”. And every step of TEPCO’s response to the disaster was “a day late and a dollar short” according to a former vice-chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission.

Peter Alford and Cameron Stewart, writing in The Australian, prefer to cut TEPCO loose:

“TEPCO may dwell in corporate infamy alongside Enron and BP…

“…The plodding utilities giant is a secretive nuclear behemoth that has been caught out for numerous safety violations

“…One of TEPCO’s more monstrous practices … is the routine employment of deeply unqualified day labourers”.

They could have pinched that language from media releases put out by Friends of the Earth over the years as TEPCO lurched from scandal to scandal and accident to accident.

A related strategy from the boosters is to blame outdated ‘Mark 1’ boiling water reactor technology and to contrast it with long-promised gee-whiz fail-safe ‘Generation 4’ reactor technology. A sceptical industry insider quipped: “We know that the paper-moderated, ink-cooled reactor is the safest of all. All kinds of unexpected problems may occur after a project has been launched.”

Lastly, we can expect the boosters to promote the message that lessons will be learnt, improvements made, and we need not therefore concern ourselves about nuclear safety. That is perhaps the most cynical of all the jiggery pokery from the boosters. If the nuclear industry had a track record of learning from past mistakes and accidents, the Fukushima disaster would not have happened in the first place. TEPCO only needed properly-protected back-up generators to maintain reactor cooling – that’s all.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and author of a February 2012 briefing paper on the Fukushima disaster. View his full profile here.

Join discussion: leave a comment